You hear me talk a lot about comic book industry gimmicks around here and why not? I’ve been collecting on and off for more than 20 years, including witnessing first-hand how speculators attempting to make fast money through comics nearly killed the industry in the 1990s. These gimmicks, for better or worse, play a role in shaping my collecting philosophy. So you have to forgive when I groan after reading that Marvel is reprinting a recent run of issues of Amazing Spider-Man issues. Because when I see this:
All my brain can think of is this:
The former are second printings of Amazing Spider-Man #’s 656-659 that look to be interlocking variant covers (I say looking as a hedge, because I haven’t exactly seen the phrase “interlocking covers” in any Marvel news release yet). The latter are the interlocking covers of X-Men #1 (volume 2), which was expected to sell more than 8 million copies worldwide at the peak of the comic book boom in the 1990s.
Here’s the thing about those X-Men covers – those interlocking variant covers are what made the issue such a hot commodity … and they are also exhibit A (along with the Death of Superman Issue) of one of the gimmicks deployed by the comic book industry that almost killed it. While Jim Lee’s artwork on those X-Men covers is iconic, dealers ordered so many copies because they were convinced that they would make a killing selling them to all those would-be collectors out there wanting a piece of history. But with 8 million copies floating around, those issues are now barely worth the cost of the paper they were printed on.
Don’t believe me? Take it from Phil Hall, the former news editor for Comics International, who recently reminisced about the X-Men interlocking cover craze for Bleeding Cool:
The week #1a came into the shop it was like a feeding frenzy at the zoo. I had over 10 boxes full of just one comic, when my standard weekly delivery normally consisted of 2 or 3 boxes with everything in. I had people three deep at the counter buying five copies of this first issue. We sold 75% of them in the first week. #1b arrived a week later and you could see the tumbleweed sweeping across the shop floor. #1c and #1d were even worse and #1e was an unmitigated flop. I had a cellar full of X-Men #1s. I knew of fellow shop owners that had even more. Despite this being the most popular comic of all time it probably only sold about 3 million in total. More than half the orders sat rotting in retailers’ backrooms or store cupboards. I heard tales of the comic being used to light fires, even as toilet paper! Who would you blame? Who was responsible for this humongous waste of paper? Well, it was obvious. We were.
Now, I don’t think that Marvel is expecting to sell millions of copies of ASM 656-659; the days of projected sales numbers like that are long gone for the industry. But what’s really going on here? At first blush, Marvel wants to give their due to ASM writer Dan Slott, who’s done an admirable job since taking over as the sole writer on the series last year. But the first editions of these issues JUST came out a few months ago. These second printings with brand new covers may be celebrating Slott, but they’re also a gimmick designed to get obsessive collectors into stores to buy more comics. And if dealers want to be shrewd about it, unlike the X-Men fiasco, they’ll keep the supply of these issues scarce, pumping up the value a bit more.
I understand that Spider-Man is not the first title to use the interlocking cover gimmick since X-Men and they won’t be the last. I probably just need to lighten up. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is the stuff as a collector that drives me nuts. Suddenly, the plain old first printings I have of these books may not be “good enough” in the eyes of other collectors anymore, because what I currently own will probably be perceived as more common and ordinary.
Oh well … This is a major reason why when other collectors and enthusiasts ask me exactly how much of completest I plan on being with my chase (only Amazing Spider-Man? How about annuals? Other titles? All appearances? All covers?) I tell them for fiscal and mental sanity sake, I’m looking to keep it simple. And there’s nothing simple about second printings with interlocking covers.