Monday, October 18, 2010

Up in Smoke

The summer of 1995 was filled with some big changes in my life:  I turned 20, finally got my drivers license, got my first car, and officially moved to Stillwater full-time. However, the biggest change that summer came about several weeks after my move when I got a call letting me know that my parents house -- the only home I had ever really known -- had burned down.

Thankfully, nobody was hurt in the fire -- neither of my parents were home when it happened, and luckily they had let the cat out before they left.  After confirming that no life was lost, the next thing my parents assured me in that call was "Don't worry: your comic books survived."  To be honest, the condition of my comic book collection hadn't even crossed me mind until they brought it up, and it caught me off-guard.  It would catch me even more off-guard over the next few weeks when every single family member I would talk to would bring up the survival of my comic books almost immediately.

Of course, when I finally got a chance to go see the charred husk of my childhood home, their emphasis made more sense, as my bedroom's location on the opposite end of the house from the living room where the fire started meant that it was the least damaged, although all that meant was that my room suffered mostly heat and smoke damage rather than fire and water damage. It was an odd experience sifting through the debris, attempting to find anything salvageable.  I could see the spot where all of my longboxes filled with comics had been sitting, and was amazed to see that on one side of that spot there was the melted remains of my plastic pencil sharpener, and on the other side, the melted remains of my record player.  The fact that the cardboard boxes filled with comic books wrapped in plastic bags had emerged from the ordeal with little more than some smoke stains to the boxes was unbelievable.  I was able to recover a few other smoke damaged books and papers, many of which are still boxed up in my apartment.  However a great number of these items, including my high school yearbooks, were placed in storage at my Grandma Ann's house along with all of the stuff my parents had already recovered before I got there.

Over the years since then, I've often told the story of the fire, and invariably someone will make a comment about how relieved I must have been not to have lost all those comics because of how much they were worth, to which I would reply, "Actually, the only books I had that might have been worth something had been put away for safekeeping in my parents' room, so they didn't make it."  A nice bit of irony there, don't you think?

So, what's brought this incident to my mind?  Well, let's fastforward 15 years -- following my Grandma Ann's passing earlier this year, my family was able to sell her house fairly quickly, with the end result that my parents' current house is now overflowing with stuff they had to remove to make the sale.  Friday night I got a call from my dad who had been sorting through the stuff and found something he thought might be of interest to me.

"Was going through the stuff we brought over from mom's," he tells me, "and came across some of your comics."

"Really?" I replied, momentarily stumped at what it could have been -- the only thing I could think of off the top of my head was my long-lost run of original Offical Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which had disappeared at Papaw and Grandma Ann's farmhouse when I was still in Junior High, and that possibility was, to say the least unlikely.

"Yes.  It says it's a 'bagged, collector's edition complete with trading card' of '--"

"X-force #1." I finished for him, momentarily shocked.

"That's right.  And there's five of them!"

"Yes, one for each of the different cards," I commented.  He started to tell me that there were a few other books with them, but I didn't really need him to tell me the other titles, as I could picture them in my head fine:  the first Excalibur Special Edition that introduced my favorite X-team, and the first couple of issues of The 'Nam which dad had purchased himself.

Yes, after all these years, it turns out that the books I had put away for safekeeping had survived the blaze after all -- they had just gotten swept up in my parents' original salvage run and lost among everything else, thus making my long-standing ironic story ending unusable.

"But," you might be thinking, "shouldn't you be happy that the valuable books survived?"

Well, my Book Monkeys, for those of you unacquainted with the vagaries of the comic book explosion of the early 90s, and the subsequent implosion, let me sum it up this way:  those five "collector issues" I had purchased were emblematic of the speculator's mindset which drove the comic book industry for several years, in which comic book companies churned out countless variant issues which were snatched up by countless comic book fans wanting to be in on the ground floor of the next big thing, with nobody thinking through the fact that if everyone and their dog owns a copy of X-Force #1, then it's never going to be worth anything because, well, everyone already owns a copy.

Long story short, a quick view on eBay shows bagged copies of X-Force #1 going for as low as $0.99 cents -- and getting no bids.

So, in the long run, the value of the books did go up in smoke after all -- just not the way I had always thought.