The Second Worst Idea Marvel Comics Has Ever Had

The major comic book companies are on track to prove that the only thing we learn from History is that we don’t learn anything from History.  Just look at how they’ve been doing lately:

  • DC Comics re-re-re-re-rebooted everything again.
  • After getting a clue about not being needlessly dark, DC Comics are heading into a crossover where dark versions of our favorite heroes invade.  Again.
  • Nearly every single DC Comic has a variant cover.  At least there are no minimum order amounts for most of them.
  • Marvel seems intent on setting records for the largest number of regular covers a retailer has to order to get one variant cover (current record holder: 2000 copies).
  • Marvel killed off a lot of their most popular characters, and now is bringing them all back again because sales dropped precipitously.  Oops.
  • Massive crossovers and Events seem to be endless.
  • Far too many Marvel comics continue to ship late, allowing customers to read stories that occur after major events they couldn’t have read yet.

The comic book industry has a long-standing pattern of boom and bust, and the artificial boom currently underway is being underwritten by online stores that are big enough to order 100 to 2000 copies of a comic just to get the variants.  And the events.  And the crossovers.  We seem to be cruisin’ for a bruisin’ once again.

We’ve been down this road before.  In the 1980s we had the black and white comic boom started by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that collapsed once it was clear that customers wanted color.  In the 1990s we had the Death of Superman, the Breaking of the Bat, and the explosion and death of Valiant comics that resulted in the loss of over 75% of our comic stores and the bankruptcy of Marvel Comics.

And here we are again.  When comics are sold as entertainment they do fairly well, although the current prices of new comics are prohibitively high for most people (new #1 issues of a lot of comics are now routinely $5 each).  When they are sold as “collector items” or “investments” new comics may seem to do well, but as soon as a significant percentage of comic buyers try to “cash in” and sell their prized comics, it always comes crashing down.  Silver age comics seem to be immune to the crashing prices, but bronze age comics are already hurting and lower grade non-key issues of Silver age comics are available at much lower prices than in the past if you are patient.

What always works well for sales is a recipe that comic companies seem to stumble over every few years, after which they lose sight of what worked and move on to gimmicks:

  • good stories and good art
  • characters readers care about

That’s it.  Always works.  But Marvel Comics has come up with an idea for this Fall that is painful to even think about:

The dreaded return of Marvel Value Stamps

Back in the early to mid-seventies, a series of stamp-size pictures were printed in various Marvel comics.  There were 100 of them altogether, and if you were lucky you also managed to get a copy of the booklet that had spaces for each of the stamps.  The idea seemed to be that you would cut the stamps out of your comics (thereby ruining either an ad or a part of the story on the other side of the page) and paste them into the booklet.  There was a vague promise that someday a completed booklet would grant the happy owner the opportunity to get some sort of massive discounts.  As far as I know, the completed stamp book was only good for a few things:

  • a discount to a comic convention in New York in 1974
  • a discount to a comic convention in San Diego in 1974
  • a one hour meet and greet with Roy Thomas and a few other Marvel creators at that San Diego Con
  • a permanent 10% discount on purchases from the Marvel store (requiring you to send in the booklet each time you ordered something and gamble on getting it back)

You can currently sell a completed book with all the stamps for about $300-$500.

Sound like a great idea?  Not really.  One of the stamps was in Incredible Hulk #181, the first appearance of Wolverine.  Cutting that stamp out of that comic probably cost you over $1,000 if you had kept the comic in excellent shape.  There was a virtually mint copy of that comic that floated around Florida comic shows in the mid-nineties that turned up at nearly every show.  Somebody would sell the comic as if the stamp was there, somebody else would get it home and discover their mistake, and that person would sell it to some unsuspecting person at the next show.  It became commonplace for dealers in Florida to examine every single comic from the early seventies before they bought it, checking carefully for the Marvel Value stamp.

There were at least two more sets of the stamps, as well as a few one-shot promo stamps, but nothing ever destroyed as many comics as the first series.  Maybe this time the comics will come bagged with the stamps instead of forcing customers to cut them out of the comics (of course, that will also force people to buy two copies so they can keep the stamps mint in the bags).

