Whither back issues?

Tom Spurgeon asks what we think will happen with the comics back issues market in the next few years or decades:

So what do you think? Is this even a market 10, 15, 25 years from now? Is it all digital? Does it shift to newer comics as more of those children try to recapture their past? Will people buy from the original run of DC New 52 comics in 2028? Will Jack Kirby comic books still appeal? What happens?

I think a lot of it will depend on what happens to the comic book format in general. To say it’s not in the best of health is an understatement and I can see it dying quickly once digital comics become fully accepted and every important publishers offers them. If that tie between the weekly batch of new comics and the necessary trip to the comics store is broken, that will inevitably mean fewer opportunities for the stores to sell back issues too. Especially once there’s a generation of comic book readers who’ve never known anything but cheap and easy availability of digital comics and who are happy to buy their back issues that way too.

Which would mean that most back issues will only be bought by a slowly shrinking base of aging consumers who have grown up with that way of buying comics, as arguable is already the case for new comics anyway. Which in turn means fewer comics stores, with those that survive having to specialise in something that makes them desirable for consumers who can get their normal comics fix through the internet. This is not a new development of course; just ask your local independent bookseller.

The upper segment of back issue sales, selling Golden Age, Silver Age and key Bronze Age and more modern comics can go two ways. It may develop further into a sort of pseudo arts market, with speculators and collectors both wanting to get the rarer, more exclusive comics, driving up prices on the usual suspects, with perhaps a lowering of prices for your run of the mill Golden or Silver age comic. But it may also go the way of the “normal” back issue market, as newer and younger collectors no longer see the point and value in getting them when they can get the stories either digital or in nice, luxurious hardcover collections.

In either case, there will also be a new market for these sort of back issue: the institutional collector, working for e.g. a dedicated comics museum, an university with a comics and sequential art department or even more general musea and universities wanting comics not so much for their intrisic value but for what they can say about a given period’s zeitgeist. For all these parties having the original comic can be as important if not more so than having the stories they contained; rule of thumb in any sort of academic research is always to go to the sources after all.

This is something that has happened to other once popular mass media. Way back in 1992 or so a columnist in the Comics Buyers Guide of all place dropped the example of the dime novel, hugely popular in the early twentieth century, having a resurge in the twenties and thirties as people started buying back issues for nostalgic reasons and once that audience died off, largely only of interest to the type of institutional collector I described above.

The biggest worry in all this, if we ignore the economic turmoil these developments will wreak on the already fragile comics industry is one that Tom touched upon as well, that certain comics will become genuinely rare once the market collapses, that there won’t be anybody who saves them and hence that we’ll be in danger of losing parts of our history. This is an even greater worry with digital formats. Paper is much more durable than silicon: even if the hardware remains usable, the software might not be, while data formats in particular are incredibly vulnerable to bitrot. Paper comics also don’t have any nasty digital rights management build in that prevents you from reselling them. Worse with some formats, your comic exists as long as their publisher keeps them alive in “the cloud”. Ironically, it might be the comics pirates who are our best bests in keeping these comics available after their publisher has given the ghost…

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