Read Between the Lines: How The Comic Bag Destroyed Comics


The Spinner Rack

Since the days of the gold rush, dreamers have run to find their fortune. And just as the first miners sold their played-out stakes to the wave of suckers, those who were there in the early days of comic speculating sold high to late-comers.

You can draw a direct line from the first time there was a headline about the auction of high-value comic (likely Action Comics #1 in the 1970s) and the end of comics on the newsstands.


For every important and valuable comic, there are thousands that belong in 4 for a $1 bins. These dreams of the million-dollar comic led to line-ups around the block for The Death of Superman in 1992. But there are under 100 Action Comics #1s (a nasty side-effect of World War II-era paper recycling), the latest one discovered literally inside the wall of a house. Nothing will ever be that rare and important again.

While comic stores had existed since the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 80s that publishers found a market large enough to begin distributing books specifically to what became known as the direct market. The key part of this development was the demand for more mature or even adult content. The move away from the comics code-compliant newsstand to the gatekeeper of the comic shop gave us revolutionary titles, such as Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and Watchmen. The comic store became the venue for the serious comic fan.

With comic shows — and later, shops — came a focus on condition. Back issue bins allowed readers to travel backward in a way they rarely could before, but those comics had to be in as close to new condition as possible.

Enter the comic bag.

New_Teen_Titans_Vol_1_1Stores not catering to condition-conscious buyers rarely had mint condition comics. Spinner racks often leave spine marks on comics and those in magazine racks get knocked around and bent. As the direct market expanded, it slowly ate away at newsstand and spinner rack sales. With only casual buyers to support that space on the shelf, it stopped being worth it for drug, grocery and corner stores to carry comics. Even when the product was returnable, the cost of shipping and returning remained.

Also lost when this market dried up were the piles of remainder stock. Until the 80s, these were bagged up 2 or 3 for small price and sold at department stores and the like. As a child of that era, I was able to sample many new characters through the magic of these types of packs. A pack that had issues of Action Comics, DC Comics Presents, and New Teen Titans meant I could read about more than a dozen DC heroes for a mere 99 cents.

Collecting Without Curating is Accumulating

Comics is one of the rare areas of collecting where its adherants worry about the condition of literally every piece they encounter. A stamp or matchbook collector doesn’t keep every single one they see. A handful of change from the coffee shop doesn’t make a coin collector run for the plastic sleeves, but those Free Comic Book Day comics seem to end up bagged and boarded.

As I went through the 900 Things project — the process through which I unloaded a significant amount of the material I’d had piling up in my life — I realized how comics have evolved from being a magazine to being a collectible. Fantastic Four bills itself as “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine,” but we don’t treat them like magazines. Every comic has perceived value, but every magazine doesn’t. We recycle most magazines after we read them. We archive comics like they were ancient treasures.

fantasticfour265We, as fans, have developed an unhealthy attachment to the physical object of comics that is almost unique to this hobby. There is no more apt phrase than “fetishizing the physical” to describe this fixation on keeping the comic as pristine as possible. Even to the degree that some comics have come polybagged.

Comic books began as a completely disposable medium, made on cheap newsprint and traded by fans until the books fell apart. They were rolled up in the back pocket of a kid in the city or tucked into the rucksack of a soldier heading to war. The obsession with making the disposable permanent is the key to where it all went wrong. The first time a comic was slipped into a plastic bag unread, the medium changed irrevocably. The story that came alive began to lose footing to the concern for marks around the staple.

Variant covers are a symptom of feeding the fetish. In an age when any image can be possessed at the click of a mouse, collectors spend many times cover price for the cover itself. I see readers spending hours worshipping at the object — reverently bagging and boarding while a pile of potentially beloved books sits unread. As a collector I never went in for one bag and one board per comic, to be honest. I would pack them as many comics as would fit in the bag to keep them organized and in relatively good shape. Why spend that money on bags and boards when it could buy me 5-10% more comics?

The direct market books also experimented with higher paper stocks. Eventually all comics would abandon newsprint for super-white and higher priced alternatives. All paper has risen in price, of course, but this rapidly-rising cost combined with a higher expectation of object quality has created even bigger barriers for casual readers. You just can’t get a handful of comics for 99 cents anymore, and for the most part, it’s our own fault.

