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February 28, 2012

Group Think: What Is The Future Of Back-Issue Sales?

I've been thinking recently about the back-issues component of the comics market and comics culture. We sometimes forget how back-issues sales have been a core component of the way the market functions. Putting aside how much work is sold that way, and how great a percentage those kinds of sales are for certain comics retailers, there's the historical notion that the Direct Market of hobby and comics shops was made possible because the promise of back-issue sales cushioned prospective participants from the specter of over-ordering on a title or two. In other words, it was the safety valve for non-returnable product, at least in conception if not in eventual execution. Most comics fans have probably bought an older comic book at one point or another, and have likely done so in a traditional bag-and-board sense.

imageWill that be an option in a quarter century? And if so, what will that look like? It's clear that the back-issues market has changed in several ways over the last 20 years. There are stores that eschew that option entirely for more of a bookstore feel. There are on-line retailers now, which suggests the possibility of consolidation. Back-issues retailers no longer dominate the convention experience the way they once did. The on-line auction sites have chopped away at some of the ridiculous pricing levels asserted by what could be argued to be self-interested parties. We have collections now. That seems a fundamental change. It used to be fans might buy older comic books to read a story they'd heard about but couldn't experience otherwise -- that's how 12-year-old me bought his first back issues -- and I can't imagine that's the case to the same extent right now for their being so much material in print. Digital availability may prove to be the collections-phenomenon on steroids. There are libraries that hold comics material now.

I also wonder about basic desirability. North American comic books is just now beginning to move out of a period where you could have real-life conversations with professionals that have worked for the duration of the industry's existence. That means there are going to be fewer and fewer fans with a connection to certain historical periods -- fewer all the time, as readership has also declined. It seems reasonable to expect a diminished interest in, say, the comic books of the 1980s as there are more and more fans that by virtue of being born too late to experience them the first time around have less of an interest in certain titles than people my age might. It's only in the last few years I've seen retailers dump 1960s Marvel books into the dollar bins. We're also an art form that publishes at near-capacity if not over-capacity in terms of supply fulfilling demand. Some comics are already hard to find -- I have a hard time completing runs of 1980s independent and small press work when I've tried -- which may indicate a future market but probably comes closer to suggesting that no one may want those comics at all.

So what do you think? Is this even a market 10, 15, 25 years from now? Is it all digital? Does it shift to newer comics as more of those children try to recapture their past? Will people buy from the original run of DC New 52 comics in 2028? Will Jack Kirby comic books still appeal? What happens?


Chris Cummins: Even with the proliferation of digital comic options (Archie Comics are doing an especially great job making vintage issues available cheap digitally) and e-readers, I think that there will always be a huge demand for the actual books. Last week I was at a thrift store here in Philly and I stumbled upon cheap reading copies of Marvel's Logan's Run and Charlton's Creepy Things titles. This was a thrilling experience, because to me there is nothing like physically handling the old comics. The ads, the feel and even smell of these books can never be fully replicated no matter what. It's really that simple. I'm sure there are lots of others who feel like I do, even if our numbers are clearly dwindling. Like Seymour in Ghost World, appreciators of physical media will be increasingly marginalized as back issues are scanned and posted online even more than they already are. I'm not opposed to this, as it will make the genius of everyone from Kirby to Bolling available to new generations. That's a great thing for sure. As for me though, my first choice will always be to sit down and spend some time reading the real thing. Holding each issue is a tangible reminder of why I fell in love with comics in the first place.


Art Cohen: I think there has been a major shift away from ordering extra copies for back issues. I used to go to a local comic book store whose business model essentially consisted of ordering customers' subs, taking them out of the box, and putting them in the customers' subscription boxes. They ordered virtually nothing extra except for a few copies of JLA, Spider-Man, whatever.

I'd say that, especially in the age of trade paperbacks, the (absolute) value of back issues has plummeted, since huge amounts of material are now available more easily and cheaply in collected editions. Even stuff from the 70s that I once hunted down issue-by-issue is now being collected, against all rational predictions (e.g. The Super-Sons, the Twelve Labors of Wonder Woman, The Champions, etc., etc., etc.).

The only exception to this I've noted are the rare instances where something was collected years ago (or decades ago) and has been out-of-print almost as long, in which case, it can often be cheaper and easier to find the original back issues (e.g. the three-issue Captain America run that wrapped up the original Deathlok storyline in the 80s... and yes, that's pretty obscure).

Just my two cents'.


Jonathan La Mantia: I'm looking forward to you thoughts and other answers from folks who are more involved in the market, here's my 'less informed' opinion:

"What does a back-issues market for comics look like in 25 years?" In 25 years I would imagine that there will have already been several years of mostly digital-only titles. Subscription services where you spend a set amount every month/year and you get access to most of the entire library of a major publisher will probably be the norm by this point. I think there's still probably going to be a small amount of print back-issues kicking around -- I'd say major publishers will have mostly digital-only releases but with limited batch runs of select titles to ship to the remaining brick & mortar shops to keep the collectors market going. I see the real bulk of print back issues being kept alive by independent/self publishers. There's still going to be a large amount of them producing digitally as well, but I don't see print dying out entirely (but it will be just around the corner). Moreover I think as the bulk of the back issue catalogs will be digital there will be a large demand from collectors for print editions, you're going to see them sell out very quickly and re-sell at very high prices.

