Between DC’s New 52 reboot and the competition’s Marvel Now revamp, the past year has seen more number ones than a dog show at a fire hydrant factory. This week alone your comic book store offers an embarrassment of riches (emphasis on “embarrassment”), with no less than a dozen #1 issues on the stands. And if history has taught us anything, it’s that all of them will be worth tons of cash.
Except not really! But hope burns brightly, kindled by the record price paid for a number-one issue: $2.16 million for a near-mint copy of Action Comics #1. (To clarify, we’re talking about the one from 1938, not 2011.) What makes the original Action #1 more valuable than, say, other things from 1938, like your grandfather? Most important is its historical significance as the very first time a creative team was totally ripped off by a publisher for inventing a super-hero. Also, the cover has a guy in colorful tights lifting a freaking car over his head and smashing it!
Of course neither of those things would matter if Action #1 wasn’t as rare as talent on America’s Got Talent. Old comic books tend to be valuable simply because by their very nature they should not have lasted long enough to still be here, like an open can of tuna or Charlie Sheen. Comics are classified among collectibles as “ephemera,” from the word ephemeral, itself derived from the Greek ephḗmer(os) meaning “short-lived, transitory, lasting but a day.” I’d type more smart-sounding things but a pop-up window on Wikipedia just asked me for five bucks so I bailed.
But back to the ephemeral quality of comic books: these were things that people weren’t supposed to keep, like greeting cards, event tickets, and used airsickness bags. You’d read your ten-cent funny book on a hot June day in 1938, roll it up in your back pocket and then later when you got home your mom would shred it against her washboard along with whatever else you left in your pants, including your frog and that stick that you use to roll a hoop ahead of you in the dirt.
Such humiliating disposability probably had many early comic book creators convinced that what they did for a living was just a step up from making balloon animals, only not as dignified. So I imagine many in the early days weren’t really trying that hard, or didn’t even have to be very good at it, because what they were writing and drawing wasn’t going to last long enough to embarrass them, which explains every “Romance” comic ever.
Well, the joke’s on them! The now-legendary writers and artists at EC Comics probably thought they were less likely to someday find their work reproduced in oversized boxed sets than they might wind up in prison for crimes against America’s children. Meanwhile over at Atlas Comics, if Lee and Kirby thought big dumb monsters named “Sporr” and “Manoo” and “Tim Boo Ba” would be remembered long after publication, they might have worked harder to come up with stronger characters than “Sporr” and “Manoo” and “Tim Boo Ba.” (I mean really, “Tim”?)
By the time Marvel moved on to superheroes, the impermanence of their trade apparently had them putting so little thought into what they were doing that they misplaced a Skrull in the final panels of Fantastic Four #2, and revived a World War II-era Captain America despite the fact that he and Bucky had continued fighting crime in comic books into the 1950s. And the characters created during DC’s Golden Age were so disposable that DC launched their Silver Age by simply pretending that Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Atom, et al. had never happened at all, the same way you treat a bad date when you awkwardly run into them later at a party. (And by that I don’t mean you sleep with them again. Have you learned nothing?!)
Now decades later even the films based on comic books have begun treating their stories as ephemeral: just three movies after Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider while mooning over Mary Jane Watson, we’re supposed to have forgotten so we can more fully enjoy Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man being bitten by a radioactive spider while stalking Gwen Stacy.
So as your favorite comic books continue to be rebooted and relaunched and reimagined and renumbered starting at one, don’t be fooled by their faux primacy. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy them—some, like Justice League, are way better than their original number ones, while FF #1 is so giddy it’s like being tickled for twenty pages. Just don’t mistake this sudden abundance of premiere issues as money in the bank for your kid’s college fund or your midlife crisis. College tuition and much younger girlfriends are expensive, so plan accordingly because this next generation of first issues won’t be worth the digital paper they’re not printed on. On the other hand, if you happened to pick up Fantastic Four #1 back in 1960 because it had a big dumb monster on the cover, you’re in luck.