Is it an obsession or an investment? Comic book and movie merchandise collectors in the city say their sheer love for comic characters motivates them

Sheriff Woody’s hand bumps C-3PO (Star Wars) and the miniature topples and falls to the ground. “Hello, am I glad to see you,” says Woody cheerfully, but the voice dies prematurely as the tension in the room thickens. There are loud gasps as Manoharan Ellappan lifts up the statue in slow motion, checks for scratches and attaches the arm that has come loose. When all is okay, everyone heaves a loud sigh of relief.

Mahesh Ratnam, Manoj Sreekumar and Manoharan are city-based collectors of comic and movie merchandise. Everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Incredible Hulk, Superman, Batman, Godzilla and Thor occupy the many shelves in their homes. In fact, much like art, these hobbyists gauge the value of their collections very carefully, ‘investing’ in this fascinating world. “Collecting is getting big because people are more aware about the market, thanks to the Internet. Even a few years ago, access to such collectibles was a problem. Where would you go in Chennai to buy a Superman or Batman collectible?” asks Manoharan. “Now you can order them online. Another reason, of course, is the movies. Nowadays, people wait for the after credits in the movie for that additional scene. They are curious and they want to know more.”

Manoj, a musician, collects not just miniatures but also comics, “which I stopped counting when they crossed 3,000”. His first ever collectible was when he bought a He-Man miniature in 1987. “I also have a 1990s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle set that is rather precious. But my favourite character is Batman. I liked him since before he became cool. And I don’t mind collecting multiple versions of him,” he adds. Manoj has a little more than 100 collectibles, safely preserved behind a glass case. “They are only valuable if you keep them in mint condition,” he adds.

Manoharan, a lawyer by day, moonlights as a collector. “I actually began with comic books but lost a bunch of them when we moved homes. I was so devastated I couldn’t even think of starting the collection from scratch again, so I decided to collect these instead,” he says. Manoharan has over 70 pieces now, with 10 more in the pipeline.

Mahesh has been collecting comics and merchandise for almost a decade now. Apart from this, he also has movie replicas, limited edition pieces, action figures and posters. “The first merchandise I bought was a Batman (Batman Begins) action figure,” he says. “I have 36 limited edition statues, a few movie replicas like The Elder Wand and the dagger of time from Prince of Persia and well over 500 hard-back comics, which include a few single editions. I would have close to 600 items in all.”

For the value of these collectibles to keep going up, they have to be maintained well. “They are graded from 1-10 with 10 being mint condition. For example, the first issue of Superman (1938) is now valued at over a million dollars. The He-Man toys that we probably bought for Rs.50 all those years back are now worth at least $1,000, if in a box. So, yes, this is now a kind of investment,” says Mahesh. Manoharan says, sometimes, the items are damaged during shipping as well, “You have to check each piece and make sure it’s in good condition. I clean all my merchandise with damp cotton every week.” While buying them itself seems to be a challenge, shipping and customs are other problems that collectors face. “I ask friends and relatives who live abroad to carry them or send it along with someone, so they we can save on shipping,” says Manoharan. Manoj adds that paying in instalments is also possible. Once a token amount is paid online, the rest is settled on delivery. Mahesh says one also needs to be smart while buying. “The Hot Toys Joker (Heath Ledger version) was about $450. But in 2005, I paid $5 for a Superman #75 Platinum valued at around $5,000 now.”

Would they ever sell their collection? “I would trade, of course, but I don’t buy this to invest. I buy it because I love these characters and I want to collect them,” says Manoj. Mahesh treasures every piece in his collection and says he collects because he loves to. Manoharan adds, “Unless you have enough love for these characters, understand their story and mythology, keep updating yourself with the versions and formats, and want to collect them, there is no fun in it. I know there are people who collect to invest, only to sell it later. But for people like us, the collection itself is important.”