P.S. On a side note, I didn't check your site before I finished this so I don't cover theses specific bits you asked at the end: "Does it shift to newer comics as more of those children try to recapture their past? Will people buy from the original run of DC New 52 comics in 2028? Will Jack Kirby comic books still appeal?" My answer is pretty long-winded to begin with so I'll just let those slide -- except the Kirby one -- I think there's always going to be a market for Kirby books.


Patrick Ford: It's a simple supply and demand issue. There have been things in the past connected to comics which have fallen by the way. Big Little Books must be near dead I would think.

The demand for anything Western related has got to be way down from what it was twenty years ago. As old time collectors move on there are in many cases very few people who come in and replace them. Outside comics you can see this with things like Hummel figurines.

Truly rare things like pre-'60s comics, and comics in high grade will maintain their value, but there really isn't any doubt in my mind there are more copies of the average '60s era comic book still around than there are people who want a copy. I don't think it could be calculated, but I'd wager there are at least 100,000 surviving copies of every issue of Superman published during the '60s.


Robin McConnell: One of my favorite things to do in a new city is to go hunting for back issues. When I went to New York a year ago, I was pretty surprised at just how dismal the selection of material is. There were a couple of stores with some goodies, but over all, stores are veering hard away from long white boxes to the more visually appealing site of bookshelves full of the exact same TPB selection as all the stores. Back issues are quickly become a niche collector market that has little value except for obvious rarities and key items.

The pricey variants of today, will be worth nothing in a year. I remember selling Gen 13 variants for lots of money while working in a comic store back in the '90s. Those same comics can be easily found in random dollar bin.


Robert Boyd: The world of back issues sales seems fairly contrived and corrupt. I have never really understood it, so I am probably the wrong person to comment. But like many people who started reading comics before the age of cheap reprints, I was stuck buying back issues if I wanted to see the work of earlier artists. That said, Marvel was reprinting the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and other older comics in their own comics series. They were just as cheap as new comics at the time, and back issues of those series were (illogically) far less expensive. That's how I saw classic Kirby and Ditko without paying a mint on the back issue market. And when I was forced to buy back issues to see old art and stories, I didn't care too much about the condition. I take that back -- I actually preferred to get comics in poor condition because they were cheaper.

I am slightly shocked that there is such a vigorous market for old comics today. We live in the golden age or reprints; why would you want to buy a old issue of a comic, printed on such acidic paper that it basically has to be stored in an airless environment forever, when you can buy a reprint book for a fraction of the cost? What freaks me out is that sometimes, the old comics of a particular artist cost more than his original art.

For me, original art is the ideal comic collectible. Each piece is a unique example of an artist's work. It is genuinely rare.

As more reprints come along, and as more old comics and comic strips are scanned and placed in internet accessible sites, the value of collecting old comics will diminish. Not that it will ever go completely away, but for those whose main purpose in buying old comics is to read them, there will be ever-cheaper options to buying the old comics where the stories originally appeared. The only thing you'll have left is the aura of antiquity -- which will probably continue to appeal to a certain number of collectors indefinitely.


Mark Coale: I think digital comics (of the legal or illegal variety) could be the end of the back issue market.

1. Space. Over the last year, I liquidated almost all of my comics, likely 50+ long boxes that would have taken up two rooms in my house. I could now put all of those books on my ipad with no problem.

2. The easy availability of books digitally takes away the great joy of the back issue hunt. I remember the great joy in the 1990s of finding new stores when I moved or took a vacation, hoping that I could maybe finally found that 1970s DC Sherlock Holmes comic or the one issue of Defenders I could never find locally.

3. There's also the economics of digital (especially if you're someone that engages in piracy). The average comics reader would likely have to save a lifetime for a decent copy of a classic Golden or Silver age book. Now, you can go to a download site and get the complete run of Detective Comics for free in less time than it would take you to drive to your LCS.


John Platt: There absolutely will be a back-issue market -- for rare, iconic issues; comics that where the rights have been permanently tied up (1963); titles by people who did not provide for their literary estates before their deaths; books in pristine, super-duper mint condition; books that might have physical qualities that digital comics can not replicate (hologram covers?); and for physically unusual books (Treasuries, oh my lovelies).

But for everything else -- recycle 'em. (And hey, the more comics we recycle today, the more the few we keep will be worth in 20 years.)


Bob Temuka: There will always be people buying and selling back issues until the objects themselves all crumble into dust. The methods of these transactions -- and the places they occur in -- have changed dramatically in the past couple of decades, and will continue to change, but as long as there are people who crave the physical object in a way digital will never, ever satisfy, there will be some kind of back issue market.

