Collecting! What does it mean to be a Collector these days?

Is collecting easier now? Or harder? Do sites like eBay and the like inflate the prices? What about scalpers? What does it all mean?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines the term “collect” as [verb]: to get and keep things of one type such as stamps or coins as a hobby:

  • She collects dolls.
  • So when did you start collecting antique glass?

I asked my dad about collecting comics in the UK back in the 1960s. The whole process was so hit and miss back then, the timeframes seem unimaginable. American comics started to appear in British corner shops and greengrocers in the years following World War 2, completely randomly – you never knew what was going to appear, when, or if any of the other comics advertised on the inner pages were ever going to see the light of day. The first comic dad remembered buying was Justice League of America issue 10 (featuring the story: “The Fantastic Fingers Of Felix Faust”), dated March 1962. It featured an amazing cover illustration, yet no character introductions – any new reader would not know who half the cast were. Adding to barriers, the author of this issue was Gardner Fox; a very knowledgeable writer, but thus was prone to wordy stories. For a seven-year-old reader, this script was hard to grasp, and this issue was also just the first half of a two-issue story! Dad could not find a copy of JLA issue 11 anywhere. Even friends who collected hundreds of comics at the time had not got one. Dad continued to search for JLA 11.

The hunt for this elusive issue, plus the mystery of the unknown characters and the fascinating, unfamiliar dialogue ignited dad’s interests in all things American comic-booky forever. We can imagine the reader’s delight when JLA 11 was reprinted in JLA issue 85… in 1970! Dad waited eight entire years to read the second part of this adventure. This sort of thing would never happen now. So what does “collecting” mean to fans today?

A comic book stand of not-so-old (Photo by Lena Rose)

Collecting adds to our shelves and depletes our bank accounts, collecting in many ways easier than ever before! Before the 1970s (where comics were purchased from small shops and newsagents), collecting comics was possible via comic shops in large cities, at small events (“comic marts”) and through mutual collectors or mail order. A few select newsagents continued to host individual comic issues on their shelves into the 1990s (WH Smiths in Birmingham did this into the late 90s) and Virgin Megastores once even had a specific comic book import area in their Megastores.

There are also often cyclical booms in comic book popularity. The 70s gave us western audiences Marvel TV dramas and cartoons; the late 80s and early 90s brought us the dark and gritty comic book titles and specific labels such as Vertigo and early translations of manga; the 2000s brought us the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), streaming, digital comics and so on.

Comfort merch (Photo by Boris Bučko)

There were ‘droughts’ of collectibles in between those 20th-century booms, as only very popular IPs had merchandise made for them; now, the internet has made access to any era of pop culture media constant and consistent. Collecting comics (and all the titles’ related merchandise) is in some ways easier thanks to comic shops having online sites (see Forbidden Planet and FP International/Worlds Apart, plus the UK hosts huge events such as MCM Comic Con/Memorabilia and Collectormania.

For comics, an issue one, or the appearance of a core character in a particular issue, will now always go for a lot of money. The option of comic book slabbing is available to help preserve originals. There has always been furious debate in fandom as to whether slabbing is worth it – “comics should be read!” – but this is purely down to the decision of the owner. After all, there are hundreds of reprints available to enjoy, in compilations or digitally, to consume the story. These comic book issues have elevated into artefacts – something else entirely from their intended function, and the works are still available in different forms to enjoy and to be read today. Slabbing does help a collector find issues more easily, as issues will be graded and logged via various online sites and at auction, but this comes at a big price due to the value of the items; slabbing has turned collecting comics into antiques. More people are selling more collectible items as more are being produced, but again this is cyclical, as some sellers do not continue due to financial circumstances (Covid-19 has sadly wiped out a lot of independent traders throughout 2020), and popularity of shows will always ebb and flow.

Bidding websites such as eBay, can send collectors daily updates for collectibles we search for, that we never heard about at the time of getting interested in our favourite shows in days gone by. The downside of collecting online through auction sites can be the user has to work against Bidding Bots. Though using a sniping app goes against the terms and conditions, the use of such has been rife for well over a decade. Wired reported that the use of sniping was killing online auctions back in 2011. Regardless, the relentless eBay userbase-juggernaut shows no sign of stopping, despite continued use of bot-sniping by a fringe number of users. The percentages taken by the site as well as rival sales sites, including Facebook selling functionality, is more likely to reduce the need. eBay is often used by many as a cheap shop for everyday items, more like Amazon or AliExpress, than an auction site alone – it has developed somewhat since those days as a dot com-era success story. Sites like eBay have not specifically increased prices of collectibles, but inflated accessibility to bid and therefore enabled more people to take a look instead of having to purchase Comic Book Price Guides from the US, and hope one day someone turns up with a copy at a comic event.

Ebay in our pocket! (Photo by Kon Karampelas)

Scalpers in collecting have always existed and the internet makes this so much more frequent, and none more so than in music circles. Though concerts are more of an experience than a collection, mega-fans will attend and collect any and all merch and attend as many shows as they can. Before a gig, attendees can sell off unwanted tickets for a few quid and the resellers can sell on for a potentially huge sum. It’s cheeky, but you can always get the equivalent of a free pint if your mate couldn’t attend so the ticket would go to waste; and a die-hard fan could always get to see their favourite band (at a price!) if they were not able to get a ticket before. These resellers are commonly known as Scalpers, but today, Scalper-bots pose more of a threat to music fan accessibility.

