Last Thursday, a comic collector parted with one of his most valuable, favorite comics. He had collected Archie Comics for years, and had issue #1 in his collection. The comic was put up at auction, and got over $38,000 for it. Was he sad, regretful, disappointed? No: owner Dave Luebke was glad to get rid of it. This spring’s announcement that Archie was going ask Veronica’s hand in marriage was the final straw. Luebke’s love for Archie had reached its limit, because, well, everybody knows Archie should be with Betty.
Sure, there’s probably a bit of grandstanding on both sides of the story: Luebke got more attention with his denouncement of Archie than he would have with an otherwise low-key auction, but the general sentiment on Archie message boards is that the marriage storyline will turn out to be a dream, in that oft-annoying trope used by trapped storylines to go a bit out of the box they’ve built. This marriage announcement comes on the heels of an equally poorly-received “New Look” redesign two years ago, so fans are worried that these attention-grabbing upheavals could be a sign of a failing title.
Twists have always been a big part of comic books: Spiderman gets a new costume, Robins die left and right, backs are broken and miraculously healed for Batman and Iron Man. It takes a big event to get the public to notice though, to register to people who aren’t already hoping for the next Big Thing in comics to arrive. In the case of Superman, a year of planning and development went into one of the biggest comic twists of recent history. Nobody was ignorant of the fact that Superman died – it was all over television, newspapers, and the burgeoning internet – so when Superman’s “final” issue hit stands, people lined up at comic shops to get their copy, and collectors interested in an heirloom picked up the Special Edition, in a black bag and packaged with a black armband.
Of course, when you kill off an essentially indestructible character, and the mainstay of your comic book publishing catalog, there’s going to be talk of bringing him back. It doesn’t appear the writers ever intended for Superman to stay dead, and fans began to grumble about it all being a publicity stunt. The Death of Superman resulted in negative responses on both ends: DC first got bags of mail criticizing their decision to kill of the most unkillable character in comic book history, but when they brought Supes back to life with nary a change, they were scolded for not leaving things the way they were, erasing a rather significant event in the DC universe. And, of course, collectors who were so certain that their bagged, Special Edition comic would be worth a lot of money as Superman’s last performance in ink, well, were disappointed that they were one of several hundred thousand people who all thought the same way, and those Death of Superman issues haven’t gone up significantly in price. As a publicity stunt goes, however, the Superman franchise did see an upsurge in interest, and it gave the flagging 1990s comic book market a boost.
A few years later, the same fate befell Captain America – the media jumped all over Cap’s demise, brought down by a handgun, but the circumstances of his death were the more media-friendly part of his story. Marvel have been undergoing an arc storyline in which mutants and other superheroes had to register, to verify their secret identities to the government, so that they may be monitored. In the post-9/11 world, the symbolism of the Superhuman Registration Act wasn’t lost on the public, and killing off Captain America only encouraged its use as a symbolic reference to American democracy as a whole. Like Superman, however, Cap’n didn’t stay dead for long: it turned out he wasn’t shot by a normal gun, but one that eventually allowed him return to his former status as a superhero. Again, non-comic-book collectors queued up to get their Death of Captain America issue, many in hopes of it becoming a collector’s edition.
When the Archie Comic’s issue finally comes out in September, and we all find out Archie was just daydreaming, or time travelling, or living out curses while being banished to Limbo, that particular issue won’t necessarily be the collector’s item – the intention is to sell far, far more copies than the average comic, so the anticipated issue is unlikely to become rare, aside from errors. Luebke was on the right track: when public interest in a comic book begins to bleed into the general pop culture consciousness, the value of the older, genuine collectible issues will go up. Even if you’re in the disillusioned group who thinks having the Fantastic Four becoming an team of supervillians (whoops, spoiler?) is a sacrilege and a publicity stunt, the media attention might be making those Shogun Warriors cross-over comics worth something. It’s not a guarantee, so don’t make a big investment in anticipation of guaranteed returns, but do strike while the iron’s hot, and if you’ve got something you’re willing to part with, doing the sale while public attention is high will be to your advantage. While the death of a main character seems to be a big mover, the Archie stunts show it doesn’t need to be tragic: just enough to get the public riled up over what’s happening in the funny pages.