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Instagram comic auctions are bringing in thousands for sellers in a COVID-19 world

By Dana Forsythe
Venom, Miles Morales, Knull and Spider-Gwen are extremely hot right now in the comic book market.

When the pandemic hit, essentially halting everything from new issues to comic cons in March, some industry insiders predicted the halt would create "an extinction-level event" for comic book shops around the country. Retailers wouldn’t have stock to sell, buyers would cease to care, and the market would collapse. While there's no denying every brick-and-mortar shop across the country has felt the sting from a loss of weekly foot traffic, the customers themselves have not stopped buying. In fact, you can sign on to your Instagram account any night of the week and see thousands of dollars in comic books being bought and sold live.

Imagine your local comic book shop (if you still have one). They may have a wall of bigger-ticket books — maybe a Fantastic Four #48 (the first appearance of the Silver Surfer) or an Avengers #8 (the first Kang the Conqueror) — on display among the stacks of long boxes and newer subscription items. Now multiply that by thousands and factor in that the internet never sleeps.

In the past few years, with the advent of better-quality live streaming via Facebook, YouTube, and, more recently, Instagram, buyers have flocked to social media to find deals on back issues, keys, and rare variants alike. There’s a good chance if you’re looking for an Amazing Spider-Man #361 (the first appearance of Carnage) ahead of the new Venom movie, you could find multiple copies just by scrolling the #comicsforsale hashtag for a few seconds. 

Venom is one of the hottest books in comics right now. Instagram users like @gazercollects use the bigger keys to draw bidders for their auctions. [Credit: Instagram]

The photo-centric nature of Instagram itself seems ready-made for selling comic books. Users can take multiple photos showing page quality and post detailed information about issue significance and scarcity, and the profile pages themselves double as archives to be searched by anyone at any time. But it’s Instagram’s live streaming capabilities that have helped the comic community grow exponentially. Claim sales — where sellers parade books past the camera — or auctions can make your week if you’ve got the right books and right buyers.

Aside from finding a collection in a barn somewhere, social media sites tend to have the best deals, according to Jamie Medlin, who, like many folks, started selling online last year. Medlin recently penned an ebook titled How I Made Profit Selling Comic Books From Home detailing his experience as a rookie buyer and seller.

“With the reduced fees you pay when buying direct from users, it really gives you the power to close on a great deal,” he writes. “The biggest concern is potential risk. Thankfully, the community is pretty tight-knit and you should always spend some time investigating a seller based on their past sales from their page or even asking directly to other users about their reputation.”

Mike Carbonaro, (left) with Stan Lee (center), has been buying and selling on the comic book convention circuit since the 1980s. [Courtesy Photo/ Mike Carbonara]

As a mainstay on the convention circuit since its inception and the founder of Big Apple Comic Con, Mike Carbonaro knows almost everything there is to know about selling collectibles. In fact, it’s his life work. When SYFY WIRE spoke to Carbonaro, he was on his way back from buying yet another collection of comics in Connecticut. He says he’s been slow to move his business online over the past few years; it's now an inevitability.

“Basically the pandemic just poured accelerant on the fire,” Carbonaro explains. “I love going to shows, walking around and meeting people, [I have] since I was a kid, but now I’m forced to come up with a new way to do business.”

Carbonaro says he now has plans for online sales and live sessions in the future, but he thanks Ali Karaouni, owner and operator of Elite Comics11, for getting him off the couch and on Instagram. Karaouni has made it his business for the past two years to connect sellers and buyers of rare keys, expensive variants, and "grails" such as X-Men #1, Fantastic Four #1, and Amazing Fantasy #15. A lifelong comic book fan, Karaouni could never afford the big keys growing up, but when he started having success with his family farm and law practice, he came back to collecting for investments. 

Ali Karaouni (Elite_Comics11) started the virtual comic book convention @CON and the popular Remedy Tour, which has connected shuttered comic shops with eager buyers. [Credit: Instagram/Elite_Comics11]

Fostering a connection with buyers online via Facebook, Karaouni started selling and buying on social media but soon began to connect buyers and sellers for high-end books, taking a little off the top for his troubles. It was only two years ago that he moved over to Instagram with Elite_Comics11. With more than 14,000 followers, he’s now moved ahead with bigger ideas.

In a prescient move, Karaouni started @CON, an entirely online comic convention hosted via Instagram Live, in February. The event featured speakers like Neal Adams and other panelists, and just last week Elite_Comics11 hosted the second round, @CON2, with guests like Kevin Eastman, Carbonaro, and sellers from California to New York. In addition, Karaouni launched the Remedy Tour in mid-March to help connect struggling shops with rabid buyers.

“The community has grown so much in the last few years, and I’m proud because I think we’ve grown into a resource,” Karaouni says. “We do a lot of anti-scammer work as well, to root out people trying to rip off the community.”

Ali Karaouni started the Remedy Tour in March to connect struggling vendors and shops with customers stuck at home. [Credit: Instagram/Elite_Comics11]

Neal Adams, who spoke for over an hour during one of the panels, reiterated the benefit of moving the community online.

“You get to meet artists, get to go to stores and everyone did really well, and everyone had a great time,” Adams says. Adams' store Crusty Bunkers in Burbank was also featured and socked away thousands in book and commission sales over the course of five hours.

Karaouni says that by connecting shops directly with dozens of buyers at a time, the Remedy Tour itself has now been able to give a much-needed boost to 13 shops. In many cases, a four-hour sale could mean more than $10,000 for a single seller. In return, buyers have immediate access to keys and grails they may never see in person. A high-grade Daredevil #1, an issue of Amazing Spider-Man #13 (first Mysterio appearance), and an Ultimate Fallout #4, all $1,000-plus books, all sold in seconds.