Pre-internet, tickets were purchased in person and upfront, at vendor kiosks dotted around music shops in any city – now, bots flood the market by buying upfront as quickly as possible. Going to visit every gig and collecting every ticket from a tour is now a prohibitively expensive experience for a fan, even if music is cheaper thanks to the legalisation of streaming and the plethora of merch now available for each and every artist. Bootleggers selling unlicensed posters and clothing appear outside gig halls at the end of every event, and it is always interesting to see what merch (and what varying quality!) is on offer, for either die-hard fans (“I must collect the set!”), or give accessibility for collectors on a budget… even though the goods are pirated.

Collecting is one action to help feel comfort and be at ease. Some collectors feel calmer when surrounded by their possessions. It is the ‘otaku’ way, and this behaviour is even referenced in a web episode of “Insufficient Direction” by manga queen Moyoco Anno, featuring herself and her husband, director Hideaki Anno. But some people can feel trapped within these busy, visual confines. Collecting can manifest itself in difficult ways for collectors and their families – shows such as Hoarders show how anxiety creates fire hazards and disease centres if collecting mutates into obsessively compulsive ways of living.

This is bleak, but it’s important for us to know there is a big difference between collecting and hoarding. At worst, collecting can possibly lead into Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) anxiety if not handled correctly. Collecting can definitely be a healthy way to show support and to feel included in a community, to support creativity and artists as well as independent ideas. It is no different from supporting a football team or preferring brands of clothing. It can also alleviate mental health issues by reinforcing good feelings. We must look out for ourselves and each other, and also as fans we should be aware of the downsides of collecting – not to the detriment of our mental, physical and especially financial health.

Reading is fun, but not when it becomes a death trap! (Photo by Eli Francis)

The need to collect is also compulsive for some; when items are being produced that are big bucks, financial circumstances can be strained. There is a difference between collecting one expensive figure and churning out hundreds of items costing double and triple sums to make up a set. The cost of each action figure or vinyl toy to make up a set is extremely different compared to the cost of a baseball card or sticker set of days gone by, yet the goal is the same. Could producing vast quantities of expensive items for a series in collectible format be considered a predatory practice?

Some devout ‘fans’ whine that some fandoms have been ‘homogenised by norms’. Panini albums and trading cards about cartoons and comic book heroes were a core 80s staple in Europe for definite, however easy access to collectible stickers today seem to be only for football fans or gamers now, not cartoon series. But in reality, things have just come full circle – Panini and Fifa have been working together since 1970. In 2017, a 1970 World Cup Panini sticker album signed by Pelé sold for a record £10,450! Half-completed 80s sticker albums can be purchased online for a few quid, however finding unopened packets of random stickers is possibly a more expensive undertaking than finding an album. (Also, a shout out is deserved to the film “Blast from the Past” for depicting vintage baseball card collecting and valuation in a very funny way.)

The internet of old (Photo by Mick Haupt)

Marvel have always had their head in the game outside of comics – there were many TV shows based on Marvel superheroes in the 70s and 80s, including a Tokusatsu Spider-Man. Then there was a drought of Marvel media in the 90s (other than X-Men). Now, the income generated from Marvel Studio films means they work as 2 hour-long adverts for comic books and merch; Marvel Studios cinema ticket sales beat comic book income for Marvel Comics by a huge amount, so we cannot assume collectibles helped build a bigger Marvel mainly as a comic book brand – but without the existence of these decade-spanning stories, there would be no MCU. There are also some cinemagoers who don’t even realise comic books are still being made because American comic books are unavailable in high street shops or newsagents, like they were before. Cinemas and then high street clothes shops will be the first port of call for many new collectors of Marvel merch, not comic shops. So instead of collecting Marvel comics, many collectors are buying Marvel DVD box sets or Blu-Rays; streaming subscriptions also mean media will always be available so are some fans not even bothering to collect anything as it’ll always be accessible? As films are an ongoing entertainment franchise, is the MCU now a 21st-century version of what the Marvel Comic format was in the 20th century – watch once and move on, instead of reading once and moving on, which is how comics were actually originally consumed?

What does it mean to be a collector these days? A random and never-ending quest for fun stuff, at it’s best a hobby that can introduce individuals to entire new groups of fans and new friends. It is a way for friends and also families to connect using special interests to communicate, and collecting stuff can make the collector feel at ease, by having some control over their life if other aspects are not quite going as expected. There is an easy accessibility to new ways of thinking and being they may relate to if unavailable in real life. Collectors can also be resellers, but mainly, it’s fair to assume loads of people collect purely for the joy of doing so, as there are more collectors than sellers.

As long as what we collect is not harming anyone, or harming ourselves, we can collect whatever we choose, whether it be designer shoes or retro games. As for comics, dad’s advice to us all is to read everything, but collect what you like, not what others like. If it floats your boat, sail in it, and leave others’ opinions on the shore.

And, what is the future for collecting? 3D printing is on the rise, but the tech is currently not at any level to match officially produced goods. Downloads are now legally possible and broadband is powerful enough to allow us to screen 4K cinema in our living room. Cease and desist orders are rampant across the internet, but fans will always want to show their love in some form, especially if well-designed goods are not officially available. Only time will tell, and everything will circle out and back round again for collectors, just like Justice League of America issue 11.

Laura Watton (PinkAppleJam)

Laura is better known as PinkAppleJam, Laura is one of the hosts of Hardcore Genki Hour! Listen to the show on Bunkazilla.

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