The Future of the Back Issue Market

Good old Royal Collectibles, my first LCS.

When I was a kid, I  collected comic books. Wizard‘s monthly top ten back issues lists were a big deal, showing what the hottest comics were. When I was in Middle School, I thought it was impressive to have something in their top twenty: the “honorable mentions” that didn’t make the top ten. But then in high school and college, I ended up having many of the issues on the lists, usually because I spent a lot of money on comics and followed the industry enough to buy some acclaimed comics before those issues became scarce.

I didn’t take good care of the comics, nor have I sold any, so I never got anything out of it financially. I’m definitely not alone in this. The back issue market’s taken a massive hit in the last few years, due to trade paperback programs and downloads, legal and illegal. Readers no longer have incentives to hunt down back issues for the content, which significantly reduces demand.

If I wanted to make money with investments, I’d probably go for stocks or future markets. The returns are faster, as is any potential financial ruin. But it’s possible that the more patient collectors will prosper. As the back issue market has taken a hit, you might have less readers bagging and boarding the books. Which would mean there are less copies in pristine collection. In addition, with readers not buying (print) comics for the story, they might buy comics for the same reason anyone buys collectibles: it’s something valuable and finite. There’s nothing special about a digital copy, but a normal comic is limited to its print run.

Some might think the best option is to buy independent comics, hoping to find the next Walking Dead. But doing that means buying first issues of comics that never take off, such as the majority of Image’s catalog. When comparing the current market to previous peaks, you could make the argument that almost every comic book is one where nobody’s looking.

If comics, as a medium, suddenly become more popular, which is possible with new digital formats and exposure, a current top ten book might appear woefully under-ordered.  Some new characters and new talent could be popular in the near future, making early appearances and key storylines collectors items. If comic book readership increases significantly, that’s going to be a lot of potential customers in the near future.

The central question when buying a comic as an investment is this: Do you think people will be interested in owning the original issues 15-20 years from now? As a random example, the Archie Sonic the Hedgehog comics are some of the most expensive comic books from the 90s, as the original readers (myself included) were less likely to take good care of the stuff. And there was a sudden demand for the back issues, when the kids who grew up reading those comics discovered disposable income.

Using the Spider-Man comics as an example, some of the spinoff projects have a much lower print run, so the demand may quickly eclipse supply. If Mister Negative was the villain in a Spider-Man movie released in 2019, his three issue mini series (which didn’t always crack the Diamond Top 100 and couldn’t reach subscribers) might be pretty valuable. If Paolo Rivera is Marvel’s biggest artist three years from now, Amazing Spider-Man Extra #2 (a book with half the sales of Amazing Spider-Man in addition to an 18 page Spider-Man/ Wolverine team-up) could be in high demand.

It could also be that the significance of the content won’t matter as much as the presentation. At a panel last year at the NYCCC on Digital Comics VS Print Comics, someone noted that there’s a resurgence in interest in vinyl, because audiophiles prefer the format. Ten years from now, the main buyers of print comics may be the comics equivalent of those audiophiles. So the quality of reading experience may be what they care for the most, more than whether an issue is the first edition or a reprint. In that case, the most collectible items would be those that offer the best reading experience.

If you’re going for the comic book equivalents of audiophiles, I suspect production values will matter a lot. It’s comparable to how Out of Print Criterion Collection DVDs can be rather exorbitantly priced. If this were the case, I suspect that the value will depend heavily on the production values, as well as scarcity. Out of Print Premiere editions could be really expensive, as these present the most appealing (and high-end) format for reading particular storylines. The prices may be similar to those of Marvel Masterworks hardcovers, which can go up in value when out of print.

It all depends on the collector. Some may like the idea of owning the original form of a comic book, which is ultimately easy to store, organize and showcase if need be. It wouldn’t surprise me if ten years from now, you’ll have some readers picking up every Spider-Man story since Brand New Day began. as it’s a simple enough starting point. But if we’re thinking of the comics equivalent of the audiophile, what matters most will be the quality of the reading experience. Plus, certain collections/ formats may have lower print runs than the original issue, which would drive up the price of that, once demand surpasses supply.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
This entry was posted in DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Pop-Culture Trends, Spider-Man, Thomas Mets and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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