- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Three decades worth of Robert Minshall’s obsession sits stacked chest-high in long, white boxes that wrap a small bedroom in his Charlotte Hall home.
Estimating that the comic book collection he started alongside his brother in 1984 now includes roughly 20,000 issues, Minshall said he sometimes gawks at his hoard and wonders what other hobbies, projects or vacations he might have funded had he not purchased on average two comics a day for the past 30 years.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t,” he said.
But those moments are always fleeting because in the end, Minshall collects comics for the joy of it, not to profit.
And now with it cooler than ever to be a nerd — Marvel Comics franchises thus far claim 2014’s three highest-grossing films at the global box office — Minshall suggests that anyone interested in starting their own comics collection do the same.
“Collect it because you like it, because you enjoy it, not necessarily for the monetary value five, 10, 15 years from now,” he said.
‘It looked like a toy store exploded’
Waldorf resident John Verrico has followed Minshall’s rule to a T, though his collection is geared toward a different kind of supernatural tale.
Standing 5 feet 3 inches and weighing 110 pounds when he graduated from high school in New Jersey, “I was the little guy,” he said. “I was always the one getting picked on by the bullies.”
Rather than superheroes, Verrico found refuge in the ultimate underdog stories — monster movies, where puny humans invariably band together to defeat some diabolical threat.
“In monster movies, the little guy always wins,” he said.
Verrico collected monster models and figurines as a kid, but after joining the U.S. Navy, much of his stash was either sold off or simply disappeared throughout the years.
After moving to Waldorf in 1986, Verrico was browsing at a yard sale when he happened upon models of King Kong and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. He purchased both, and a childhood fire was rekindled.
“It was kind of like therapy. I got to sit and be artistic for many hours,” he said.
Those models are now two among more than 5,000 pieces on display in Verrico’s basement, which he recently finished transforming into a makeshift shrine to classic monster films, his own demented man cave.
“People have called this the museum. It’s like a cross between a museum and a toy store,” he said. “I’ve been repurchasing my youth for 30 years.”
The door to Verrico’s basement carries a warning sign that appropriately reads “Beware of the” before being cut off by an apparent shark bite.
Open the basement’s door, and you’re greeted by a giant poster of Lon Chaney Jr.’s iconic Wolf Man staring down from the stairway’s sloped ceiling.
Along the walls of the stairwell are dozens of movie photos Verrico got signed at monster movie conventions, including one of him fanging Veronica Carlson, a British actress known for her roles in a series of Hammer horror films spanning the 1960s and ’70s, including her turn opposite Christopher Lee in “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave.” Among Verrico’s favorite photos are two of the eponymous Gill-man monster from “Creature From the Black Lagoon” signed by Ben Chapman — who played the creature while on land — and Ricou Browning, who portrayed the creature underwater.
The basement’s walls are lined with shelves crammed full of toys, models, figurines and other collectibles and memorabilia from Hollywood’s most frightening franchises. Entire floor-to-ceiling sections are devoted to genre staples “King Kong” — Verrico’s “all-time favorite” — “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” “The Mummy,” “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein.”
Another section carries figures from “The Invisible Man,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Nosferatu.”
Nearby are shelves devoted to the work of legendary stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, including his Sinbad films, “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” and “20 Million Miles to Earth.”
“These were the movies in the ’60s that really impressed me,” Verrico said.
On a table sits a recently finished Godzilla model. Nearby, the possessed brain-and-spine monster from the 1958 British independent “Fiend Without a Face” sits propped up in the basement’s fireplace, recalling a scene from the film when one of the beasts invades a home via its chimney.
Verrico said he and his wife “like the cheesy movies,” a fact verified by the row of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” mini-posters lining the basement’s bulkhead.
He calls obscure items from 1950s B-movies “kind of the collector’s nirvana.”
“The offbeat stuff, because I could probably live without another Frankenstein,” he added.
On one section of wall, Verrico has his own life mask hidden among a throng of monster guises, an homage to the famous scene in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” in which the eponymous alien hid among a closet full of stuffed animals.
The basement bar carries a sign reading “Dracula’s Pub” and another advertising “Blood pints here.” The bathroom is appropriately themed after “Psycho” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” with a “Bates Motel” sign hanging above the commode and a plastic dagger, which plays “The Murder” — the iconic score from the famous scene in which Janet Leigh’s character is stabbed to death while taking a shower — sitting beside the sink.
It took Verrico more than a year to finish the basement, but he didn’t consider it a chore.
“It was like Christmas because I hadn’t seen some of this stuff in 20 years,” he said. “It’d been in boxes. I think that was the most fun, just taking things out of boxes and figuring out where they went.”
