The great comic book bubble

Jonathan V. Last offers a fascinating mashup of two of my favorite topics:  comic books and economics.   Not only that, he draws lessons that apply to the recent popping of the housing bubble:

In 1974 you could buy an average copy of Action Comics #1—the first appearance of Superman—for about $400. By 1984, that comic cost about $5,000. This was real money, and by the end of the decade, comics sales at auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s were so impressive that the New York Times would take note when, for instance, Detective Comics #27—the first appearance of Batman—sold for a record-breaking $55,000 in December 1991. The Times was there again a few months later, when a copy of Action Comics #1 shattered that record, selling for $82,500. Comic books were as hot as a market could be. At the investment level, high-value comics were appreciating at a fantastic rate. At the retail level, comic-book stores were popping up all across the country to meet a burgeoning demand. As a result, even comics of recent vintage saw giant price gains. A comic that sold initially for 60 cents could often fetch a 1,000 percent return on the investment just a few months later.

But 1992 was the height of the comic-book bubble. Within two years, the entire industry was in danger of going belly up. The business’s biggest player, Marvel, faced bankruptcy. Even the value of blue chips, like Action Comics #1 and Detective Comics #27, plunged. The resulting carnage devastated the lives of thousands of adolescadolescent boys. I know. As a 12-year-old I had a collection worth around $5,000. By the time I was ready to sell my comic books to buy a car—such are the long-term financial plans of teenagers—they were worthless.

The comic-book bubble was the result not of a single mania, but of a confluence of events. Speculation was part of the story. Price gains for the high-value comics throughout the 1980s attracted speculators, who pushed the prices up further. At the retail level, the possibility that each new issue might someday sell for thousands of dollars drove both the sale of new comics and the market for back-issue comics. It was not uncommon for a comic book to sell at its cover price (generally 60 cents or $1) the month it was released and then appreciate to $10 or $15 a few months later.

But the principal cause of the bubble was the industry’s distribution system.

via The Crash of 1993 | The Weekly Standard.

Mr. Last goes on to spell out how the distribution system both inflated the comic book market–not just collectibles but the whole industry–and then brought it crashing down.  Marvel Comics actually went bankrupt in 1996.

The market did recover somewhat. In 2009, thirteen years after bankruptcy, Marvel was bought out by Disney for $4 billion.  And Action Comics #1 now sells for $1.5 million.   But the money today comes not from selling magazines on woodpulp but from intellectual property:  the movies that get made from comic books–as well as the accompanying toys and merchandise–make them valuable.

I lived through what Mr. Last describes.  In my years of reading comic books as a kid, I accumulated some titles that actually became rather valuable.  In the early 1970s, as a college student perennially in need of money, I sold them.  Soon the money was gone and a few years later I was kicking myself at how those titles had skyrocketed in value.  Now I just wish I had them so that I could read them again and re-experience my childhood imagination.

HT: Tom Hering

Summer movies: X-Men: First Class

Last weekend we saw X-Men:  First Class, the fifth in that franchise, which gives the origin tale.   I was surprised how good the thing was.  It’s certainly the best of the X-Men and it has to be one of the best of the comic books flicks.  There’s Batman:  The Dark Knight, the first Spider Man, the first Superman, and this one is in this company.   It’s kind of dark and disturbing, while still managing to be fun.  It has an alternative history version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought back fond memories, a plot that is both intriguing and character-driven plot, spectacular special effects that serve the story rather than just being time-killing fireworks, and Kevin Bacon!  Technically, the movie was well-done also, with ambitious camera work and skillful editing that added greatly to the dynamic feel of the film.  I’m realizing that it’s possible to take a conventional, even silly, genre and, if it’s done by a talented director, as Matthew Vaughn evidently is, the final work can be strangely satisfying.

So, a good summer movie!  The only other one we have seen so far is Thor, which was OK, but not this good.

What other summer movies would you recommend?  Is the new Pirates of the Caribbean any good?  How about Super 8?

Nature & Grace in “The Tree of Life”

The movie that took the top prize at Cannes is entitled The Tree of Life.  Most critics laud the beauty of its scenes from nature but were puzzled by it all.  But Rev. Robert Barron, priest and theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, sees the Book of Job–which is directly referenced in the film–as the key.  His review in the Chicago Tribune is worth reading for his own reflections on that Book and on the way it resolves the Problem of Evil:

What could possibly tie together the following scenes: a flock of birds cavorting in breathtakingly harmonious patterns, the meeting of flowing lava and crashing waves, a larger dinosaur dominating a smaller one, a young boy throwing a baseball through a window just because he is forbidden to do so, a depressed middle-aged man sitting in a coldly modernistic office building, and a meteor crashing into the primordial earth?

