The Overstreet Price Guide: Comic Books as Collectibles

13 Sep
Spawn #1 (May 1992). Cover art by Todd McFarlane.

It was hot, so it must have had a great story, right? (Image via Wikipedia)

I used to love the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide when I was a kid.

The first one I bought was the 20th Edition, from 21 years ago. Robert Overstreet‘s book was the closest thing to an encyclopedia about comics, with a pretty comprehensive list of what I thought was all of the comic books in the world. (The values were interesting, too, and were often close to what back-issue dealers charged in the pre-internet age.) Of course, it turned out that the Guide mostly covered only American comic books, and skipped most underground and early non-mainstream comics (apparently there was quite a fight to add Cerebus and Elfquest to the Guide back in the day).

Some years ago, Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics wrote an excellent series of posts on Overstreet and the back-issue market. Reading about how comics dealers would drive up prices by selling books to each other at a premium, or claiming certain types of comics were more collectible to create a false sense of demand (hello, DC ape covers!), was pretty disillusioning for me. I used to buy the quarterly Overstreet Update and, later, Overstreet’s attempts to compete with phony price guide Wizard (the gold standard for market manipulation for personal gain). I’d read all of the retail advisors’ reports to see if there were any cool, old comics that I should check out – not because I cared about comics as “collectibles,” but because I figured that if a comic book was “hot” enough, it must have a good story inside. (Ah, to be young and innocent again…)

Of course, in today’s Internet Age, collecting comics is much more complicated. EBay and Amazon quickly opened up the idea that one could add to one’s collection without having to travel to dozens of comics shops and conventions to find those key missing issues for the right price. Huge, one-stop-shopping sites sprang up like Mile High and Lone Star’s MyComicShop. Most back-issue prices plummeted, thanks to the increased ease of access to them.

Meanwhile, more and more comics publishers became dedicated to collecting their back catalogs (once thought as disposable). Dark Horse Comics led the way for most of the ’80s and ’90s, keeping most of its line in print. DC Comics slowly built up its catalog, starting with perennial bestsellers like Swamp Thing, Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Sandman. Marvel, meanwhile, would haphazardly collect the occasional story arc or theme, and it wasn’t until around 11-12 years ago that it started to slowly get serious about building up a solid line of books. With most successful publishers following Dark Horse’s model, suddenly hot and rare stories became commonplace and easy to find (especially at a discount through online retailers like Amazon). Suddenly, more and more comics were bought for the quality of the story (imagine that!), and there was less incentive to buy the vast majority of mediocre titles that were now competing with the Best Of The Best Comics. The result? Much lower print runs on new comics, as people bought the older and better stories they’d always wanted to read – while at the same time, waiting longer to buy them, figuring that once a story is in book form, it would be around for a while.

Fast-forward to today, and the comics market is flooded with graphic novels, with most selling for well less than cover price! Not just because of internet piracy, but because in the Digital Age, every comic book (and, in fact, every piece of entertainment) is competing with Everything Else Ever Made. Why spend one’s limited time hunting down something, and spend one’s precious money on it, when entertainment is suddenly infinitely more accessible and cheaper (and free)?

This is all great for Cheap Bastards like me. I have a few thousand graphic novels, and I probably paid cover price for less than 10% of them. I don’t care about my comics’ collectible value; I just want to get as many good comics for as little as possible. I don’t care about the condition being “Mint” so they can be resold someday, although I do want to keep them as nice as possible so they last a long time. But then again, with that many comics, none of them are going to be re-read that often – they’re all competing with each other for my time; plus, there are always new stories to read… Could all entertainment – even when consumed by hardcore fans like me – be seen as disposable soon, simply due to the massive amount available?

Now, the only truly collectible comics are really old and historic ones (which have value despite being frequently reprinted) and recent books with low print runs – of course, most comics in general have pretty low print runs these days, so if a comic doesn’t get reprinted in a book collection it might still have some additional demand and value (like some Marvel back issues from around 1996-2003). And they’re selling to a smaller and smaller market of people who have the time and money to track them down.

On a related note: even some out-of-print book collections have added collectible value now – Good luck getting the Marvel Omnibus volumes of Frank Miller’s Daredevil at a reasonable price. (Of course, if and when these get reprinted, that value instantly vanishes.) “Trade-waiting” has stopped working, as the print runs on the book collections are now being cut to the bone as publishers try to maintain their cash flow.

Virtually none of these graphic novels and collections are in the Overstreet Guide today. In fact, the Guide is so irrelevant now that its own publisher hasn’t updated its webpage about it in five years…!

All of which brings us to DC’s New 52 titles, all of which have sold out of their reportedly generous overprints and are being reprinted as we speak. More soon…

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13 Responses to “The Overstreet Price Guide: Comic Books as Collectibles”

  1. Alpha Mandrill September 14, 2011 at 01:02 #

    i remember image or wildstorm…i forget….anyhoo, i remember dangergirl was like on number 4 and they were already printing a “collection” or 1-3 or some shit. otherwise i love the collected graphic novels…saves me time and money on the stories (yes story, as of late have taken precedence over art thanks to hansen, miller, millar and whedon) i want to read.

    the last time i sold comics was in 1992. i had a huge collection i got rid of for a merely 60 bucks.

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