Beauology 101: Back Off

Beau Smith

Beau Smith

by Beau Smith

When I’m not writing comic books I’m marketing comic books, I have for over 25 years. I speak to retailers every day via phone, internet and yes, sometimes even fax (You remember fax machines, don’t you?).

A topic that has been on the minds of retailers a lot in the last few years has been back issues. By back issues, I’m talking about anything from 1938 to last month. That’s over 70 years of back issues. What the retailers are telling me is that sales of back issues have dropped in the last decade. They mean REALLY dropped, like “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” kind of dropped.

They tell me that there are a lot of reasons for the lack of sales of back issues and of interest. Here are a few:

** Cost Of New Comics. With the average comic book carrying a $3.00-$4.00 cover price, the consumer has been really cutting back and looking hard at what they buy. The first place they trim is back issues.

** Age Of Consumers. The average comic book consumer is male between the ages of 35-55. They still have most every comic book they have ever bought stacked in long boxes in a room that was formerly used for sleep or house guests. They have so many that they really don’t have time to fight through the buffet of boxes and find “that” issues they wanted to reread. Consumers under the 35 year mark don’t even know, or care, that Chris Claremont & John Byrne did a great run on The X-Men or care that Walt Simonson made Thor a character that counted. (A shame in both cases.) These comics were before their time and their time today is spent on the internet, iPad, Smart Phone, video games and other vessels of entertainment. They don’t have time for back issues.

** Amount Of Back Issues. As I mentioned above, comics have been around since 1938. That’s a lot of paper still taking up space somewhere. Most back issues from the 1930s and 40s are very, very hard to find because they were not only disposable entertainment at 10 cents, but there were paper drives during WWII and mothers that tossed things out if they were laying about. Even if you find back issues from this time period in crummy reading condition, you’re still talking about paying a pretty penny. Comics from the 1950s-1970s are easier to find, but not bringing the dollars in sales they used to, unless they are icon or landmark issues. Of course condition is a factor here as well. The 1980s brought on the Independent Comic Book movement with low print runs, as well as smaller print runs from Marvel & DC Comics. Retailers tell me that comics from the 1980s will truly be the decade of highly collectable comics very soon. The 1990s brought on the speculators and comic book carpetbaggers, print runs were high and story substance was low. When the bottom fell out in the mid-90s, print runs were cut making comics from 1997-2002 the comics to hang on to, as the retailers inform me.

These are just some of the main reasons why back issues are hard to move for some retailers. You’ve also got to take in account storage space, handling, storage boxes and time to sell them in either the stores or on the internet. Not every retailer has the time or staff to do this. The back issues just sit and cost them money.

You also have to figure that a lot of retailers are fans as well. Like hoarders, they put a sentimental value on a comic book that really isn’t there. Those back issues have to be looked at as product to sell. The longer they stay in the store, the more money they will cost the retailer. They have to move them.

Some retailers I spoke to do move them, they buy low and sell reasonably low to move the comics in bulk with speed. This gives them a more constant flow of money coming in all the time instead of losing money for years hoping for some sort of one-time big sell profit that may never come.

Like in sports cards, some comic books are “commons” meaning they are not landmark issues or even potential landmark issues. They also have fairly large print runs. These are the comics retailers bundle, put in 4 for a dollar boxes and also blow out at in-store sales or conventions. They use the issues that allow a consumer to have an instant collection and learn to embrace the world of comics without having to take out a loan.

Guy Gardner Annual #2

Guy Gardner Annual #2

I was recently in an outlet store called Ollie’s Bargain Outlet where they had 10 prepackaged comics from the 70s through 2000s for $4.99. You didn’t know what you had until you bought them and opened them, but I took the chance. It was great. I even found an issue of Guy Gardner that I wrote! (I’m worth so little.) The package was Marvel, DC, Eclipse, and even a Gold Key comic. Well worth the $4.99 to me. More stores need to do this within their store. (Editor’s note: check out these grab bags Westfield is currently offering!)

My point is that I would hate to see the quest for back issues fall to the wayside for retailers and consumers. There’s a lot of comic book fun to be had out there for all and I really want as many people as possible to take advantage of reading comic books. I want folks to be smart about how they spend their money and what they buy, but most of all, I want them to be entertained.

What are your thoughts on back issues? Do you bother to buy them, do you bother to sell them, what would you do , if anything, to make them sell better and get into people’s hands?

I’m always here. I’d love to hear your opinions.

Your back issue buddy,

Beau Smith

The Flying Fist Ranch



We'd love to hear from you, feel free to add to the discussion!

  1. Steve Saffel Says:

    Hey Beau:
    Another problem with back issues is the space they take up. Those of us who have a lot of comics are reaching a tipping point — as in, our homes are in danger of tipping over.

    I concentrate on books from the ’40s and ’50s in very rough condition. Being on the budget of a publishing professional, I can’t afford much, and it’s better that way. It limits what I add to my collection. And in this world of CGC and Heritage, I buy my comics for the most arcane reason: to read them.

    The grab bag idea is terrific, and everyone should do it. Back in the early ’70s I bought a bag of three “old” comics for some obscenely low price, and had my first encounter with an O’Neil-Adams Batman, and Kirby’s Jimmy Olsen. Everyone should try it!