Comic stores cannot survive on casual buyers. It is no coincidence that the event crossover appeared as comic stores exploded across North America. If you wanted to follow a yearlong story with dozens of tie-ins, you needed more than the 7-11 spinner rack. For 30 years the market has been driven by longer stories, increasingly connected continuity and high-profile events. It is impossible to do a chicken-and-egg look at this stage of comics. Stores require it, many buyers demand it (even those who pretend they don’t), and the Big 2 publishers have come to rely on it for “sampling opportunities.”

The new refrain is “every jump on point is someone else’s jump off point.” Weekly comics buying is habit. Once you are in that cycle, there is the feeling that skipping a week or a month would mean you were missing out. Everyone selling comics — from publisher to comic shop — needs the weekly buyer to survive. The casual buyer just won’t suffice.

New Readers

The lament of “where are the young readers?” is older than most of our oldest readers. In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe reports creator and industry concerns with an ageing comic reading demographic as early as the 60s. Marvel, in particular, was primarily read by teens and college students. Creators were concerned that when that age group moved on there would be no next generation to replace them.

So they couldn’t let them move on.

03-01-OrigThe stories started to grow up with the readers. More sophisticated subjects were tackled. Longer stories were told. Speedy became an addict. Gwen Stacey was killed by the Green Goblin. The X-Men were embroiled in the Dark Phoenix Saga for a year.

As complex as those stories were, they were still contained within a relatively small number of books. In 1970, Marvel and DC were each publishing only about a dozen titles set in their respective universes. That number exploded in the 1980s as the Big Two tried to drown out new publishers on the comic store shelf.

Complete, and admittedly simpler, stories were replaced by checklists. Readers were converted to collectors. Collectors were converted to speculators. And if you folded that comic up to fit in your pocket, there was no place for you in the comic shop.

The current ordering system is broken. Retailers have a harder job than ever and have to trust that what they order will sell. In the old days, back issues could be trusted to sell eventually as someone discovered a new book, character or creator. If you wanted to read it, that back issue bin was likely the only way.

Today, digital and trades have cut into that market to a huge degree. For those who want to read Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, they can get it digitally, in hardcover, softcover or omnibus. And they can get it that moment or overnight instead of hunting for months for every issue.

There are still those who try new books at issue #4, #47 or #477, but they are few. And worse, that sort of sampling has questionable impact on the sales of a book. That rare random sampler doesn’t help a retailer plan. The retailer has ordered two more issues when that #477 is grabbed off the shelf. It helps the store not eat the copies, but it’ll be months before it reflects in increased sales.

Retailers know with some certainty that buyers will sample a new #1. That new creative team or “new direction” seldom moves the sales needle all by itself these days. But what happens when that new book hits #4 or #40 (if they ever do these days)? We see it on the sales charts every month. Attrition has become an inevitability.

Is There a Way Back?

Put bluntly, probably not. Digital will change things, though. As some readers move toward digital as the single serving and trade as the permanent edition, there will be a shift. The only floppies I have purchased in years are those that are very unlikely to be available digitally or collected (I’m working on a complete New Universe collection, not in mint).

But the spinner racks and newsstands are gone. The advertisers are gone. The lower paper quality to reduce overhead is long gone.

There is light in this tunnel though. Sales are growing but flattening. While the #1 book in sales is trending downward, the #300 is trending up. The May 2014 #300 on the sales chart shipped more than five times as much as those at #300 ten years before. Graphic novels and non-super-hero comics are gaining audiences. The Walking Dead has seemingly brought more new readers into the medium than the Avengers franchise as a whole.

But it has to be about readers. Skip the boards and get a couple of books you haven’t tried. Fold that cover back. Give a dog-eared trade to your niece. Let your comics live and breath. Or the whole art form will suffocate in an airtight CGC slab.

For tips on how to continue destroying comics, visit this informative WikiHow.

Special thanks to Calgary comic creator Jason Mehmel who was the first to use the word “fetishizing” when talking to me about print comics.




  1. randomshane said:

    Starting with “fetishizing the physical”… maybe some people do this, but I cannot believe in this idea in the slightest.

    I bag and board each comic, one comic per bag & board. I do this NOT because it may be valuable, or some day might be worth a lot of money, but because I paid money for that comic and I want it to be in good shape. It’s like buying a town car then going off-roading*, sure you can do it but if you paid money for it, it’s worth keeping in good shape.

    *if you buy a junk-y dune buggy, take that into crazy terrain. Like when i buy well used trades I don’t try to keep them mint-y fresh, they are types of books I’ll take camping. If they get beat up, great.