If I am at all correct in my reading of Terrence Malick’s meditative film, “The Tree of Life,” in which those and many other seemingly disparate scenes occur, what ties them together is that they are all ingredient in the plan and purpose of God. I realize how pretentious that can sound, but this is a filmmaker (and a film) with very grand ambitions indeed.

The movie opens with a quotation from the book of Job: “where were you when I founded the earth…while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38: 4,7)?

These are some of the first lines of the magnificent speech that God delivers to Job, the righteous man who had been beset with every imaginable suffering and who had challenged God to explain himself.

Malick’s film opens with a couple (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), who have been informed that their 19 year old son has died and who are experiencing a Job-like confusion and indignation: how could God have done this to them and to their son?

God’s answer to Job is puzzling, for it does not directly address the matter at hand; instead, it unfolds as a grand tour of the cosmos, in all of its strangeness, beauty, and complexity, culminating with a detailed description of the virtues of Leviathan (probably a whale) and Behemoth (perhaps a hippopotamus).

Malick’s film mimics the speech of God in the measure that it takes us away from the suffering couple to a visually stunning sequence of scenes depicting dynamics within the cosmos, from the birth of stars and the splitting of cells to the demise of the dinosaurs and the ballet-like movements of a jellyfish swimming toward the surface of the ocean.

The author of the book of Job and Terrence Malick both are suggesting that the “answer” to this most painful and searching of questions is found through the widest possible broadening of one’s perspective, so as to see what God is up to everywhere in his creation.

On Malick’s telling, the universe—from its primordial beginnings to now—is marked by a play of two forces, nature and grace. Nature is strong, conflictual, hard-edged, and violent; whereas grace is gentle, loving, and forgiving. Both are constantly in play, constantly in tension with one another, and somehow both are part of God’s design.

One of the most striking images in the film–the meeting of lava and ocean wave that I mentioned above—is a particularly apt symbol of the way that nature and grace come together to produce something beautiful.

Having made his literally “cosmic” point, Malick sharpens his focus and returns in flashback to the young couple now just beginning their family. The father, played with convincing understatement by Pitt, is a decent man who loves his children, but he is, first and foremost, a disciplinarian, eager to make his boys tough and self-reliant. He is the embodiment of the principle of nature.

The mother, delicately evoked by Chastain, is the avatar of grace. She is playful with her children, exuberant, lively, sensitive, quick to forgive.

It would be quite wrong, I think, to read them simply as evil and good, respectively. Both parents awaken something positive and negative in their children; each calls out to the other for completion. . . .

What I find particularly fascinating—and it brings us to the theological heart of the film—is that both nature and grace are grounded in God and are part of his providential design. The brutal and the gentle; the violent and the peaceful; the competitive and the cooperative come together in a way that produces the rough order that we see in the cosmos and in human affairs. Thomas Aquinas, very much influenced by the book of Job, said that God is a “wise provider” who permits certain evils in order to bring about a greater good in the totality of his creation, and I think Terrence Malick is making much the same point in “Tree of Life.”

Perhaps just a word in closing about the title. In the third chapter of Genesis, we hear that Adam and Eve, after having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were expelled from the Garden of Eden and denied access to the Tree of Life.

What prevented them from participating in life, in other words, was the attempt to gain a knowledge of the play of good and evil that belongs to God alone. Grasping at perfect knowledge, they fell.

A basic message of the Bible is that, in the play of good and evil, in the tension between nature and grace, God is up to something beautiful, though we are unable to grasp it totally. The way to life, therefore, is a path of surrender and acceptance. I think that “Tree of Life” is communicating this same difficult but vital lesson.

via The Seeker: Tree of Life glorifies God.

This sounds like a movie (which has not yet been broadly released) that is more of a Christian work of art than the typical problem+conversion+happy ending film that generally defines the genre.   The nature/grace dichotomy, which Thomists are so fond of, finds an interesting application here.   Missing, though, is the true high point of Job:  “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Odin, Thor, and our Christianized paganism

Lars Walker, the novelist who is a long-time commenter on this blog, has written a perceptive review of the hit movie Thor.   He liked it–as did I, actually, for the most part–but what struck me in his review is his point about how even our pop paganism has been influenced by Christianity.  Lars, an expert in all things Norse, points out that the notion of a benevolent deity–taken for granted even by atheists–is distinctly Christian, and that the actual pagan gods were very, very different:

To anyone schooled in Norse mythology, the Odin of the movie is almost unrecognizable, except for his long beard, lack of one eye, and possession of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse (which provides an extremely cool special effects moment). Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is wise and good, full of benevolence and cherishing a horror of war. He’s kind of like a professor of English or some social science at an Ivy League university—wooly-headed enough to throw away the gods’ greatest weapon at a moment of dire military threat.

