When Superheroes Took Over Comic Books

February 17th, 2009

Jamie Coville talks about comic book collecting, and the evolution of comics from the earliest 10 cent books up through the golden and silver superhero ages and the adult-oriented comics of today. Based in Canada, Jamie can be reached via his website, TheComicBooks.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.

Action Comics #1 - 1938

I’ve been interested in comic books since I was very young. My two older brothers had Spider-Man and Fantastic Four comic books. I grew up watching cartoons and my favorite ones were always Spider-Man and Superman. In seventh grade, some friends of mine bought some comic books and were really excited about them. They showed them to me and I started getting into it. My first comic book was Avengers 276, and I was pretty much hooked from then on.

At first, I read superhero comics pretty much exclusively, and mostly Marvel until about the mid-1990s. Then I started getting into Preacher through Vertigo and Strangers in Paradise and I switched over to Image Comics, so that started my reading habit outside the superheroes.

Image Comics is an independent company. They’re still a pretty big company, but for a brief period they had a lot of creators who were doing well on their own. Jeff Smith’s Bone was one of them, and Strangers in Paradise was another one. They had been successful self-publishing before they came to Image, then they actually left and went back to self-publishing, but I still followed them.

They still make comics today. You don’t see them on the newsstands anymore, but they still make them and they’re still sold in what’s called direct-to-market comic shops. These are specific stores for comic books, and they sell other things as well. Usually there are toys and games like Magic: The Gathering and other things of that nature.

I’ve been buying comics since about 1986 and I haven’t thrown any of them out, so I have thousands. Around 2001, I started buying trade paperbacks exclusively, the thick books. You find them in comic shops and bookstores. Usually the main chain bookstores will have a section for them. Where I am, you’ll find it within the science fiction section, and I imagine it’s probably the same elsewhere as well. That’s where you get the manga, which are Japanese imported comics. People collect both the current stuff and the earlier stuff that’s still really well regarded.

Collectors Weekly: Were comics always based on superheroes?

Coville: No. The very earliest comic books were actually newspaper comic strips put into comic book format. They were the popular strips of the Depression era, stuff like Tarzan, Popeye, Blondie, and Mutt and Jeff. There’s a whole bunch of different ones out there, but then when Superman hit in 1938, that’s the one that really took off, and then from there on out superheroes became very popular in comic books.

In around the late ‘40s, early ‘50s, the superheroes started dying down, and they started doing other genres. Crime comic books became popular. Romance comic books became popular. Western and Sci-fi became popular. A whole bunch of different ones. That continued on until about the mid-1950s when Frederic Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, criticizing a lot of stuff that was in those comic books.

Publishers started saying, “Okay, what could we do now that sells?” because a lot of the books that they were doing, like the crime, the Western, and the romance, all of a sudden wasn’t popular anymore or were being restricted because they weren’t considered good for kids. So they went back to doing superheroes.

In 1956 DC published a book called Showcase Comics where in every issue they would do something new that would catch the imagination. With issue #4, they had brought back the Flash, who was a Golden-Age hero, but they did him in a completely different way and it really took off. They slowly brought in more, like Green Lantern and other characters, and then eventually Marvel did this in the 1960s.

From there on out, superheroes pretty much became the dominant genre in comic books. Of course the Mad Magazines and Archie comics have always sold well, and even the bigger publishers did different things that weren’t exactly superhero-ish, like Master of Kung Fu, which is a take on all the kung fu and the karate movies. But for the most part, superheroes have been the most popular books. That’s true for collecting as well. I would say the majority of collectors are superhero fans.

Collectors Weekly: Who are some of the most popular writers of superhero comics?

Coville: There’s a bunch. Today, one of the most popular is Brian Michael Bendis, who’s doing Avengers and a bunch of other books. Mark Millar is still popular. He did the Civil War, which became huge a few years ago. They both mainly worked for Marvel Comics. Over in DC, a writer named Geoff Johns is doing Green Lantern books, which have been doing very well, and Grant Morrison has been writing other flagship characters like All Star Superman. Those four are currently the most popular writers out there.

Two of the very earliest writers were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the people who created Superman. A lot of the early writers were cartoonists, like Will Eisner. He wrote and drew most of his stuff. Bob Kane did some stuff and then went on to create Batman. Bill Finger worked with them, too, and wrote other early material.

Collectors Weekly: Do most collectors focus on specific characters or titles?

