Steve Geppi had to drop out of ninth grade to work and support his mother. But on Saturdays, he'd kick back with a stack of Archie comics and vicariously enjoy the hi-jinks at
"I never got to finish high school in Baltimore," the millionaire comic book distributor says, "but I got to finish at Riverdale."
Geppi may not have an actual diploma from that mythical high school, but now he has something even more valuable: the comic book that the red-headed, freckled Archie character first appeared in and the first issue of his own, and still running, series of comics.
It cost Geppi a record $100,000 for them.
While other rare comic books have garnered huge sums in recent years -- Geppi himself paid $176,000 for the first Captain Marvel -- this is the first time a non-superhero like Archie has commanded a six-figure sum.
Archie Andrews first appeared in Pep, issue No. 22, dated December 1941. He became so popular, he eventually was spun off into his own book, dated Winter 1942-43. Geppi bought Pep 22 and Archie Comics No. 1 earlier this month from a fellow collector, who wishes to remain anonymous.
"I'd been harassing him for years," said Geppi, who also owns Baltimore magazine and part of the Orioles.
The two comic books harken from the "Mile High Collection" that is legendary in the upper echelons of this rarefied trade. A graphic artist named Edgar Church collected comic books from 1935 to 1965, storing them in a cool, dark, dry pantry in his Denver home. When he died, his collection was sold to a comic book store in that city and serious aficionados have hankered after these perfectly preserved books ever since.
They command top dollar: While the two books Geppi bought are listed in catalogs for $8,000 and $9,000, he says the Mile High copies are worth much more because of their pristine condition. "I'm glad it didn't go on the open market -- I would have still bought them, but I probably would have had to pay even more," Geppi says.
In fact, as word of the sale quickly circulated through this very small, very gossipy world of high-level comic trading, Geppi received an offer for more than he paid.
For now, but perhaps not in the future, Geppi is keeping his treasures. They can't really be displayed -- light is an enemy, as are fingers flipping the thin pages -- so they're tucked away.
"Every once in a while, I go to the vault to enjoy them," Geppi says.
He's learned some Archie trivia from this purchase: Archibald Andrews told people they could call him "Chick," but that didn't stick. Betty appears in Pep 22, but rich (and rhymes with rich) Veronica doesn't show up until No. 26. Riverdale principal Mr. Weatherbee started out skinny, and got fat later.
While Geppi's comic book tastes run the gamut from superheroes to Disney, he says the Archie comics have a special place in his heart.
"I always wanted to be that teen-ager at Pop Tate's malt shop," he says.
Geppi, whose Diamond Comic Distributors is the world's largest purveyor of English-language comic books and related merchandise, mentioned this once to Archie's publishers. They had one of their artists draw Geppi at the soda fountain with Betty and Veronica snuggling up on either side of him and Archie steaming in the background.
So which is it, Geppi, in that ultimate Rorschach test for men, Betty or Veronica?
"I always," he says, "liked Betty."
Pub Date: 4/17/97