Super Prices for Superheroes
Comic book collecting grows up By Jonathan Shipley Jonathan Shipley is a freelance writer living in Seattle with his young daughter. He’s been published in the LA Times, Boston Globe Diner Journal, and many other publications.
Kapow! Comic books are no longer just kiddy lit. Far from it. The numbers speak for themselves. In March 2010, Action Comics #1—the first appearance of Superman—sold for $1.5 million on an online auction site, making it the most expensive and valuable comic book of all time. Batman’s first solo title, Detective Comics #27, left Heritage Auctions for more than a million the month before, and just weeks ago, the Caped Crusader again brought in a hefty $492,937.
Six figures for Spider-Man’s first leap? Amazing Fantasy #15 realized $227,000, and that’s just one of many in recent years. Flash Comics #1 (1940, starring Flash and Hawkman) sold for $289,000; Marvel Comics #1, the first comic produced by the company that bore the Hulk, Iron Man, X-Men, and more, achieved $367,000; and All-American Comics #16, the first appearance of the Green Lantern, reached $430,000. Yes comic books have become a hot commodity of late, not just because of their potential investment value in the future, but because people who grew up with Captain Marvel and Archie, Daredevil and Ant Man, Wonder Woman and the Swamp Thing, are taking note of the artistic wonder and importance of comic books as cultural artifacts.
“Comics are such an incredibly unique form of art and literature,” exclaimed Arie Kaplan, Mad Magazine writer and author of Master of the Comic Book Universe Revealed! “When comics are done right,” he continued, “there really is nothing like them.” Michael Ring, owner of Portland, Oregon’s Bridge City Comics, said, “For a long time comics were considered ‘kid’s stuff.’ But now, especially after the explosion in the late 1980s of more mature fare, adults are realizing that comics have much to offer.”
Drawn in by the rich storytelling, whiz-bang art, and a connection to their childhood, adults with a little more discretionary income than those early days when they bought Fantastic Four comics at the corner drug store for a couple of nickels, have made comic book collecting big.
Barry Sandoval, director of operations of the comics division at Dallas’ Heritage Auctions, said Amazing Fantasy #15 comes through his auction house every few weeks. He once was involved in the sale of another Detective Comics #27 that sold for $657,250. “Once,” Sandoval recalled, “we got a call from a young guy who had some comics…One of the ones was a Suspense Comics #3, a really rare comic with a weird cover showing a hero saving a girl from Ku Klux Klan Nazis!” Despite its poor condition, it sold at auction from $3,300.
People shouldn’t get into collecting, however, with an eye towards blue-chip comics and high-end investments. The refrain is repeated time and time again by scholars, comic book owners, and comic book creators. “I don’t buy comics as investments,” Kaplan said, “I just buy them to read a good story.” “Read them,” insisted Maggie Thompson, senior editor for Comic Buyer’s Guide, “Enjoy them.” By buying (and reading) inexpensive comics for entertainment alone—discovering characters you enjoy, finding stories, writers, and artists you appreciate—your knowledge for comic books grows. That knowledge will help. Buying comic books as an investment, Thompson warned, “is not a good idea for the beginner. People who know nothing about the field will get burned.”
The field of collecting began in earnest in the 1960s. It was then that two publishers began to exert their dominance in the industry—DC Comics (publisher of Superman, Batman, etc.) and Marvel Comics (Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.). Before then, there were virtually no comic book stores as we know them today, and there were virtually no organizations or groups focusing on comics as collectible art. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, the longest running publication devoted to assigning values to comic books, started publication in 1970.
It was also in the 1960s that underground cartoonists come to the fore and art, story, and style took the lead. “It was these comics, and the boom of the Silver Age, that caused readers and collectors to turn their eye towards comics as collectibles. The Silver Age was a time of artistic and commercial advancement in the industry. The revived Flash came on quickly, the first super superhero of those days. Martian Manhunter became “super.” The epitome of Silver Age comics is, arguably, the Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby collaboration, the Fantastic Four. That team (and their heroes like Iron Man, Thor, and Daredevil) burst onto the scene with a combination of tension-filled narrative and sharp design.
The Silver Age came years after the Golden Age, when Superman first flew through the skies, Batman lurked in the streets, Captain America fought for freedom, Wonder Woman unleashed her truth lasso, Atom was charged with an “atomic punch,” Plastic Man stretched to the limits, Sub-Mariner swum as only a mutant merman can, and Green Lantern lit his power lantern. It’s these comics that continue to have the highest demand on the auction market.
“Vintage comics in nice condition,” noted Sandoval, “are pretty darn expensive. You really need to know what you’re doing, he suggested, echoing Thompson. “Always buy the very best condition you can afford. Most collectors who start out not caring about condition usually change their minds about that after they’ve done it awhile, and then put lots of effort into upgrading the issues they already have.”
After those heady days of Golden and Silver Age comics, and through the Bronze Age, a time in which darker elements like drug use, violence, and alcoholism appeared in comic books, came the comics bubble. For a decade, from 1985 through the mid-1990s, comic book speculation reached its highest peak, something comic book dealers and collectors lament to this day.
It was a time in which Alan Moore’s The Watchmen was created and Frank Miller’s broody and gritty version of Batman, The Dark Knight Returns, was published. Collectors snapped them up. The Batman movie came out starring Michael Keaton. The comic book, The Death of Superman, was published. Prices escalated. Comic book publishers took note of this collecting frenzy and churned out money-making collectibles – gimmick covers, cross-over issues, variant covers, polybags. Comic book price guides flourished, highlighting it all, focusing attention on “must-have” issues.
Comics dealer Ring underscored the difference between collectible comics and comics that were made to be collectible. “For the recent stories we’re talking about, first appearance of Superman and a first appearance of Batman…those are exceedingly rare comics and rarely surface…When people bring in their copies of Spawn #1 from the 1990s and think they’ll get thousands of dollars for them, they’re absolutely wrong. They printed several million copies of those comics and just about everyone who bought them thought they’d be able to sell them later for big bucks.”
There are big buck books, but they’re rare, and rarely come up for auction. As Thompson pointed out, “Comic books were for decades treated as disposable entertainment.” So few oldies are on the market, and competition from institutions has also become an issue.
Take, for instance, the collection at Michigan State University. Randy Scott heads up that collection that includes two-thirds of all American comic books ever printed on their shelves. It includes almost the entire superhero genre. Some is on microfilm, but it is the largest repository of comic books on earth. “Our mission is to encourage people to read them and touch them,” Scott said. He takes that seriously, even though it has taken social critics some time to realize the importance of comic books. “At the end of the nineteenth century, the novel wasn’t allowed in most academic libraries as being a frivolous artifact not worthy of study. ‘Taken seriously’ means taken seriously by professors and journalists. Professors are notoriously slow and journalists don’t take anything seriously.”
Melissa Conway, head of special collections and archives at the University of California-Riverside, takes comic book preservation seriously. The collection houses the oldest and largest collection of science fiction, including comic books, anywhere in the world. They have some of the earliest issues of Superman. “For scholars in many genres—science fiction studies, women’s studies, popular culture, art history—they are an invaluable resource.”
Invaluable, and valuable. Recently, a family was going through financial hardship. Their house was on the verge of foreclosure. In the basement, as they sifted through boxes with tear-filled eyes, they stumbled upon a few old comic books. Most weren’t worth much. One, dated June 1938, was an Action Comics #1—a.k.a. the first Superman. At auction the comic brought in $436,000. Superman, faster than a speeding bullet, saved the family’s house.