The following column first appeared December 18, 2008.
I no longer consider myself a comic book collector. There, I said it. It’s out in the open.
I have no longboxes in my closet. No special “runs.” No complete limited series. It wasn’t always this way. You don’t become a comic retailer unless you’ve got some kind of obsessive history with the medium. I began collecting comics when I was eight years old and relentlessly hunted and gathered right up until I started my first business. But the day I began my life as a reseller, my life as a comic book collector ended and my life as a conduit began.
It was difficult at first to stop the addiction. No going cold turkey for me. I was willing to sell the tens of thousands of books I’d amassed in my lifetime. That was my start-up inventory and the foundation for future
growth. But still, I secretly coveted.
I’d take out the complete “Miracleman” run with every intention of putting it out for sale. Then after reading through it for the umpteenth time, it would somehow make its way back into the bottom of a “to be processed” pile. From 1950s “Green Lantern” issues to the complete epic that was “Preacher,” there were still books I couldn’t get out of my system.
Little by little, day by day, my stubborn insistence on not letting go dissipated. A need to pay the rent and feed my family helped immensely. Soon, the piles of “untouchables” began flowing out into the hands of my customers and over time, I even began to feel happiness watching them leave the nest.
After years of practice, I’ve become a middleman. My deep-rooted desire to fill the gaps in my collection has been replaced with a desire to fill the gaps in yours. Hunting and gathering is still a part of my daily routine, of course. I’m a Jedi Knight when it comes to filling out inventory and I’ll always be the guy who can “get it for you.” But I’m no longer one of you when it comes to periodicals. My genetic make-up has been irrevocably altered.
Don’t get me wrong. I read every damn book I can get my hands on. I’m voracious and my appetite for what goes out on my racks is unstoppable. Whatever you think you know about the current storylines, it’s my job to know more. My love of the stories and what goes on inside the panels has grown larger than I ever thought possible. And with the transcendence of the graphic-novel market, I get to revisit all of the joy of my own personal reading history without having to dig through boxes to remind myself how the stories ended.
Sure, I have a small warehouse I can visit that’s filled with all of the back issues being collected into beautifully re-mastered hardcovers. But those are for my customers. I’ll admit to ordering a personal copy of the odd Absolute Edition or a statue here and there. But for the most part, I’ve let go of the emotional touchstone of holding a back issue in my hand and feeling the need to tuck it away, knowing there are many others in the world like it, but that one is forever mine.
For the most part.
Yes, there’s still a comic book that I can’t help but covet. Dear reader, I’ve tried to let it go. I’ve had spans of time where I’ve been able to get it off my mind. But I fear that I’ll never truly be able to rid myself of its power and the hold it has on my spirit. It’s surely not the book you’ll be expecting. It’s definitely not the one I thought would still remain above all others. But as with all of us back-issue junkies, it’s the emotional landscape of an old comic that drives our need to own it. Between its pages lies a key to something crucial that makes up who we were and how we came to be whom we are today. The book that haunts me?
Strange, I know. Sure, it’s the first Frank Miller Daredevil artwork. But other than that, the only thing remotely interesting about that story is that a fairly obscure writer named Roger McKenzie called on his wonderfully morbid “Creepy” and “Eerie” magazine days and killed off Death-Stalker by having him materialize in the middle of a tombstone.
It’s not the art that I can’t shake. It’s not the spooky little story. It’s because that particular comic book marks the first time I realized that the people you trust the most are sometimes the ones who cut the deepest. And unbeknownst to me, it marked a moment in my personal comic-book history that defines a very important aspect of who I am as a retailer.
I acquired my first copy of #158 just before the summer of 1979. I wasn’t much of a Daredevil fan, but there was something mysterious about the cover and when I flipped through it and saw a villain dying a horrible death, I had to own it. The art was dark and moody and I read it a few times in one sitting. Nothing too spectacular. Nothing that separated that book from any of the others in my regular stash.
In the summer of 1979, I still relied on my poor wicked step-mother to drive me back and forth to the comic-book store. My bicycle would only go so far and in California, a kid on a bicycle is an accident waiting to happen. The only obstacle I routinely faced was the fact that my step-mother hated, absolutely hated, driving me to feed my habit. So instead of weekly visits to spend the entirety of my allowance, I saved up for a monthly foray. It took some begging and pleading and extra housework, but it was always worth the sweat and tears.
For the next few months, I collected “Daredevil.” The art got darker and darker and it seemed that old DD was turning into some kind of ninja! Cool beans. Just at the end of the summer, not long before school was to begin again, I sat on my bed and flipped open my monthly bounty. One of my favorite things to read was the “Comics Buyer’s Guide.” Inside were classified ads and price guides for the latest comic book titles. I knew nothing of Robert M. Overstreet, so these ads were my only barometer for what comics were worth. That day, I scanned the listings and saw something truly spectacular. It seemed that my super cool copy of “Daredevil” #158 was now worth a whopping sixteen dollars!
Back then, sixteen dollars was a whole heck of a lot. And for a forty-cent comic book purchase, that was a serious return on my investment. I recall the uproar when comics went from thirty-five cents to forty. Folks were up in arms. They screamed in the pages of CBG that the industry would collapse. That readers couldn’t possibly afford that kind of increase during a terrible economic downturn. Sound familiar?
Now, I liked “Daredevil.” It was fun and seemed to be getting better and better. But there were mountains of titles I liked, and sixteen dollars would buy me forty (forty!) issues. So I hatched a plan. I would sell it back to the comic-book store and spread out the money for as long as I could. Every time I’d pick up my new comics, I’d add another couple of dollars to my allowance and try five new titles that I’d never read before. I could barely contain my excitement!
