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The Anatomy of Selling a Comic Book Collection

by Ken Hatfield (06/12/12).

This is the comic book that started it all: “Taboo! The Thing From Murky Swamp” from Strange Tales No. 75, published by Marvel Comics in June 1960, story by Stan Lee, artwork by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers.

One of my earliest memories is of reading a comic book.

Reading isn’t exactly the right word. I was about 5 years old and hadn’t started school, so I probably couldn’t read. But I do remember looking at the pictures. It was a story about a blob-like monster that came out of the swamp. For a 5-year-old, it was pretty cool stuff.

Years later, I tracked down that comic book. I’m pretty sure the story was “Taboo! The Thing From Murky Swamp” from Strange Tales No. 75, published in June 1960. The artwork, by Jack Kirby, seemed strangely familiar when I saw it decades later in a Marvel trade paperback and the timing was right, since I would have been ready to start kindergarten that fall.

To this day, I don’t know why that comic book got locked in my memory, but there was something about it that resonated in my 5-year-old psyche.

I started collecting comic books a few years later. Back then, collecting just meant you didn’t throw them away. I liked to reread them, so why toss them out? To me it just made sense. But I can’t say I was obsessed with them. By the mid-’60s I had a stack of 20 or 30 comics, which I kept in a desk drawer.

When I was 11, my dad brought home several comics he’d picked up for me on a business trip. I was particularly attracted to one book: Marvel Super Heroes King-Size Special No. 1, cover dated 1966. In it was a reprint of Daredevil No. 1 and Avengers No. 2, plus a reprint of a battle between the Golden Age Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner from the 1940s.

Up to that point, I had mainly been a fan of DC comics; i.e. Superman and Batman. I especially loved the teenaged Legion of Super Heroes in Adventure Comics, as well as some of their lesser known books like the Blackhawks, the Metal Men and the Teen Titans.

But there was something about the Marvel heroes that was different. These were heroes with issues. They argued, they lost their temper, sometimes they did stupid things. To me, they just seemed more real, even to my inexperienced mind.

About a year later I picked up a copy of another Marvel reprint anthology, Marvel Collector’s Item Classics No. 7 and was introduced to the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Dr. Strange and the Hulk (who I’d already met in the Avengers).

Now I was obsessed.

Hardcore Collecting
By 1968, I was buying every Marvel comic I could get my hands on—Thor, Captain America, the X-Men—it didn’t matter; I loved them all. I loved the writing and the characters, but just as important was the artwork. Jack Kirby was my favorite, but I also loved John Buscema (the Avengers, the Sub-Mariner, the Silver Surfer), John Romita (Spider-Man), Marie Severin (the Hulk) and Jim Steranko (Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD). Eventually, it got to a point where the artwork was most important and I would stop collecting titles if they changed to an artist I didn’t like.

I consider that to be Marvel’s creative peak, roughly the years 1968 to 1971. In 1971, comic books increased in price from 12 to 15 cents. That doesn’t sound like much now, but it heralded a sea change in the industry. In hindsight, it was the end of the Silver Age of comic books. In came the Bronze Age, with escalating prices and decreasing quality. Within a few years I stopped buying comics altogether.

So what did I do with all the comics I had acquired during those wonderful Silver Age years? I stuffed them into paper sacks and stacked them in boxes I stored in my basement. No Mylar bags, no cardboard backing boards, no stand-up comic book long boxes.

By the time I got interested in comics again—thanks to creators like Alan Moore and Frank Miller—it was the late 1980s. Then I bought the Mylar bags and the long boxes. The new comics went into them as soon as they were read and would stay in pristine condition for the next 25 years.

Not so much for my Silver Age books. For many of them, the damage was already done. Cover creases, flattened spines, dinged corners – all the things that can kill a comic book’s value. While I still had a fairly valuable collection, few of the books would meet the strict, near-mint standard so sought after by collectors.

I continued buying comic books through the ’90s. By the time I quit in the early 2000s, my collection numbered several thousand. I never did a complete inventory so I’ll never know how many for sure.

In the early 2000s, I began selling off my collection through eBay. At first, it was mainly books I didn’t care that much about, as well as some of my newer books, which were still in near-mint condition. Eventually, however, I began selling virtually any book that had value, holding back only a handful of my most treasured comics. One comic, which I bought for 25 cents in 1969, I sold for more than $200. By 2010, I had depleted my collection by only a couple hundred books, but that was a large portion of my most valuable Silver Age comics.

Last year our basement flooded. Luckily, my comic books were off the floor and escaped damage. But I felt like it was only a matter of time before something happened to them. Comic books aren’t made to last. They’re made of paper and paper reacts to heat and humidity and light. Unless you keep them in a sealed, temperature controlled vault, they are going to disintegrate sooner or later. I’ve never liked the idea of sealing comics in CGC encapsulated holders, where they can never be read again, but that’s really the only way to preserve them long-term.

So, I finally decided it was time to take the leap. I would sell the remainder of my collection in one fell swoop. Little did I know how difficult it would be to let them go.

As a youngster in the 1960s, Ken Hatfield collected many of the popular titles published by Marvel during what is known in the industry as the Silver Age of Comics.

Time to Sell
Many, if not most comic book collectors eventually decide to sell their collections. There’s no mystery as to why. Some lose interest. Others need the money. Some, like me, simply got tired of storing them.

Comic books take up a lot of room. They aren’t like regular books that can be stored in waterproof, stackable storage containers. To preserve them, they should be stored standing up in long, acid-free cardboard comic boxes. Each long box is more than two feet long and can hold roughly 100 comics. When it came time for me to sell my collection, I had 32 long boxes. Let me tell you, they take up a lot of room.

