Kaboom Comics, a comic-book store in McAllen, had proudly built a display of rare comics on its “Wall of Keys,” featuring iconic issues of various titles. On April 14, however, an employee noticed bare spots on the wall where some of the key issues should have been, and, after checking with coworkers, confirmed that no one had purchased them. According to MyRGV.com, the store released on social media the security footage showing the heist taking place and placed a call—a veritable bat signal, if you will—asking the community to help identify the thief.
What did they steal?
The biggest score in the heist was a copy of Amazing Spider-Man number 252, a key 1984 issue in Spidey’s mythology. A couple of issues of Venom, a spin-off series starring the web-slinger’s more sinister counterpart, as well as a stack of new-release comics were also skimmed off of the shelves.
Who took them?
While there’s yet to be a conviction in the case, the caper seems to be relatively cut and dried: a caller identified the suspect to McAllen police, and then the man she named—Edinburg High School assistant principal Juan Martinez Jr.—turned himself in, along with the comics, to the police department, offering a full confession and waiving his Miranda rights. He was arrested and charged with a Class B misdemeanor for theft of property worth between $100 and $750 (the value of the books was estimated at $409.93).
Why those comics?
Who knows why people covet the things they do? But Amazing Spider-Man number 252 is a significant issue in the character’s history—it’s the first time he appeared in his black and white costume, which plays an outsized role in the web-slinger’s mythology. (The costume turns out to be an alien symbiote! It’s a whole thing.) Published in January 1984, the issue quickly became a collector’s item, and time has done nothing to diminish its value: depending on the condition of the comic book, it can fetch from around $200 for a copy that has yet to be professionally graded to as much as $6,000 for one that’s been graded at 9.9 out of 10 (no one has ever found a 10.0 copy of the issue). The copy on the shelf at Kaboom Comics hadn’t been graded, and its price was listed at $300, according to the arrest affidavit; this was an especially rare variant.
What made that copy extra-rare?
Let’s take off our strange-crime hats and put on our comic-book collector hats for a moment (mine’s a Wolverine mask!). Back in 1984, comic books were sold both on newsstands and at specialty stores, and they retailed for a mere 60 cents. (These days, the cover price for a comic book from Marvel or DC starts at around $4, and newsstands, convenience stores, gas stations, and other non–specialty shops rarely invest in stocking them.) The copies that were sold at newsstands had a barcode on the bottom left corner, while copies that were shipped to comic-book stores had a lil’ picture of Spider-Man’s head in that spot. Newsstand copies could be returned and pulped—businesses could rip the covers off, then send them back to the publisher for a refund—while comic-book stores, which bought at a discount, were stuck with unsold copies. Accordingly, newsstand copies—of which the edition of Amazing Spider-Man number 252 at Kaboom was one—are more rare, as many of them were destroyed unsold. They’re even harder to find in good condition, as those copies tended to get thumbed through by customers who stopped in the store for a pack of cigarettes or a candy bar.
Huh, that is marginally interesting!
It is, right? The world is a fascinating place.
What about the Venom comics?
They were much more recent, but still valuable—worth about fifty bucks each.
What made them special?
After newsstands stopped selling comic books, the industry needed another way to generate both revenue for publishers and scarcity for collectors. They settled on distributing copies with exclusive covers—say, for every fifty copies of an issue a comic-book store published, they’d get one copy with a variant cover, drawn by a different artist or featuring a different character. The copies of Venom that Kaboom had on its wall were both exclusive editions of comics published within the past few years.
Is there a robust black market for stolen comic books?
Kind of, yeah. They’re valuable, so people definitely steal them and try to resell them. While we don’t know what the shoplifter at Kaboom planned for the boosted books (though the fact that there were a bunch of $4 new releases in the score suggests that they may have been intended for personal use), it’s not rare for stolen high-end comics to end up getting bought and sold.
Perhaps the wildest case of comic-book theft in Texas—at a scale totally different from that of the incident in McAllen—was a 2012 money-laundering scheme in which rare comics were purchased at auction using embezzled funds, which were subsequently stolen by the Harris County investigator tasked with unraveling the web of ill-gotten purchases. But it happens fairly often—Nicolas Cage had his copy of 1938’s Action Comics number 1, with the first appearance of Superman, stolen from his home in 2000 (it was recovered eleven years later in a storage unit).
Ungraded comics like the Amazing Spider-Man issue from the store are the easiest ones to move, too—part of the professional grading process involves creating a paper trail for individual comics, registering the issue to its owner. In 2019, $2 million worth of Batman titles were nabbed from a Florida storage unit; when the thieves attempted to sell the collection to a store in Phoenix, the registration on the stolen comics traced back to the owner. After having his comics returned to him, he sold the collection through Dallas-based Heritage Auctions. It’d have been a lot harder to prove that Kaboom’s copy of Amazing Spider-Man belonged to the store if it had ended up on eBay, though.
What’s next for the stolen comics?
Kaboom’s already placed Amazing Spider-Man number 252 back on its wall, where it’ll stay perched, like its hero clinging to a Manhattan gargoyle. There, it will keep an ever-watchful vigil on the store, reminding visitors that with great comics comes great responsibility (not to steal from the store).