The Odin of the Vikings was most of all an extremely powerful magician, a wizard—not the nice kind of wizard like Gandalf, though he was one of Tolkien’s inspirations for the character, but the old kind of wizard—treacherous and murderous, with lies on his lips and blood under his fingernails. He delighted in war for two reasons—one in order to feed the wolves and ravens that were his familiars, secondly in order to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand with him at Ragnarok, the last great battle. To this end he raised heroes up and then brutally betrayed them. He was also, according to the eddas, a sexual predator and a known deviate.

The difference between these two Odins, I think, is suggestive of important—and generally unrecognized—elements in western culture. The script writers have confused Odin with the Yahweh of the Jews and Christians. It doesn’t even occur to them that a high god could be anything but kind and peace-loving, since we all have so thoroughly internalized Christian suppositions that even people who reject the Christian religion—and I assume that a large proportion of the people who made this movie do—can’t conceive of a religion founded on darkness, brute force, and the domination of the weak by the strong.

In an odd plot element (I’ll try not to spoil it) Thor submits to a Christ-like humiliation for the sake of others. This is something that would have never been said of him in the old religion, except as a joke. Even Thor has grown richer through acquaintance with Jesus.

via Touchstone Magazine – Mere Comments: “Thor”: Norse Mythology Mediated By Christian Ideas.

“Screwtape Letters”: The Movie

Yet another seemingly unlikely book by C. S. Lewis is getting made into a movie:

Ralph Winter, producer of the X-Men films and a self-professed Christian, is set to produce the film version of The Screwtape Letters in a partnership with Fox and Walden Media, the studio that produced the Narnia films, as well as Bridge to Terabithia and Charlotte’s Web.

Fox has owned the film rights to The Screwtape Letters since the 1950s, and adapting Lewis’ 1942 satirical novel for the big screen has been an endeavor of epic proportions. The book is composed of a series of letters from the veteran demon Screwtape to his junior “tempter” nephew, Wormwood, on the best ways to bring about the spiritual downfall of his target, a British man known simply as “the Patient.”

Winter told The Christian Post last year that producers hoped to attach director Scott Dickerson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) to the film, which likely be rated PG-13, because it is “edgy, serious material.”

While the film is on a “fast track” and a 2012 release is likely, Winter is in no hurry to get it into theaters. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who ruined it,” he said. “So I’m gonna go slow … We’ll get there in God’s timing and when it’s right.”

via Cathleen Falsani: Christian Film? What Should Be Coming to a Theater Near You.

“Great Divorce”: The Movie

C. S. Lewis’s Great Divorce is getting made into a movie!  That symbolic/visionary/satirical/fantasy of a bus trip from Hell to a too-solid Heaven would seem to be hard to render in a film, but that’s part of what makes the prospect interesting.  The writer tapped to write the screenplay?  N. D. Wilson (the son of Douglas Wilson, whom some of you may know of).  Justin Taylor interviews him about  the project:

How do you take a set of episodes and turn them into a coherent story while being faithful and without ruffling too many feathers?

Oh, I’m not afraid to ruffle feathers. But any nervous fans out there should know that I’m as dog-loyal to Lewis and his vision as any writer could be. Where I’m adding and expanding and shaping, I am constantly trying to check myself against Lewis’ broader imagination as represented in his collected works—not simply this little volume.

I will admit that when I began the adaptation, I felt like I was jumping off a cliff into (hopefully deep) mysterious waters—you can never completely predict what will happen on impact. But now that I’ve impacted and finished the first draft of the script, I can say that (as a Lewis fan), I’m really, really happy with it. And from here, I hope it only gets better. . . .

The Great Divorce has been referenced a fair bit lately in the Christian blogosphere, with the suggestion that there are similarities between Lewis’s “supposal” and Rob Bell’s “proposal.” And Bell himself recommends the book in Love Wins. Any thoughts on that?

At times Rob Bell (like in the Love Wins video) sounds exactly like the kind of character that one could expect to find in the pages of The Great Divorce. He seems to enjoy chasing and massaging ideas and questions for the sake of the journey of it all and not for the arrival. Landing on objective concrete answers isn’t exactly the goal. That’s not meant as a comment on whether or not Bell is regenerate (we’re graciously saved by faith not works, luckily enough), but it is a comment on where Bell would sit with Lewis in this whole discussion.

And, of course, Lewis put the universalist George MacDonald in Heaven and made him watch the unrepentant damned get back on the bus to Hell. A little wink and gloat at one of his favorite authors. . . .

Assuming you would have done things differently, can you summarize why the Narnia films have not had the same effect on children as the books?

No movie is going to have the same effect as a book (nor should it). Movies are transient singular experiences. They last longer than a stage production, but they should be viewed the same way—as a particular rendition of a fixed story. Someone else can do it again later (differently), but the book will be the same.

As for the Narnia movies in particular, I think they’re doing service to the books (hundreds of thousands of additional units moved), but yes, I would have done things a little differently. But more power to them.

via An Interview with N.D. Wilson on Screenwriting The Great Divorce – Justin Taylor.


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