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It took Danielle Smith a little time to fully grasp the byzantine and sometimes exclusionary marketplace of comic book dealers.
"It's like this secret underground society of people where like, once you're in, you're in," Smith tells SYFY WIRE of the back-issue comics business. "It took me a long, long time to kind of take my own seat at the table. And that was not an easy thing to do."
Thanks to a combination of savvy investments, good customer relations, and, more recently, embracing new virtual avenues to connect with customers, Smith has established herself as a prominent seller of big-ticket comics. While she's a fixture at East Coast conventions, her usual business model has been upended by the pandemic, much like other dealers. Smith has been forced to adapt and found social media to be an effective method for buying and selling rare comics, art, and even video games. Her Nerdy Girl Comics Instagram account has become a popular spot to check out her drool-worthy collection of vintage collectibles. Not bad for someone who admits to not being much of a comics fan, but then again, she's never been afraid to do things a bit unconventionally.
The first convention Smith ever attended was San Diego Comic-Con, which is kind of like getting your first taste of football by attending a Super Bowl. She went with her boyfriend, who was selling comics at the time, but Smith had no idea that one could make a living buying and selling comic books. Needless to say, SDCC made a big impression on her. Years after that first exposure to con life, Smith has carved out a lucrative business selling high-end back issues across multiple platforms. Through eBay, social media, and, in pre-pandemic times, at conventions, Smith has bought and sold some of the most sought-after comics in the collecting realm. We're not talking about 1990s first issues here. We mean legit gems such as Amazing Fantasy #15, Captain America #1, Detective Comics #27, and multiple (!!) copies of Action Comics #1.
One major reason for Smith's success? Her hustle is off the charts.
Raised by a single mom, Smith says at one point her family was on welfare. Her desire to provide better circumstances for her own family serves as constant motivation in the cutthroat world of comics. She's never been afraid to roll the dice and go against the grain. For example, Smith says she was buying restored comics — long seen as being bad investments — when most other dealers wouldn't touch them. That move, as well as several other calculated gambles, paid off. "I mean, back in the beginning, it was like, 'OK, we're going to take these giant risks.' You know, hope that they pay off, like with the Marvel one."
The "Marvel one" refers to Marvel Comics #1, the 1939 comic that is a holy grail for many collectors. With only about 100 copies known to exist, it's one of the rarest of the key Golden Age comics. More than a decade ago, Smith won a CGC-graded 9.0 copy of the comic at an auction for more than $200,000, by far her biggest purchase at that point. She was worried she had bitten off more than she could chew. "I think I was pregnant at the time," she says. "I was like, 'OK, we won this. How the hell are we going to pay for this?'"
It turns out, she didn't have to figure it out. Before she had even taken possession of her big auction win, she managed to flip the comic for a quick profit. She took that money and poured it into more books. That formula of constant reinvestment has served her well, as has her ability to adapt.
The past year has been exceptionally challenging for the industry, as the pandemic has shut down one of the primary avenues for sales: conventions. Smith adjusted by focusing on online sales, through eBay and her own Instagram. Her IG followers have seen her posting a steady serving of books many collectors would trade a family member for.
"Instagram has kind of become my baby because my favorite part of going to shows is getting to talk to people," she says. "I am an extrovert by nature. And to be stuck at home for going on a year now — like, my last time I even went to a grocery store was the beginning of March, flying home from Chicago — has been crazy."
While direct sales and live auctions have helped keep the sales flowing, Smith says social media has been helpful in keeping her connected with the collecting community. "I jump on during weekends and I do a live stream where I'll just do Q&As — I'm not jumping on to sell anything," she says. "I'm just getting on to talk to people and to engage with the community. And it's kind of weird to watch; what I [wanted] to be a primary source of selling kind of [became] more than that."
The lack of conventions hasn't just hampered her social interactions. Restless home-bound collectors have driven the market for many back-issue comics through the roof, which is rough on the wallets of buyers and sellers alike. Auction houses like Heritage and ComicLink have seen record sales for key comics and original art over the past nine months, and Smith says she's seeing the impact on her stash. "I'm really struggling to buy right now. Like my comic book inventory is the weakest it's ever been because I do a lot of buying at shows," she admits. "Plus, with all the other dealers staying home, we're all fighting each other for books at auction. We're driving the market up on ourselves."
