Wisconsin man has more than 200,000 comics in his collection

In this July 6, 2018 photo, Steven Kahn, owner of Inner Child Comics and Collectibles, poses with his five copies of "Amazing Fantasy 15," the comic book where Spider-Man was introduced to the world in Kenosha, Wis. Kahn is more than just a collector who buys and sells comics, toys and other paraphernalia in his shop. He is a lover of the art, the craftsmanship and the joy that the comics and other items bring. (Sean Krajacic/The Kenosha News via AP)

KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — It all started with little bars of soap.

When Steven Kahn was 5, his traveling salesman father would often greet his son with small gift upon returning from a trip. On one of those occasions, he had a few bars of hotel soap in his pocket. Young Steve was fascinated by them, and his father sensed that.

“So every Friday, he would bring me more, and I developed a collection of bars of soap — different sizes, different colors, different odors,” he said. “As I got older, I collected baseball cards and comic books.”

Some 66 years later, the soaps are gone. But the comic books stuck. And the collection has gotten pretty big.

By his estimate, Kahn, the owner of Inner Child Comics and Collectibles, has upward of 200,000 comics. On top of that, he has toys and other collectibles of “close to five figures,” he estimated.

But Kahn is more than just a collector who buys and sells comics, toys and other paraphernalia in his shop. He is a lover of the art, the craftsmanship and the joy that the comics and other items bring.

When it comes to the business of collecting, all some see are dollars signs. Kahn can go on at length about the cut-throat tactics, underhanded dealings and nefarious means some will go to obtain a prized collection unearthed in a basement or attic.

“Most of these big-time dealers, when they get a collection within their grasp they do not let go,” he told the Kenosha News. “They’re calling five, six, seven times a day, and they will go behind (the seller’s) back and get to his friends. … If the dollar signs are great enough, nothing will stop these guys.”

But Kahn is different, and he has developed a national reputation for his ability to grade comics, offer advice and assess collections.

Kahn is so well-respected that he is a contributor to the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, which for decades has been the bible for comic book collectors. (The latest edition, released to coincide with Comic-Con in San Diego, features an extensive column by Kahn.)

He has appeared in television shows as a comics expert and regularly gets calls from across the country when it comes to recent finds or assessing collections.

He was called to Chicago in 2015 where a treasure trove of comics from the “Golden Age” — typically comics from the 1930s and 1940s — was found in paper bags.

“These books were amazing,” he said, noting there was “Batman” No. 1, “Captain America” No. 1 and others. One book sold for $200,000; another — “All-Star Comics” No. 8, the first appearance of Wonder Woman — sold for $932,000. It was graded at 9.4, making it the highest-ever graded Golden Age book, he said.

Kahn helped the man get the most for his collection and ward off the sharks that typically take a high percentage of sales for their fee.

“He was being hounded by these auction houses, literally harassing him, trying to get around the back door. I found a person and hooked him up. He was able to sell them all. He struck gold.”

And what was Kahn’s take? Nothing.

“I did it as a favor. I was happy to do that,” he said.

In late June, he was called to St. Louis where a man who had worked his entire life for U.S. Steel was now faced with selling his comic collection in order to be able to live comfortably in retirement, because the company left him high and dry.

“He just touched my heart,” Kahn said. “This is all he’s got, so I’m going to do all I can to help him. I’m going to coach him through this and help him sell them, and I’m not going to take anything for it.”

These are just two of many stories Kahn can tell of working with sellers and collectors who are nothing more than targets for big dealers. And it all comes back to what got him interested in comics in the first place — the art form, not the dollar signs.

“That’s what draws me to all of this. It’s the beauty of the comic book cover, the action figure, the package of the box of the Nintendo game. To me, it’s not the game or the internal stories, it’s the art.

“Thank God I don’t have to do this to put bread on the table,” he said, noting that his one-man operation barely breaks even. “If I make money, that’s great, if not, I can still be here. I have the luxury of being able to do that.”

Kahn, 71, hasn’t always been a comics shop owner. He was an oral surgeon in downtown Chicago, but gave it up due to the stress.

And true to his nature, he didn’t sell the practice; instead he closed the doors and gave away all the equipment.

He then went back to his love of comics, moving to Kenosha to open Inner Child seven years ago.

“Now when I come to work I’m happy,” he said.

The name of the shop comes from his personal connection to comics and what many people feel when they come in the shop — reconnecting with the child within all of us.

“Calling this Inner Child is what it’s all about,” he said. “All of the healing in your life comes from within your inner child. I’m just using this to revisit my inner child, who I left too early, I guess.”