We’ve just come to the end of 3 summer ComicLink auctions (you can check earlier results from a couple of years ago in a two of my old columns: Feb. 2014 and April 2014 ). These summer auctions featured almost a hundred (96 by my reckoning) WECA comics–a small offering of 3 books in an early summer auction, then 45 books in August and 48 books in September. Everybody who’s followed these knows that prices have taken a geometrical shift upward again. Is this a bubble or is this real? I know I can say one thing for certain. Where previously I thought I might be able to hang in for a purchase at $500 or $600 for a book I wanted and maybe even stretch up to a grand for a really key or important so that I felt I was in with a realistic chance at one of these books, now I definitely know I’ve been priced out of the picture and it looks like it’s only going to get worse for collectors of this niche market. In a relatively short time, they’ve gone from obscure, generally undesirable books to the market to what can justifiably be called the new darlings of the comic market, at least of the Canadian comic market (it’s unclear to what extent US collectors are involved). Five years ago you could have picked up 90% of these books for under $500 each with most of those for $200 or under. Even a year ago most of these books would have been available for under a grand. I now look back lamentably on those nostalgic days.
BUT!!… a bunch of us with noble aspirations wanted to bring these arcane, lost treasures out of the brackish backwaters of comic culture and collecting back into the daylight of Canadian popular cultural consciousness. I’m trying to figure out if, when we succeeded in doing this, we also seem to have created a dark side to the whole thing by pricing these books out of the range of most general collectors. The irony is palpable. We wanted Canada’s own comics to gain the respectability they deserved in the collector’s market. They have done that, but have we created a Frankenstein along the way?
Really, though, I don’t think this could have been avoided. It couldn’t have unfolded in any other way than it has done. It’s to the point now that Overstreet cannot keep ignoring these books, nor can it continue to rely on it’s woefully inadequate and really misleading handful of entries that presently cover some of these books (take a look at its listing under Dizzy Don Comics which means to account for all the The Funny Comics listings as well, for example).
Let me list the top 30 or so of theses auction results.
|Dime Comics 1||3.5||$5,800|
|Colossal (Sub Cover)||2.5||$4,200|
|Wow Comics 15||6||$2,800|
|Speed Savage nn||6||$2,300|
|Lucky V2 N7||1.8||$2,000|
|Wow Comics 2||7||$1,825|
|Dime Comics 2||5||$1,800|
A lot of you must be familiar with these results already. Like most genres, WECA book prices are, above all, character driven. Nelvana has become the darling of the era and her 1945 compendium is still one of the most sought after of these books and will probably provide us with a price watershed until the biggies like the first issues of Better Comics or Triumph-Adventure show up in the market. The analogy I come up with for the relationship between Better 1 and Triumph 1 is that Better 1 is more like FF 1 which started off the Marvel Age and Triumph 1 (containing the first appearance of Nelvana) is more akin to AF 15 which was the first appearance of the hallmark character of the age—Spider-Man. The popularity and collectability of this character is further reflected in the showing of Triumph 7, which is the first Bell Features appearance of Nelvana and has a great Nelvana about to choke Hitler with her thighs of steel cover. The consistent strong showing of Triumph 12, with its stand out Nelvana cover, at auction is also an echo of this.
Dime 1 containing the first appearance of Johnny Canuck, the other great icon of the WECA era, will also always show well at auction.
Colossal Comics rarely show up at auction because so few are around. This copy wasn’t slabbed because of its thickness. The ComicLink description indicated that the book was only available through mail order from back cover ads in 1944 but I am suspicious of this because I don’t think Cy Bell would have ever sat on a stack of these in his plant only offering them through mail order. He certainly would have put a number of them on newsstands and in drug stores in at least the big metropolitan areas (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa…). But in any event they are scarce and I’ve only seen about half-a-dozen copies. This scarcity may be compounded by the fact that some collectors and dealers dismantled many copies, especially if most of the six books inside had their covers to achieve what they saw as better returns on their original investment.
The strength of Commando Comics, Bell’s pure war title, surprised me in these summer auctions. Here are the results:
Overall, we can see from these auctions that Bell Feature WECA books are on the ascendency. They have essentially become the template for what a Canadian golden age comic is, namely, American looking on the outside and chewy Canadian maple on the inside. The other publishers never got it quite right the way that Bell did. Once the hero explosion happened at Bell in 1942 with Active 1, Dime 1 and then Triumph 7 and Wow 15, they never looked back. They obviously recognized that they couldn’t have survived on the backs of heroes like Dartner Daring and Whiz Wallace forever.
