Sunday, January 19, 2014

Market Spotlight on: Usagi Yojimbo TPBs

Usagi Yojimbo is an odd little success story. Stan Sakai scripts and draws the adventures of a samurai rabbit, faithfully set somewhere in the Edo period of Japan. He's a bunny rabbit.

Ordinarily when the Ugly American starts in with talk of bunnies, well, there isn't much nice to say. Not so here. Here, Sakai creates a unique blend of historical reference, funny animal art, and modern pop culture. It's part biography of Miyamoto Musashi, part homage to Sonny Chiba, all by way of Walt Disney.

On paper, that formula is probably too precious to work. And it's in black-and-white, which usually doesn't help. In reality, Stan Sakai has made it his life's work and essentially willed it into viability with love and sweat. I can't think of a single source that read the book and didn't have glowing praise for its quality.

I can't speak to the contents of the book myself. Period pieces are generally not my thing. That has not kept me from selling boatloads of the Usagi Yojimbo trade paperbacks from Dark Horse at profits ranging from excellent to obscene.

Usagi Yojimbo is in a weird spot right now. Sakai stopped producing the book in early 2012 to divert attention to the 47 Ronin with MIke Richardson. The promise was that Sakai would pick up where he left off with Usagi when 47 was complete. Well, that hasn't happened yet, and 47 Ronin wrapped up about a year ago.

Editor's Note: Stan Sakai’s wife, Sharon, is currently recovering from a debilitating illness. She is currently convalescing at home after a lengthy hospital stay. She requires 24 hour care and expensive medicine, neither of which the family's insurance covers. This explains the lack of new Usagi content. If you would like to help the Sakai family, you can visit this link. It has also come to my attention that Ryan Lee himself has donated some of his sales of these books to the Sakai family. Good on you, Ryan.

That's both good and bad for the secondary market value of the Usagi Yojimbo trades. Because the comics are not being published monthly, there's little reason for Dark Horse to focus on keeping the material in print. As the supply continues to dwindle, prices go up.

The lack of serialization cuts the other way, though. Without a regular comic to inspire interest in the character and stories, the demand for the product will eventually dwindle, and that will suppress prices.

As I type this, however, I can confirm that it is fairly easy to command multiples of cover on several of the Usagi Yojimbo trades, particularly if they are in nice condition. Nearly a third of the series is profitable, even paying full retail. Return of the Black Soul, Grasscutter 2, Duel at Kitanoji, they all make money. The best books tend to cycle as things go in and out of print. The three Usagi books that currently fetch the best prices are:

Book Three: Wanderer's Road
Book Eleven: Seasons
Book Twenty One: Mother of Mountains

You Amazon minimum prices on these books in new condition start at around $80 and go up from there. Is it realistic to expect to sell your book at those rates? The short answer is; probably.

Actually, let's talk about pricing and risk management for a bit. Today I bought 4 Usagi trades from one of my local establishments, and the jewel of the pack was a very nice copy of Mother of Mountains. That book is in a very solid NM (9.4) condition.

The particular grade won't really matter to my customer, except that it allows me to safely sell my book in the "New" category. When my buyer receives their book, he or she will be pleased with the condition. It's important not to overgrade your product if you want to sell long term. Bad reviews do catch up with you.

When I get to Amazon to sell my book, I'm quite pleased to find that the current minimum prices for Usagi Book 21 are $178 for both new and used copies. That's pretty crazy. You don't get mins like that unless the book is seriously scarce, in serious demand, or both. So now the question is - what do I list my copy for?

The amateur surveys those prices and does one of two things. Either A) they undercut the lowest offer by a penny and try to get $177.99 for the book or B) they jump the price to around $200, figuring that their divine glow should attract customers even if they aren't being perfectly competitive on price.

I listed my lovely new copy for $ did I arrive at that figure?

Experience is my guide there. I've sold many Usagi trades, so I've got a pretty good handle on what I can get for the books based upon previous sales. Frankly, I think it far more likely that I'm going to get about $60 for that book, not $80.

Some may ask - why not try for the $179? What's the harm? To be fair, it's actually not a horrible thing to reach for the golden ticket. I have sold a copy of Usagi Book 11 for $100, so it's not completely out of the question. If you can actually sell the book for $180, it would be silly to leave that $100 on the table, of course. And if you're on top of things enough to pay attention and adjust the price on your stock regularly, there really isn't much harm in chasing the huge score... for a very brief period.