In a foolish effort to repeat the past, Marvel is again printing Marvel Value Stamps starting in October.  There will only be 53 stamps this time, and so far we have no word on which comics they will be in, no idea if there will be a booklet to put them in again, and no indication that chopping up your comics will pay off somehow.

Oh, the worst idea?  That was licensing their IP to movie companies that would screw things up forever and unfortunately keep the future movies away from Disney studios.  I’m looking at you, Fantastic Four movies.

It’s been over 40 years since Marvel tried Value Stamps the first time.  Musical groups can’t hope to hit the charts for that long (although Perry Como, Tony Bennett, and Paul McCartney have all managed that trick).  The longest stretch of #1 records belongs to Cher, who lasted 33 years from I Got You Babe to Believe.  Here she is with an actual video for a song that was number one when the first Marvel Value Stamps were released, Dark Lady.

How I Saved $1,000 On Medical Tests

We all struggle with medical care costs, and I can show you how I found a way to save a tremendous amount of money on “routine” tests.

I struggle with gout.  It’s a terrible disease that tends to attack toes, resulting in swelling and agonizing pain.  I take one pill every day that helps diminish the chances of outbreaks and have had to learn to minimize my love affair with peanut butter.  My mother had the same problem, and there appears to be a genetic predisposition to the illness.  The true culprit is more likely the blood pressure meds I take than the peanut butter, but eliminating the meds isn’t a good plan.

Attacks of gout are caused by the build-up of uric acid in the blood.  The pill I take each day is supposed to help keep the level of uric acid at a minimum, and my doctor had to steadily increase the grams in the pills until the med was effective enough.  I still have minor problems from time to time, although it now tends to attack the small toes on my right foot instead of the large toes on my left foot.

In order to make sure my uric acid levels are under control, a simple blood test is necessary.  Since I’m also getting up in years, the nurse practitioner I see periodically also wants to check a ton of other levels in my blood.  As long as we can hold it to one vial of my blood I can usually survive a blood test once a year or so.

And then a few years ago when I got a surprise from our insurance company.

In the past, the blood test was always covered as part of a doctor visit, but for reasons the stone wall at the insurance company could never make clear, suddenly the blood test was no longer treated as part of the doctor visit.  It apparently was also not wellness care, because shortly after the test was done I received a bill for nearly a thousand dollars.  Nobody gave me any reason to expect a bill, and I was left with no choice but to pay up.  Sure, I got to pay it off interest-free over the next year, but I still had to pay the bill.

Can you imagine shopping at the grocery store and getting home and getting a bill for an extra $100 to cover the labor of stocking the shelves with the items you bought?  That’s what this bill felt like – a complete, unexpected smack right between the eyes.

The next time my doctor gave me a script to get the blood tests I politely declined.  The doctor was surprised and apologized for the expense the year before.  There was no way she could have known how the insurance company would deal with the test either, but she understood my reticence to spend that kind of money again.

So she gave me an alternative.

Community Hospital in Anderson is one of our two major hospitals.  It’s a sprawling complex, with numerous outbuildings full of specialists of all sorts.  It turns out that behind the complex is an unmarked building that runs special tests for patients.  The paperwork I have for it shows the treatments as still being part of Community Hospital.  There is a single sheet of prices under the heading of “Wellness for You” that lists prices that are very, very different from the prices charged at either my doctor’s office or in the hospital proper.  Here’s a copy of the sheet.

Instead of costing $1,000, a CBC (complete blood count) is a mere $20.  Other bargains include glucose testing for diabetics for only $10, a test that Bevie needs from time to time since she’s developed Type 2 Diabetes.

How can they charge so much less?  Perhaps the answer is in the statements you have to initial on the form; here are a few of the more relevant statements:

  • I understand that results are to be mailed to me within 5 working days.
  • I understand that if I want a copy of these results to go to my doctor, I am responsible for giving him/her a copy.
  • I understand that I cannot bill my insurance for this testing, and I will not receive a bill for this service, only a receipt for payment.

Add in the stipulation that they only accept cash, no checks or credit cards, and the way they keep costs down becomes clear: the tests are performed outside of the doctor and insurance spheres that make up our current health care system.  No reporting, no billing, just a simple transaction of cash for service.

