As comic book collectors, back issues are a big deal. Sometimes we're just missing an issue or two from our favorite series, or we want to check out an old series that has yet to come out in trade. Most likely, every single one of us has bought something from the back issue section of a comic book store at least once. If you love comics, you love back issues. However, not all comic book stores are the same.
Not all retailers are slime-balls. There are a plethora of great stores around the world that want to give the shopper the best bang for their buck, but like any business, there will be some shady dealers out there trying to pull a fast one on unsuspecting comic lovers. However, occasionally, you may bump into that one store that doesn't have the love for comics the same way the shopper does, so they may either be oblivious to their products or they don't care about the customer. You've heard the term "buyer beware" before, and it's true. Ultimately, it has to be you with more knowledge than the retailer on whether or not the purchase you're about to make is a wise one. There are quite a few things you need to look out for, as a consumer, in order to make that judgment. We've narrowed this list down to 5 things to look out for: a guide to collecting back issues.
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Retailer won't let you take the comic out of the bagYou need to see the comic in order to buy it. Obviously, don't walk into the store and just start opening back issues left and right, employees hate that. If you find an issue or two you are interested in buying, go up to the counter and ask the employee if either they can open the issue for you, or if you can open in yourself. You need to know what's inside the book, and the condition said book is in. If, for some odd reason, the retailer won't let you look through the issue, then why are you doing business with them? You need to know what you're buying, and think about it: 95% of those books were owned by someone before you. Do you trust them? Do you trust that they kept their comics in good condition? If the retailer won't let you know, then you shouldn't shop there. It doesn't matter if you open the book and look through it, or the employee does it in front of you. You have a right to know what you're buying.
Damage to the comicOnce you have that bag open, you should go through the pages and check for a few things: tears, stains/water damage, sun damage, and missing pages. If you're collecting with the intent of resale in the future, these will be the most important to you. Finding an older book, Silver and Golden ages to be more specific, that is in pristine condition is like finding a needle in a haystack. You are going to find a decent amount of sun damage and yellowing of the pages because that's just what happens with comic books. There's no way around it. Be prepared and know that the older the comic is the more natural damage you're going to find. Aside from that, if you're a casual reader, then just make sure that all the pages are there and you can read them clearly because that's all you really want, the story.
Writing/Stamp somewhere on or in the issueYou will find this every so often when hitting up the back issues, and 90% of the time it's an older retailer's fault. Check these 5 places: Cover, inside cover, page one, inside back, and the back of the comic. For some weird reason, some retailers, during the 80s and 90s, would stamp or sticker their comics or back issues with the name and address of their store. This is the most annoying thing you will ever find on a comic. The comic's condition is lessened because some idiot thought it would bring more people into their store. If you find one of these stamps or stickers, and that store still exists, boycott them. Exception: Free Comic Book Day comics, since many comic publishers make a space for stores to do that. But if you look around though the back issues, you'll be able to find a few. Also look to see if a kid wrote their name on the book. You'll find this a lot actually. And lastly, this is another retailer fault, look at the price, especially if it is a silver or bronze age book. Many retailers, during that golden 80s period, would cross out the price of the comic, so the customer wouldn't get confused.
Price/Condition checkingChecking out to see the damage on the book is quite important, especially if you're a casual reader or hardcore collector. There's one major thing you need to do before buying that book: Make sure that if there is damage, it's minor and that the price the retailer is asking also reflects the amount of damage on the book. Don't pay $10 for a beat up copy of Fantastic Four 292, put it back and search somewhere else. In fact, if you're paying more than $4 for that issue, ask how the retailer prices their comics because that is outrageous. You may not be a comic grader by any means, but you can tell when a comic is in decent condition. Check prices out on ebay, if you can, or check Amazon's prices. Compare prices before you buy. If you see Fantastic Four 292 going for $2.50 online, expect to pay between $2-$5 for the issue. Remember, just because it's cheaper online doesn't mean it will be as cheap at the store. They have to make profit too. And with shipping, that $2.50 comic online (which you have no clue what the condition is), will come out to $6 in a mystery condition. You need a base price for the comic online, and compare that to the comic in the store, and in addition, know what condition the comic is in the store and compare that to the price.
Print numberYou need to know what print number you're buying before you buy it. Now-a-days, it's easy to figure out. For both Marvel and DC, either go to the very first or very last page and look at the bottom. There will be some fine print down there that will tell you if it is a reprint. If you see no mention of printing, then chances are you have a first print. With older books, you may have to search a little more, but just look for an area with fine print on the bottom, and your answer will be there. There are sleazy dealers out there that will try and pass off a reprint as a first printing. At a local comic show, I saw two horribly despicable things: A 4th printing of The Killing Joke being played off as a 1st printing and sold at that price. I also saw a reprint of a Origin of Captain America book being sold as the real deal. You could easily tell without touching it that it was a fake because the cover was bright and vibrant with color. This was also the same guy selling the Killing Joke book for a killing. Call these guys out. A reputable store will know the difference between the prints and adjust the price accordingly.
Most importantly, if you're going to do this, do it right. Don't forget the short or long boxes and bags and boards.Whether you're into the good old plastic sleeves and cardboard backing, or the Mylar cases, take care of your books. They might not be worth the paper they're printed on in 30 years, but you may want to read them again or pass them on to your kids. Take care of your comics and take care of your money. Know what you're buying.
~Mat "InferiorEgo" Elfring is a comedian, teacher, comic book writer, and comic store employee whose store takes care of its back issues and its customers.~