Smith doesn't see the market softening for key comics that are the foundations of many collections, like Amazing Fantasy #15, Fantastic Four #48, Giant-Size X-Men #1, and Incredible Hulk #181. She buys as many copies of those comics as she can find. One segment of the market she has little interest in, though, are post-1986 comics. She's stunned by the sky-high prices issues like Amazing Spider-Man #300 have garnered at auction, with one high-grade example recently selling for $6,000. "I think that's outrageous given how many copies of that book are out there in high grade. That's not a hard book to find. It's very weird to me," she says.
Something else people should know about Smith? She's not afraid to speak her mind and ruffle the proverbial feathers. "I'm very upfront about not following the modern market," she explains. "I don't know anything about books that are just coming out. I tell people, don't spend a thousand dollars on a book that just came out three weeks ago. Take that money and put it into a Spidey #129 in decent condition. It's a better purchase for you. And it's going to hold up better for you than these books that are just released that are being inflated by these fake bubbles. They are not sustainable."
Smith says part of the problem she encountered as she broke into the comics business was resistance from what she saw as a boys-club atmosphere in the comics-dealing world. If you've attended comic conventions, it's not hard to see her point. The majority of dealers at most shows are guys. "There are still some male dealers who will not deal with me, who will not even have a conversation with me," she says. "There are still a handful of dealers who won't even entertain me. If I go up to their booth, they will not even acknowledge me. And I'm like, 'You know what? I don't need to spend my money with you. I'll spend it with someone else.'"
Part of the reason for that resistance, Smith suspects, is because unlike just about every other comics dealer, she didn't grow up reading the books she's now selling. She freely admits to not being much of a comics fan, something else that likely sets her apart from many of her fellow comics entrepreneurs. But anyone who's talked with Smith at a con or online learns right away that she knows her business. "If [anyone] has a conversation with me for two minutes, then they know I'm in tune with the market. I'm in tune with why books are significant," she says. "You don't have to read a comic to understand what makes it special or valuable. There are enough resources out there and I've been doing it long enough to know what I'm talking about."
She's been around long enough to notice the types of people collecting comics is changing, too. The emergence of comics culture, thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the explosion of comic book TV shows, has brought a new type of collector into the mix. Some are just straight speculators looking to strike gold, but Smith says she's seeing more women dipping their toes in the collecting waters. "There's a difference between the girls who dress up in cosplay at shows and the hardcore female collectors," she says. "I do think that that's a smaller group comparatively, but I feel like it's growing because I think that it's become more normal to kind of be a nerd and to collect comic books. And I think that as women come into money and realize this isn't only for guys, they think they can do this, too."
"I think that as the hobby grows and it becomes more socially kind of trendy and cool, it just kind of happens organically," she adds. "I was really happy when I did my first live sale on Instagram to see a couple of women spend a few hundred dollars on comics. It was really fun and interesting for me to see these women so excited to collect these books."
Like anyone who's been in the comics business a long time, Smith has her fair share of war stories and crazy collector tales. "I met a guy once who slept in his bathtub, and it was black from being so filthy," she says. "He slept in his bathtub and he would start it at hot. And when he felt the water was cold, he knew it was time to get up. His toilet was black. His sink was black. It was disgusting. But he was a super sweet guy. And he had a copy of Batman #1 that we bought!"
Then there's the time she got into a bidding war over a complete run of Action Comics from issues #1-400 with a dealer she says tried to pull an end-around on her. Smith's competitiveness got the best of her and she ended up bidding well over what she wanted to pay, but she doesn't regret it one bit. "At one point I thought, 'I don't know how much higher I can keep going,' but I refused to let him win this [comic] just on principle," she says. "So even if I end up overpaying by a little bit, oh, well. I'll still walk away with the entire collection. And I let him know, mine's bigger! And I won it."
Final price? More than $550,000!
But for Smith, it was worth it for more than just the future financial profit she turned. It helped prove that she was in it to win it. She's had to earn her respect, and she's done so. At this point in her career, with her track record, it might be time for other dealers to start asking Smith for a seat at her table.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.