Being the early to mid 1990’s this was the time of the speculator comics boom a topic that has been covered in far greater detail by others so I shall try and sum it up as briefly as I can… When the public (spurred on by the press) realised the finanical potential of rare first editions of comics the mainstream comic book publishers leapt onto the collectors' market bandwagon and produced a barrage of variant covers, cross over stories and gimmick covers. Comic retail prices increased and many of those comics were polybagged sometimes forcing collectors to buy two issues one to read and the other to remain sealed and put into storage as a future investment. One factor had been grossly overlooked however, the reason those early comics sold so well at auction was because they were genuinely rare, where as these newer editions were produced in their millions. Inevitably the bubble burst and the bottom fell out of the "collectible" issues market. Many comic shops went under and many publishers could not cover the costs of distribution and went out of business, most notably Marvel declaring bankruptcy in 1997. Despite that I still look back on those gimmicky, hologram-enhanced, glow-in-the-dark, embossed foil covers with great fondness as it was an exciting time to be a comics fan. During those exciting times comic price guides such as Wizard Magazine, Comics International and Previews were produced that advised investors on the hottest comics to buy. But there was one definitive guide that I look back on with fondness, stirring those nostalgic memories for me, Duncan McAlpine’s Comic Book Price Guide for Great Britain.
Not only that but they also had cover artwork from some of the most prominent comic artists of the day and forwards written by an eclectic mix of people working within comics or entertainment.
Looking back through them recently I was amazed at how much I had committed to memory. Nostalgia flowed as I recalled all the times I would leaf through the guides and immerse myself in the world of ‘Mint’, ‘Near Mint’, ‘Very Fine’ ‘Fine’ and ‘Poor’.
So who was Duncan McAlpine the man behind the guides? And what was his story? Duncan McAlpine started collecting comics at a very young age thanks to his mother who was an antique dealer that took him to various sale rooms in the local area of Fleet and Farnborough in Hampshire and Camberley in Surrey. In order to keep him quiet she would buy him comics, not knowing much about comics, she chose American ones from the newsagent rather than British and by the latter half of the 1960s he had amassed a collection of a few hundred issues. This collection continued to grow after he discovered a second-hand bookshop called Wicks in Farnborough. Ever the entrepreneur he would ask the owner to keep any American comics that came in to one side for him, any doubles of a comic he would swap with the other children at school! In 1973 he visited his first comic mart in London, (chaperoned by his sister) and spent the princely sum of £20 on as many comics as he could buy including Superboy #12 and Superman #100. He recalled how even then he was already quite picky about condition and not afraid to bargain with the dealers. Even back in those early days he always catalogued his comics at around 1971 he had bought comics from Alan Austin author of the fanzine Fantasy Unlimited who had attempted to produce a price guide in 1975. McAlpine regarded this publication to be a great achievement and recalled how quickly his copy became dog-eared and crumpled due to constant referencing. It was during this time that Bob Overstreet had produced Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide the annually published comprehensive comic book price guide but as extensive as it was it did not cover British comics.
Alan Austin continued to revise and expand his guides in 1979 and then 1983 however his guides did not include Golden Age comics from the 1930s onwards, which was an area in which McAlpine was increasingly interested in because as he explained, “I could just about start to afford them!”
Having enrolled at Warwick University he started drawing up sales lists of his own and advertised them across one or two pages in Fantasy Advertiser, although in hindsight he felt that he priced them too low as they all sold very quickly and he was constantly having to turn people down and send money back. He didn’t have stock in depth so if he sent out independent sales lists outside of fanzines ads he was forever Typex-ing and altering the lists. Then in 1987 having left Warwick University to work at the BBC’s Drama Series department Apart, he not only set up his own table at London comic marts on the weekends (buying directly from the States) but decided to catalogue his own extensive collection, (an estimated 12,000 comics at this point), creating his own comic price guide. His task was quite ambitious, compile a comic book price guide that was more pertinent to the UK than America that included British comics as well. That covered golden age comics and address pence variants (British editions of American comics printed at the same time as American editions for distribution in the UK after 1959). He recalled what a labour of love it was typing out the entire Marvel and DC titles in full on an old Olympia typewriter a task that took around a year. Attributing this to his own updated prices in a five grades – Poor, Good, Fine, Very Fine and Mint (grading choices that changed quickly when he came to realise that Mint was virtually unattainable for most comics!). Apparently he still has those hundreds of A4 sheets with the oceans of Typex spread liberally across! Not only did comics develop a lifelong interest in lettering and calligraphy, imitating the title logos from comics when listing varying issues but avid reading of comics developed his sense of story, character, sub-plot, twits, confrontations and resolutions. Serving him well in his career in television as both a director and producer. He continues to sell on eBay but maintains that he still thinks of himself as a collector, researcher and historian first rather than a dealer. The last Comic Book Price Guide for Great Britain published was the 1997/1998 edition however the guide can still be found online at www.comicpriceguide.co.uk and is updated every day offering thousands of illustrations and features on grading and restoration. They offer one free valuation of a single British comic, American comic book or British annual. Not only that, they also offer free valuations of a single British comic, American comic book or British annual or on collections or part collections for a fee.
As I said before I look back on those printed editions with great fondness. They represent a special time for me, during that time I was constantly justifying my comic purchases to my parents, assuring them that they were future investments. Not a week would go by without the word ‘collectable’ being uttered and I would back up my claim with an edition of Comic Book Price Guide for Great Britain. I am happy to report that my teenage self was right and that 99% of my investments paid off 20 years later.
So I not only thank Mr. McAlpine for his help in compiling this post about them but also for his excellent guides they not only proved my teenage self was right but I was also able to invest the profits made from those comics into setting up as a freelance illustrator/artist.
More Comic Consciousness?
© Arfon Jones 2016. All images are copyrighted throughout the world.