When he first took his collection out of storage and began going through the boxes, “It looked like a toy store exploded in here,” he said.
Even more than model kits, what Verrico likes the most are unique toys and gizmos themed after his favorite monsters. His shelves include Dracula and King King Zippo lighters, a Mummy cookie jar, Dracula Lego clock, a hand-carved Wolf Man foam jack-o’-lantern and a slew of toys from fast-food children’s meals.
“There’s a story with every piece here,” he said.
Collector to creator
Dan Nokes stopped collecting comics in earnest in 2009, probably because he was too busy writing, illustrating and publishing his own.
The Lusby resident and 1994 Calvert High School grad has been a professional comic book artist since 2002 and has since become an independent publisher with a handful of original works distributed via his 21st Century Sandshark Studios.
“I always considered myself a storyteller,” Nokes said. “I just happened to be a good drawer, so I said why not combine the two?”
Nokes has also worked for the Virginia comic book convention the past couple of years, helping it sign up small press artists for its five annual conventions in Richmond.
Nokes said the comic con came to him because he has gotten to know so many independent artists in the region by “basically surviving longer than everybody else.”
Nokes attended his first comic con in Baltimore in 2002.
“It’s a short list of people I know who were at that show that are still in comics,” he said.
Technology that allows anyone with a decent computer and art software to create and post their own original comic online has transformed the industry, Nokes said.
“It’s easier than ever to make a comic and put it out,” he said. “It’s harder than ever to survive and make it in comics.”
Nokes has done so thus far with original, offbeat ideas resulting in titles such as “Adam & Eve Bizarre Love Triangle in the Zombie Apocalypse” and his current Web comic series, “Impossible Space Tales of the Last Pit Stop.” He is trying to fund a paperback collection of his Western-themed comic, “The Pistoleers” via Kickstarter.
Nokes grew up reading comics and still reads trade paperbacks and graphic novels, but he has grown dissatisfied with the level of creativity in the medium. He prefers reading small press and independently published comics, rather than stories of the well-known superheroes that have been around for more than a half century.
“It just feels like a soap opera, where you see the same thing happen over and over again,” Nokes said. “Comics are a medium, not a genre, so I don’t want to be one of those guys who contributes to what people expect out of the medium.”
Fueling the next generation of readers
Growing up around the Gulf Coast area in Florida, Minshall began collecting comics in 1984 alongside his brother, who had already begun reading Punisher, Wolverine and Batman books. Minshall started with Spiderman and Batman, and a lifelong obsession was underway.
“It was kind of like I was instantly addicted,” he said. “I just loved the stories, loved the art.”
A fan of the 1966 animated television series “The Marvel Super Heroes,” episodes of which typically featured one of five rotating superheroes, including Thor and Iron Man, Minshall started collecting both series soon thereafter.
He attended his first convention in 1991 in Maitland, Fla., a show that has since evolved into the Orlando Toy & Comic Con, Minshall said.
In 1996, he bought his brother’s collection for $100 and quickly sold part of it off at a flea market, making enough profit that Minshall said he gave his brother $300.
He has completed collections of the original Thor and Iron Man, each spanning about 400 issues.
He is now trying to sell about two-thirds of his massive collection in order to help fund expansion of the series he is actively trying to complete. The books Minshall is trying to offload cover dozens of well-known franchises in addition to obscure titles.
Minshall said he is currently selling comics with values roughly between $2 and $6 for $1 in order to clear his inventory and help new collectors get started.
“As a collector, I like to save money. I like to be able to afford my collection, so I try to do that for other collectors,” he said.
Minshall also sees selling comics cheaply as a way to encourage reading. A parent might see Minshall’s ad online and plop down $30 for 30 books, seeing it as a great start to their child’s collection, he said.
Minshall said he has learned a few words in French just from reading comics featuring Gambit, a member of the X-Men who was born in New Orleans and speaks with a heavy Cajun accent. X-Men comics are often littered with historical references and allegories, Minshall said.
“I try to inspire parents and the new kids to pick up reading because it’s educational, instead of just punching keys all the time,” he said.
Retired from a 23-year career in the U.S. Navy, Minshall also donates comics to the military.
“It’s just something for them to enjoy and pass time for 15 minutes of their day.”
Minshall does the bulk of his shopping online or at conventions but said he does visit Waldorf shops Comics MD and The House of Pop Culture on occasion. Though he predominantly focuses on collecting older comics, Minshall does like to keep up on the latest editions of select series, like X-Men and Wolverine. He also picks up random editions of Batman and Spiderman, he said.