Is there a similar “hidden” building for x-rays and MRIs?  Probably, but I haven’t needed those recently, so that probably bears looking into.  Probably should look into that -before- I need them!  I know that there are fee-for-service specialty businesses popping up that operate at much lower costs for treatments and tests; next time your doctor wants to run -any- tests you should probably shop around and find out what the costs are.

If we want to control health costs, it’s increasingly important that we take responsibility for shopping around ourselves, no matter what health system Washington presents us with over the next few years.

The Ojays have their thoughts turning to Money today as well!

Repairs 0, Replacement 1

When Bevie was driving to work the other morning, her car went over a bump, and one of the windows dropped open about five inches.  After she had arrived at work, she was able to slowly nurse the window back in place, but on the way home, it dropped back down again.  Repeated efforts to get the window to stay up failed, and she was finally forced to leave the car at the car place where she gets work done on the car.  Possibly a gear broke, or a seal went bad, or a widget got out of place, but as usual, the dealership had a quick, easy solution: for $239 they wanted to replace the motor that ran the window up and down.

I am familiar with issues with electric windows: my last two cars both had the driver’s side window lock in place and refuse to come back down.  Each time I asked about repairing the window I was told that the only thing they could do was replace the motor (usually at the cost of $249 or so).  With the first car I suggested that they simply swap out the motor in the driver side window with the motor in the passenger side door, but they assured me that you could not swap out a right-hand door and left-hand door motor because they were different.  For years I simply drove around with the driver’s window permanently rolled up, carefully opening the door at drive-through windows.

Over time, we seem to have built up the mentality that it’s easier or more convenient or cheaper to replace things rather than try to repair them.  When I was driving around in my Volkswagen beetle in the sixties I didn’t need anything but a simple screwdriver to replace a burned-out light in the headlight, but not anymore.  I’m baffled by the strange pieces of hardware that hold things in place and can’t seem to figure out how to even remove the headlight, let alone replace either the headlight or the burned-out bulb.  To quote Zork, I have neither the tools nor the expertise.

Some of that seems to be a result of the computerization of things.  Most new cars have an endless supply of hidden computer chips that regulate and control the car.  We all know you can’t fix a computer chip, you have to replace it.

Your toaster not working to cook all the slices?  There’s really no way to replace the broken coil, you throw the toaster away and replace it with a new one.

Many times in the past I wore through the sole of a shoe, and I can remember going to a cobbler – not the kind you eat, somebody who could actually repair shoes.  Do such people even exist anymore?

If your computer starts misbehaving, you probably can’t fix the registry or update the right drivers all by yourself – it’s easier to back up any files you want to keep and reinstall the operating system (or replace it with the newest version).  That hasn’t worked too well for me, I still can’t play CDs on either of the computers that Windows 10 was installed on.

Perhaps the most blatant example of replacement winning out over repairs is silverware and dishes.  Bevie now stocks paper plates, plastic cups, and plastic utensils in the kitchen.  Our dishwasher hasn’t been used in at least a few years, so we throw away our plates and forks and spoons after each meal and replace them the next days with clean ones.  Washing metal utensils must be too much like making repairs to be an option anymore.

At first blush this doesn’t seem like a real problem: if things are designed to be cheaply replaced, it shouldn’t be necessary to deal with repairs.  Unfortunately, replacement at times seems too much like a trick to make upkeep more expensive.

Even worse, it may be that we have built a mindset that doesn’t even consider repairs anymore.  Not convinced?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to repair the problems with Obamacare than to discard (repeal) and replace it?  Not in Washington!

The Bee Gees are probably best remembered for their string of disco-related hits in the late 70s, but they really had three careers.  The group had a few local hits and television appearances in Austrailia when they were barely teenagers, then moved to England.  When their first big single came out (New York Mining Disaster, 1941) rumors swirled around in the US that it was the Beatles in disguise, but we quickly learned it was the Brothers Gibb and a pair of friends.  A string of hits continue for a few years, and then battles over which songs would be the singles broke up the group.  They reformed in 1971 and had a few hits again, and then struggled until the Disco years turned them into mega stars.  Here they are with a number one song from their middle career, trying to repair a broken heart.