I don't really know what that market will look like, but it'll be there.

Personally, I greatly encourage people who enjoy the digital format to go fully electronic, if that means I can get my hands on all the lovely comics they don't want any more. Everybody wins!


Mike Thompson: I would be interested to hear what is happening with other collectible hobbies, such as sports cards, coins and stamps. I would guess they are all seeing a graying demographic, with no new blood coming in.

I am the father of a 7 year old boy (the age at which I began my comic and hockey card collecting), and I see no interest in collecting anything. Not just by Sam, but his friends as well. They still play with Hot Wheels (they’re still awesome and, remarkably, the same price!), they’re still outside playing road hockey and don’t spend ALL their time with video games (due to my dictatorial limitations: one hour per day Sat-Tues), but the “collector gene” seems to be disappearing with each generation.

(Pokemon seems to be making a minor comeback, however).

10 years from now, I doubt there will be a collectors market large enough to support the network of shops devoted to it, perhaps we’ll see them in major markets and large conventions only.

I have no interest in digital, but I understand why people do. I don’t know; maybe we’ll see a return to physical comic books as we’ve recently seen with vinyl records.

The joy of finally completing that run of, say, Daredevil by finding that last issue at a yard sale or random convention long box as been dampened somewhat by the ease of searching eBay. That site has been the game changer, more so than any other factor.

Thanks for bringing up the topic -- I very much look forward to seeing more feedback on your site.


Jason Green: I think that the physical back issue market will always exist in some capacity, but in the near term it will continue to diminish. There's a lot of competition for those dollars... not only from digital, but from the robust reprinting programs available out there. I still buy back issues myself, primarily at conventions, and primarily of only a handful of titles. (Just last summer, for example, I finally finished my collection of Spider-Girl.) As a buyer of back issues, I've found my own habits shifting as I grow older. I have little patience to spend an entire weekend sifting through unsorted boxes of 25 cent comics when other vendors offer their stock alphabetized, bagged, and boarded for $1... the time savings are worth the added cost to me.

25 years from now? If there are still physical comics being published, there will still be vendors clearing out their overstock at conventions, and there will still be guys like me happily filling in the holes in their collections. But I have to agree with Art Cohen: stores are definitely moving away from stocking enough copies of comics to have back issues, and 25 years from now, will that limited availability kill the market entirely, or will that rarity lead to higher prices? Man, that's hard to see so little interest in back issues of most recent comics, but then huge demand for books that that future generation is excited about now like The Walking Dead and Chew. The latter would seem to imply that the collector element is still out there, which bodes well for the back issue business as a whole.

Will this future generation buy New 52 back issues? Yeah, probably, but in much the same way as people buying back issues now would buy post-Crisis books: a few series (Byrne's Man of Steel and Perez's Wonder Woman for the latter, probably Snyder's Batman and Johns and Reis' Aquaman for the former) sustain interest, and the rest haunt the quarter bins for eternity.

Will Kirby still appeal? I certainly think so. I came of age well after Kirby's biggest years and I've grown to appreciate his work. I imagine much like the masters of cinema, the early masters of comics will continue to find new readers interested in digging into the full history of the medium.


Jesse Post: Loved reading through the responses you've already received for this. I'm surprised that the conversation isn't already happening full force right now -- I remember when back-issues were 75% of the reason I would ever go to a comic store. Anyway, my two cents:

Design and content is a bigger deciding factor for me than availability when it comes to format choice. For instance, DC's pre-reboot Jonah Hex series was a perfect single-issue run that reminded me of the one-offs I would read as a kid, haphazardly, whenever I could find them. I never had any interest in the book collections for that reason, but this also makes them perfect for my iPad, where they're cheaper and always available. Hex was one of my few remaining back-issue hunts and the iPad did away with it. Most modern superhero stories are meant to be read as books, not in serialized chunks, so I buy those instead of back-issues.

But then there are things like Steve Gerber's Omega. Reading the original comics adds something to its pulpy, bizarre, meta-fiction-ish cool '70s idea-comic vibe, complete with the ads and the falling-apart pages. It sounds floofy, but reading the originals feels closer to Gerber, like the distance between his brain and me was shortest via the comic books, plus it's ephemeral and that adds poignancy. Digital would take all the fun away from it, and the book collection from a few years ago seemed to miss the point in its execution: single shot of the character on a plain background, house ads, glossy paper, basically devoid of magic (plus, it's just as out of print as the originals anyway). Tracking down Omega was a fun, easy, and rewarding search.

I imagine that if I got into something equally pulp-serial and artistic (like maybe Elfquest) then I would absolutely want to track down the back-issues. I hope at least a few nostalgia shops stay open this century so everyone can still enjoy them.


Martin Wisse responded here on this subject. It's a good piece.


Group Think is designed to solicit opinions on various industry matters from anyone out there reading that would like to have a say. Those opinons will be added to this post. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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