Maine comic shop rides both sides of the mad pandemic rush for comics.
If you told me in 2011 that Ultimate Fallout #4 (a comic book printed that year) would sell for $15,000 10 years later, I’d have added you to my idiot list—but that’s what people are paying right now. No need to rush to your cellar to dig out the stained, dog-eared comics you’ve lugged around since college. The chances you are holding a hidden treasure are about the same as of you having a valuable rare coin in your change jug.
At the same time, interest in comic books as both a short-term and long-term investment has exploded over the last couple of years, completely changing the market and business model for people like Sean Goodrich, co-owner of Dotcom Comics in Freeport, Maine and its online counterpart, sellmycomicbooks.com.
From the outside, Dotcom Comics looks like a quaint little business providing some local flavor to contrast the LL Bean and other high-end outlet stores surrounding it. Unknown to most is that behind that storefront hides one of the most prolific and well-known international comic re-selling operations in North America.
That’s a pretty radical change from just six years ago, when Sean was flying solo, buying and selling online from his home. It’s been a pretty unlikely comeback story for the industry as a whole, something no one really saw coming 13 years ago.
According to Sean (and other industry experts), the seeds for the current surge were actually planted back in 2008, with the Marvel Studios release of the first Iron Man movie.
“The creation of the MCU is absolutely the most impactful event for the comic book industry I’ve ever seen,” he said. (MCU, or “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” has produced 23 superhero movies and counting, plus dozens of cartoons and TV shows). The MCU introduced comic books to hundreds of millions of potential new fans, and has created entire generations that have grown up in an environment where superhero content is mainstream rather than nerd-only. The oldest of those generations—in their late 20s and early 30s—have the means to collect and/or invest in comics books.
This huge influx of new buyers in what was a stagnant and steadily aging community had already begun a revitalization of the market that spurred an overall surge in pricing as far back as 2017 for key books. As prices and buyer demand continued to rise, so did the number of people reaching out to sellmycomicbooks.com looking to and cash in by selling their collections.
In 2017, Sean had to move his business out of his home to an office to gain space for the incoming books. By the middle of 2018, they needed even more space, expanding into the company’s current multi-unit office in Freeport, where the vast majority of their floor space is used as temporary storage for the collections they purchase and vet for resale. The opening of the retail store, Sean said in an interview, “was kind of an afterthought.” “The unit had a storefront built in, so we were like, Why not? It was in the middle of this surge that COVID hit—with an unexpected impact.
As COVID lockdowns began in March of last year, creating record unemployment and financial hardship for so many, Sean said he and his business partner expected there would be an even bigger increase in the number of people looking to sell their collections because they needed money. Instead, they saw an immediate and unprecedented surge in people looking to buy. The reality, they realized, is that as difficult as COVID had been for many, millions of people were looking for new places to spend disposable income with restaurants, bars, movies, sporting events, concerts, etc. shut down. Sean noted that they also saw even higher concentrated spikes of buying whenever a round of government ‘stimulus’ checks hit. As with any finite commodity, increased demand quickly led to increased prices for books across the board. The cycle reached a level similar to Bitcoin, where FOMO has led to even more people jumping on board, still buying comics at a record pace even while most books are at their highest prices ever.
On a macro level, the business model has remained enviously simple: Sean’s partner (sellmycomicbooks.com’s founder Ashley Cotter-Cairns) vets incoming solicitations from people looking to sell their collections and makes offers. Purchased collections are shipped to Freeport to be sorted by Sean for resale. What’s surprising is the scale: Ashley receives dozens of incoming solicitations a week, purchasing about 10 to 12 of them. The result is an average inventory of over 900,000 comic books (over 3,000 “long boxes”) stored in their offices at any given time. It’s a dizzying sight.
With such a massive inventory and the two-year run of unprecedented increases in book values across the board have come changes in both business strategy and operations for Sean and Ashley, as some of the most time-trusted axioms of the industry are falling to the wayside. One example is books from the 1990s. Long considered a wasteland for resellers due to massively high print runs, gimmicky covers, and a flood of shitty titles, many are now becoming legitimate resell targets as people who read them as teens are hitting middle age and reaching back to them nostalgically. An even bigger change has been in the relationship between supply and demand. In general, the value of comic books has traditionally been strongly tied to supply (i.e. mostly just rare, harder to find key books went up significantly in value), but now even extremely common and easy-to-find key books are exploding.
Amazing Spider-Man #300 (a relative youngster, published in 1988) had a print run of around 300,000 copies. It’s a key issue for several reasons, but it was one of the most popular titles at the time, highly collected, and has never been considered “rare.” Professionally graded near-mint copies were selling for as little as $900 in 2018. Today, the same book is fetching $6,000. Similar jumps across so many easily-found books “has changed our focus,” Sean said. Whereas in the past it was a common strategy to accumulate key books and hold them until you got “your price,” the sheer volume of books coming in and the number of buyers has made it much more profitable to focus on volume of sales rather than “trying to squeeze every dollar out of every book,” he said. The switch to a more “priced to sell” mindset has been a win-win, as buyers see books at less than market-max pricing, and the company saw all-time highs in both gross sales and profits in 2020 and are on pace to eclipse those numbers in 2021.
People in the industry are asking how much of the current pricing surge is a bubble destined to burst, and how much (if any) will be sustainable. Memories of the last crash in the mid-1990s and the unprecedented climb in pricing has many of them nervous. While Sean agrees that “there will be an eventual correction of some kind—nothing goes up forever,” he sees many reasons for optimism. The fact that the MCU is still as popular as ever means more generations of kids growing up with comic book heroes. More importantly, he said, “Unlike the ’90s, which was all speculators, a lot of the new interest is young people buying because they actually like the new characters and stories.”