    I’m trying to collect every issue of Daredevil volume 1. I’ll buy the back issues in any shape (to some degree) just so I can have it as part of my DD v1 collection. Some people may try and hunt down mint issues all the way back to issue 1, but these types of collectors are still ok – they are paying someone for these comics, lots of times it’s a comic shop.

    A comic shop, in this day and age has to have a big client base or diverge into other ideas such as board game nights or magic the gathering tournaments. They may go the way of Blockbuster but there may be no way to prevent this. I had an idea but it’s way too long for this :). Spinner racks were the 1st sign that this will come to pass.

    And last point I can touch on is the idea of the Big 2. There are so many other options for readers then ever before. Readers can go online and find out more information then ever before, if there’s a genre or style of comic they want, they could probably find it.

    I still enjoyed the article 🙂 I just cannot agree with the over all tone of it. Or at least the tone that I got from reading it.

  2. Keith Callbeck said:

    On bagging, I do note in the piece that I stored comics in bags, I just did it a few to a bag which keeps the condition but costs far less in money (and space since the thickness of boards add up).

    To answer your analogy of the town car, it doesn’t fit. You are talking about care of something while maintaining it’s utility. I am speaking of maintaining something *instead of* its utility.

    A variant cover, using your example, would be buying that town car in a limited version paint job and leaving it in an environmentally controlled garage without the engine ever turning over.

    I’m very much not talking about content in the comic. Except that treating the comic as an object of reverent care diminishing what it really is – a container for a story.

    On your last point, I’m glad that we do agree that it is a broader range of readers that will keep this medium going.

  3. randomshane said:

    I do know a guy who keeps his classic Mustang in his garage 99% of the time 😉 but I was never good with analogies BUT I do like all sorts of differing ideas when it comes to comics. I treat some of my comics like little art objects, displayed in their bag & board on my shelf. although I do read all my comics.

    Oh and back to the environmentally controlled garage, sure some might do this but I can’t believe most do. I’m sickingly positive and think we’re in the best time for comics ever EVER, unless …like next year gets better 😉

  4. Keith Callbeck said:

    I am intrigued that though you are not worrying about the condition on the issues of Daredevil, I assume you are seeking the single issues. Many of the issues are available easily, cheaper and often in better quality than the originals. And yet you seem to have put value to the single issues which means they are objects, not merely for the story.

    That isn’t a judgement at all, I am seeking out a full set of the New Universe comics because I have great affection for them. Only about 20 are collected and only those are available digital. I miss hunting for something so I picked something that is worthless but a bit hard to find for that lack of value (it’s not worth carting them to shows because they hold so little demand).

    My polemic isn’t against keeping the comics you love in good shape, though. It is against treating *every* comic with such reverence. Deleted from this was an example of Free Comic Book Day comics that then have 20 cents spent on bagging and boarding (literally infinity times more cost than the book itself).

  5. randomshane said:

    I don’t feel judged 🙂 not just cause you’re partly right, comics are both an object and not just for the story. For me. There are many examples of comics I’ve bought that are just for the objectivity. I’ll give just one example.

    I bought the issues of Tales of the New Teen Titans for the The Judas Contract story line. Not to specifically read it, but I wanted that famous story line. My LCS had them, I bought them and they made some good dough off me. I wanted them because. lol there really is no great reason. I am not partial to the Teen Titans, I just wanted them so i got them. But win-win for me and my comic shop, I got what I wanted and they made money.

    My Daredevil v1 issues are for both story and to own them, so they are objectified too. Going to different comic shops and finding an issue or two of DD v1 is part of the fun. Yes I could get, say, an Essentials trade and have all those stories for much cheaper. I’d rather get the single issues, I’ve been picking away at that series for years, it’s just fun.

    I’ll switch gears and say what does bug me 😉 so many times I’ve seen people mention that if comics went 100% digital, they’d stop reading comics. Now maybe that’s all talk, but I can imagine if it did happen some long time comic fans would totally stop altogether. I cannot fathom this, it boggles my mind to think this way.

    OH and one last thing 🙂 between Daredevil v3 & v4 there was a digital series – Road Warrior. I got all 4 issues and it works as a digital comic, the infinite gimmick really works to help tell this story. When it was printed, I didn’t buy it. I have them, it works in the medium it was designed for.

    Oh and one final thing-y that’s a question. If you needed/wanted an issue of (let’s say DP7 #12) and there were 2 copies. One has a crease in the cover and it’s on for 50 cents. There’s another copy that has no crease for 75 cents. Which would you buy?

    I won’t judge your answer harshly 😉