A PRICE GUIDE GUIDE.
My name is Mike Sterling, and I sell comic books for a living.
The price guide: the seemingly necessary evil of nearly any hobby that involves collecting anything. There are those folks who hate price guides, as tainting their beloved pastime with a pervading concern over monetary worth. There are those people who love price guides, for...well, pretty much the same reasons.
During the boom time of the late '80s/early '90s, you couldn't swing a dead Cat-Man without knocking a price guide off the shelf. (Not that I'd recommend you do that when next you visit your local comic shoppe.) Hero, Collect, Trident, Comic Values Monthly, Fan...lots of monthly or semi-monthly magazines, now defunct, that all listed what was hot and what was not. In some cases, I half-suspected, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, that there were some price guides that inflated the prices on the "hot" items they listed to attract those investor-types. "Hey, my comic is worth more in this price guide than in that one...this is the price guide for me!"
One of the things driving that particular boom was a simultaneous influx of sports card collectors into the comic collecting market, seeking something else to invest in as the card market had collapsed beneath its own weight. Those folks were easy to pick out as they regularly asked for "the comic book Beckett" -- Beckett being the primary price guide for the sports card connoisseur. Plus, you had cable network shopping channels offering packages of "collectable" comics (which weren't) and autographed comics prepared just for that station (sometimes even featuring the signing comic creator(s) in question, more often than not looking uncomfortable about being involved in this hucksterism)...not to mention the general faddishness of comics during this period resulting in several TV news features and newspaper articles on comics, a good percentage of which noted that "POW! BAM! Old comics are worth money!"
So, the end result: lots of people looking to make big bucks on funnybooks, and lots of magazines ready to tell them that their funnybooks are worth big bucks.
It would be a whole other article to explain the many factors that went into the eventual comic market crash of the early/mid-90s, but suffice to say, crash it did. The general public's faddish interest in comics moved on to other things; investors began to realize that the comics they were investing in were printed in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, and would never ever be worth money ever, and moved on to other collectables (Beanie Babies, anyone?); stores and distributors went belly-up; blood ran in the streets, bodies washed up on shore, and even today, the comic market is desparately trying to claw its way back up from the depths to which it fell.
Needless to say, many of the comic book price guides vanished as well. However, nowadays there are two primary price guides that get the most in-store use, and managed to survive the comic market crash, though we do make the occasional reference to a handful of others.
The first is the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide - this is the longest-running of all the price guides, as I'm sure anyone reading this already knows, having been around for over 35 years. The strength of this guide is in its extensive listings of Golden and Silver Age comics, with decades' worth of gathered information informing their entries. Of particular use is its special Classics Illustrated section, which clearly explains the somewhat convoluted printing history this series had. Also, nearly unique among the price guides, it lists a range of prices for each listed comic, for six different grades from Good to Near Mint.
While it remains the best and generally most useful of the price guides, it does has some flaws that keep it from being entirely comprehensive. Its primary weakness is in keeping on top of immediate pricing trends...only natural, given its annual release schedule. If a comic has a sudden jump in demand late in the year, pushing its price into the stratosphere, the most recent edition of Overstreet may still only list it at cover price. But, honestly, that's not really a flaw Overstreet can be held accountable for...it's just the nature of a fluid, active market versus an annually-updated print guide. It happens. (In fact, Overstreet's spin-off monthly price guide magazine, Fan, corrected this flaw by keeping up on current market trends, at least until the market crash killed the magazine.)
Another problem we have with Overstreet is the omission of several titles, particularly many black and white titles from the 1980s independent publisher boom, as well as titles from the underground comix press. I can kinda sorta see a justification for leaving out the undergrounds, maybe due to having an alternative distribution system, sold in venues and to customers different from most of the other comics listed. Okay, that's not much of an excuse, and I didn't even buy it as I was typing it, but I can see making the argument that undergrounds are different enough to be excluded, and perhaps better served by a separate price guide devoted just to them (a couple of which I'll discuss momentarily).
As for the '80s black and white books...well, those were available through comic book stores, the same stores carrying the Overstreet guide, and are likely to turn up in collections. Okay, I know, most of them are crap, churned out in the wake of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' success, attempting to grab some of that money entering the marketplace, spent by investors looking for the next Turtles-esque breakout hit. There may be little to no demand for them, and their removal from the guide was almost certainly done for space reasons (the guide's thick enough, and the print small enough, as it is), but it would be nice, simply for completeness' sake, if Overstreet would list these titles as well. However, this lack of many black and white titles affects more well-known titles as well: Chester Brown's Yummy Fur, a well-remembered and highly regarded series by a respected creator, is not listed.
Most puzzling is Overstreet's insistence on listing cartoon reprint books and magazines from before the modern comics era of the 1930s on. They coin names for the various "eras" that these comics come from: "Platinum Era," "Pioneer Era," "Victorian Era," and so on...I'm not saying the comics of these eras shouldn't be noted and catalogued, but quite frankly, I don't know if we need an update on these comics every year. I'd rather see those portions of the guide rotated with, say, an undergrounds section, every other year. I don't imagine that the prices on any of these comics change drastically enough to justify yearly updates, and, honestly, what portion of Overstreet's audience actually deals in "Victorian Era" books to any extent? Again, who else is going to cover these, if not Overstreet, but if they're going to include these, surely they can make room for the other omitted items.
The other is Wizard Magazine, which, for better or worse, is the face of comics to the general public. It's bright and colorful, coupled with a usually sophomoric sense of humor, which makes it popular with its young adult male target audience. In the beginning, the price guide was pretty much the raison d'etre of the magazine, with its editorial content seemingly an afterthought to its page after page of price listings for not just comics, but toys and trading cards as well. One early feature was a listing of all the first issues that were due out in a particular month, with the notation that first issues would sometimes increase in value.
