Comics’ Hottest Game is…Back Issues?

This trend has everything: speculators, cross-era interest, nostalgia, 90s hits being reinvigorated, big money headed everywhere…

I received a text a few months ago from a number I didn’t recognize, and it turned out to be a friend from college I hadn’t spoken to in several years. While he led with pleasantries, it was clear the most important part of the text was a question towards the end of it: “Are you still into comics?”

Naturally, I said yes, which led to further questions. This pal was looking at a local auction that had “a few intriguing (comic) items,” and he wanted a comic fan’s perspective on them. While there were others he asked about, the one that stood out was whether or not a high-quality copy of Incredible Hulk #181 seemed “like a no brained buy?” That comic, the first appearance of Wolverine, has been my holy grail comic since I was a kid. So after I resisted the urge to respond with “How dare you consider buying this for any reason beyond gifting it to me?” I said “yes” and moved onto other queries he had. Things like, “can damage get pressed out?,” “how is the experience of grading comics?” and other, assorted collector-centric questions.

Now, here’s some background on this person for all of you. He was never interested in comics before, but he did enjoy gambling and fantasy sports. He was often looking for an edge out there in the world, trying to find ways to turn a little into a lot whenever he could. He’s a great guy, but also about as far from being a comics nerd as you could possibly imagine. So him asking all of these questions about specific comics and grading made me ask a question of my own, at least to myself.

“What is going on here?”

A blessed copy of Incredible Hulk #181, graded 9.8 for your pleasure

That engagement acted as a canary in the coal mine for me. If my friend – someone with no comics knowledge or interest at all – was looking into the back issue market, what could possibly be going on in that world? You see, I thought back issues were effectively a relic, a representation of the comics world of yesteryear. Sure, some shops did well with them, and yeah, sometimes there were massive auctions for the high quality copies of the most notable comics from history, 1 but a bustling, thriving marketplace? No way.

I said that because it was a side of comics fandom I didn’t even consider to be a thing beyond efforts by long box divers like yours truly and those with fat wallets and specific character passions. It was so far outside my worldview and my typical conversations about the industry that I never gave it a second thought. It had to be a sideshow, at best, right?

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In reality, the back issue world is booming, as it’s currently thriving in a way I couldn’t have even imagined, and it’s happening everywhere and across all eras. In comic shops and auction houses, online and offline, Bronze Age to Modern Age, you name it. This section of the world that I envisioned as the dreary remnants of a forgotten past is actually a vibrant landscape that has been building for the past decade. But since the pandemic hit? It’s become bigger than ever, reaching heights even those in the game are astonished by.

Back issues may be the hottest game in comics, despite very few people even seemingly being aware. That makes it a bit of a mystery, a sleeping giant that’s been awake for years with little conversation surrounding it. And what do we do with mysteries? We try and find the story behind them. That’s just what we’ll do today. It’s time to dig into that world, examining what the back issue market is really like, what’s driving it, and when – or if – its end is nigh.

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  1. i.e. Detective Comics #27, Action Comics #1, Amazing Fantasy #15, etc.