Coville: It varies. Some people collect a character. Sometimes it might be just be titles. It could be a company they get really dedicated to and they want to collect everything that company ever published. A lot are just the time period pieces. Comic book history is split up in various ages. The Golden Age, from when Superman started in 1938 until around 1956, and the Silver Age, from 1956 until about 1970. Those are the two main areas of collecting. The books are a little more expensive, especially the more popular ones in those areas.

Some copies are rarer than others. Age is a big factor. Another is the print runs. If it was a very popular title that a whole lot of people had, you can usually find it quite easily. In other cases, it’s how they were distributed and what company it was. Some companies had national distributions, but some of them didn’t, so you don’t see those books often.

Collectors Weekly: Who did have national distribution?

Avengers #276

Avengers #276

Coville: Pretty much all of them do now, but it was different before with the newsstands. Back before comic shops sprung up, there were a number of national distributors. DC and Marvel actually owned their own distribution companies for a long time, but they stopped around the mid-‘50s.

Today it’s different. Most comic books are now sold to the newsstand. Today the primary distributor is Diamond Comics. They own almost 80 to 90 percent of the market. It’s almost a monopoly because all the big publishers are exclusive to Diamond, so any other company that starts up has to deal with a lot of small publishers. With the amount of books and amount of sales that they generate, it’s difficult to create a national company.

The comic shops started coming about in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. They were usually part of another store. There was one store in Los Angeles called the Cherokee. It’s basically a bookstore, but there’s a part in the back where they started selling old comics.

Towards the ‘70s, there started to be more dedicated comic shops because the demand was twofold. First, there was a demand for old issues. Comic books were very popular, particularly in the 1950s. By the 1970s, all the kids who had the comic books had either thrown them away or given them up. They started to get nostalgic for them, so they wanted to buy the old issues again. Then there were the new comics. By that time, the Silver Age was in full swing and you had a whole bunch of new fans.

There were underground comics that were really for adults only and were mainly sold to head shops. Dedicated comic stores would sell them as well. In the mid-‘80s, the direct comic shops started out-selling the newsstand comics, and from there on out, pretty much that’s been the way it’s been.

Collectors Weekly: Do people collect the comics that were available before the superheroes?

Coville: There are some people that do. They’re quite hard to find. They’re usually from before 1938, so there are people who like them because they’re the earliest of the books. The dollar amount for them is quite high.

Collectors Weekly: When would you say was the heyday of comic books?

Coville: Honestly, I’d say right now, although the monthly comic books aren’t selling anywhere near as much as they once were. The heyday for that was probably the late 1940s. Today we have a heyday in terms of variety and choice. Not only do we have good new comics out, but old stuff that was good is coming back out as well. The publishers are putting them together and reissuing them as cheap trade paperbacks with a whole run. They might have 12 issues all in one book. You can go to the bookstore and you don’t have to pay a whole lot of money for it.

Collectors Weekly: Are the comics very different now than in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s?

Coville: Quite different. Back then, a lot of the people reading them were kids, but today the majority of readers are adults, so you get a lot more adult material that wouldn’t slide back then. Sometimes it causes a bit of a stir, but publishers still continue to do it because that’s what the marketplace wants.

Collectors Weekly: So people also collect newer comics?

Coville: Different people collect different things. I tend to look for comics that haven’t been reprinted and that I don’t think will be reprinted. That’s probably my biggest buy. Last year I went to San Diego Comic-Con and bought Crime Does Not Pay No. 22. That’s one book that’s probably not going to be reprinted anytime soon because it was done by a company that’s now gone.

Crime Does Not Pay #22

Crime Does Not Pay #22

It was the very first crime book for adults and you saw some stuff that you just wouldn’t see in other comic books. In some cases, it even went beyond what they allowed in movies. You’d see people getting shot and killed. They advertised it as well. “Show this to Dad; He’ll love it,” was a slogan on the book for a while. It was one of the most popular crime comics out there.

There were two people involved with it, Charles Biro and Bob Wood. They had other writers come in and do the freelancing, but they were the main two editors who looked after it. The publisher of the book was Lev Gleason, and they’re the ones that took care of it all. A lot of the story was actually based on true crime cases. They would take a look at Bugsy Siegel or Murder, Inc. or other people that were famous for their real crime exploits and tell their stories in a dramatized way within the books.

Back then, when distributing comics, the companies had to get what was called a second-class mailing permit, and it costs money every time they got one. Rather than starting every issue with number one, they would simply carry it over. Crime Does Not Pay was called Silver Streak comics, so rather than have a Crime Does Not Pay start at number one, they simply decided to stop Silver Streak at 21 and start Crime Does Not Pay at number 22.

