Popular superhero movies fuel lucrative hobby for Kodiak comic collectors

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Guy Bartleson holding two of his most valuable books, the first apearances of Iron Man and Thor in Marvel Comics — each worth about $10,000. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

On a Friday in March, the Kodiak Public Library was filled with people perusing video game and movie merchandise during Fan Con, the town’s popular annual culture convention. Some folks sold earrings or stuffed toys but Guy Bartleson’s table was full of comic books.

He has been collecting comics for about 48 years. Bartleson was at Fan Con to show off some of his most valuable books. Bartleson works at the farm in Port Lions for his day job, but selling comics is a lucrative side-hustle. 

“Knowledge is power,” he said. “And so when you’re dealing with a collection like mine, you have to know what you’re doing. You have to know how to grade books. You have to know how to view the grade of a book.”

Superheroes have become household names in large part thanks to comic-based movies like the “Avengers” series, “Shazam,” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”  That rise in popularity has contributed to a thriving collectibles market. 

There are a few ways a comic could be considered valuable, but one standard is to consider the condition of a book. Books being traded or sold without hard plastic cases are called raw copies, but can be sent to be professionally graded and sealed to preserve them. 

They’re rated on a scale from 0.5 up to 10.0 – with the latter being the best. A 10.0 grade means there are no flaws in a print, looking for even the slightest discoloration or fringes on edges. 

Bartleson often has books shipped to him through freight on a small plane. He said  the best places to find good deals on comics are the same as when he was a kid. 

“Flea Markets, garage sales, second hand stores, used book stores, those are probably your four best places to go to find treasure,” he said. “If you go to Amazon or eBay or a comic store – you’re going to pay full retail.” 

When it comes to retail there are only a few options in Alaska. But Bosco’s Cards, Comics, and Games in Anchorage is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. 

Eric Helmick manages the store’s Spenard location. Bosco’s has another store in the Dimond Mall. He says the comic market is booming right now, and has been growing for the last 20 years. 

“More people are just becoming more comfortable with their nerd hobbies, whether it’s Dungeons and Dragons or reading comics and knowing stuff about Lord of the Rings – they don’t hide it anymore,” he said. 

Helmick said at his store, customers will pick up even the most expensive comics quickly. 

“When we have hot comics or magic cards or sports cards, they don’t sit on the shelf,” he said. “People are in here right away, snatching things up, just because things don’t come in as often.”

Helmick guesses the market for print media and collectibles will probably keep growing, despite the rise of digital media. 

“There’s been a lot of doom and gloom about the comic industry and print media – things are going digital,” he said. “And every time there’s something on the horizon like digital comics, it’s like ‘Oh no, people aren’t going to read real comics,’ we find the exact opposite happens.”

He says as more people are exposed to comics from movies and TV shows, they want to learn about the source material.

Robert Wagner has been collecting comics seriously since he was about 14. He has a room in his Kodiak house dedicated to storing and displaying collectibles, with Spider-Man posters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures, multiple models of the Batmobile, and countless comic books and graphic novels.

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Robert Wagner holding one of his oldest comics from the 1940s. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

Wagner says his love for science fiction and fantasy began when he was a kid reading and watching movies with his dad. 

“I remember him taking me to ‘(The) Empire Strikes Back,’” he recalled. “I was about five years old, I think, and that blew my mind. From that moment, it was like a whole new world.”

He’s a stay-at-home dad and works as an artist, but Wagner describes selling some of his books as a major part of his income. Wagner grew up in Kodiak and says he used to get ostracized for being a “geeky kid” wearing fandom T-shirts and memorabilia. Now his collection has grown so much in value it’s become a kind of retirement plan for him. 

Wagner said he watches for rumors about characters that might appear in movies or TV shows. That could drive demand for any comics they’re in. He cited one rumor that Taylor Swift might play an obscure X-Men character named Dazzler in the upcoming movie “Deadpool & Wolverine.”

“It’s just a rumor, and that rumor took a $1 book and has made it a couple hundred dollars for the last year. If I had one I would have sold it!” he said.

Wagner said he sees that growth and his collection for more than just the money. 

“I love movies and I love comic books – they’re both a passion of mine,” he said. “And if a comic book movie gets one kid to go pick up a comic book and read – that’s great, y’know?”

Wagner occasionally gives away some of his cheaper books to kids to get more people into reading comics – especially when superhero movies make their way to the Orpheum theater in Kodiak. It’s an investment in both the future of the industry, and in promoting the stories he loves.

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Wagner (left) and Bartleson (right) have been friends for years, sharing their love of comics and collectibles. (Brian Venua/KMXT)

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