Comics have, almost since their inception, had a temporal quality to them. Not only do they reflect the times in which they were created, but the very physical objects themselves were embedded with a certain transience. For generations, comics were printed on the poorest paper stock available, often using the cheapest printing techniques. They cost readers very little money to purchase and they were disposed of soon afterwards. Many people were perfectly content with that because, after all, a new installment would be out soon enough with all new stories. (In the case of comic books, this was generally monthly or bimonthly; in the case of comic strips, it was daily.)
Since comics were considered a disposable medium, it should come as no surprise that few people saved them. Those that remained interested in the individual comics after subsequent issues were published were left scrambling to find any issues they might have missed due to spotty distribution.
Issue two I found in the local barbershop. It took me three days to work up the nerve to ask the barber to sell it to me. I was willing to offer him cover-price for the slightly dilapidated copy. He gave it to me for free...
—John Byrne, The Fantastic Four Chronicles
But frequently, these quests were driven by an interest in simply reading more about the characters than an innate desire to have every issue. There were very few stories about any given comic character since they simply had not been around very long. Though it may be difficult to put into perspective here in the 21st century, when discussions about popular characters falling into the public domain by virtue of how long they’ve been around is not at all unheard of, the volume of comic book stories back then was not nearly as great. The above quote from Byrne refers to a time when there were less than a dozen issues of The Fantastic Four in existence; by acquiring that single issue, Byrne went from having half of all the FF stories ever made to having two-thirds of them. He was clearly enjoying the characters’ exploits and just wanted to see what other incredible adventures they might have.
This is a relevant point since the fans, over time, will naturally accumulate an increasing number of individual comics. The periodical nature of many comics meant than new installments were constantly being published, and readers would soon accumulate stacks of comics just by their virtue of not disposing of them. Fans would hang on to older issues for their entertainment value; a good issue of Daredevil will remain a good issue of Daredevil no matter how often you read it. This is where the distinction needs to be made between a comic fan and a comic collector.
We don’t call someone who buys lots of books a book collector—not unless they buy first editions, or other rarities. If they just buy books to read and keep them to reread, we call them an avid reader with a big library. That’s me—both with comics and with books. I buy ‘em to read them. I keep them to read them again. I have a lot of them because I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years.
—Kurt Busiek, personal communication
A collector, by contrast to an avid reader, would be someone whose interest lies more in the acquisition itself, rather than the entertainment value derived from any given comic. They are more interested in either the “thrill of the hunt” or simply using their collection as a form of capital, either cultural or economic. While the hunters and cultural capitalists have been around, in some fashion, since the dawn of comic book collecting, the economic viability of a comic book collector is comparatively recent.
While comic fans were almost always willing to pay more than the original cover price for comics they felt were rare and valuable, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s when anyone really took serious note of it. Articles began appearing The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek and the like noting that some people were willing to pay several dollars apiece for old comics that had originally cost ten cents. A 1965 piece in Newsday pointed out that “in exceptional cases, where a single book is needed to complete a collection, members have paid as much as $100.” Not surprisingly, this spurred an after-market economy, where fans and collectors would try to make money reselling comics they had bought from traditional retail outlets like newsstands.
We were speculating on stuff back then. We’d go around and grab stuff off the racks, get eight or ten. And then every once in a while, something really good came out. We’d drive up to Delowers in Oakland and they’d have a pile of, like, 200 of them. I remember we did that with House of Mystery 185 with the first Williamson.
—Dick Swan, unpublished interview with Tim Stroup
The increased attention led to more and more people using comics as a means of economic capital. Price guides were becoming common with Bob Overstreet providing the most comprehensive version. This all led to specialized comic book shops opening and, eventually, the direct market distribution system. The direct market was originally established to provide a faster and more reliable comic distribution network but it also proved to help facilitate a closed system which would allow publishers to have more control over the comics they produced. They had direct communication with the retailers and were able to utilize that to better promote new comics and storylines; they had more accurate sales data; and they didn’t end up having to pulp stacks of comics that were returned to them from newsstands.