    Yer pal,

  2. Rudy Panucci Says:

    I’ve been to that same Ollie’s, and picked up a few of those bundles. I’ve also found some three-packs at Dollar Tree recently. It’s great fun, and a good way to get kids interested cheap.

    You did miss one factor adding to the demise of the back issue: High-quality reprints. I can’t motivate myself to drop ten or twenty bucks on a back issue when I can snap up a collected edition that includes that issue for the same amount of money.

    I started collecting in the mid-1970s, and pretty much kept everything since then that I wanted. The stuff that interests me is the stuff that came out before that time, and with DC’s Archives and Marvel Masterworks, it’s fairly easy to get all the key issues, and you have them in an attractive format that looks good on a bookshelf.

    And if you don’t want to spring for expensive editions, you have the Essentials and Showcase “phone book” collections.

    That’s had to have taken a bite out of the back issue market.

  3. Mike R Says:

    I wrote a blog entry similar to this about my recent experience at a mall collectibles show and toting back issues. The kids did not want to have anything to do with digging through the books even at 50 cents each, and I wound up buying 500+ recent books (last two years) for something like 16 cents a book.

    The back issue market is rapidly becoming like the vinyl collectors market – a aging and dwindling core fan base. Stacks of long boxes hold no real allure to younger (under 25)potential fans, and the increasing pressure of digitial is just going to increase the numbers looking for digital back issues as opposed to paper.

    Ultimately, for most retailers to survive, back issues will be unable to pay for their floor space. They will either become high velocity “losers” where the store just tries to recoup any money they can, or just saved for show blowouts.

    Either way, within 10 years or so, the back issue market is going to become a highly specialized and very narrow field with the vast majority treated as a bulk commodity and a vast minority commanding a higher price (look at the sports card market now).

  4. Beau Smith Says:


    You and I seem to be running the same path. (as always) I have been finding less and less room here at the ranch for my collection and that has made me choose back issues with more thought. At the same time, I move out a lot more of my back issues to replace them with back issues that I do want or haven’t read. Lord knows I love those odd ball comics that no one has ever heard of. Thanks for posting up, amigo.



    Like you, I have found that Marvel Masterworks and DC Archives are wonderful ways to have expensive key issues without having to break the bank on higher grade original issues. In my case, being older than dirt, I have a lot of those key issues from buying them off the spinner rack as a kid. The collected versions are a great way to have your boxed collection at your fingertips.

    Thank you,



    You brought up some very good and real points. The world of technology has exploded and the it is making a dent in the way we consume comic books as readers/collectors. The changes you speak of will be interesting to see play out. You brought up another valid point with the sports card market.

    Thank you!


  5. Chuck Wells Says:

    Hi, Beau & Steve!

    One thing that you didn’t mention that I personally believe is a major factor affecting back issue sales in the direct market is eBay. By exercising a degree of patience, I’m finding that affordable back issues from darn near any era can be had for a fraction of the cost of what comic shops are charging. Too many shop owners immediately pull out their Overstreet guides when pricing stuff, and lets face it those guys don’t pay comparable Overstreet prices to acquire old books, rather than price their books to move quickly. I tend to frequent stores that know my tastes, price range and preferences OR these days, I just mouse around on eBay for back issues.

    And the budget hits that I default to, tend to be of the current comics that are being published. That same $4.99 WILL get you a nice silver or bronze age book from key runs, so why waste your dollars on newer crap that is mostly derivative in the first place?

  6. Westfield Comics Blog » KC Column: Why Kids Don’t Read Kids’ Superhero Comics Says:

    […] and/or collect comics is shrinking every day. Beau Smith just mentioned this last Friday in his excellent column about collecting back issues. Even the old near-mindless Hulk would probably understand that if you […]

  7. Brianiac5 Says:

    I don’t even bother with new comics for the most part these days (partially due to crappy content, also the high cover price.) I would kill to have a store of some sort near me that sold back issues. I go to antique stores ,thrift stores, and yard sales hoping to find a box of comics in the corner. In the rare instance I do get to a city with a real comic shop (120 miles away) I hit the back issue bins almost exclusively, ignoring everything else in the store. If any retailers you know are having trouble moving back issues, Beau, I can give them an address to send them to.

  8. Speed Reading: New 52 Flash Edition « Speed Force Says:

    […] The fate of the Back Issue Hunt (Westfield Comics) […]

  9. collectededitions Says:

    I’ll be curious to see in a decade or so how digital comics have affected the back issue market. When a reader wants a back issue, once publishers’ digital libraries are more complete, I think the reader is more likely to buy the issue digitally from their own home where the price remains constant and the quality is “like new” than to search multiple stores for a physical issue that might be marked up in price or may show wear or signs of age. In that scenario I imagine retailers may not keep back issues around much at all, but rather stock the latest issue of titles (maybe even with more room now for smaller or independent titles) and a wider selection of collections and graphic novels. As Mike said, I don’t think back issue bins will disappear completely (perish the thought!), but having the physical issue if it wasn’t important enough the first time around may be something left to a much smaller number of buyers.