Last year’s flood in our basement was a wake-up call. Luckily, the water only got about six inches high. My comic boxes were stacked three-deep on top of some storage tubs, so were unaffected. But if the water had risen another three feet, I would have lost everything.

I had already sold some of my books on eBay, but the Internet isn’t a practical way to sell thousands of comics quickly. So, I had basically two options: sell my comics to a private individual or to a comic book dealer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know any private individuals interested in my collection, which was comprised of about one-third Silver- and Bronze-Age comics from the ’60s and ’70s and two-thirds modern books from the 1980s on. I could have put an ad in the paper, but that would have entailed providing a phone number and eventually an address and I really didn’t want to publicize that I had a valuable collection in my basement. Besides, it would also probably require completing an inventory I had been working on for about three months and was only about halfway done.

So, that left a comic book dealer. That’s definitely the least-favorable way to sell comic books. Dealers are out to make money, which pretty much ensures they will offer you only the minimum value for your books. But in their defense, it makes no sense to give you what your comics are worth if they’re only going to break even when they resell them.

Looking for a Buyer
Luckily for me, there turned out to be a third option: a comic book dealer who was a friend of a friend. The dealer, who makes his home in Colorado, was at a comic book show I attended in February. I had never met him, but knew he was an old friend of a good friend of mine, a former comic collector himself who sold his lucrative Golden Age collection to a private individual more than a decade ago. After the show, I mentioned to my friend that I was interested in selling my collection and asked if he would mind mentioning it to his dealer friend while he was still in town. The dealer soon called me back and I gave him directions to my house so he could look at my collection.

If you’re wondering why I was so quick to give my address to a stranger, it was because my friend told me the dealer was extremely ethical and honest. With my friend vouching for him, I felt I would get the fairest deal possible.

Before he arrived, I removed about 25 comics I couldn’t bear to part with. Not only were they my most valuable books, they were also the comics I’d owned the longest, all for more than 30 years. Those comics are worth more than the rest of my collection put together.

When he arrived, I led him downstairs and he began going through the boxes. Occasionally, he would stop and remove a book for a closer look. I could tell by the books he was looking at, he was primarily interested in the Silver Age comics.

He asked me what I wanted for everything. I gave him a figure and he nodded and continued looking through the boxes. He didn’t say anything for a long time. I could almost hear the wheels moving in his head as he tried to calculate the value of the books he was seeing compared to my price.

He came up with a counter offer and I counter offered him back. He continued looking through the boxes. Then he told me they were heading back to Colorado the next day and had no way to transport all my books. The only way they could do it was if his son-in-law, who lived in the area, could drive over with his van, take the boxes back to his house and store them there until he could return with a larger vehicle.

I was afraid that might be a deal breaker, but it turned out his son-in-law was fine with the idea and he gave him directions to my house, even though we still hadn’t agreed on a price. He continued looking through the boxes, occasionally noting this or that issue he was familiar with. He counter offered again and I came up with another price, which was not that far from his. After a long pause, he said he would do it if I would throw in a couple of the books I’d saved out. I had already shown him those comics and noted his disappointment as he examined them. I told him I would rather not do that and accepted his last offer. He paid me in cash and we shook hands.

And that was it. I helped him carry the boxes upstairs and then helped him load them into his son-in-law’s van. The last I saw of my comics was the van disappearing down the street.

All in all, I can’t complain about the transaction. It wasn’t as much money as I hoped, but I keep telling myself, a lot of the books—probably most of the books—have only limited value. They’re too new. No doubt hundreds of my comics will find their way into the bargain boxes at future comic book conventions. He was basically paying me for my Silver Age books, those he saw and those he thought might be hiding in my collection. The rest he was simply taking off my hands.

What I wasn’t prepared for, however, were the feelings of sadness afterwards. I had sold my books before, hundreds of them actually, but now, except for those few I’d saved out, they were all gone. It was like giving up part of my childhood. I know I’ll be able to find many of those comics again, in compilations and anthologies, but it won’t really be the same. It won’t be like holding that comic book in my hands, smelling that old comic book smell I love so much.

That’s something you can’t put a price on.

Ken Hatfield collected comic books for more than 30 years before selling his collection this year. A newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, he is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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3 Responses to “The Anatomy of Selling a Comic Book Collection”

  1. Tom Holbrook says:

    Nice article,…

    As a collector who has sold off many large collections as well as a lot of comic books, I understand the sellers remorse.
    BUT all in all be thankful that you owned the books, enjoyed tham and kept them in nice condition so that you were able to sell them.

    We collect the things that we like and care for them so they can benifit us later.

    To date I have sold my vintage rock and metal LP collection, comics, toys and more.
    The rule of thumb is you can not take it with you and your family will never care for them as you did.
    Use the funds to build a fond memory with someone you love and loves you back. Things can not love you back.

    A professional friend of mine taught me something when he told me that he does not collect anything other than memories.

    I am a strong believer in that,…as well as selling the collection as a whole. As the time that it takes to sell each item on it’s own is WAY to time consuming and you may get stuck with the commons,…
    You have to sell the highly collectible material with the common material.

    I hope that fellow collectors will learn something from your article as well as my reply.

    The joy of collecting comes from the thrill of the hunt, the finding and the care put into the collection,… and as a collector you will be hard pressed to find someone who feels the same about the material you like as much as you do or did.

    Again, a nice article,…

    All the best to you,
    Tom Holbrook
    Author of “The Bozo Chronicles”

  2. Tracy says:

    Do you have a referral to the dealer?

  3. Warren K says:

    Great story Ken. I can relate on so many levels. I still have about three large apple boxes full of my favorite books. At one time they filled up half my bedroom. They have followed me around for better than 50 years and the breadth of the U.S. I am also feeling it is time to let then go and hope to find a suitable home for them. Thanks for conjuring up some of those great childhood memories.

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