11 Life Lessons Gleaned From the Stories Behind Some of History’s Most Incredible Comic Collection Finds
1. The Allentown Collection
I started reading comics in the early 1980s, back when I was just one of thousands of pre-adolescent kids living in remote Canadian towns and looking for something to do that didn’t involve sports, underage drinking or ritualistic animal abuse. I started out young with a box of Archie and Uncle Scrooge comics given to me by an older cousin, but it was a steady diet of Spider-Man and Super Friends cartoons that led me to the spinner rack at our local drugstore, where I ended up buying one copy of almost every comic that came through our town between 1986 and 1991. I’d like to think the thrill I felt the first time I plunked down 75 cents for an issue of Marvel Tales was similar to that felt by a young boy in Allentown, Penn., in 1939, when he first paid 10 cents for an issue of Detective Comics #27. Fast forward to almost a half-century later; with his mother now in a nursing home, the grown-up boy faced the chore of cleaning out his childhood home. He assumed his mother had thrown out all his comics when he had moved away (this was back when the idea of saving a disposable piece of entertainment like a comic book was almost laughable), so you can only imagine his surprise when he found his beloved books tucked away in a closet, untouched since the day he left them there. Totalling about 137 issues, the Allentown Collection (as it came to be called) would turn out to contain some of the best-preserved copies of key Golden Age comics in existence, including the first six issues of Batman, Detective Comics #26-#48 and the first 16 issues of Fox’s Mystery Men Comics.
The life lesson: Cleaning house can be a chore, but it can also be fun and profitable. And always be nice to your mother.
2. The IRS Collection
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of money amassing my collection, but resorting to outright crime to buy comics starring costumed crimefighters always seemed too ironic even for me. Aran Stubbs, an employee for the Colorado Department of Revenue, felt differently. Always good with computers, Stubbs worked his way up the career ladder to become CDR’s chief computer programmer in 1990, a position that afforded him unique opportunities to fill the holes in his massive comic collection (60,000 at one point, with the more valuable copies stored in three freezers). In 1991, he re-jiggered the agency’s system to divert tax refunds due to dead people (which happened whenever someone prepaid an estimated tax but died before receiving their refund) to accounts he set up; he then spent several months enjoying a cross-country shopping spree, making massive orders with mail-order dealers and always paying with cash. His scheme fell apart when a Michigan comic dealer got suspicious and contacted CDR; the department’s investigators were already tracking a thief within their ranks, and the comic angle nailed Stubbs as a culprit. He pleaded guilty to embezzlement of public property, a crime for which he could have gotten 16 years in prison, but he instead received four years’ probation and was ordered to forfeit his entire collection to repay what he stole (which was estimated to be between $150,000 to $500,000, though no one knows for sure). To this day, items from “the IRS Collection” (a misnomer that stuck despite the fact the IRS was never involved in the arrest) pop up on eBay and in other places complete with certificates of authenticity printed up by the dealer that took them off of CDR’s hands — proving, as if anyone needed proof, that comic collectors will always have a place for a rogue within their ranks.
The life lesson: Do you really want to end up in front of a judge explaining how you embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars and risked your job and freedom to buy comic books? No? All right, then. Don’t steal, simple as that.
3. The Edgar Church/Mile High Collection
The phone call that changed Chuck Rozanski’s life came in 1977. He had opened a Colorado comic shop three years earlier with a few hundred dollars and 20 boxes of comics, but this was something entirely different. A relative of retired commercial artist Edgar Church (who was 94 and in an old-age home at the time) asked if he would come out to look at some comic books… “some” in this instance meaning 18,000 unblemished and unbelievably pristine copies of practically every comic book published in the U.S. between 1939 and 1953. It was literally every comic collector’s dream come true, and now Rozanski, as the appraiser and potential buyer in this scenario, had a difficult choice to make: should he downplay their value and reap the rewards for himself or should he help them get top dollar for the lot? Rozanski, who was 21 at the time, has never publicly talked about the specifics of the transaction, citing the Church family’s request for discretion (and let’s face it, it’s doubtful anything he said could ever stop other dealers from flinging mud his way), but that collection was the beginning of his Mile High Comics empire. Just how important was this find in comic history? Ernie Gerber, author of The Photo-Journal Guide to Comic Books, once likened the collection to the discovery of 3,000 previously unknown Rembrandt paintings: simply too unimaginable to even consider until it happens.
The life lesson: In every business dealing, be true to your word. “No matter how I respond, I leave myself open to criticism,” Rozanski told the authors of Comics Between the Panels. “I promised I would be discreet about the deal, that I would reveal nothing, and I have been true to that. There are very few people that will promise to keep their mouth shut and keep their word.”
