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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Special Report

Super Prices for Superheroes

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.”

Randy Scott, assistant head of special collections at Michigan State University Library, encourages scholars to take comic books more seriously. Credit: Derrick Turner, Michigan State University

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.

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.
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