The Beginning of a Collection: T-Shirts!!!

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User Merlin tells us about his first steps into a branch of collecting we don't hear that much about: comic t-shirts!!!
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I started collecting comic book t-shirts relatively recently. It began, as with so many things, within the pages of the Fantastic Four. Call me crazy, but every time I spend too much money on a comic book I read it cover-to-cover. Ads, letters and all. Somewhere in the forties, the t-shirt solicitations caught my eye, and although I wasn't completely won over by the FF design at first, Dr. Strange piqued my interest. It was as if I thought I was the first person to realize these things existed. I figured I’d be able to snap a few up real quick on eBay… they actually proved to be impossible to find.

img_3323I spoke with the gurus at my local shop and they let me in on a little bit of the history of the Graphitti Designs reproductions. Apparently, since the original art was either lost or destroyed, Steve Rude, and one or two others are responsible for redrawing the line of close reproductions in 1998. Two saved searches and over a year later, the FF and Spider-Man shirts came into my possession for a fair price, and are among my most cherished items in my “comics” collection, and they sit in a special closet eagerly awaiting Stephen Strange’s arrival.

img_3325I got a new bug. Now at the flea market every weekend I hunted shirts after going through the comics. Crazy thing is, shirts I never imagined existed were out there, and I bought most of them in new condition for incredible prices. I found three Crow shirts, (one is a Maleev, the other two O'Barr), the unbelievable Generation X shirt, and a dozen others all within just a few months. As for Starlin’s Warlock piece, well, I'm not about to entertain the chance that people will pursue “1st t-shirt appearances”, but having a t-shirt featuring Drax and Gamora, two decades prior to their breakout as mainstream characters, has been a source of pride for me.

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img_3324The surprise star of my flea market finds, is the piece by Simon Bisley, and for complicated reasons. I was raised not to fight, but recently my feelings about violence have changed. I realized that if something were to happen to a member of my family, I didn't trust myself to respond appropriately, and it was one of the worst feelings I’d ever had. When I acquired this shirt, I hesitated at first because it was, like, super aggressive! It was the Biz, so I brought it home anyway. That night I was stricken with this liberating sense of accountability. I put this shirt on the night I realized that I could fight for those I love.

img_3331I was quickly able to sustain my newfound t-shirt habit by parting with the few I bought for speculation purposes. I went shopping online to fill a void I noticed immediately in my small collection… No Batman! I was lucky enough to find the Graphitti Designs ‘Tec 38 and was satisfied with the great quality, art-style that suited my preference, and of course for our pal Dick Grayson, smashing through alongside the caped crusader.

To end at the very beginning, I'd like to share my most recent acquisition. This is the first piece of Batman memorabilia I owned from the year it came out (but in a much smaller size), which I surprisingly remembered and was able to track down. Not my favorite style of Batman, but the nostalgia factor rules in this case, and I actually think the neon highlights are a pretty nice touch. In case it's hard to tell from the photo, “arch enemies” is printed in topographically exhilarating puff letters.

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Believe it or not this is the only shirt I've shown which was not printed in the 90s! Batman shirts from '89 are by no means rare, but there are a hundred different styles and in most cases particular designs can be hard to come by. You might be asking, “what’s the big deal about these shirts from the 90’s? I got a zillion comics from the 90’s no one wants!” The thing is, in the 90’s comics had been a topic of speculation for decades, and even for the casual fans, books read once and safely tucked away fared much better than t-shirts, stretched ‘cross the chests of nerd-warriors on the move, with sweat building up in the armpits, stray branches from the urban-landscaping cutting at their sleeves, and hanging on as the only line of defense against coffee, sandwiches, exploding ink pens… People wore the shirts. Not all of them read the comics, but they pretty much got dressed, and went out and experienced real life, with a t-shirt on.

There’s perhaps more to knowing where to look, than trying to push to the front of the line on the next hot commodity. Face it: comics are picked! So maybe you’re not a t-shirt person! (seriously?) So go find something cool that no one wants, because if you don't, it may just disappear into the trash. I would love to hear some of your unique perspectives on collecting, and clothes, and I will try to answer any questions in the comments. Thanks!

13 comments

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    Hello! I saw this post and had to read it right away! I have been buying and selling these exact type of T shirts for a while. I found a comic book store in Philadelphia who had boxes and boxes. I’ve found some very rare things. I would love to email you and show you them somehow. I don’t mind giving out my email. Krb53192@gmail.com

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    Reminds me of a Joker t-shirt that I had in the late 80’s that I wore until is was falling apart. Neon was great! I imagine finding high grade shirts would be difficult. Also, weeding out the knock offs.

    • merlin

      The cool thing is, next to none of these shown have a demand that justifies bootlegging! I might be naive but I imagine those puff letters on the batman/joker shirt would be a royal pain. If you’re in the market for “high end” t shirt collectables it’s important to note the actual shirt manufacturer. Many were produced by defunct clothing manufacturers, and it’s less likely that someone will fabricate tags than just rip an image and put it on the same color shirt. Also, images used exclusively for shirts are notoriously difficult to reproduce on a screen (hence the redraws for the classic marvel tees)… You’re more likely to run into issues with 1 & 2 color shirts which use art from posters and prints available to scan. As for high grades, I have been lucky to find mostly dead stock, stored in warehouses (certainly due to them being overproduced in the 90s). Because of a natural tendency to wear something till it falls off, a lot of the time you’ll find a brand new shirt before a well used one that hasn’t been ravaged and thrown out.

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    I have a deadstock Dark Knight Returns shirt from Graphitti that has “Illustration by Frank Miller & Lynn Varley Copyright 1986 DC Comics Inc.”

    This isn’t one of the repro’s is it? I’ve seen some repro items still use the original copyright date and was curious if that could be the case with this shirt. Hit me up on Instagram @vintagegraveyard I’d love to discuss this!!

    Great post!!!!

    • merlin

      Sounds awesome! I’m not an expert but would love to assist in your investigation. I assume it would be legit, given the era, but I could definitely be wrong. I’ll find you, and thanks a bunch!

  • Topher

    I want that Spirit T. I collect these as well, my favorite being a Dex-Starr T-Shirt. Too bad it’s a women’s small.

  • Khoi Cakes

    I remember those neon shirts…they were cool.

  • Topher

    Apologies if you addressed this already but how are you storing these to prevent deterioration?

    • merlin

      I didn’t, and great question. I keep them in the same room as my comics for controlled humidity and temperature. I took the door off of the closet for air circulation, and the ones I wear for special occasions MOSTLY have a couple issues, and for now are hanging although I wouldn’t recommend that for long term storage because it can stretch and weaken the shoulders. The others I keep folded in small translucent garbage bags (one per) to keep nice and free of dust. You can probably see that most are due for an ironing or press due to having been shoved in a box for 20+ years. The worst thing is every time I wear any of them (pretty much just the Biz, Wrightson, and FF cause I can’t help it)… I can’t eat or drink anything besides water.

  • Skot Whitman

    Wow, very cool article and collection… this makes me wish I still had my old Jim Lee t-Shirts. Oh the memories!

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