I boldly approached my step-mother, guide in hand as proof of my personal victory. How proud she’d be of me! Finally, she’d see just how special comic book collecting was. I wasn’t a nerd, I was an entrepreneur! Of course, I got the same heavy sigh. The same blank stare. But I begged, I promised, I negotiated. I’d do more housework, I’d walk the dog, I’d clean my room. Heck, I’d clean every room in the house! If only she’d take me to the comic-book store so I could collect my winnings. Gas prices were going up, money was tight and she wasn’t about to pretend to be enjoying the experience, but she relented.
I recall looking up at the counter. The manager was just an ordinary young guy, but all I saw was one of King Arthur’s Knights. He looked down and asked what he could do for me. I confidently pushed my copy of #158 across the counter and said, “I read in the guide that this is worth sixteen dollars. I’d like to sell it to you so I can buy some other stuff.”
He smirked, looked me up and down, tilted the comic into the light and said, “This one’s a reprint. It’s only worth about a dollar.”
I was mortified. “How can it be a reprint?!” I said. “I just bought it a few months ago.”
He replied, “It’s a hot book. Sold out everywhere. Marvel rushed out some more so people could read it.”
My heart sunk in my chest. The guide didn’t say anything about reprints. My universe was swiftly tilting.
My friendly neighborhood comic-book guy leaned down and said, “Look, normally I only give someone 20% of what a comic book is worth when I do a buy-in. But I can tell you’re a good kid. I’ll go up to 50% for you.” He then reached into the register, pulled out two shiny quarters and slapped them onto the counter. Fifty cents. My outrageous fortune had turned into the price of a Big Gulp.
I turned to look at my step-mother standing by the door of the shop. She looked at her watch, tapped her foot, glared at me and raised her eyebrows. As the sweat beaded on my forehead, I realized I had no choice. How could I face her and admit utter defeat? I’d lose any good will surrounding my hobby built up on this one visit. I might never be able to convince her to take me to get my books ever again!
So I looked up at the man I respected, the man I knew would never do me harm and I said, “Okay. I’ll do it.”
He took my #158, I took the fifty cents and nothing would ever be the same.
“Let’s go!” yelled my wicked step-mother. “I’ve got things I need to do today!”
I couldn’t leave empty-handed. I just couldn’t. But I was plain out of time. So I turned around and grabbed the first book I saw. I put it on the counter and told my comic book guy to ring me up.
“Seventy-five cents” he said.
I placed the two quarters he’d just given me back on the counter, added a third from my pocket and walked out with my purchase.
Worse still, I lied to my step-mother. Driving home, she’d asked me if I’d gotten the sixteen dollars. I told her I’d decided to trade the book for one worth twice as much. I held up the latest issue of “King Conan” that I’d just traded for my #158, pretended it was the Golden Palace of the Himalayas and wondered if I’d like this Conan guy as much as I liked ninja Daredevil. I didn’t. Still don’t.
A few weeks later, I was back to relieve myself of my allowance. I did my hunting, brought my books to the counter and said hello to my comic-book guy. As he rang me up, I looked behind him on the back issue wall. There, sandwiched between a couple of John Byrne “X-Men” comics was my copy of “Daredevil” #158. A big sticker announced the asking price. Twenty-Five Dollars.
“That’s my book!” I said. “You said it was only worth a dollar!”
“No it’s not,” said comic-book guy. “That’s a first print.”
“That’s my book!” I insisted.
He looked down at me, his eyes glowing in a way I’d never seen before and said “No. It’s MY book now.”
Tears welled up in my eyes. I could hear my heart break. Betrayed. Lied to. Tricked. I knew these things happened in the real world. But I never thought it could happen in a comic-book store. Comic stores were sacred. Immune to the darkness in men’s hearts.
I left my comics on the counter, walked out and never went back.
I’ve traveled to many places in the world. I’ve worked, owned and visited countless stores on my journeys. And I’ve purchased more copies of Daredevil #158 than any other human I know. If I see one, I buy it. Doesn’t matter what condition it’s in. I’m not sure why I do it. Maybe I hold onto some fantastical belief that one day, I’ll buy the one that was taken from me so many years ago. That I’ll know immediately the one I’m holding is the very one I lost. Of course, the comic isn’t what I lost that day. It was something more akin to innocence.
Folks stroll into my store every day looking to sell their comics. I treat every one with respect. I relish my reputation on the street as a fair and honest retailer. I try to always offer a higher percentage than my competitors, I break out the “Overstreet Guide” and go over my grading and pricing with whomever I’m buying from. We do it together. If we don’t agree, we don’t deal. I’ve had scores of young kids come in on my watch and I immediately recognize the gleam in their eyes. They pass their books across my counter, looking for treasure. For a golden ticket.
“Do you absolutely have to sell this comic?” I ask them. If they say “No,” you know what I tell them?
The holidays are here. Gifts are passing hands. Casual acquaintances will give me small gifts as kind gestures and I’ll be grateful for their intimacies. But for those who know me well, for those who know the sordid tale of #158, I know exactly what’s inside that loosely wrapped gift under my tree. And other than the love of my family and the clear-eyed truth of my comic-book store, it’s still the best gift I open. It’s a power totem. One that forever reminds me to play fair, to keep the kid gloves on and to keep my store a safe haven, immune to the evil that men do.