World photo/Kathryn Stevens
World photo/Kathryn Stevens
Super powers have their price
Aren’t comic books supposed to be Everyman’s cheap distraction?
Well, sort of, said Dean Ball, owner of Galaxy Comics in Wenatchee.
But here’s the hitch: the rise of comic books as prime collectibles, improved comic art and printing processes, along with the rising costs of everything over the last two decades have pushed prices higher and higher.
Ball said he remembers buying used comics as a kid in The Dalles, Ore., for 5 cents each. Back then, the price for new issues was 10 cents and had been for two decades. When the price leaped to 12 cents, “there was a huge outcry,” said Ball, “with people predicting all kinds of doom and gloom for the industry.”
When Galaxy opened in 1986, the price of a new comic was 75 cents. Now it’s generally $2.99 or $3.99, with some special issues priced a dollar or two more. Multiple issues collected in larger volumes can run $15 to $50.
In 1966, a copy of the first Superman comic — 1938’s Action Comics No. 1 — sold for about $100. In 2010, it sold for $1 million, while a comic featuring the first appearance of Batman sold that year for even more.
Believe it or not, the ultra-camp TV series “Batman” in the 1960s helped transform comic books into valued collectibles, said Ball.
“That show was part of growing up as a baby boomer,” he said. “And, later, when they became nostalgic for their youth, Batman and other superheroes were favorite memories.”
So a surge in comic book sales came in the 1980s and ’90s when boomers began yearning for the superheroes of their youth. That demand has fallen off slightly in the last few years, said Hall, as boomers have matured, the scramble for vintage issues has slowed and collectible prices have soared.
— Mike Irwin, World staff
Where: 1720 Fifth St., Suite D
Open: noon to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; noon to 4 p.m. Saturday.
WENATCHEE — Dean Ball, the region’s comic book king, has pretty much seen it all: Superman’s death. Batman’s rebirth. Spider-Man’s wedding. Even Archie’s lame, fantasy marriage proposals to both Betty and Veronica.
“All those twists and turns and big suprises have kept generations of people interested in the characters,” said Ball, who — at age 58 — has been fascinated with comic books for about 54 years. “You get hooked, and you keep reading, issue after issue. Even years later, it’s hard to stop.”
Ball’s Galaxy Comics, now celebrating 25 years as the center for superheroes in North Central Washington, has drawn thousands of local comic fans desperate for the next installment of the Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, the Green Arrow, the Green Goblin and every other shade of champion and evildoer the industry has churned out.
Shelves in the compact shop are lined with hundreds of recent issues — Thor, Batgirl, Justice League, Captain America, you name it — and bins on the opposite wall are filled with back issues. Publishers include the industry leaders of DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Disney, along with a smattering of smaller presses.
Also, a sprinkling of action figures, posters and other comic book spin-offs dot the store.
“We try to carry a little bit of everything,” said Ball, “but there’s so much stuff out there now — movies, video games, figurines, lots of other collectibles — that it’s hard to keep up. Thankfully, the comic book is still where it all begins.”
Ball got his own comic book beginnings in The Dalles, Ore., where he and his brother, John, sat in the family’s backyard absorbed in the adventures of Superman and Batman. Ball was only 4 years old at the time.
Since then, Galaxy’s owner has closely followed the Man of Steel’s storyline, collecting every single Superman issue without a break since 1970 — 41 years of Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Lex Luthor, Krypton and last-minute, planet-saving heroics. In 1979, he even published a Superman fan magazine, authorized by DC, that indexed the cultural icon’s adventures from 1970 to 1980.
“He was the first real superhero, and he just caught my imagination,” said Ball. “He embodies all the right qualities — he’s good, brave, strong — to make the perfect hero.”
But, said Ball, his comic book interests are wide-ranging.
He’s also collected most of the first 100 issues of the Fantastic Four, one of Marvel Comics’ signature series, along with key issues of Thor, Spider-Man and many others.
In the 1970s, Ball studied journalism at Wenatchee Valley College and earned a degree at The Evergreen State College, where he syndicated his own comic strip to about half a dozen college newspapers. After graduation, he returned to Wenatchee to work in radio for 13 years.
But his fascination with superheroes led him in the mid-1980s to begin visiting comic book stores to see how they operated, made money and stayed in business. “The more I investigated, the more I realized that this could work.”
In 1986, he bought inventory and fixtures from a comic book dealer who ran a home-based business in East Wenatchee. From there, Galaxy Comics — zcomics.net/galaxy.htm — spiraled into existence in a strip mall at the corner of Fifth Street and Western Avenue and has been there ever since.
And, like many situations in the comic world, business at Galaxy has had its ups and downs, victories and defeats.
For instance, the ages of comics’ buyers also have shifted in the last quarter century, noted Ball.
In 1987, Ball estimated that only one-third of his customers were over the age of 20. Now, more than two-thirds are over the age of 30, and the largest traditional segment of buyers — high school males — has dwindled in the face of competition from video games and online entertainment.
The best news in the last 25 years has been the computerization of the industry, said Ball, who bought his first computer in 1990 and hasn’t looked back. “It’s greatly simplified ordering, tracking inventory and improving customer service, particularly the search for specific issues for collectors and dealers.”
He laughed. “That seemed so futuristic then — working on computers — like something right out of a comic book.”
And speaking of the future … how are comic books surviving in this digital age?
“I’m always optimistic about this industry,” he said. “Every year, we hear all kinds of dire predictions about the end of comics. But the truth is that good writers and artists continue to bring new things to the medium.”
He glanced over at a new graphic novel of the Green Lantern, a tie-in to the movie that opens June 17. “These new things keep readers excited,” he said. “There’s a ‘wow’ factor to it that keeps them coming back.”
Mike Irwin: 665-1179
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