AGAIN WITH THE BACK ISSUES.
My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.
A number of years ago, I received a phone call one Thursday afternoon from someone on the other side of the country, looking for a copy of Masters of the Universe #13. This was the last issue of the series published by Marvel Comics in its "Star" children's line in the late '80s. We had a copy in stock, the fellow on the phone gave me his credit card number, I processed the order and put the package in the shipping pile, and that, I thought, was that.
The next day, I received a back-issue inquiry e-mail...also for Masters of the Universe #13. I thought for a moment that this was perhaps a belated e-mail from the person I spoke to on the phone, delayed in transit by some Internet routing shenanigans...but no, it was, in fact, a different person. We had additional backstock on this issue, so I was able to fill this second person's request. I thought it was a bit odd that we had two requests for the same issue of the same series, a series that has shown no appreciable sales movement in recent times, but I just figured it was coincidence.
And then I received a third request. And a fourth request.
When all was said and done, by the time the weekend had passed, I had a half-dozen requests for Masters of the Universe #13. All from different people, from all over the country. (And yes, fortunately, I was able to fill all the orders.)
The last couple of customers, I did ask what the deal was. I had figured that maybe some magazine, or someone online, or perhaps an article in some Masters of the Universe fan newsletter, had pointed out this issue for some reason. After all, it was 1) the last issue of a series, and 2) published under Marvel's "Star" imprint, both factors that would contribute to a very small print run...making it an item that would have additional "collectible" value to people who would be interested in that sort of thing.
The response? The customers claimed that they just decided they needed to fill holes in their collection. They didn't own up to any outside influence, and stated that they had no connection to any other collectors looking for this particular issue.
I didn't press the issue...I don't want to interrogate the poor people, after all. However, a half-dozen people all calling over the same short period of time looking for the same unusual back issue seems like a bit much to be a coincidence. Personally I assumed that there was some MOTU fanclub message board/newsletter/whatever somewhere talking about the scarcity of this comic, and none of the people calling us to get this issue wanted to clue me in for the (unfounded) fear that I'd gouge them royally on the price. I'll never know for sure, I suppose.
Not all of my back issue inquiries turn into head-scratchers like this, but I do have a few more stories and observations about back issue sales:
WHERE WERE YOU WHEN IT WAS ON THE SHELF: I had mentioned before in a previous column that Robotech comics used to just sit there on the new comics rack and sell one or two copies throughout its entire shelf life. However, once it came time to remove the comics from the racks and put them in the back issue bins, suddenly they would begin to sell. It's not just that the customers weren't seeing them on the shelf...they were racked prominently, and we'd try to point out the new issues there when Robotech readers came in. For some reason, they preferred to pull their books out of the bins. Go figure.
Now that doesn't really happen so much anymore, even with the current Robotech comic from Wildstorm (which hardly sells period, new or old). That was more of a quirk with the sales of the old Comico and Malibu/Eternity series. The closest modern equivalent may be Sonic the Hedgehog, which does move fairly well on the rack when new, but sells just as many, if not more, once placed in the back issue boxes. The Simpsons and related comics also seem to have a good portion of its audience solely buy their series as backlist books. Perhaps its the convenience of being able to pick up several issues at once, rather than being a slave to the once-a-month ritual...if some of these comics would be released on a regular basis in trade paperback form, I'd imagine these customers would be buying those instead.
AT LEAST YOU KNOW WHAT YOU LIKE: So one day I was checking our boxes of Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane that we had up front in order to restock it from our extra Lois Lanes that we had in our storage area. I had just restocked that box only a few days prior, but a customer came through and snapped a number of them up, and I figured, what the heck, as long as I was thinking about it, I might as well pull some replacements out of the back room.
I pulled out the extras of the copies this customer bought, and it was then I noticed that every single cover featured Lois tied up, chained up, or otherwise restrained.
Sometimes you learn something interesting about your customers, some days.
Other collections built around specific cover images or story content include the fellow who was buying "dead Superman" covers (he was in hog heaven during the whole "Death of Superman" brouhaha), the former coworker who collected Archie Comics that featured cover bowling scenes (a collecting "fetish" that appears to be fairly widespread, I've since learned), the collectors who just buy comics (any comics, regardless of content) with pretty girls on the covers, the folks trying to create a complete collection of vampire comics (and I do mean complete...their want lists are giant paper-filled binders)...these are the customers that keep me on my toes, trying to track down items that match their particular desires.
THEY'RE TOO YOUNG TO KNOW IT'S BAD FOR THEM: Your standard comic fan can point to several relatively recent events in the various Spider-Man publications as being, more or less, the point where fandom as a whole pretty much threw up its hands and exclaimed "Good Lord, we don't need to read another Spider-comic as long as we live!" The Clone Saga, for example, while selling very well at first, began to take its toll on the readers as it dragged on and on and on. The clone-related Scarlet Spider series that replaced the Spider-Man titles for a few months seemed to be a bit of an irritant to fans of the time as well. On top of all that, the over-usage of the popular villain Venom (and Carnage, and any other Venom-a-likes) in spin-off mini-series and Spider-Man crossover storylines like "Maximum Carnage" also piled on the fan distaste for these comics.
Well, fans may have not cared for these comics then, but boy, the kids like them now. I can almost understand Venom...he is a cool villain, and since he's not appearing in five titles a month now, today's young readers haven't had a chance to get sick of him yet. (Though that may change when Marvel goes into Venom overkill if and when he turns up in the forthcoming Spider-Man film.) It's the kids today who are hot to collect the whole convoluted mess that was the Clone Saga that baffles me slightly. People could barely keep track of what story went where and how back when it was new...you'd have to be some kind of archeological detective with the patience of a saint to try to piece the thing together a decade later. But sure enough, they're trying...I have to restock those particular runs on a regular basis.
OOH, SHINY: Like the just-discussed Clone Saga, variant and "enhanced" covers sold well in their heyday a decade ago, but began to have a negative sales impact once the novelty wore off. Foil covers, die-cut covers, bullet-shot covers, covers in the shape of a character's head...fancy covers were coming out by the truckloads, even long after everyone was officially sick of them.
Here we are, ten years later...and these cover-gimmick comics, once languishing in the bargain bins, are suddenly in demand again. There's no typical customer who buys them, though if I had to guess, I'd say it's a situation similar to the Venom situation I theorized about earlier, and that they're primarily purchased by people who weren't in the comic hobby at the time these covers were originally wearing out their welcome.
MEMORIES OF YOUTH: One could make the argument that nostalgia is one of the prime impulses for comic collection, that following the heroes of your youth into adulthood is some kind of comforting relief from day to day pressures. However, that's more of a sublimated drive...more explicit appeals to nostalgia come from those customers, usually not regular comic book readers, who come in looking for comics that they read as children. Sgt. Rock (or Our Army at War, the character's parent title) is a popular choice among these folks.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: And, lastly, but not leastly, there are the customers who buy back issues (generally for other people, not themselves) that came out the same year that this person they're buying it for was born, if not the same month. I don't explain that, for various reasons, the month printed on the cover of the comic isn't necessarily the month the comic was actually released...that would probably just confuse and frighten.
Ultimately, it doesn't really matter to me why they're buying the back issues (well, maybe I would probably care if they were planning to use them for kindling) since the end result is money being given to us in exchange for goods. But, it does make me appreciate the wide variety of methods and reasons people have for buying the comics they do, and the many ways they can enjoy their collections. Even if the comics they're enjoying are Clone Saga books...I mean, honestly, they do make good comics, you know.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com.
-- Mike Sterling