At @CON2 in early July, Carbonaro dished stories about his collectibles, cars, and comics while selling thousands in merchandise. He says teaming up with Karaouni allowed his company to play some catch-up after essentially being out of business for two months. 

“It opened up my eyes and I really want to create something for every platform we’re on,” he says. “I see the way forward over the next few years as we expand our reach.”

Diane and Nick Lazauskas, of Royal Collectibles in New York, joined up with Karaouni in 2019 after seeing a few sales on his Instagram page. So, when the pandemic hit and Karaouni offered a spot on the Remedy Tour, they jumped. 

“We were the first stop on his Remedy Tour, and it was a huge success for us. It helped generate some funds to keep us going, and since then we've been running our own Instagram Live sales, which truly gave us the ability to stay afloat during the shutdown here in New York. Now that we've been reopened to the public at a limited capacity for the last few weeks, we are still using Instagram sales to supplement the store's income,” Lazauskas says. “Ali's kickstart was so helpful with snapping us out of the shock of the shutdown and getting us to embrace social media as a way of doing business, something we hadn't done much of prior to the pandemic.”

LI Comic Guys (Jim “JJ” Michalak, Matt “Toy Story” Hirt and Tes “TC” Choudri) with Mark Hamill.

On the other end of the spectrum is a new generation of collectors, buyers, and sellers who have grown up on the internet, collecting and flipping on a small scale. Now, with a free platform and instant access to thousands of customers, many are going pro.

LI Comic Guys co-founder TC explains that after five years of their comic-centric podcast Don’t Feed the Geeks and selling books at conventions, they had a huge year planned prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our first thoughts were that this crisis was going to cause the next comic book crash and prices were going to tank, but to our surprise, the contrary happened and the market has skyrocketed,” he says. “We are seeing record-breaking sales every day, and interest seems to be at an all-time high. Ali deserves a lot of credit for that. The Remedy Tour and @CON have allowed this community to continue to have a much-needed escape, now more than ever, to a world that's a source of joy and inspiration for so many.”

For many collectors, comic books, once a source of joy and comfort, have become a way to keep afloat financially as well. Justin Bennet, @comictalks on Instagram, is one of those people. Bennett, who lives in Detroit, grew up on comic books but only started selling a few years back on eBay. 

Justin Bennett (@comictalks), pictured with Jim Starlin, has been running live comic book auctions for over two years. [Credit: Justin Bennett]

“After being scammed one too many times, I moved to a less private platform,” he says of his switch to Instagram. “When I started a few years back, there were no other live auctions, so my following grew fast. I enjoy doing this because I still love reading stories and latching onto new characters, kind of like they’re the underdog. Then I love being there for them when they get big.”

More recently, you can easily find three or four sellers and collectors going live every night. Want a leisurely and friendly stroll through the Bronze Age and modern keys? Pop over to Virginia with Patrick "Dusty" Harris (@salestoastionish) on Mondays. Looking for hard-to-find variants? Just click on Christy Cabral's page (@chrissy_queen_of_variants) or float down to Florida with Gion Garcia (@pinkmooncomics) on Thursday nights. If you’re in the mood for a mix of big books and free issues, visit Paul Demotica (@dscomix253) in Washington state or sit in on an auction in Boston with Matt Marlin (@mmcomicsales) on Wednesdays. Looking for strictly Silver Age and $1 comic books? North Carolina’s James Kressner (@comixforcheap) has you covered. Need some X-Men? Visit the Bay Area with Theodore Gaumer (@ragetheo). There’s a live sale for everyone.

A mix of chat room, auction, and low-key soiree, Bennett’s @comictalks auctions attract big buyers and have now grown to a point where he’s been giving away high-end prizes — like an Edge of Spider-Verse #2 (first appearance of Spider-Gwen) — to top buyers. Free giveaways, raffles, and tagging each other to show off books are meant to attract and keep customers in the burgeoning marketplace, but they're also indicative of a very active and engaged community. 

Despite only starting late last year, Patrick 'Dusty' Harris (@salestoastonish) has amassed thousands of followers for his bi-weekly comic auctions.

With every new day, there’s a new hashtag, encouraging people to show off their books, whether or not they’re for sale. There’s #mutantmondays, #topvarianttuesdays, #wolverinewednesdays, #thorsday, or #symbiotesunday, and hundreds of others, all designed with the purpose of sharing that collective love for comic books.

“People need people and real human interaction. COVID-19 took away a lot of the traditional ways people connect in the comic community,” Karaouni says. “When we host a sale, it’s clear there's a community there — people joking, educating others on how it works, or even offering up info on price and condition of books for those who missed it. It’s all the things you see at a real convention, just virtual.”

As for the future, Bennett sees online sales continuing to grow, while acknowledging that local comic book shops still play a vital role in the comic ecosystem, supplying rare books, pull lists, and providing quality control.

Christy Cabral (@chrissy_queen_of_variants) is a long time collector and seller based out of Hawaii. 

“I think [live sales] are popular because everyone has a different collection,” Bennett says. “That means every seller is bringing some of themselves to the auction.”

For many sellers, Demotica included, the switch to Instagram Live was about connecting with people. After buying books on Facebook for years, he switched over last fall and had about three viewers when he started. After a steep learning curve, he’s learned to lean on the community at large on advice for everything from packing to pricing. He now attracts at least four dozen viewers when he goes live to sell key issues. 

“I like to keep things positive on my channel, and when it comes down to it, I just want to get people the books they want for the price they want to pay,” he says. “We’re all chasing books that are sometimes out of reach, I just love the feeling of making that connection happen for people.”

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