This past spring, a poor-condition copy of 1938’s Action Comics #1, featuring the first appearance of Superman, sold at an auction for $175,000.
This prized comic book was found when, during a house renovation in Elbow Lake, Minnesota, the magazine was discovered serving as part of the building’s insulation! A high quality copy of the same comic was sold in 2011 by actor Nicolas Cage for more than $2.16 million. The original comic sold for 10 cents!
Besides Action #1, other highly valuable comics include 1939’s Detective Comics #27, featuring the first appearance of Batman, and 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, which showcased Spider-Man’s debut.
Why and how did such originally cheap — and disposable — items come to be worth so much? Why do investment bankers and movie stars spend so lavishly on highly sought after editions of comic books? And how do you know if the comics in your basement are worth anything at all, much less millions?
An important factor in a comic’s value is scarcity. Most people who originally owned such items threw them out or simply lost track of them over time. There was no reason not to. After all, comic books were the very definition of ‘throwaway, disposable’ culture. They cost 10 cents, about the same as a candy bar or a scoop of ice cream, the basic elements of ‘kids’ economy’. This cavalier attitude toward comics led to scarcity, a key element in making a given comic book valuable.
Enter The Collectors
As a collectibles market came into existence — fuelled by prosperous adults longing for a reminder of the supposedly simpler times of their youth — comic books came to be seen as desirable items to buy, sell, and trade, much as stamps, coins and rare books had become valuable.
“Comic book fans are among the most passionate collectors that I’ve ever seen, and I’ve found that I can classify collectors into two categories,” says Gerry Gladston, owner of New York’s Midtown Comics.
Gladston elaborates: “First, there’s the investor, who will pay top dollar for the most coveted, rare, vintage comics and related collectibles, and he is justified in doing so. Unlike stocks and bonds, these comic book rarities continue to gain in value year over year.
“However,” Gladston adds, “most comics just don’t fall into that category, which brings us to the other collector, who collects for the thrill of the hunt, and to display his treasure, and feels that if it’s locked up in a room somewhere, it’s not providing much enjoyment (though he’s delighted when his treasure increases in value).”
In other words, collecting comics is most satisfying when it starts from a passion for the material. That passion usually also includes knowledge of the value — emotional and financial — of the comics being collected. With collectibles such as comics, their emotional value is directly connected to their monetary worth. If people didn’t care deeply about comics and their history, then they wouldn’t be willing to spend so much on them in the first place.
Heritage Auctions is one of the largest sources for comics collectors to buy and sell their prized possession. Heritage’s website informs potential collectors that: “In general, the comics that have the most collectible value are those published between 1938 and 1979. Typically within that time frame, superhero comics hold the most value, with first appearance and origin issues being the most sought after. The vast majority of comics from the 1980s and later have little, if any, value today.”
Heritage also advises “the best way to find out what comic books are worth is to look at what people are paying for them”. In other words, research the market to see what comparable items to what you may possess are worth. As with any other collectible, a comic is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. While price guides such as the Overstreet Price Guide are still used, the more common way to discover a comic’s market is to see what the same issue in the same condition is selling for on eBay.
In an effort to regularise the standards for the condition of rare comics, the Comics Guaranty Company (CGC) was formed in 2000. Any comic submitted to CGC is graded according to its standards and eventually cased (or ‘slabbed’) in a tamper-evident protective plastic case to preserve the condition of the comic. This also keeps the owner or anyone else from actually reading the comic, but is the only definite way to assure that a comic’s condition hasn’t changed between evaluation and eventual sale or trade.
A pitfall to look out for is comics that ‘common wisdom’ may predict will be valuable, but that do not increase in or maintain high value over time. The classic case of such a situation was 1992’s Superman #75. The issue featured ‘The Death of Superman’. The news media got wind of this story and it mushroomed into a major cultural event. The issue had a print run in the millions, and people unfamiliar with the economies of collectibles bought multiple copies, believing they would quickly zoom up in worth. Of course, with so many copies in existence, the comic today sells for the same as, or even less than, its original cover price.
If, after learning the pros and cons of investing in and collecting comics you’re still determined to enter into serious collecting, you may be wondering how to get started.
Well, collectors can develop collections in any number of ways. Many collectors are comics lovers who have been collecting comics since they were children, had the good luck to have mothers who did not throw the magazines out, and had the good sense to preserve their comics in optimal condition.
Some collectors, through luck or determination, come across comics collections belonging to people who have passed away and whose families are looking for a way to dispose of the accumulated four-colour treasures. Such was the case with the legendary Edgar Church collection, the largest collection of ‘Golden Age’ (1938-1947) comics ever discovered, that was sold to Mile High Comics’ owner Chuck Rozanski in 1977, and helped establish Rozanski as one of the most important collectible comics dealers in the US.
Comics are bought and sold in a wide variety of ways. Collectors who know each other will often exchange or sell them directly. Then there are auction houses, such as Heritage and All-Star Auctions, which conduct comics auctions online and at live venues including major comics conventions, such as Comic-Con International in San Diego. Conventions both large and small often feature comics dealers who sell vintage comics. Comics can, of course, be bought and sold at stores like New York’s Midtown and Rozanski’s Mile High. And, as discussed earlier, websites like eBay have revolutionised comics buying and selling.
Comics are also still sold at flea markets and garage sales, where collectors rummage through boxes of tattered comics in hopes of finding that mint condition Action Comics #1 that no one noticed in grandpa’s pile of magazines. Keep your eyes open and be prepared to make a deal quickly when you discover something that seems to be undervalued.
Who knows? The next Edgar Church collection may be in that attic around the corner!
Copyright 2013 Danny Fingeroth. All rights reserved
(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 07-10-2013)