Good Things Happen in This World
It was 40 years ago last month, that an event transpired which changed my life, forever. Amazingly, this life-changing epiphany occurred at a cost of a mere twenty-five cents. That was the charge, in 1969, for receiving the Robert Bell mail order catalog. For those of you who collect older comics, I'm sure that you can recall seeing Robert Bell's hundreds of solicitations in the Marvel comics classified ad pages. Bell, along with Howard Rogofsky, Passaic Book Center, Grand Book Center, and several others made available the very first mass-produced price lists for old comics. While it may seem mundane today, the truth is that there were no established prices for older comics in 1969. Those of us who were comics fans in those dark ages tended to live in isolated pockets, and only interact with a few other local fans. When an older, or particularly rare, comic book showed up, setting a price for it tended to be completely speculative, with the owner's subjective opinion about the relative scarcity of any given issue acting as the sole basis for the asking price. Bell's incredible catalog of Marvel prices completely changed that reality, and instantly altered my life's path as a direct result.
To set the stage for further explanation of my epiphany, I need to explain that I was living on an American Army base in Frankfurt, Germany in the spring of 1969. I had two friends, Ron Baker and Ford Curry, who attended the same American Forces Junior High School as I did. As a result, the three of us spent a lot of time together discussing the latest Marvel releases. Stan had us so completely enthralled in the coolness of being Marvel readers (who could possibly not want to be a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society?) that the only DC title we avidly collected was Jim Shooter's Legion of Superheroes. That's precisely why when Ford made his fateful decision to risk sending Robert Bell his quarter (a quarter would buy two new comics in 1969!), all three of us waited with such eager anticipation to see what the Robert Bell catalog contained.
Bell's catalog was particularly important to us, as, unlike the catalogs from other advertisers in the comics classifieds, Bell specialized in only selling back issues of Marvel comics. Those were exactly what each of us so desperately desired in those days, as all three of us had logged hundreds of hours trudging the stairwells of the huge army-owned apartment blocks in which we lived, knocking on doors, and seeking others with whom to trade comics. With no American TV available on our army base, comics reading and trading were still quite popular among both kids, and adults. Since Ron, Ford, and I were all pretty near destitute (my allowance was $1 per month...), it was only through astute trading that the three of us had been able to slowly build collections of 1964-1969 Marvels. Those key older Marvel issues from 1961-1963, however, were never found in people's trading boxes. Could Robert Bell possibly have any of them for sale, and if so, could we possibly afford them? Those were the questions that we wanted so desperately to have answered when we gathered at Ford's family's apartment to open the fateful envelope...
From the minute we began avidly scanning Robert Bell's incredible catalog, all three of our lives immediately changed. In our 14-year-old minds, it was as if the door to heaven had suddenly opened. Never again would we be constrained into thinking that the possibility might exist that there were rare Marvel comics that we would never be able to obtain. Since Bell's list offered every Marvel comic book printed since Fantastic Four #1, completing our Marvel comics collection instantly became a mere question of cost, not availability. That having been said, I do need to explain how my reaction to Bell's catalog was entirely different from Ron's and Fords. The two of them were died-in-the-wool comics fanboys. From the minute that they saw those lists of prices for all the Marvel titles, they desperately wanted to own all of the comics they did not yet have in their collections. In direct contrast, from the minute I saw the price list, I desperately wanted to be Robert Bell. As anyone who has followed my career in comics already knows, to say that the rest is history is quite an understatement...
Fast-forward 40 years, and I now operate milehighcomics.com website which is arguably the largest online comics retailer database. When I compare the hundreds of thousands of different comics titles, issue numbers, and grades that we offer via our website to Robert Bell's tiny selection in his little pamphlets, I have to smile at the innocent simplicity of life in 1969. At the same time, I also have to admit that I am sometimes overwhelmed these days by the complexity of the huge amount of data that I am trying to keep updated and fresh. I try to alter all of our website prices each year to reflect the changes in market conditions reported in the annual comic book price guides. Given that our database is so much larger than any of the price guides, however, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to not only write the equivalent of a complete price guide each year, but also to try to somehow update prices on the many tens of thousands of smaller press comics that none of the price guides bother to list. By comparison, Sisyphus had it easy.
Where I'm coming to with all this is an apology to all of you who have told me at conventions that my columns are among the first pages you turn to when you receive your new issue of CBG. It's very hard for me not to feel that I have let you down by not being able to keep up with my monthly deadlines for this column. Simply put, however, the stresses of dealing with today's economy has made it very hard for me to find the time and/or energy to construct a monthly column. In that regards, however, I do not think that I am in any different position than most other comics retailers, or for that matter, independent retailers of all persuasions. These are very unusual times, of extreme complexity, for the small business people who form the economic underpinnings of free enterprise in America. We are all having to work far harder, and smarter, to survive. I am absolutely certain that our world is going to return to "normal" at some point, and that those of us who survive this unique experience are going to have some great new war stories to tell. Getting from here to there, however, is going to require a great deal of extra focus. All that I can promise you is that I will do my absolute best to keep writing this column each month. That having been said, I do need to ask for your forbearance during those times when I just can't get the job done. I'll be back on a monthly schedule for you just as soon as things stabilize...
I'll close this month's column by encouraging all of you to go out of your way to support your local comic book retailer. Whether their pride allows them to admit it, or not, a great many comics retailers are struggling financially these days. If everyone reading this column were to just chip in an extra $5 per week into their local comics economy, I'm certain that we could make a collective difference. Not only might a few more comics retailers survive this current downturn as a result of our extra effort, but that added sales revenue on the retail level might very well also help to keep a few more small comics publishers in business. Good things happen in this world because good people do not sit on their hands in times of difficulty. They are proactive in seeking to preserve that in their world which is personally important to them. I would hope that supporting the future of the comics world would be very important to you. Simply put, I would caution you against taking survival of the comics granted. Our wonderful world only exists because of a complex series of interdependencies, and this economic downturn could well threaten the long-term survival of much that we hold dear. Heaven forbid, that we return to the dark ages of 1969...
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