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SYFY WIRE Behind the Panel

Grail today, gone tomorrow: Comic collecting is a quest with no end. That's what makes it awesome.

By Mike Avila

In the wonderfully weird comic art collecting world, art fiends like myself refer to the page of art that we treasure the most as "the Holy Grail." That's the panel page, splash, or cover we'll supposedly mortgage our home and auction off a kidney for to add to our collection.

How you define what a Grail is depends on the type of collector you are and by how much you're willing (and able) to spend to acquire it. Sometimes, you have to adjust your definition of a Holy Grail because it lives in a zip code you can't afford. I'm a huge John Byrne fan, as anyone familiar with Behind the Panel knows. And a Byrne X-Men page inked by Terry Austin would be an ultimate collecting goal... except those pages are now way out of my price range.

Since the rent is too damn high in Byrne X-Men-landia and I can't compete with deep-pocketed Byrne collectors like Rob Liefeld, I downshifted my interests. Thankfully, Byrne's catalog is full of awesomeness, so I was able to recently pick up my first JB original, a half-splash from Alpha Flight #17. That will happily occupy a place in my collection. I'm sure collectors who focus on comics or action figures have to make the same adjustments as certain realities of life come into play.

Comics Collection via Getty Images

I've been thinking about this a lot since my recent trip to the SC Comic Con in Greenville, South Carolina. While I'm mainly an art collector these days, because I clearly hate having money in my pockets, I still collect comics. I have a modest but well-curated collection of books, some of which are considered "key" comics, as well as books that hold great nostalgic appeal (like Treasury Comics!). Which is why I spent my time at the Greenville show digging through comic long boxes to check off some books on my want list.

I was relatively successful. I found a nice mid-grade Silver Age Hawkman #1 that I've wanted for quite awhile, along with an Uncanny X-Men #130 (first appearance of Dazzler) and a killer copy of Saga #1, first printing. Of course, as with any show I attend, the top book on my list is always Avengers #9. I have owned and still own comics that are much more "important" and certainly more valuable than that early Avengers issue. But that 1964 book is special to me because it marks the debut of one of my favorite Avengers, and the superhero who has more sartorial fabulousness than any hero in history.

Of course I'm talking about Simon Williams, aka Wonder Man. Don't bother coming at me with anti-Wondy foolishness. The man is a fictional national treasure. He made the safari jacket cool, but his original costume, the one on the cover of his first appearance, is even better. A near-perfect superhero design by artists Jack Kirby (who drew the cover) and Don Heck (he penciled the interior story), it's been a fascination of mine for years. Because I'm such a big fan of Wondy's, I've always resisted buying one of the low-grade copies I've seen at other conventions. He's my guy. I wanted, nay, I needed a nice, glossy copy of this book. I have always told friends that that book was my comic book Holy Grail.

Now I may be old-school, but I have no problem using eBay to fill some holes in my collection. But I enjoy the thrill of the hunt, and given my affinity for this particular book, I decided not to cheat and go after one of the copies on eBay. Except, I had no luck finding a copy of Avengers #9 at the show. Didn't see one copy, and this was a show full of rare comics. However, the show was overall a success and I flew home mostly satisfied — but the night I returned home, I made the mistake of going down the eBay rabbit hole. There it was... the comic I've been searching for, and a pretty nice copy at that.

Yep, I caved. I negotiated a bit with the seller, agreed on his counter to my counter, and bought the comic. It arrived in rapid fashion, perfectly shipped thanks to this very careful eBay seller. The book is gorgeous, and when I pulled it out of the priority mail box it arrived in, I was quite giddy. Check out the image below of the newest addition to my personal collection:

The debut appearance of Wonder man

Here's the strange thing. While I was pleased as punch to finally have a copy of the book, it didn't feel like I thought it would to bring it home. It didn't feel like a Grail. Part of that probably has to do with my using eBay, but given how long it may be before I go to another con, I did a fairly good job rationalizing away my taking the collecting shortcut.

It took me a minute, but then it hit me. The comic wasn't my Grail because if it were, it would mean that I had sated my collecting thirst. It didn't, and it never will. Not two days later, I was working on buying another couple of Silver Age Marvels, and closing that deal had me as excited as when I unwrapped my Wonder Man first appearance. I'm reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies ever, Heat. When Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) suggests to his friend Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) he should sit out their next heist, Cheritto brushes him off by explaining that it's not about the money for him: "For me, the action is the juice."

That basically sums up a big part of the appeal of collecting for me, and I bet for many others.

All this talk of Grails, holy and otherwise, is utter collector nonsense. I can't begin to count all the art pages on the Comic Art Fans website that are described in all-caps as GRAILS… only to see they've been marked "SOLD." That's just the way it is. We love our rare, high-grade comics, original art, and comics-adjacent collectibles, and there are specific items we will move heaven and earth to acquire and proudly display. But we love the search for those geeky treasures even more. We are cosplaying Ahabs, forever searching for our white whales, which hopefully have sharp corners, white pages, and a CGC grade of at least 9.6.

What's your grail? Find me on Twitter/Instagram and let me know.

Don't forget that Behind the Panel is a multi-platform series. Our video series is loaded with my in-depth interviews with some of the best comic book creators in the business. The Behind the Panel podcast is an audio documentary series that provides unique insight into your favorite creators and stories. Check 'em out, we think you'll enjoy them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.