Harry Matetsky: "Take Me Out to the Candy Store, Ma!"

"Harry Matetsky, with his knowledge of the history of comic characters and related collectibles, has always been at or near the forefront of efforts to chronicle that history, and his personal collection easily ranks in the top ten in U.S.," said John K. Snyder, Jr., President of Diamond International Galleries.

Matetsky's career as a collectibles expert spans more than 30 years, but his affection for comics, premiums, and other memorabilia developed much earlier. With much of the southeast and northeast snowed in, Scoop caught up with him December 5 and got his thoughts on collecting.

While Jimmy Cagney was shouting, "Top of the world, Ma!" on silver screens across the country in the movie White Heat, I was yelling at my mother to take me to the candy store, or the newsstand, or the toy store in my neighborhood on the lower east side of New York City. Those wonderful, thrilling places were the top of my world in the 1940s.

Those were the places where I found the comic books, gum cards, premiums, big little books, and comic character toys I couldn't get enough of (then or now!). I would lie in my second floor tenement bedroom at night, with the covers pulled over my head, staring at my glow-in-the-dark Shadow ring and dreaming of the next issue of Captain Marvel. The soft neighing and snorting sounds drifting through my bedroom window from Benny Schmoeger's horse stable next door added fuel to the fire of my burning desire to own a Gene Autry cap pistol and holster set.

But getting the money from my parents to buy these longed-for items was no easy trick. I still remember the day me and my ma were passing the local toy store and, as I pressed my nose to the window, I got my first glimpse of the Superman Krypto Ray Gun! My heart started pumping big time, and I pleaded with my mother for the fifty cents to buy it. "You're not getting it!" she hissed. "It's too expensive. Let's go. Now! Let's go!" I cried all the way home and whined all night long. The next day she broke down and gave me the money. I ran back to the store, but the last gun they had in stock-the one in the window-was gone. Thirty years later I finally got a Krypto Ray Gun, but it cost a lot more than fifty cents!

In 1947, I saw an ad for a book by Coulton Waugh called The Comics, and I had to have it. I scraped together the $5.00 it would cost by getting an advance on my upcoming 13th birthday. I was too excited to sleep that night, and immediately after school the next day I walked three miles to Macy's on 34th Street where the book was being sold. Into the book department I leaped-and there it was. Yow! I grabbed a copy and darted over to the cashier.

"Five dollars and three cents," she announced loudly.

"Tree cents?" I cried. "Yer kiddin', I hope, 'cause all I got wid me is a fiver." (I talked like Leo Gorcey in those days).

"I'm sorry," she said.

"But I gotta have dis book!" I moaned. "Could'ya lend me tree cents? I walked a million miles for dis book. I swear I'll bring yer money back!" I gave her the best Shirley Temple I could do-and she caved in. She didn't even make me pay back the three cents.

I must have read that book a hundred times. It turned me on to original comic art and helped me start my collection. I learned from the book that by writing to the syndicate and the cartoonists, you could usually get an original daily, or even a special drawing, personally autographed and sent to you for free! So I wrote letters - long, heartfelt letters, typed with two fingers on my 1947 Royal (which, by the way, I still have) - to every cartoonist whose work I admired. And I was rewarded with signed originals by Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Milton Caniff (Steve Canyon), Bob Kane (Batman), and many, many others. I still have all of these pieces in my collection (unlike the closetful of toys and comics my mother sold-to a short pushcart vendor named "Inches" when I got married and left home).

Because of my love for the comics, I wanted, more than anything in the world, to be a cartoonist. But there was just one thing holding me back: I couldn't draw. Hell, I couldn't even trace good. So, I became a graphic artist instead. I started out as a layout and paste-up artist and then became the art director of many different movie magazines. Eventually, I started my own publishing company, putting out numerous magazines in the entertainment field, covering every category from Elvis, to the soaps, to video rock.

In 1969, I attended my first comic convention - Phil Seuling's July 4th Comic Con - and I was totally knocked out. All of my favorite old comic books were there, and I bought every one I could lay my hands on. From that moment on, I was seriously hooked. I attended every one of those cons and I began collecting art, advertising, books, toys, serial lobby cards and movie posters, premiums and pressbooks - anything that was comic character related. My hobby became more important to me than my job, so, in 1985, I retired from publishing and began concentrating all of my efforts on collecting.