As time went on, the card listings were dropped, the toy price guide was spun off into the sister publication Toyfare, the articles beefed up a bit, and the price guide expanded to cover most (but not all) of the current and/or popular titles. Some price listings were given colored notations, indicating whether prices have dropped, risen, or if a particular issue is "hot." Sidebars focused on other books not otherwise listed in the magazine, like certain golden age or silver age titles, or guides to comics featuring a particular creator or character. For the average customer seeking a price guide for comics from the last couple of decades, Wizard was usually good enough, since a person with, say, just a couple hundred recent comics he wanted to evaluate, dropping $25 bucks on the much more complete Overstreet would seem like overkill. In addition, the monthly schedule of Wizard allows it to react more quickly to current pricing trends that Overstreet misses with its annual release.
However, in recent months, Wizard has lessened its usabilty as a price guide, by only listing prices on "hot" items or items otherwise in current interest...usually not even noting every issue of any particular title it might list. While that keeps it reasonably usable for our stated purpose of keeping track of current pricing and popularity trends, the average customer seeking a general price guide for recent comics will probably not find the current Wizard guide meeting his needs.
Since between Overstreet and Wizard, that covers most of our back issue needs, given that the majority of older comics we deal with can be found in either of these guides, the other guides are used much less, and sometimes for reasons aside from pricing.
Of the second-stringers, we get the most use out of Jay Kennedy's Official Underground & Newave Comix Price Guide from 1982, the most comprehensive guide to underground comics ever published, even a quarter of a century on. While some guides, like the Standard Catalog which I'll be discussing next, include more up-to-date pricing on undergrounds, no guide has yet matched Kennedy's guide for information on the multiple printings and variations that many undergrounds have. For example, some newer guides will note a particular price for a fourth printing of Zap #1, but they won't give you any clue as to what features identify particular copy of issue #1 as a fourth printing. That's where having the Kennedy guide comes in handy...using the older guide in conjunction with the newer ones gives you a more complete picture. A newer underground price guide, Fogel's Underground Comix Price Guide, also features newer prices, and even covers some of the small-press black and white titles Overstreet ignores, and though the printing information contained therein was a little more detailed than most underground listings, the Kennedy guide remains a necessary supplement. Over the years, we've found the occasional omitted item, primarily unlisted variations of Freak Brothers, so the margins of our store copy is filled with corrections and notations.
With Wizard cutting its listings down, the only real alternative that covered the same ground it used to is the Comic Buyers' Guide. Once a weekly newspaper/tabloid adzine that ran comic company press releases and a handful of regular columns, it has since been restructured into a monthly magazine, with increased editorial content, many more reviews, and expanded columns. And, as you may have surmised by its inclusion in this article, each issue now has a price guide in its back pages. The original tabloid edition would sometimes come with an included extra price guide, but that occurred fairly infrequently. The price guide in the new Comic Buyers' Guide focuses mainly on more recent comics, but with complete listings for all titles, rather than just picking and choosing numbers to highlight as Wizard does. In fact, I should probably be using this as my Overstreet supplement rather than Wizard...I don't know why I don't, aside from simple inertia.
The publisher of the Comic Buyers' Guide, Krause Publications, is also responsible for two annually-released price guides. Comics Values Annual is their Overstreet analogue, with listings for comics from the Golden Age forward. There are some differences, however, the most obvious being the arrangement of the comics. Marvel and DC books are separated into different sections, as are Dark Horse, Image, and even miscellaneous titles are divided into a color section and a black and white section. The other difference is the inclusion of pricing for underground comics, though including little information on determining printing variations, when compared to the Kennedy volume.
Krause's other price guide is the Standard Catalog of Comic Books, which also lists titles from the Golden Age to the modern era, but in checklist format...presumably so that you may check off each new comic as it's acquired. There are some nice features in this guide, including more extensive writer and artist (and character appearance) notations for most listed comics, as well as estimated print runs/order numbers from distributors. Not sure how much you really need that last bit of information, but it can be interesting to see print runs on various books. Also included are listings for some of the black and white titles and undergrounds glossed over by Overstreet.
Complicating things for the price guides is the advent of online auctions. Professionally-graded-and-slabbed comics (like those from Comics Guaranty) can sometimes command many times guide prices in auction, and sometimes even the non-pro graded comics can reach wild heights. All it takes is two people deciding at the same time that they must have the same comic, and suddenly something like a random issue of Zot! ends with a final auction price of $38.00 (an example taken from our store's own experience, by the way). Should price guides take these auctions into consideration, including them into the prices averaged out for their listings? Some guides do list pro-graded comic prices separately, with a "prices realized in auction" notation.
In a lot of other cases, some auctions prices do fall far below guide, sometimes only pennies on the dollar, even for near mint copies. Again, should those prices be considered? I imagine if Overstreet started dropping prices on some books, like, say, Wolfpack, to reflect actual realized prices, there'd probably be a revolt. No collectors using a price guide to guide their collections want to think that there's even the slightest possibility that their comics could be listed at a nickel in near mint.
I don't really have much of a wrap-up to this, aside from advice I give to customers interested in comics pricing and collectability: first, guides are just that...guides. The prices aren't set in stone, and must reflect current market conditions, availability, and so on.
And second, and most importantly: don't worry so much about how "collectible" or "valuable" something is. Buy comics you like, and they'll always be worth something to you.
If you have any questions, suggestions, or complaints, please feel free to e-mail me at cbg (at) progressiveruin.com.
-- Mike Sterling