ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO
ILLUSTRATION BY ADAM WAITO
Marvel was in the toilet. The esteemed comic book company, one of the true fixtures of American mythology, was bleeding both money and talent with no resuscitation in sight. 1996 was rock bottom, when Marvel filed for bankruptcy after it no longer could pay back its creditors. It seemed possible that the vast cosmology of heroes that the imprint had assembled – figures like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor – would fall to irrelevance as a publishing house could no longer afford to print them. The age-old rivalry between DC and Marvel had come to an end, and the houses of Gotham and Metropolis had come out on top.
You probably know the story from here. Marvel turned its attention to its burgeoning film division. Yes, Sony had the rights to Spider-Man and Fox owned the X-Men, but the company still retained access to a little institution called The Avengers. And so, in 2008, the first Iron Man movie made its way to theaters. Then came Thor and Captain America, and Guardians of the Galaxy – formerly a fringe superhero team only familiar to the most ardent of comic fans. All cleaned up in ticket sales and the future looks bright in 2021. Marvel set the world on fire with a wild sitcom experiment in WandaVision, and they'll continue charting the next chapters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Eternals and Shang-Chi later this year. Marvel is back from the brink, and laughing all the way to the bank.
The film success has been so rampant that it's easy to forget that Marvel still prints comic books. Yes, beyond the box office bounties and the multinational fandom, fresh new 24-page adventures still make their way to the newsstands every week. That's a big deal, because comic books remain one of the foundational pillars of the collecting industry. In fact, you could make the argument that Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, remains the most famous investment artifact in modern history (a copy recently fetched over $3 million).
That begs the question: What has the unprecedented success of the MCU meant for Marvel's vast back-catalogue of issues? Has the valuation shot up, right alongside the cultural resonance of T'Challa and Carol Danvers? I reached out to Ashley Cotter-Cairns, owner of the superhero appraisal mainstay Sell My Comic Books, for some clarity.
"We have a market that is driven by key issues," says Cotter-Cairns. "The people who used to go to conventions and shops and buy up a run of Thor are less common now. What people will do instead is show up and say, 'I want the first appearance of Warlock, or Captain Marvel,' or whatever. That's when the movies definitely have an impact on the price of the books."
Cotter-Cairns points to a recent example, Jane Foster, the love interest of Thor who was portrayed by Natalie Portman in the movies. Portman, and Foster, have been MIA from the Thor cinematic canon for the last handful of years, so there's naturally not been a huge buying interest in her brand. But that has changed ever since the announcement of Thor: Love & Thunder at the 2019 Comic-Con, where it was revealed that Portman would become the first female Thor in the MCU. As a result, there's been a spike of interest in any Marvel books that feature Foster wielding the hammer.
You can see this happen in real time if you know where to look. It gets progressively more miraculous as the Marvel films continue to mine the outer orbit of their superheroes. A character like Groot was never going to break into the mainstream without the MCU. We're talking about a bizarre tree-alien capable of communicating solely by repeating his own name. That's not exactly Batman, right? But with Guardians of the Galaxy, and the talents of Vin Diesel's voice acting, a nation suddenly fell head over heels for Groot. Now, his first appearance from 1959 is a hot commodity. Take a look at this price tracker, which shows incremental increase in buying value year after year.
We are living in a timeline where every Marvel oddity – even Groot – can command some serious coin.
Sometimes, a hero or villain can get another shot at the spotlight, and a sudden resurgence in collector value, even after they've already appeared in the MCU. Consider The Mandarin; the archenemy of Iron Man, who had a couple of veiled appearances and references in both Iron Man 2 and 3. (Canonically, both of those cameos were clarified to be false versions of the character.) However, in the forthcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Mandarin will make his formal filmic debut, played by the legendary Hong Kong actor Tony Leung. That's a big deal, and Cotter-Cairns expects to see the price of all Mandarin related comics to percolate in value the closer we come to the film's release. "That's a rare example of something that's given a second chance," he says.
For the most part though, Cotter-Cairns says those value spikes are temporary. They shoot up when everyone is excited about the next Marvel movie, and then slowly drift back down to normal. "It doesn't always translate to a long-term change," he says. That said, some of the staples in the Marvel canon – the first appearances of the true immortals like Spider-Man and Captain America – have seen a more sturdy, sustained increase in collectability since the MCU became a global phenomenon. Hell, Cotter-Cairns says that the first appearance of Deadpool, which was printed in 1991, has doubled in value since the investment boom spurred on by the pandemic. You don't need to dig deep into your shoebox of old Marvel comics to find something people are willing to pay a premium for.
Cotter-Cairns keeps tabs on all of this. As someone with a vested stake in the comics-trading marketplace, he knows these fluctuations like the back of his hand. "The better I know what people are willing to pay more for, the better I can do my job of buying collections and selling them at a profit," he says. But he advises caution for anyone jumping into the market right now. Too many people are throwing money at comics that aren't necessarily rare. That's fine if you aim to be a collector and nothing more. By all means, soak up back-issues for the characters you love or the artists you adore. But if you're an investor, it pays to be a little more scrupulous with say, a 30-year old Deadpool book that is already plentiful on the open market. "Nobody 'collects' stocks," quips Cotter-Cairns.
"There's no intellect behind collecting. There's nothing logical about it. It's special. It doesn't make sense on any evolutionary level. You just get obsessed," he continues. "When you get obsessed, you stay obsessed."
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