I returned to publishing, however, in late 1986, to create and design a book about one of my favorite comic book heroes. Realizing that Superman would be 50 years old in 1988, and inspired by my own extensive hoard of Superman collectibles, I made a proposal to DC Comics that I put together a book titled The Adventures of Superman Collecting. DC liked the idea and gave me the go-ahead. With the help of a good photographer, a few other Superman collectors, and my wife Mandy, who wrote all the copy, the full-color, 200-page, slip-cased limited edition was released just in time for Superman's 50th Anniversary.

I'm very proud of that book, as I am of my current collection, which includes such prized possessions as the very first Li'l Abner Shmoo daily, the Buck Rogers Solar Scout premium pennant, a mint Captain Marvel Syrocco, a beautiful Dick Tracy one-sheet, the Buck Rogers Cut-Out Adventure Book, a rare Shadow song sheet, a slew of pinback buttons, the 1936 32-page pulp prototype featuring the Lone Ranger and the 1936 Flash Gordon pressbook. But my very favorite item - the rarest, most exciting, most stupendous, most desirable piece of all - is the one I'm going to find tomorrow!

In my continuing quest for comic character collectibles, I visit the local comic book store every Friday for my weekly "fix." And I network every day with collector friends all over the country. "I need goods!" is my cry to them. We kid, laugh, scream, fight, buy, sell, trade, bargain, spread the news, and keep secrets from each other. We also keep each other in business.

Escalating prices, media coverage, extreme rarity, supply and demand, auctions and investors have made today's collectors more competitive than we ever had to be in the past. The popularity (and profitability!) of collecting has literally exploded in the last few years. And the credibility of collecting, which once existed for just a few of us, is now being embraced by throngs of new converts.

Toward that end, I think high profile features like Spider-Man certainly will have created a lot of new collectors, particularly young ones, from the point of view that anything generated through movies from the comic genre will impact the future of collecting. They had a lot of giveaways, promotional stuff, and kids will get into that. They did a lot of licensing. People collect by their generation. I collect a lot of '30s, '40s and '50s stuff. People today who are 30 are collecting '70s stuff. Kids who are now beginning to collect will, in ten years, be collecting all these movies - Daredevil, Spider-Man, X-Men. They'll be into that stuff and the movies will be what got them started.

Of course, the internet has really leveled the playing field. I think it's brought the prices down in the some areas. The top of the line stuff is still bringing the money, the rare stuff is still bringing the money, but I think for the middle of the road stuff it impacted everything across the board, including shows, conventions, with perhaps the exception of San Diego, which is one of a kind. So, for me, it's been really good because I get to go to a show every day. In the old days you'd go to a show and keep looking and looking, and today you can go anywhere on the internet and you're not limited to a specific kind of show. It's much more widespread, and more interesting in that respect.

As far as my collecting it really hasn't changed much. I'm still getting the kind of stuff I like. I'm into premiums. I'm into comic books. I'm into original comic art. Those are the three primary areas I would say that I really focus on, and some movie paper, posters and lobby cards that I'm still accumulating. As I mentioned, I've got a humungous serial pressbook collection. I don't know anyone who has as many. They're very tough to find. They're very rare. I have a fairly comprehensive amount of that stuff, and when you open one of those up - pins, membership cards, whatever the promotion was to get the kids in the theaters. Serial pressbooks don't turn up on eBay that often, but I've gotten a few recently, but they're hard to find in nice shape. There's probably a few hundred of them, but talking about the superhero films, I've got them all.

One problem facing today's collectors is that modern manufacturing can easily and accurately simulate the original toys. While experienced collectors can always tell the difference, frequently it is the toy's accessories, those little items that separate a high-dollar complete package from a lesser price, that are reproduced without distinguishing marks to differentiate the original from the recreation. They probably start with the best of intentions, but don't some of these companies understand what they're doing? If they would change the color, the design of the box, or even put a clearly distinguishing mark, more experienced collectors would embrace these new toys and champion them to new collectors. Instead, we are continually slapped in the face. They have to understand that these things won't sell well on the secondary market once serious collectors identify them, but they stand an excellent chance of chasing some younger enthusiast out of the market for good.

As I've said, many, many new collectors have joined our ranks and have made this wonderful hobby everlasting. And I'll keep collecting as long as there's something left to collect. For me, it's just business - and pleasure - as usual. Or, to put it another way, "Take me to the candy store, ma!"