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Roughly speaking, comic book shared universe continuity didn’t really take hold until 1961. Right before Marvel had Spider-Man swinging through the world outside the Fantastic Four’s windows, the folks at DC decided to put all of their Flashes in the same book with The Flash #123, “The Flash of Two Worlds.” And since then, audiences couldn’t get enough—Amazing Spider-Man #1 in 1963 had Spidey trying to get a gig with the Fantastic Four, and later that year, the Justice League met their Justice Society counterparts in Justice League #21’s “Crisis on Earth-One.” And that one might be, if you squint hard enough, the first superhero comic summer crossover, an event that would change the world of comics collecting.
“Back then, the idea was just to further a storyline,” says Brent Moeshlin of Alabama’s Quality Comix, one of the biggest vintage comics dealers in the United States. “Nowadays, it’s about pushing the customer into multiple products.”
And push they do. DC Comics alone has had three massive continuity overhauls in the last 15 years alone—Flashpoint/The New 52 in 2011; Rebirth in 2018; and Infinite Frontier in 2021—along with several line-wide shifts and new initiatives, and Marvel, while they have never technically rebooted their continuity, completely destroyed the multiverse in 2016’s Secret Wars, and has had a similar number of new initiatives.
The dawn of the “event” crossover as a product came in the mid-1980s, first with Marvel’s first Secret Wars in 1984 and shortly thereafter with DC’s first full reboot, Crisis on Infinite Earths. Secret Wars was a blatant multimedia cash grab – Mattel, a toy company, licensed Marvel’s heroes for action figures on the condition that there was a story that would give kids an excuse to mash their toys together. That’s exactly what Marvel did, beaming a group of heroes and villains to BATTLEWORLD, putting them in new costumes, and making everyone fight. Some of the changes were long-term—Spider-Man’s black costume, which would eventually become Venom, debuted on the cover of Secret Wars #8, and things like that have a marked effect on collectability. “If there’s a really good cover, those will stand the test of time,” says Ali Mir of AnZ Comics. “It doesn’t matter what the storyline is; it still ends up going up in price.” Despite the quality of the interiors being iffy, the cover of this issue – with Spider-Man looking puzzled at his new black outfit – has pushed its value up into the three figure range.
But quality matters. Good stories are the ones that have legs in the collector’s market regardless of covers. Crisis on Infinite Earths is dense and beloved, in no small part because of comics legend George Perez putting out some of the best art of his career. “Something like that still sells really, really well,” says Mir. Crisis on Infinite Earths #7, with a crestfallen Superman weeping over the dead body of his cousin Kara, is one of the most iconic images in comics history, making graded issues worth upwards of $75.
The recent glut makes the hunt for quality even more important for gauging collectability. Something like Secret Empire, Marvel’s 2017 summer event that saw a Captain America heel turn (to be generous), is not well remembered and has largely been relegated to dollar bins. “It took me years to get rid of all the copies I had of that book,” Mir tells us, “because there was just no demand for it.” Spoilers for folks who haven’t read it: it’s bad, and even variant covers – of which there were approximately a billion – can be found in dollar bins around the world.
Look for events that were well received in the moment that are still generating interest a few years later. Something like Jonathan Hickman and team’s X-Men relaunch, House of X/Powers of X, which launched Marvel’s mutants back to the forefront of comic fans’ minds, has real staying power. Another sneaky pickup that Mir flagged for us: Devil’s Reign, a Daredevil event from a few years back. “That was another really well-written story that I think long term, especially when you get Daredevil: Born Again coming out on Disney+ that people are going to look back on [fondly].” The multimedia tie-in probably won’t hurt, either.
Here are a few collector’s items you should keep an eye out for:
The Flash of Two Worlds
The first major reworking of continuity in comics history, the Flash of Earth-One (Barry Allen) meets his comic book hero inspiration (Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick) and discovers that he’s real and from a parallel Earth. Silver Age key comics aren’t usually cheap, but this one can be had for a few hundred dollars, so it’s relatively affordable.
Buy The Flash #123 here.
Crisis on Earth-One
The first time the Justice League and Justice Society met has been reprinted multiple times in several collected editions, but if you want a copy of the original single issue, be ready to pay a premium: even poor-condition graded copies are going for upwards of $200. A near-mint copy might be tough to find and even tougher to afford.
Buy Justice League of America #21 here.
Spidey’s First Try at the F4
The first time Spider-Man tried to join the Fantastic Four also happened to be in the first issue of his solo series in 1963, so it’s going to cost an arm and a leg to buy. Be ready to shell out $5,000. But it’s worth it. This is one of the most important superhero books ever published, and when Spidey inevitably shows up in a Fantastic Four movie, it’s going to skyrocket.
Buy The Amazing Spider-Man (1963) #1 here.
Spider-Man (The Black Costume)
The epitome of the “mash your action figures together” style of event comics, Secret Wars was a blatant multimedia tie-in, the first of its kind. But just because it wasn’t the best story doesn’t mean it’s not pricey—the first appearance of Spidey’s black costume is a big deal, and it’ll run you anywhere from $50-200 for a good copy.
Buy Marvel’s Superhero Secret Wars #8 here.
The Death of Supergirl (The First Time)
Crisis on Infinite Earths is beloved, perhaps because of its densely packed continuity porn—DC decided with their event to restart and try and streamline its intricate history by compressing all of the multiple Earths down to one universe, wiping away any complications. Like, well, Supergirl, for one. Issue #7 has one of the most imitated covers in all of comics, with Superman holding his cousin’s corpse and weeping. As such, it’s a solid investment at $75 for graded copies.
Buy Crisis on Infinite Earths #7 here.
Somehow, Supergirl Returned
Of course, nobody in comics stays dead, even if they’re resurrected as a pocket universe puddle of goo pretending to be Kara Zor-El. Her “return” came shortly after the reboot, but it’s going for about cover price.
Buy Superman (1986) #16 here.
Multimedia tie-ins aren’t just a function of shared movie universes. One of Marvel’s most inexplicably beloved summer crossovers is “Maximum Carnage,” a bloated mash-up of symbiotes and the bigger Marvel Universe, and it was eventually converted into a (justifiably) beloved beat-em-up video game, which you can grab for your vintage SNES for about $40. This game rocks; go buy it.
Buy Maximum Carnage (SNES) here.
The Clone Saga
Spider-Man is kind of the gold standard for event comics that mess with his continuity. Here we get the start of a widely loathed story that attempts to rework his continuity.
Buy Web of Spider-Man #117 here.
How Many Moiras?
House of X #2 was arguably the biggest continuity shift in decades of reboots and relaunches in the X-Men universe. But it was good, and that means it’s going to hang around in collectors’ minds. Copies of this issue are a steal at $15, and if you snag a variant, you can make bank getting it graded.
Buy House of X #2 here.
Devil’s Reign is another recent Marvel event that has staying power, with Mayor Wilson Fisk turning the city of New York against the heroes. This one is still flying under the radar, but with Daredevil making an MCU splash soon, it might start climbing from the under $10 range to something flippable.
Buy Devil’s Reign #1 here.
*All images courtesy of eBay.