I knew I was in trouble as soon as I walked in the door. He was an older guy, somewhere in his 50s. Tall, with a loose flannel shirt and baseball cap. Rangy, lived in with the feel of a cowboy or truck driver about him, more comfortable outside a house than in. Tired eyes. I liked him the moment I saw him. He let me in.
I got the call a couple days before. I was running a collectibles business out of my house, buying old comics, toys and whatever else I thought I could sell online for a little money. He said he had a bunch of 60s Marvel comics, runs of Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Avengers and Captain America; basically all the Jack Kirby comics he could get a hold of and some Steve Ditko Spider-Man thrown in. He was a fan, following Jack from Marvel to the competitor DC Comics in the early 70s. At DC Jack founded the Fourth World featuring the New Gods; characters and ideas they exploit to this day. He had all those comics as well, adding them to the Marvel stash. This promised to be a collection that would shatter my modest buy budget. I couldn’t wait to dig though them and see what he had.
Some red flags went up: he said he’d kept the books in his garage for years, before building a storage space. This made me a bit nervous, but I figured he had them in closed boxes, and the usual bags, so they should be fine. He also said he looked them up in Wizard (a price guide well-known for over valuing, beloved by sellers but not by buyers) , so he knew the value. That’s fine, but most people have no idea what condition plays in pricing or how to judge it. Ever go to look at a car listed as in “great shape” and find a rust bucket? There’s the problem.
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon that his wife and daughter were away. He lived in one of those twisty/windy housing developments of the late 60s-early 70s, right before they abandoned brick and went to split level wood. The path was just as twisty. A mountain of a truck was in the driveway, with stairs to help the climb to the cab. The gardens were fussed over and the place clean. Wood chip and flower row friendly. I knocked.
When looking at a collection, I ask a few questions to gage the air: how long have you collected, where did you get the collection, why are you selling? These can be tricky questions that will tell me a world of stories. They tell me if they know what they have, (so much easier to deal with people who know something) how much time and emotion they have in the collection and the big one: why are they selling? The reason for selling tells me what they expect to get out of those piles of funny books, or vintage GI Joe's, or stack of Hardy Boys books.
This collection was one he put together in the late 60s and early 70s. He found Kirby at Marvel and was blown away by the scope of Jack’s work and imagination. He hunted down the ones he's missed though local shops and mail order (early Marvel comics were easy to find and cheap then) and bought all the DC comics off the racks, making friends with the comic shop owner who would set aside the Marvels he needed. He loved Jack Kirby, he marveled (pun) at the universe Jack had created with just a pencil and his mind, and never missed an issue. Even when he stopped buying comics (right about the time Jack stopped making many of them) he kept them safe. In his garage.
“Why are you getting rid of them now?” The Big Question, the one where expectations are shown and I figure out what the seller is thinking.
“Oh, I got a daughter who’ll be going to school soon and I need some new tires on the truck.”
Ah, I was in trouble. He had the expectations of Pip; great and powerful. There was no way I was getting this collection, but I’d look anyway. If nice stuff, I might buy some and recommend where deeper pockets may lie.
As a buyer of collections, I hear a lot of stories, and the end of a lot of dreams. Selling a collection is usually the end of something; a love of the objects themselves, a marriage, a job, or a need to clear the head and the room. They have become excess, they have become a source of needed cash, they have become an argument, they have become pain. I’ve heard tragic stores, angry stories, resigned stories. loss of loved ones, loss of love, loss of interest. Sometimes the money will be used for a new venture; sometimes it will be used for school, sometimes to keep a house or apartment. Sometimes the money doesn’t matter as much as the absence of the boxes.
This man loved his books; they were a better time for him. After about ten years out in that garage, he built a special closet for his comics. I could see it his eyes, the excitement of then and the sadness of now. He brought me into the family room (which looked like a daughter/mother decorating job with rounded padded floral chairs, and a rain of doilies. He was expected to nod at the decor and keep his feet off it) and went to his special closet. I wasn’t allowed in there, I was the dirty moneylender not fit for the temple. That was fine, it was his room, not mine. He started bringing out several cardboard boxes stuffed with comics. “Now, this one’s the Avenger’s, 1-100. That’s when I stopped. I’ll get the Fantastic Four.” He was gone, but was back with two more boxes. Finally, I had about six big boxes total, all crammed with some of most sought after comics of the 1960s.
“You can’t see the Spider-Man’s, I’m keeping those.”
I could see a problem right off: these were some of the most expensive comics I had ever seen but were near worthless. I got on my knees and started with the Avengers box. Avengers #1 was there all right. The thing is, the comics sat, completely unprotected, in that garage in boxes not made for comics but motor oil. There were shallow cardboard that went halfway up the books and stopped. Comics four abreast, crammed in every which way. Each comic was bent in half, thick with oily soot and dirt. The Avengers, the Fantastic Four 11-to-100 (he was keeping the first ten) Captain America; all filthy, all smelling of oil and exhaust. They wouldn’t even lay flat on the floor, but rolled up like an ant under a little boy’s magnifying glass. Thumbing through them made my hands black and filled the room with the smell of a gas station in summer. Here was the ghost of who knows how many Ford trucks and Chevy cars, all over some of the rarest books I have seen in my recent buying.
I looked through the boxes while he told me more about them. He bought most of them at various stores until he found Golden Age Collectibles in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. He re-bought his Kirby DC comics there (he'd lost the original issues in a move), and they put them in the fancy bag and boards, and he later got better boxes for them. For some reason he never bothered to get protection for his old Marvels. I didn't ask why. The DC comics were there, all in nice shape because of the protection but they weren’t nearly as valuable as the garage-ruins.
I put aside the books I was interested in: all the Kirby Marvels and DCs, and gave him my offer. $500 for them all.
I know, it sounds like I’m a chiseler taking advantage of a guy or trying to. The problem was the comic market; the whole collectibles universe was about condition. Condition, condition, condition. The lower the condition the lower the demand. The lower the demand, the lower the price, the lower the price, the lower the money you can afford to pay and still make a profit. While these books still had value, even in this state, they would not be an easy sell. I told him this, and told him I would even leave out the DC’s, the ones that were clean and unbowed and even up the offer a bit, but the condition rendered all these books in ‘Poor’, the lowest. They would be a hard, hard sell to most collectors and would have to go to people as ‘reading copies’. People who buy just to read (like me) aren’t as picky about condition. These books would push even that.
He looked at me like I’d slugged him, like I told him his child had been switched at the hospital, like I just spit on his memories. He turned down my offer. That was fair. I explained the problems and what he might be able to do. I told him to get bags for the rest of the books, with boards to keep them straight and boxes made for comics. This would help, but not repair most of the damage. I'm not sure he heard me, he just looked stunned, and then a little angry. Time to go. I gave him cards from my competitors who might offer more money (and a sharper lecture about condition issues) and found my way out. I climbed into the passenger side of the car.
My wife looked at me. “Did he have anything good?”
“He did… and he didn’t.”
“You smell like an exhaust pipe.”
I looked down. My hands were literally black with dirt and oil. I hadn’t asked to wash them and he hadn’t offered.
“What’s all over your hands?”
“The end of the dream.”
I asked my competitors if they got a call from the seller. They did not. I looked to see if the comics had come on the market, but I never saw them.