4. The Cosmic Aeroplane Collection
“Pedigree” collections are those collections that meet the following criteria: (1) They consist of books that were collected by one individual during the time the comics were published and distributed. (2) They contain must contain a significant number of key or rare issues, or represent a significant portion of a particular genre, company, period, or title/character. (3) They consist of books that are generally in better-than-average condition. (More info can be found at the Comic Book Pedigrees site, a handy reference for anyone looking into the history of famous comic collections.) The Mile High Collection was the first to be recognized as a pedigree; Cosmic Aeroplane was the second. Discovered in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1972, the collection was raided by a few collectors before it was sold to David Faggiola, owner of Salt Lake City’s Cosmic Aeroplane bookstore. The books were collected by an art teacher during the 1940s and ’50s to use as teaching aids for his students; many of the books feature checkmarks and notations written in pencil in the page margins or on the cover as a result. Rumored to include between 2,000 and 3,000 comics (we’ll never know for sure because many books were sold before the collection was recognized as such), the collection includes such key issues as Flash #1, Showcase #4 (featuring the first appearance of the Silver Age Flash), and Adventure Comics #40 (the first appearance of the Golden Age Sandman).
The life lesson: Life lessons can come from anywhere, even within the pages of a comic book (or on a blog about obscure comic trivia).
5. The Comstock Lode
The standard plotline goes something like this: a comic fan is approached by an elderly woman whose husband/son/father has just passed away, and she would like to know if the comics she found while clearing out his things are worth anything. Cut to the same wide-eyed comic fan now inspecting the books in question and realizing he is standing in the presence of greatness… and the source of great wealth, if he plays his cards right (see the 2002 film Comic Book Villains for a darker take on this story). Such discoveries are rare these days, partly because there are only so many Golden Age books left to find and partly because these days even octogenarian shut-ins know that old comics can be valuable. But many collectors still dream of the big score… and who can blame them with stories like the Comstock Lode to inspire them? Named after the first major discovery of silver and gold ore in the U.S., the Comstock Lode (also known as the Carson City collection) came to light in the 1990s when an elderly Nevada woman was liquidating the contents of two shacks full of newspapers and periodicals left behind by her late husband, a man with a passion for collecting everything. As it turned out, he had saved a copy of nearly every periodical that passed through the door of his tobacco and candy store during the 1940s and ‘50s, including several hundred comics that he had carefully placed in between newspapers. Thanks to the desert air and the layers of protective paper, the comics were in immaculate condition with near-white pages, and the collection yielded an impressive number of #1 issues, including Marvel Comics #1, All Select Comics #1, Mystery Men Comics #1, and the best existing copy of 1939’s New York World’s Fair Comic.
The life lesson: Never judge a book by its cover… or a Nevada shack by its tarpaper roof.
6. The Denver Collection
The real reason why a well-preserved copy of Detective Comics #27 or Action Comics #1 can command upwards of $1-million and your near-mint copy of, say, Spawn #1 will never, ever fetch that much is as simple as supply and demand: in the 1930s and ’40s, when comics were just starting out, they were seen as disposable entertainment and treated with about as much respect as yesterday’s newspaper. That’s why, of the millions of Golden Age comics printed, only a relative handful have survived, and fewer still in anything approaching a collectible condition. But even back then, there must have been a few forward-thinking people banking on a future market for collectible comics, because how else do you explain collections like this? Discovered by Denver-area antique dealers in the estate of a woman who used to run a newsstand, all 153 comics in the Denver Collection are perfectly preserved #1 issues from series between 1938 and 1944, including All-Select #1, Green Lantern #1, Planet Comics #1, Classic Comics #1 and Sensation Comics #1. If that doesn’t sound like a modern-day comic investor thinking ahead, I don’t know what does.
The life lesson: Everything has an intrinsic value to it, particularly if it’s in precious supply. The trick is knowing ahead of time what treasures will someday be in precious supply, so learn to master that trick.
7. The Lamont Larson Collection
As you can tell from this list, most comic collections are named after the locations in which they were discovered, the identities of the original collectors often lost to the sands of time. Not so with this collection of 1,000 Golden Age books, all of which prominently featured Lamont Larson’s name across the cover. Because nobody knew who Larson was for decades after his stash was discovered, the mystique surrounding these issues made them highly sought-after collectors’ items. Born in Nebraska in 1927, Larson began reading comics in 1936, picking up issues at the local drugstore. Because he sometimes missed an issue, the store owner offered to put Larson’s name on one copy of each issue that came in so that he could pick them up at his leisure. Larson stopped reading comics in 1941, but he carefully stored his comics in a box that ended up in a barn for the next 30 years. When a Cleveland dealer unearthed this treasure in the early ’70s, he jealously guarded the identity of the original owner, and it took another comic collector to track Larson down and solve one of the biggest mysteries among comic collectors. Aside from the mystery, the Lamont Larson collection is highly prized because it contains some of the scarcest comics known to exist — including one of the few surviving copies of Superman’s first appearance, Action Comics #1.
The life lesson: A little mystery in one’s life is always a good thing. Also, be on good terms with your local pharmacist.
