In the early 1970s, not having read a comic book in 20 years, my interest was re-drawn to them by the question of what gave value to art. I had considered comic books worth a dime, since this is what I had paid for them. But this was no longer the case. Value, it turned out, was affected by such factors as the amount of stain from staple rust and whether a woman was being stabbed in the eye on the front cover by a hypodermic needle.
I learned this after deciding to satisfy a craving gnawing at me since my parents had forbidden me to purchase certain EC comics. A tip had led me to The Comic Buyers’ Guide, through which dealers peddled their stock. I offered $5 (later raised to $10) for each issue I desired, regardless of condition, blinded damsels, or asking price. Enough people sold to me that I probably assembled the world’s most poorly conditioned, not-quite-complete EC collection extant. But what interested me more was the advertisers who ignored my offers and, in subsequent ads, raised their prices. They seemed to ignore the basic economic principle promulgated by William Goldman in Adventures in the Screen Trade. When asked if Robert Redford was worth $10 million a picture, Goldman replied, “He is if somebody will pay it.”
Which leads me to Fogel’s Underground Price & Grading Guide (Hippy Comix. 2015). [DISCLOSURE: A quarter-page ad for books of my authorship appears therein. This was neither paid for by me, my publisher, nor any action committee on my behalf. Its presence should not stop anyone from accepting the impartiality of the following remarks – or from purchasing any of these “Three Classics of Comics History.”]
FUGG devotes 204 of its 336 pages to an issue-by-issue evaluation of over 2200 titles. (A 2006 edition evaluated 1700 titles, so either the UG has expanded by thirty percent in nine years or some high quality sleuthing has been going on in back rooms, cellars and old trunks.) Fogel aims to standardize the “estimated retail value” for those selling UGs at conventions, on the Internet, or collector-to-collector. (Those hoping to cash in their holdings at stores are warned that the profit motive will oblige owners to offer, if anything, only an unspecified “wholesale percentage.”) He has based his recommended prices on his 40 years in the business, plus input from more than 80 advisers. (He only had 50-plus advisers last go-round. Whether this additional wisdom has increased accuracy or is a case of too-many cooks is for others to determine.)
The results of these deliberations come accompanied a grab-bag of contributions that seem to have been culled by an UG-appropriate editorial philosophy of “Well, like, man, you know, I mean...” These include a terrific Frank Stack (“Foolbert Sturgeon”) cover, eulogies to recently departed UG notables; full-color salutes to others; black and white photos of still more; a few pages of un-noteworthy drawings; a strip plugging an upcoming price guide to rock posters; a sketchy history of Zap; overviews on the UG market today in Sonoma County, Canada – and nowhere else; and a couple unremarkable memories of people involved in the field one way or another. The final product informs and charms. It’s a solid achievement of hard work and true love, and you damn sure can’t find better.
To begin with, how reliable can a price guide be?
The first one I bought (Overstreet’s 10th ed. 1980) provided three grades per book (“Good,” “Fine,” “Mint”), while proposing seven more (“Pristine Mint” to “Coverless”) for consideration. Fogel also provides three, down-grading his best to “Near Mint”; but he also presents a full-page analysis of 13 possibilities (“Mint” to “Poor”), and an Appendix, listing 35, including seven shadings of “Mint” alone, and is so full of +s, -s, and /s, as to suggest, for instance, (“GD/VG”), that a comic can be better than “GD+” without attaining “VG-”hood. To make these distinctions, one must be able to tell the “first purchased” from the “never handled,” “subtle” from “slightest” bindery defects, “no” from “minimal” ink fadage, and the “well-centered” from the “generally well-centered.” One imagines the attempts to arrive at truth in such an arena under such directions as making the Disputation of Paris seem as harmonious as the Human Be-In.
Then there is the matter of what is an underground comic? The only attempt I saw at a definition was the UG dealer Bruce Sweeney’s channeling of Mr. Justice Stewart on pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I know it when I see it.” (Actually Sweeney wrote, “Like rock music, I know (an UG comic) when I see it.” And if he identifies a comic’s nature visually as well as, one presumes, he identifies music visually, it is no wonder boundaries appear to blur.) But to return to Jacobellis, given the plentitude of the arguably socially unredemptive, X-rated among FUGG’s listings, smut-quotient may well have had something to do with its decision-making on inclusivity.
Yet heads may be scratched. S. Clay Wilson, by any measure, penis-and-vagina count included, is an underground cartoonist; but no one I’ve read before has suggested his portfolio of drawings, which Charles Plymell published in 1967, was a comic. And Maus may have originated in Funny Animals, but the Pantheon hard-cover A Survivor’s Tale is a book, not a comic, by any standard measure. Harvey Kurtzman’s Help!, which first appeared in 1960, well before UG comix were a gleam in Robert Crumb’s (or Brian Zahn’s) eye, makes the cut; but Kurtzman’s essentially indistinguishable Humbug does not. Teenage Mutant Turtles is included, but the less mainstream-embraced Elf Quest and Neil the Horse aren’t. The National Lampoon is here, presumably because it published UG cartoonists, but Hustler and Screw, which did too, are absent. By what standard is Alan Moore, with three major motion picture sales in his bank account, still an UG cartoonist? And what about Chris Ware, who is primarily published by Random House? What makes Marvel’s Comix Book, which printed de-tooth-and-clawed work by UG cartoonists, worthy of evaluation, while, just to mention a few toe-tromping, eye-thumbing artists about whom I’ve written, B.N. Duncan, Ariel Schrag, Aaron Lange, JT Dockery, and Maxon Crumb, are barely noticed, if noticed at all?