Canadian Heroes, arguably the most Canadian comic title ever, never got past looking like a Canadian counterpart of American True Comics or Real Life Comics but this was what Harry Halperin was going for and you can’t say that he didn’t succeed. In my mind, they are undervalued property. Among collectors, Anglo-American seems to be unable to escape the taint of those cheap looking two-colour newsprint covers they sported for the first four years and the stigma of being mostly a vehicle for Fawcett script redraws until eventually creating its own heroes. The aside here is that I still think that the redraws will pick up once American Fawcett collectors become more aware of them and see how subtly different, and yet possessing quality, their take on the original scripts has been. Maple Leaf books, long the darling of Canadian collectors because of their scarcity and production values only really seemed to hit the mark when they put Cosmo or Brok on their covers otherwise they seemed to be the books that were most steeped in and connected to that old British annual style of storytelling with kids being stuck in haunted castles and 8 year old orphans traversing occupied France to get to freedom. Maybe this is a start of a ground swell shift to Bell Features titles or maybe it’s just a blip, but there are certainly more of these Bell Features books to go around and keep this market thriving and supply it with momentum.
The lack of interest in the Dizzy Dons (The Funny Comics) was striking:
|The Funny Comics 5||6||$112|
|The Funny Comics 13||5.5||$86|
|The Funny Comics 17||4.5||$78|
Manny Easson was a quirky jokester and gag writer who was quite a character himself and he wrote some great Dick Tray like characters for Harry Langdon-like Dizzy to interact with. Dizzy’s adventures were always half the book long and fun reads and he tackled some great villains like “The Fire Fiend (in No. 11)” “The Black Hand (in No. 12),” and masked villainess “Diana Mite (…dangerous as a load of T.N.T. in No. 15). These books will probably get more popular when people have a chance to actually read the stories and see what was inside Manny Easson’s head. You can take a look at a bunch of these digitized from the Library and Archives of Canada here .
An anomaly in the auction wasn’t even a WECA comic though; it was called “A Canadian White” by the people doing the write-ups at ComicLink. This was the May, 1941 pulp magazine Victory No. 1 with the cover featuring Ted Steele’s (one of this year’s inductees into the Joe Shuster Awards Hall of Fame) caped hero with the maple leaf over his heart, Rock Thunder who is the second really costumed Canadian crime fighter after Steele’s, creation a month earlier, of Wolf Savage in the tabloid newsprint Canadian Rocket Comics No. 1 (see my earlier column). This book, like the Canadian Rocket, is indeed rare and I only know of two extant copies of each, and it is an important document in the overall history of Canadian comics, but I am surprised about the level of market competition for it. I know that Stephen Lipson was the proud eventual winner but I wonder who the other chasers were? Stephen makes some laboured connections between Rock and Ted Steele’s Speed Savage/White Mask hero that started in Triumph Comics 7, but I don’t see them and we won’t know more until we actually read the story. In the end he got a good buy of a very rare item which still has to be properly understood as to its place in Canadian comic history.
The factor I think that motivated Stephen and the others to go after this particular item is an essential factor common to the chasing of auction “Whites.” Walter Durajlija calls it the “utility of ownership.” It’s a factor that often impels most of us to reach beyond what we would normally pay for a WECA book. The idea is that a collector will bid higher than normal for one of these books just to get it into his hands because he doesn’t know when he’ll come across another copy. It’s there in all of us when it comes to these seldom seen WECA books that are scarce enough that we might not see another copy of a particular auction item offered for a very long time, if at all in many cases. With more and more collectors wanting to have these books as part of their collections and their very limited supply, prices have only one direction to go (unless a collection like the one offered on ComicLink this summer comes up every year or two of course, but I doubt it).
One of the main mantras of this second decade of the 21st century is “grow your wealth.” I wonder how we collectors grow our comic book wealth or even what comic book wealth really is. The word “wealth” is from the old English “weal” which meant ‘that which is good for somebody or something’ eventually becoming the more abstract “wealth” (the same way that ‘heal’ produced ‘health’) but strangely in the last number of centuries it has become attached to a meaning more akin to an acquisition of material possessions in abundance (more than you need to get by really).
My idea of “comic wealth” means finding, treasuring, and reading those books that mean something to you and to be happy and feel accomplished with that. It also means the joy that you get from sharing the fun of the whole enterprise with other people who collect and like comics in the same way. I guess that is closer to the old meaning of “weal” rather than the current take on the work “wealth” which in the context of comic collecting would push its way towards a meaning that encompasses the acquisition of the largest, or most complete collection, or snaring the highest grade copy of an item. Our hobby/pastime has become an economy and the books themselves little more than commodities. Oh well, at least they probably have a small carbon footprint.
I enjoy and miss writing this column, but editorial differences between myself and the Editor-In-Chief of Comic Book Daily have precluded me from continuing the column here in the way I used to do it but some auction results demand occasional comment. Look to the column finding new life on Canada’s Own Comics in the near future.