8. The Vancouver Collection
One of the more recent collections to come to light, the Vancouver collection derives its name from the city on Canada’s West Coast where it was first unearthed at an estate sale in 1996 by an antiques dealer. Little is known about the original owner other than he or she may have owned a bookstore at one point; the dealer declined to give any details when asked by a Globe and Mail newspaper reporter. The books themselves were stored between newspapers and left untouched since 1955. Running the gamut of genres from 1939 to 1953, the collection is a plethora of single issues, ranging from the obscure (Tally-Ho) to the popular (Namora #1). The 253 books, according to a 2007 auction catalogue, exhibit an unparalleled whiteness thanks to “Canada’s naturally cool climate,” which allowed the comics to “remain in the gleaming, near-pristine condition in which we find them today.” Anyone who has visited Canada’s West Coast (affectionately called “the Wet Coast” by locals) will tell you that’s not the whole story, but it makes for great copy.
The life lesson: Is anyone else noticing the trend here of books stored in between newspapers lasting for decades in pristine condition? Maybe the lesson here is “don’t buy stock in Mylar” – or at least, don’t assume the more expensive storage option is necessarily the better one.
9. The King Collection
As already noted, large collections from the Golden Age (in comic book terms, the 1930s to the 1950s) are nearly impossible to find anymore because very few people back then saw them as anything more than cheap, disposable entertainment. As for complete runs of a series, forget about it – very few kids in those days had enough dimes to keep up with their heroes, not to mention the kind of bedroom space needed to store their collections. Wartime paper drives, housecleaning parents, silverfish, mildew, friends and younger siblings with destructive tendencies – there were a lot of ways to lose your comics back then. Publishers and artists may have kept comics as file copies, but that was pretty much it. So you can imagine a Hollywood bookstore owner’s skepticism when he was contacted by Antane King of Rhode Island in response to a newspaper ad he placed in 1954 seeking old comics. What are you looking for, King asked. What have you got, the store owner replied. King sent him a list, and over the next few years the owner would make regular bicycle rides to the post office to pick up parcels from King filled with comics – 10 cents each, plus shipping. Later shipments, like one containing the 30 oldest Captain America comics, would cost a nickel per issue; in all, the owner bought 3,025 mint-condition books for $160.25. King never revealed where the comics came from, and when the two finally met, the owner could only ask if he had any more. (He didn’t.)
The life lesson: It pays to advertise.
10. The San Francisco Collection
Not every story about a fantastic find of comic treasures is a happy one. In 1973, a man arrived at a comic convention in Berkeley, Calif., with a large canvas-lined trunk. He met with Michael Manyak, one of the organizers, and asked if he was interested in buying some comics. As Manyak and his partner eagerly dug through the books (a Captain America #1, wrapped in a loose rubber band, was sitting right on top of the pile), they learned the books originally belonged to the man’s nephew, who went off to war in the ‘40s but asked his father to continue buying his favourite comics for when he returned. The father dutifully followed instructions until he received news of his son’s death overseas, and for the next 30 years the books sat untouched in his room. When the soldier’s parents died, the house passed on to his uncle, who found the books while clearing out the place. The entire collection was in perfect condition, with three-fourths of the collection stamped with the surname of the original owner, Reilly, on the back cover. A deal was made on the spot, and the books were later sold off to different collectors (or stolen out of the back of Manyak’s store); because many of the books were sold before they were recognized as a pedigree collection, it’s hard to say how many there were originally, though some estimates have gone as high as 5,000. Certainly, the fact that most of them bear the distinctive name stamp on the back helps identify new copies when they come up for sale.
The life lesson: You never know how you’ll end up making your mark, so just enjoy life while you can.
11. The EC Comics Collection
The year 1956 was a dangerous time to be an EC Comics fan; with the Comics Code in full force and do-gooder parents scouring bedrooms in search of any and all offensive comics, many EC Comics were destined for the trashcan or the bonfire. Young Jim Stewart knew he had to keep his books safe, so he wrapped them in storm-window plastic and laid them inside a wooden chest at the foot of his Portland, Ore., bed – a secured location his mother would never be able to open without a key. Fast forward about 20 years; now an adult, Stewart faced an ultimatum from his wife: those wretched comics of his were not coming with them to their new house. Stewart called a local store, figuring they were worth about $40; when the obviously excited owner offered $4,000, Stewart knew there was more to this than he thought. Later learning his collection of 500-600 pristine issues were worth between $30,000 and $40,000, he decided to hold on to them for a while – but then his wife took ill and they needed the money to pay for a rare medical procedure. As it turned out, the sale of the comics netted them enough to pay for the operation with enough left over for a Caribbean vacation… where, sources tell us, his wife admitted she had changed her mind about those comics.
The life lesson: Every life partner comes with his or her little quirks and oddities that make them special. Learn to love the quirks, and they just might love you back someday.