The comic collector’s tool box is pretty simple and begins with a recent edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, considered by many the industry’s pricing Bible, where the fair market value of any comic book up until the date the guide was published can be found.
“This is what a good comic collector and dealer always needs,” Minshall said.
Beyond that, Minshall’s tools include a pencil and a raggedy old notepad, in which he jots down desired books and keeps as a quick reference while on the prowl at conventions. As he picks up issues on his “Want List,” he slashes them out in the notepad.
“This way I’m not spending $50 on a book I got,” he said.
Noticing that he doesn’t yet have Uncanny X-Men #1 crossed out, a reporter asked Minshall if that issue currently sits atop his “Want List.”
“I actually have that,” Minshall chuckled mischievously, adding that his top priority is actually finding Uncanny X-Men #62, which would complete his X-Men collection. Minshall also is actively collecting books within the “Age of Apocalypse” storyline that spanned several different X-Men franchises between 1995 and 1996.
Too many people incorrectly assume that because superheroes are currently all the rage in Hollywood, that their comics must also be valuable, Minshall said.
“These days, even though they may not know specifically what it’s worth, they associate comic books with ‘it must be worth something,’” he said. “That’s one of the hardest things for me to do, is to tell somebody that their collection, monetarywise, is not worth anything.”
The best things new collectors can do is protect their books with a cardboard backing inside a plastic sleeve, the same method used by dealers and comic shops. In the world of comics, a book’s condition can be just as if not more important than its rarity.
“You could have a Spiderman #1, but if it’s all torn up, no one’s going to want to buy it,” Minshall said. “You just cost yourself $2,000 because mice pooped on it and chewed it up.”
Film success influences collectors
On the surface, the box office success of superhero movies would seem to a be a boon for the comics industry as a whole.
But Brett Frankel, the owner of The House of Pop Culture in Waldorf, said the films have had little bearing on his actual sales.
“I find the people who are into the films and the TV shows are just that. They aren’t into the source material, which is disheartening,” he said. “It’s the best in terms of awareness, but awareness doesn’t equal sales.”
Though major franchises like Batman and X-Men remain the industry’s best sellers, Frankel said he tries to direct new customers who come in asking for a popular franchise instead toward the best stories.
“Something good that they’ll come back for,” he added.
In the early 1990s, speculation ran rampant through the comic book industry as investors began buying the early issues of new series in bulk, driving up prices for collectors like Minshall.
With the popularity of superheroes at an all-time high in Hollywood, speculation in comics has started up again, Minshall said.
For instance, when Minshall (spoiler alert) saw that the latest X-Men movie, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” teased the future appearance of one of his favorite characters, Apocalypse, in the film’s post credits, he cringed.
“I was like, ‘oh no,’” Minshall said.
Sure enough, at a convention in Virginia earlier this month, Minshall found Apocalypse comics going for quadruple their price from a few months ago.
The same thing happened after (more spoilers) the supervillain Thanos was shown after the credits in “The Avengers,” Minshall said. The first appearance of Rocket Racoon in The Incredible Hulk #271 is currently selling for “ridiculous” prices on eBay, he said, following the release of trailers for Marvel’s latest film franchise, “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
“The movies hype up a lot of price, a lot of cost to collectors,” Minshall said. “So I guess it’s good if you’re sitting on a ton of them, but if you only have a couple and you want more of that book, you’re probably bummed out.”
Nonetheless, the films are still bringing the characters Minshall adores to the big screen, so he can’t help but be a fan. The Apocalypse teaser notwithstanding, he still enjoyed “Days of Future Past.” In addition to Apocalypse, Minshall said his favorite comic book character is Magneto, the pre-eminent villain of the X-Men franchise, whose mutant powers enable him to control and manipulate metal.
“Although, it was kind of emotional to see all my X-Men being killed,” he said. “I just kind of wanted to close my eyes for a moment.”
Nokes considers himself a fan of the movies on a “case-by-case” basis but said they have certainly made the industry more mainstream, a change reflected in the makeup of attendance at comic cons.
“There’s definitely a larger female presence,” he said. “In 1992, seeing a female on the floor was like seeing a rare white spotted owl or unicorn.”
Nokes said he considers himself part of the last generation of kids who were dissuaded by parents and teachers from entering the comics industry. It’s now seen as a viable career, despite all the actual hardships, he said.
“The downside is comics have not gotten their recognition or realized their potential as a medium that can tell all different kinds of stories,” he said. “It’s still seen by the general population as something for adolescent male fantasy [stories]. I like to say it hasn’t had its ‘Citizen Kane’ yet.”