The other reason they did this is because usually back then, if the comic had a higher number, it meant that it was successful and therefore it was probably pretty good. Kids were more attracted to those comics versus something that was brand new because they didn’t know if it was good or not.

Collectors Weekly: How important is it to have the first copy of a series?

Coville: Usually it’s what everybody goes for; seeing how it all started, what it was like, and then if they’re interested, they follow the ones that came after and see how it developed. But everybody’s most interested in the origin of it. The first one is always the most valuable. I’m not interested in collecting everything in Crime Does Not Pay. I wouldn’t mind getting some more, but I really have no desire to collect every single issue.

First issues are quite hard to get. Because it’s the first one, not as many copies may have been bought unless it was something that was really popular right out of the gate. They usually have lower print runs and people keep them because they know they’re popular. People who do go for them spend a lot of money on them.

Condition is also important. A lot of collectors want their comics to be original with no restoration done and in the best condition possible. Those go for a much higher dollar, especially the older books. Even a small flaw can change the value of the book by hundreds of dollars.

Collectors Weekly: What types of people collect comics?

Coville: People who read them as kids. They’re interested in the history of comics or they just want to read them and they enjoy them. Some people do it for investment reasons. If you bought a Superman No. 1, or actually Comics No. 1, for a dime back in 1938 and it’s in topnotch condition, it’s worth more than a million dollars now.

I’m not sure if comic collecting is very global, but I do know that in Japan they have a very robust comic industry, even more robust than we have here, so I do imagine there’s some collecting going on there.

“Two of the earliest writers were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. They created Superman.”

I suppose you might say newsstand comics started in America, but in terms of the idea of doing a story with pictures and words, as far as we know that started in Europe. Some people would even go back to cave paintings. That could be an early form of comic art. But in terms of newsstand comics, it’s pretty much an American thing.

During the Great Depression, they did small giveaway comics as a way of trying to get people into picking one store or another. Probably the more famous one was a Gulf comic for Gulf gas stations. If you went to their gas station, you’d get a four-page comic book for the kids to read.

Eventually, one of the people involved in that, a fellow named Max Gaines, also known as Charlie Gaines, thought that maybe if they did a better comic book, a thicker one, and put a 10-cent price tag on it, they could sell them at the newsstands. He actually did an experiment where he took a giveaway comic, put some 10-cent price tags on it, and gave them to some nearby newsstands to see how they would sell.

When he came back a few days later, he discovered they had all sold and the newsstand retailers were asking for more. So they started to make money using comic strips at first, and then Superman came out. It was original and it took off.

Collectors Weekly: How do movies affect the comic book world and collecting?

Coville: Usually when they announce the movies coming out, the prices on those comics tend to go up. A whole bunch of people suddenly get interested in them. A lot of non-comic collectors become interested and buy the books. All of a sudden you’ll see Spider-Man comics go up, but as the movie goes away, usually the prices drop a bit.

Famous Funnies Series 1, #1 - 1934

Famous Funnies Series 1, #1 – 1934

Iron Man was very popular for a while, and maybe he still is, but will he still be popular a year from now? I’m pretty sure they’re going to do a sequel to the movie, so that might continue on. I suspect the Blade comic books were popular for a while because they did the Wesley Snipes movies back in the late ‘90s, early 2000s, but now it’s not as popular as it was.

Most of the superhero movies out there are based on comic books, although the really big one last year, Hancock, wasn’t based on any actual comic book. That was just something they made for the movies, and they do that from time to time. Sometimes they do well and sometimes they don’t.

The movies don’t always drag people into the comic book stores to buy the books. Quite often the sales of trade paperbacks will do a small blip. Watchmen is one story that had 12 issues. There’s been a whole bunch of advertising for the new movie, so now that book has done a huge blip. It’s actually sold quite a bit. That’s what happened with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen as well. It all depends on the type of material.

Some movies that came from comic books aren’t what you’d consider typical. They’re not superhero movies. Robert Downey Jr. was in a movie called Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, which was actually a comic book first. Ghost World was a comic book that became a movie. Road to Perdition was another big one as well.

Collectors Weekly: So where do you go to find comics? Are there shows?

Coville: There are shows and conventions. I go to a bunch in Toronto every year. Last year I went to San Diego, which is the biggest comic book show. About a hundred thousand people or more all go to San Diego and you can find a whole variety of comic books – old ones, new ones, and everything in between. But like I said, there are also the direct-to-market comic bookstores. Usually they have a back-issue bin where you can find the older books, and a lot of old comic books are on eBay and other auction sites.

Collectors Weekly: Are there any major comic clubs for collectors?

