‘Lost universe’ comics find devoted following amongst collectors

A Top-Notch Comics #2, January 1940, from MLJ Magazines, featuring Jack Cole and Mort Meskin art, sold for $9,257 + the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in March 2017. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A ‘Top-Notch Comics’ #2, January 1940, from MLJ Magazines, featuring Jack Cole and Mort Meskin art, sold for $9,257 plus buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in March 2017. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — While comic book fans obviously know DC Comics and Marvel, there are legions of other comics universes worth collecting. Some were short-lived and only in production for a few years but have re-emerged over the past few years to attract a loyal following. Referring to these series as “lost” or “dead” universes, J.C. Vaughn, vice-president of publishing for Gemstone Publishing, home of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, says there are all sorts of individual comics that come and go. “Some of them, through time, find an audience for a while and lose it but sometimes there is a whole universe of characters,” he said.

For people who throw the “universe” term around, many are typically superhero fans though it is not exclusive to that genre. Comics do seem to focus heavily on superheroes though. Take MLJ Magazines, for instance. The company began publishing mostly superhero comics in 1939 but publishes today as Archie Comics. Archie Andrews made his debut in MLJ’s Pep Comics #22 issue in December 1940 and got his own comics line two years later.

Before he got his own line of comics, Archie made his cover debut as a character in Jackpot Comics #4. This copy took $7,000 + the buyer’s premium at Weiss Auctions in November 2020. Photo courtesy of Weiss Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Before he got his own line of comics, Archie made his cover debut as a character in ‘Jackpot Comics’ #4. This copy made $7,000 plus buyer’s premium at Weiss Auctions in November 2020. Photo courtesy of Weiss Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

“Before Archie took over and pushed everybody aside, they were a superhero publisher and actually published the first patriotic superhero before World War II pre-dating Captain America by months,” Vaughn said. “He was called ‘The Shield,’ and one of the things that happens is Archie periodically will bring these characters back. So starting with what we call the Golden Age, the 1940s, on up to the present there are six and, starting this summer, seven different iterations of these heroes you might want to collect. As a group they are called ‘The Mighty Crusaders,’ and you might choose to collect the ones from the 1940s or you might want to collect all of them,” he said, highlighting two of the ways collectors refine their approach.

A Pep Comics #22 (MLJ, 1941) fetched $30,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2012 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

An example of ‘Pep Comics’ #22 (MLJ, 1941) fetched $30,000 plus buyer’s premium in May 2012 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

And as in soap operas, “dead”doesn’t usually mean “dead” in the comics world. Sometimes a comic character needed to rest for a while, awaiting a new artist/writer to offer a new take on the character to reinvigorate it. Interestingly, The Shield was recently resurrected in a new series of Mighty Crusaders one-shots.

Evincing the trend of characters appearing in one comic and later being resurrected in another brand is Captain Atom. The renowned team of writer Joe Gill and artist Steve Ditko created the character, who debuted in Space Adventures #33 for Charlton Comics. Captain Atom later was acquired by DC Comics and became part of DC storylines. Vaughn said Charlton was very well known in the 1960s and ’70s, and some of their superheroes included the Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and The Question.

A copy of Charlton Comics’ Captain Atom #83 (November 1966) realized $275 + the buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. This issue marked the debut of the Silver Age Blue Beetle character. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

A copy of Charlton Comics’ ‘Captain Atom’ #83 (November 1966) realized $275 plus buyer’s premium in December 2018 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. This issue marked the debut of the Silver Age Blue Beetle character. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

“I don’t want to slight them but they are not top-tier. They’re sort of second-tier characters at DC Comics, now,” he said. “There are people who have discovered them through DC publications that go back and look at the stuff that came out in the ’60s.”

Movies and television shows based on comic books continue to drive interest to back issues of comics as collectors become eager to collect source material. Marvel Cinematic Universe’s success with the Avengers movies is arguably the most successful, but there are others.

“Milestone, which was a comic company dedicated to creating very diverse superheroes with diverse creators, published through DC Comics in the 1990s for about a four-year period,” Vaughn said. “They put out some great stuff and are about to return in the next couple of months. They have some movie deals in the works, so you can look for that. That will definitely be something that attracts people to the back issues. We’ve seen movies and TV shows driving speculation in these things like crazy.”

Among the top ways to build a collection in this comics genre is collecting by company (or publisher). A collector might focus on a company like First Comics, Valiant or Defiant. “These are small, sometimes short-lived, companies that for whatever reason still have some level of devoted following,” he said.

Some people like to collect by genre. “There is a very solid group that collects mainly the DC war comics, and there are many others besides DC. Collectors sometimes pay record prices for something they want that’s within their collecting category.”

Another popular way to collect is by the creator. Just as many people have their favorite author or favorite artist, comic book fans have their favorite writer and artist. “I think one of the most interesting ways to collect is to find a creator whose vision you like. You can follow them from company to company and title to title,” Vaughn said.

Among these is Jim Shooter, who started writing Legion of Superheroes for DC as a teenager. He eventually became editor-in-chief for Marvel, then founder of Valiant Comics and Defiant Comics. “Neither one of them worked out for him, but it hasn’t stopped him from creating.”

The work of Joe Quesada, who cultivated a following when illustrating Valiant titles, is also very collectible. He went on to create the Marvel Knights universe in 1998 for Marvel, but his early titles are also desirable.

This Valiant Comics Harbinger #1 brought $550 + the buyer’s premium in September 2019 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

This Valiant Comics ‘Harbinger’ #1 earned $550 plus buyer’s premium in September 2019 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Vaughn offers the same advice for comics collectors here as with any collectible. “Collect what you love. Play around until you find what you love because when you find it, then you are never going to go wrong,” he said. “If you spend ‘too much’ money on an issue, you’re never going to regret it if you love the thing.”

Historically, comics have proved solid investments over the long term. The pandemic has helped drive the collectibles industry as many people are spending more time at home and rediscovering nostalgia for their childhoods.

“This is a phenomenally interesting time for many different collectibles right now because there are people who have their income but have been forced to stay home and they are not spending their vacation money. All of a sudden, they have money for some big-ticket items so we are seeing huge prices in many collectible categories from sports cards on up.”

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