As you can tell from this blog I’m a comic book collector. Or at least that’s what I call myself for simplicity’s sake. I think comic book fans come on a sliding scale from collector to reader. On one extreme is the fan who buys a comic, bags and boards it, and then files it away in the collection unopened. This fan might not even read the comics in his collection. He just wants to own them. On the other extreme is the fan who buys a comic, reads it, and then tosses it away never to be seen again. I think these extremes are rare and most of us fall in the middle maybe leaning to one side or the other. I lean towards the reader side because, although I keep my comics, I read them all and only keep the ones I like. If the answer to the question, “Will I ever read this comic again?” is “No” then I’ll get rid of it.

As further background on my collecting I’ll tell you that I’ve been buying new comics off the stands since I was about ten years old back in the mid-1970s but I don’t buy many back issues. I did buy them back in my early days from ages about ten to twenty but since then I haven’t bought a whole lot of back issues. I have bought a lot of hardcover and paper back collections of old comics but that’s not the same thing as hunting for old, original printings, of back issues.

All this brings me to the thoughts I’ve been having lately about one of the main-staples of back issue buying. The first appearance. Specifically the first appearance and how it’s definition has changed over the years that I’ve been buying comics. First appearances used to be a fairly straightforward thing. Spider-Man’s first appearance is in Amazing Fantasy #15, Superman’s first appearance is in Action Comics #1, The X-Men’s first appearance is in X-Men #1. Not hard. Sometimes, like with Spidey, a characters first appearance wasn’t in a comic with his name on the title but it was still an easy thing to grok. Tales of Suspense #39 was Iron Man’s first appearance not Iron Man #1.

Things changed a little when a character first appears in comic that he’s not the star of. The Hulk #181 with the first appearance of Wolverine comes to mind. But first let’s digress a little bit to when and why first appearances matter. It’s a fairly easy question to answer. A first appearance matters when after a character is introduced that character grows in popularity. That means more people are interested in a character after his tenth appearance than at the time of his first. Some of those extra interested people now want to go and get the other stories the character appeared in so they can read them. That’s the key. They want to read the stories. That’s why for years “First appearance” was really short for “First story So-And-So appeared in”.

For decades Hulk #181 was worth fifty times what the issues around it were worth. It was the first story Wolverine was in and it was a single issue story. Except due to the continued and periodical nature of comics Wolverine was first seen on the last panel of Hulk #180. He was the cliffhanger. A brand new character showing up to kick the Hulk’s ass. But no one cared about it because Wolverine wasn’t in the story of Hulk 180. He didn’t matter to the issue and the issue didn’t matter to Wolverine fans. Hulk #180 would cost you a dollar (same as 178, 179, 182, 183) and #181 would cost you fifty dollars. That’s how it went. People wanted the first Wolverine story. It didn’t matter that he showed up at the end of #180 and the very beginning of #182 because there was no Wolverine story there.

Then things began to change. Through the late 1980s to the 1990s I watched the price on Hulk #180 creep up. It was still nowhere near the price of #181 but it still separated itself from #179 by a lot. First appearances of various characters became hot commodities and things changed. Now people wanted the first appearance of a character not because they wanted to read the story but because it was a desired object. The old “If everyone else wants something I want it too” routine. It’s the way we are as human beings. We value things that have value to a lot of people.

As a result of this commodification of first appearances the very definition of “First appearance” changed. People began to take the phrase literally and so “First cameo appearance” was introduced as a concept to cover comics like Hulk #180. Wolverine didn’t appear in the story but he had a cameo in it and surely that was important? Of course this concept was introduced as a selling tactic to get people interested in issues like Hulk #180 but that didn’t make less effective. The price of Hulk #180 has gone up and up with the popularity of Wolverine.

All this brings me to the present day. I still don’t buy back issues but watch a lot of videos on YouTube made by people who do. They show off their purchases and often tell us why they got them. What I’ve gleaned from this is that “First appearance” has gotten more literal over the years and maybe even more controversial. One character’s “First appeared” as a test tube with a label on it. That’s if you buy into it. Some people do and some don’t. Another “First appeared” as a background character at a costume party. Once again you buy into it or not. It all seems to be about creating demand and selling comics to me. After all sellers need something to sell and collectors need something to collect.

I’m going to end this with what got me started thinking about the whole first appearance topic in the first place. Ads. Yes, some people are now starting to claim that a character appearing in a ad for a comic is a first appearance. Whether it’s a character having a “Preview” of its comic printed in another comic or a few page sample in a catalogue some people want that to count as when the character first appeared. Not me. I’m old school. I’m interested still just interested in reading the character’s first story. Maybe a cameo. But you can keep the ads.