Coville: There used to be comic clubs, but not anymore. Everything is pretty much on the Internet. I’ve got some friends here who are comic collectors and we all get together and talk every once in a while, but it’s nothing all that formal.

I do think that the hobby is growing, however. Monthly comics go up and down over the years, so I’m not too sure how much that’s going to grow, but the trade paperback market has been growing in leaps and bounds for the last 10 years, and there’s also what’s called Web comics now, where people make comics specifically for the Internet. Usually they’re strip format, but sometimes they’re not. There are a number of comic cartoonists who are making a living that way.

Collectors Weekly: Do they keep creating new characters?

Coville: Yes. You don’t see many new characters from the established companies like Marvel and DC, the main reason being that if you create something for them, they own it. You might own a share of it, but usually not everything. If people want to create a new character, they end up going to a different company where they get more rights.

I mentioned Mark Millar as one of the more popular writers. He wrote a movie called Wanted that came out last summer. He didn’t publish it through a DC comic book like he did with Superman. He did it with a different publisher that allowed him to own the rights of the character, so when they made the movie, he got the money rather than the publisher. I’m sure the publisher got a stake of it too, but he was more involved in it and he had more of a say in the direction.

Image Comics was actually created by a group of people who wanted to create new characters and own all the rights. They combined their resources and created a company specifically for that reason. They all own their characters. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn is probably the most popular of the bunch.

Collectors Weekly: Anything we haven’t asked you that you’d like to mention?

Coville: There’s a company called CGC, the Certified Guaranty Company. This is something that’s relatively new in collecting. Basically, you mail them your comic book and they grade it. They look through it and examine it for any restoration and stuff like that. It’s not easy to see, but it is something that there is a problem with within the industry; you do get some dealers who try to restore a comic and in a way that’s not obvious.

They put the book into a plastic case with the grade and seal it. It’s becoming very popular, especially for the older and hard-to-find books. People are willing to pay a premium price in order to get a book that’s been CGC’d because they trust the grade of it. You see those on eBay all the time.

Collectors Weekly: So there are a lot of comic book restorations?

Coville: Yes, unfortunately. It all depends on the dealers you deal with. I’m not sure if it’s still being done now. A lot of the older books do tend to fall apart eventually, especially if they’ve been read over a bunch of times, and that can cause the value of the book to drop by hundreds if not thousands of dollars in some cases, so they do a little bit of restoration hoping the buyer won’t know and will pay the full price for it. Depending on how the restoration is done, the book will fall apart again after a year or two.

(All images in this article courtesy Jamie Coville of TheComicBooks.com)

6 comments so far

  1. pullen Says:

    wondering the worth of a 1934 batman comic book,the first edition.Also have artical of the time and drawingings of the origanal batman..

  2. Kim Says:

    Hey Jamie, I am hoping you could possibly help me out a little. I have aquired a Superman comic book at a yard sale last week. It is copyright 1939,in great condition,and based on my research it appears to be the first copy of DC comics {The Complete Story Of The Daring Exploits Of The One And Only Superman}. I would like to sell but I am unsure as to how, what,when,were and so on. Your words of ADVICE or a push in the right direction would be super.
    Seriously, Kim

  3. YODAKNOWS Says:

    Just for everyone’s general information, among the comic book community it is generally accepted the first comic book only store in the UNITED STATES was started in San Francisco, CA in April 1968. Gary Arlington, opened the San Francisco Comic Book Company on 22nd and Mission. He still operated the store until April, 2007 when illness finally got the best of him and he closed the store.
    Garys’ store was a massive 200 square feet, it wasn’t the square footage that was massive it was the cubic feet, floor to ceiling about twenty feet. The stacks of comics were a minimum of 15 feet high and he used NO BOXES! You had one small isle way to get to the back of the store, with mountains of comics on both sides, walking down the valley of comics with the wonderful smell of comics… If you asked for a back issue, it would be buried beneath one of the huge stacks and he would point with a quivering finger and say it’s somewhere over there. You’d look at the pile of comics and think “Do I or Don’t I?” He would since the issue at hand and he would say; “Come back in week and I’ll get it for you.”
    Find me a real comic book store and I’ll go there…Just to reminisce about the old days…
    Those of us that have been there know those were the days…

  4. Scott Webster Says:

    I like this site. Does anyone buy 12 Cent comics I have about 40 of them?



  6. jo williams Says:

    I have a friend that was going thru some old pictures and she found a micky maus comic book written in german,she was able to find a date, there were two..dated 1931-1935..don’t know much about it,having trouble finding anything about it,probably because i don’t know what im doing.would appricate any help that anyone can give me…thanks

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