More importantly, isn’t the collecting of UGs a blasphemous affront to the spirit of their creation? Cheap, trashy, mass-produced, they were meant for “the people” to paw through and drool over, between trips to the barricade, or while spaced out, stoned, on the water bed. To proclaim these books' worth diminished each time a page is turned seems a surrender to the capitalist lackey running dogs they warred against.
And once you have them, what do you do with them? Shelved, like rare books, they have no spines facing outward, trumpeting their envy-arousing, status conferring presence. I suppose you can follow the advice of the informational-like collaborative contribution to FUGG of Howard Gerber and Certified Guaranty Company: seal them in plastic and hang them on your walls. But then you might as well collect front covers only, which actually makes sense, for that would free the contents for the enjoyment for which they had been intended.
I seem to have circled back to the question that ECs raised for me in the 1970s. (This is fine, for I feel about writing, as Mark Strand has said Edward Hopper did about painting. It was “a mode of encountering himself.”) What gives a comic value?
With Fogel, as with Overstreet before him, condition – challenging as that may be to determine – is paramount. (But if condition is that important, why aren’t pristine re-prints more valuable than wobbly-stapled originals?) First issues may be worth more than later ones – but not necessarily. Name-recognition of contributors and the appearance of notable characters may boost prices – but not always. Scarcity is probably a factor, though the size of print runs and the known availability of individual issues is never noted.
What else? Bondage? Eye wounds? Drug use? They rang-up Overstreet’s register; but now, don’t make me laugh. Since the UG allowed almost everything, transgressive content lays no thumb on FUGG’s scale. The vigorously prosecuted Zap #4 fetches less than its unindicted predecessors. It would have been interesting – and certainly amusing – if Fogel had scouted books to see what lay beyond-the-pale in the UG, if examples could even be found, and increased evaluations for that. Celibacy? “America the Beautiful”? Mom, apple pie and Chevrolets? But he didn’t. In fact, the cultural import of a particular comic or the literary or artistic skill demonstrated within seems irrelevant to the UG collector’s mind.
One lesson that comes through though, after a little research, is that, as an investment, UGs may not be worth the bother. Comparing a randomly selected sampling of titles in an Apex Novelties price list of 30 years ago with those same books in FUGG, I find that they have increased in value, on average, 400-500 percent, assuming you can find a buyer – and before you knock off the “wholesale” percentage discount you may have to eat when you cash them in. The Dow in the same period, with dividends re-invested, went up 3000 percent. Plus, there isn’t that much money in comix to begin with. FUGG only lists about two-dozen books as worth even a grand. One good Lichtenstein would buy you every title listed, and you’d have enough left over for a house on the beach.
In his 1974 novel The Connoisseur, Evan Connell investigates Muhlbach, a middle-aged insurance company executive, who becomes obsessed with pre-Columbian figurines. In his journey through a forest of collectors, dealers and experts, all gripped by a similar mania, he pockets some nuggets of knowledge, while being snagged by thickets of questions and tumbling into pits of mystery and doubt. Markets, he realizes, come and go; and humans have the capacity to believe anything “precious” which once was “valueless.” But who it is, with what authority and to what end, decides if a ceramic dimestore horse “is a lesser or greater work of art than a Mayan lord steeped in the centuries” he never learns.
The same question can be asked of a Snatch or Weirdo or, in my case, Shock SuspenStories. Muhbach likens becoming a collector of pre-Columbians to “joining a lodge or country club,” which sounds right for pursuers of UGs or ECs, though the membership may be smaller in number and odder in appearance. But he also posits that collecting stems from a belief that by owning “something original...(we) acquire a little of the strength of substance of... whoever made it,” which raises the question of what exactly it is of Robert Crumb or Al Feldstein that people wish to possess. Are we filling inner holes of long duration or adding a layer of specialness visible only to a select few? Are we gaining the satisfaction of completing a puzzle or scratching an itch? Do we wish to erase dreams by which we have been haunted or to establish a platform from which we may make further leaps?
At one point, Muhlbach wonders, “Do all deluded persons feel the same? Do they all plead for more? And if they do, where does it end?” For him, in Connell’s telling, it is on a Greenwich Village street, at night, staring at the statue of a hunchbacked dwarf in the window of a curiosity shop. “Speak! Speak! He commands... Tell me everything I need to know.” For me it ended with 168 of the 205 ECs I sought, shelved within a closet, never read, never shown. I had learned what, for me, an EC was worth and that no additional acquisitions would enhance my strength or substance or cool. I felt no regret at the dollars this had cost. I felt no part a fool. I understood that the most important things I had gained was not the acquisitions but the thoughts to which they had led and the paragraphs flowing from these thoughts, which, as it turned out, it would take 40 years to write.