There is a definite downside to chasing pies in the sky, though. The biggest issue? Dark Horse goes back to press on the book, and instantly your $180 treasure is now the "old crappy edition" of a book that is readily available for $10. And then you don't feel so smart for trying to wait out the big fish.

I bought that copy of Mother of Mountains for $16, and if I can flip that for $80 this week, I'm ecstatic. After Amazon takes their 20% cut, I'm left with about $48 in profit - profit that I can then pump into another book that I can (hopefully) quickly churn into yet more profit.

If I chase the $180, who knows? I might just get it. But it's very likely to take a year or more to line up that buyer, and the longer I wait the less likely the market is to cooperate with those inflated values. Even if I get the $180, if it takes me a year to do so how much more could I have earned churning books that actually sell instead of watching this monster collect dust? The risk/reward just isn't there for me to chase insane dollar values.

I don't know...there are risks either way. Given the choice, I like to err on the side of flipping things quickly and moving on to the next opportunity.

Speculation on: Felicity Smoak

If you read the Ugly American's review of Arrow a few weeks ago, you know that where there is Smoak, there's fire. In my pants.

I love pretty much everything about Felicity Smoak as portrayed by Emily Bett Rickards,
and I just can't be alone. She makes for an adorable cult favorite, and that often means back issue interest. So the question is - where did Felicity Smoak make her first comics appearance? Ultimately, that's what the collectors are going to be most interested in.

The answer depends on how you look at it.

The first time a character named Felicity Smoak hit the comics scene was in Fury of Firestorm # 23, published in 1984. That character bears little resemblance to the Arrow series character, though. Fans of the Arrow series will not recognize that character, either by appearance or temperament.

That iteration of Felicity Smoak was a dark haired woman, and a bit of a battle axe. She's similar in that she was into computers, but after that the comparison fails. That character has essentially no connection to Green Arrow, and in fact wound up becoming Ronny Raymond's mother-in-law.

The hardest of the hard core collectors will tend to gravitate toward this issue, even though the character depicted in the book doesn't "feel" like the Rickards persona the world at large is actually attracted to. First matters most on these issues, generally.

As I type this, there is no detectable spike in value on Firestorm # 23. That's a good thing. That just means you can still get in cheap. Listen, it took collectors more than 25 years to figure out that Nightwing's first appearance in Tales of the Teen Titans # 44 was significant. Sometimes it takes the world a little while to catch up. Again, that's a good thing.

I've been buying copies of the book in VF-NM for $2 each. Even if I'm wrong about the future value of this comic, it won't cost you much to play. If you're into Felicity Smoak, there's no reason not to chase down this affordable little gem for your collection.

This is part of what makes collecting fun, and there's really nothing wrong with it, regardless of what the pundits will tell you about back issues and the horror of speculation. I really like that character, so what's wrong with adding that piece of her "history" into my collection, particularly when it costs less than a cup of coffee? It makes me happy, and it makes the retailers happy, too. Win-win.

The thing is, for some collectors, the old Pre-Crisis Felicity Smoak just won't be good enough. She doesn't walk, talk, or act like the girl they're in love with. So where does the Arrow version of Felicity first appear in comics?

Well, her first comics appearance actually began in cyber-space. The Arrow comics series begins as a digital-only comic before it hits the stands in print. You can't bag and board the digital Arrow chapter 20 and stuff that in your long box, though. For print purposes the Arrow version of Felicity first appeared in Arrow # 7.

If you can find it in your LCS, I'm sure it's sitting there at its original $4 price tag. It's hard to find, though, in my experience. Do I expect to eventually see a surge in interest for that comic? Yes, I do.

Traditionally, it's Firestorm # 23 that would see the bulk of the back issue interest, The game is changing, though. Nobody (outside of myself, it seems) wants to recognize how much of the market is actually driven by women.

I think that there a ton of women interested in Felicity Smoak, and I don't think most of them care a lick about the old Firestorm character. I think they're interested in the blonde with her hair in a ponytail and her foot in her mouth. I predict that group is going to be far more attracted to Arrow # 7, and there will be enough of them chasing that book to create a significant price increase.

Incidentally, in my travels I've been finding it far easier to find that 27 year old Firestorm comic than to locate the Arrow book that just came out over the summer. This is why I just shake my head and grin when the Wise Elders of comics try to tell me that modern books aren't scarce or suitable for collecting. You keep thinking that. I'll keep making money.

Happy Hunting!

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