Style: Ouch] pounds 2,000 for a comic]: It's no joke: a forthcoming sale of British back numbers promises to turn strips into assets, as John Windsor reports

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Is the market for vintage British comics about to come alive? At present, American comics with their super-heroes and super investment values make up 95 per cent of sales in Britain's 300 collectors' comics shops. The 75 surviving copies of Superman No 1 (1938) are worth dollars 75,000 (pounds 50,000) each.

Malcolm Phillips, who has mailed 2,000 free catalogues for his sixth quarterly postal auction of comics (Britain's only such auction; the US has dozens), hopes to kick-start the market for British comics by coaxing runs of Hotspur and Film Fun out of attics in search of bullish bids. He has put an estimate of pounds 3,000- pounds 3,500 on 305 copies of Mickey Mouse Weekly (an attic find), a run from No 1 in 1936, complete apart from issues 253 and 283.

Pure Disney, pure American, you might think. But MMW (Odhams Press) was a British publishing landmark, the first colour comic printed by photogravure. Besides Disney characters it featured good British artwork (science-fiction strips, costume sagas and serials) that were reprinted back in the States.

Would-be vendors of British comics are waiting to see how it performs at the auction. A good price could help to form a lucrative bridge between the slumbering British and lively American markets, and so far the mouse has attracted three bids within estimate (closing date: Wednesday). This will disappoint the secretive band of mostly male British collectors who are used to rummaging for long-sought pre-war issues of Adventure or Radio Fun at a measly 50p (or a usurious pounds 2 if the dealer suspects you are collecting a run), and who would prefer comics to remain the most uncollected collectable - cheap old rubbish.

Their wishes are being thwarted, not only by Mr Phillips, but by a growing number of celebrities. Bill Wyman has bought a complete run of Wizard for his favourite character William Wilson (a proper British hero, first to run a four- minute mile, shot down in Spitfire, etc). David Bowie has a run of Eagle, Joan Armatrading a run of Beano. Paul Gambaccini collects. So does Jonathan Ross. Both Auberon Waugh and A N Wilson are members of the Dennis the Menace Fan Club.

Christie's South Kensington is holding its first sale of 'Fine and Rare Comics' on 4 August - another affront to the anorak-and-bicycle-clip brigade. This fresh auction market has risen on the back of the recently discovered market for the original artwork of paperbacks and comics. The sale is expected to comprise 90 per cent US comics: even so, the auctioneers are not yet asking this fragile new market to absorb anything less coveted than big runs and early issues.

Auctioneer Natalie Shaw has estimated the artwork of the first adventure of Beano's Biffo the Bear at pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000, but rejected some Forties Hotspurs as worth only pounds 2 each. One of Mr Phillips's current lots is 18 issues of Adventure, Rover, Hotspur and Wizard of 1943-46 (also referred to as 'story papers'), estimated pounds 10-pounds 15.

Why well-heeled 60-year- olds spend small fortunes on Dinky Toys but not - so far - on British comics is a mystery. Are not both equally nostalgic?

Paul Hudson, proprietor of Comic Showcase in Neal Street, Covent Garden, central London, says of vintage British comics: 'We haven't got the customers and we haven't got the comics.'

In other words, no market. Beano and Dandy (still published) have found cult markets (a pristine complete run of Beano is worth pounds 7,000-pounds 10,000), and Eagle, with prized artwork by named artists, is a 'sustainable' collectable.

But the heyday of comics and story papers between the two world wars (Adventure, Rover, Hotspur and Wizard were all successfully launched by D C Thomson in the first three years of the Twenties) appears to have a dearth of followers, a seeming lost generation of collectors.

One reason is the Second World War paper shortage. Comics got pulped. Making them rare and valuable? Hardly. Mr Phillips feels that the young comic readers of the Twenties and Thirties, demobbed after the war, 'were more interested in collecting their ration books than back numbers of Champion'.

Unlike American comic books, British comics are still stigmatised as juvenile rubbish - for kids unable to read properly. People threw them away and still do.

American comic books, however, grew out of adult newspaper strips of both super- heroes and funnies. Famous Funnies No 1 of 1933 (only 12 are known to survive) is actually worth more than the first Superman - dollars 120,000.

From the start, at a monthly 48-pages or so, American comic books were less ephemeral, more likely to be hoarded. Also, super-hero artwork was more glamorous than anything available in Britain.

Spider-Man, the most popular super-hero after Superman, made a well-timed entrance in 1961, when teenage baby-boomers on both sides of the Atlantic were entering a decade of comparatively high incomes, and collecting was becoming respectable.

Continued publication of a title sustains collectors' interest. The first issue of Beano is on offer for pounds 2,000 at the Vintage Magazine Company in Hackney, east London - one of the few shops to have found a market for British comics. As for Adventure, Rover, Hotspur and Wizard, which all disappeared during the years 1959- 63, Dez Skinn, editor of Comics International, gave me the simplest reason why septuagenarians do not fight over them: 'They've forgotten them.'

Such is the post-nostalgia syndrome. It usually kicks in when a generation of collectors dies. To survive as collectables, vintage British comics will have to transcend nostalgia and repackage themselves as socially indicative printed ephemera. Will schoolteachers of the 21st century be supplied with facsimiles of Wizard, 18 August 1945 - 'the nigs are getting tired of living in trees' - or teach the history of nutrition with the help of Knock- Out Billy Bunter?

Or will the market follow the prediction of Danny Posner, founder of the Vintage Magazine Company: 'In 10 years' time, no one will want to know about Billy Bunter. Those who bought him will all have snuffed it.'

Mr Phillips's Comic Book Postal Auctions (071-586 3007). Christie's South Kensington (071-581 7611). Comic Showcase (071-240 3664). Vintage Magazine Company (081-533 7588). Comics International (081-444 2002).

(Photographs omitted)

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