Collecting Superhero Comic Books
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2008 issue of Rare Book Review
In May of this year, moviegoers around the world will be filing into theaters to check out Robert Downey Jr. in the dual roles of billionaire industrialist Tony Stark and his alter ego the Invincible Iron Man. The effects heavy extravaganza will be the latest in a long line of films based on a character born in the pages of comic books. In addition to thrilling audiences with the exploits of characters like The Fantastic Four, Batman and Spider-Man, these films have focused more and more people’s attention on the world of collectible comic books.
Comics: A Brief History
While the “origin” of the comic book is a moving target, changing as research and debate peg one book or another as the “first” comic, comic books as we know them trace their direct history to Famous Funnies, a book of comic strip reprints published in 1933 by Eastern Color Press. Of roughly the same dimension and format as a modern comic book it’s the first book that would be instantly recognizable as a “comic book” to any modern reader. The format, created by Maxwell Gaines, a legendary comics pioneer in his own right and father to EC and Mad Magazine’s Bill Gaines, proved to be a success. Another, even greater success was his idea to sell the comics on the newsstand for 10 cents. Soon publishers were all repackaging existing comic strip material and creating new, original stories just for the new format.
While the new format was a hit, it wasn’t for a few years that the format truly found its raison d’être with the arrival of Superman.
Created by two science fiction fans, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, and first appearing in Action Comics #1; Superman immediately changed the landscape for American comics. His arrival spawned a slew of imitators and marked the dawn of the so-called Golden Age, a period of intense creativity (and later collector interest) in superhero comics that lasted from 1938 until the end of World War 2. While other genres have waxed and waned in popularity Superman and his progeny basically have dominated the comics landscape in America in the 70 years since his introduction.
In addition to the Golden Age, there are two main ages that focus collector interest:
The Silver Age is the name given to the second heroic era in comics that began with the fist appearance of the new Flash in Showcase #4, published in 1956 by DC Comics. For the rest of the decade DC went about reintroducing versions of their classic Golden Age characters and revamping ongoing series to appeal to a new era of superhero fans.
With the publication of Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, Marvel Comics got into the act and the face of comics was once again changed forever. The brilliant Jack Kirby art, action-packed storylines and more emotional characterizations were a hit with fans and the style served as a blueprint for the rest of the characters that came out of the “House of the Ideas” over the next decade. This editorial direction pushed Marvel to dominance on the sales charts by decades end.
The Bronze Age is a name given to the comics published in the 1970s and early 1980s, characterized by a change in tone to darker, more anti-heroic characters and more “mature” storylines.
A true examination of comics grading and the importance of condition in the hobby is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, as with any collectible market condition matters in comic books.
Based on a ten point scale, comic books are graded in 25 steps between Poor 0.5 and Mint 10.0. While lower grade books (Good 2.0, Very Good 4.0 and Fine 6.0) are still very collectible the most action happens in higher grade examples, with the most attention paid to books grading Near Mint 9.4 and higher.
Books in the 9.0-10.0 range all share some basic characteristics- square corners, flat, glossy covers without creasing or wrinkles and tight spines. The general look of books in this range will be as if they were just plucked off of the newsstand.
For more information on grading comic books, check out THE OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK GRADING GUIDE which goes into technical detail on all aspects of comic book grading.
Top Books and Characters
In addition to the aforementioned Superman and Action Comics #1, there are several other characters and related comics that dominate the discussion when it comes to collectible superhero books. Invariably, the issues that rule the headlines and the record sales charts are “key” books like first appearances or #1 issues of famous character. What follows is a stripped down list of some of those keys, broken out by age.
- Action #1, published in 1938 by DC Comics. The first appearance of Superman, the first superhero. The most valuable comic book in the world.
The finest copy of this book, from the famous Mile High/Edgar Church collection (a hoard of pristine comics amassed by a man named Edgar Church and discovered by Colorado’s Mile High comics- hence the name,) has attained legendary status in the hobby. Discussed and dissected ad nauseum, the book has been in the collection of a Virginia dentist since 1985. He paid $25,000 for the book at the time and the price was largely derided at the time. History, it appears, favored the bold as estimates on the value of his copy range from two to five million dollars.
- Detective Comics #27, published by DC Comics in 1939. The first appearance of Batman. If Action #1 is the #1 book in the hobby, Detective #27 is #1a.
The best known copy, from the Allentown collection (a small collection of pristine condition comics discovered in Pennsylvania,) is another legendary book valued into the low seven figures. It also sits, side by side, in the collection of the same Virginia dentist that owns the previously mentioned Action #1. Rare company indeed.
- Marvel Comics #1 published in 1939 by Timely Comics. The beginning of the universe that would later come to dominate the American superhero comic book landscape. Marvel Comics #1 introduced the Human Torch and the Sub Mariner.
The third most valuable comic, according to the Overstreet Price Guide, the so-called “Pay Copy” is the current verified record holder for an individual comic book sale. Known as the “Pay Copy” because it was used by the original publisher to take notes on who should receive what money for work on the book, the book sold to coin dealer Jay Parrino for $350,000 in the early part of this decade.
- All American #16 While not possessing the mainstream cachet of some of the other books in this list, this, the first appearance of Green Lantern, has gained considerable attention in the past few months. A notoriously difficult book to find in high grade, the best known copy (the Edgar Church/Mile High copy) was recently graded by the Comics Guaranty Corporation at Near Mint (9.4 out of 10 in their numerical grading scale.) That by itself was exciting to many in the hobby as books that significant rarely come up for public appraisal like that. Beyond even that, it was learned that it was graded by its owner, long time dealer and super collector John Verzyl, in order to facilitate a sale. As of this writing all rumors point to a sale price of 1.1 million dollars, a figure that, if verified, would triple the previous record price paid for a single comic book.
Other golden age keys include Superman #1, Batman #1, Captain America #1 (1st appearance of Captain America,) Flash Comics #1 (1st appearance of the Flash,) and More Fun 52 (1st appearance of the Spectre)
- Amazing Fantasy #15 Published in 1963 by Marvel comics. The first appearance of Spider-Man is the single most coveted book from the 1960s.
Two copies have recently sold for more than $200,000 including the legendary White Mountain copy, which sold at ComicLink.com for a Silver Age record $226,000. The White Mountain copy has set a Silver Age price records several times – including being the first Silver Age Marvel Comic to break the $10,000 barrier when it was first brought to the market by Jerry Weist in 1990.
- Fantastic Four #1, published by Marvel comics in 1961, Fantastic Four #1 heralded the start of the so-called “Marvel Age” of comics, a period of creative dominance for Marvel that lasted throughout the decade of the 1960s.
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee really changed the landscape with the ongoing story of four adventurers, Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, Sue Storm and Ben Grimm, transformed in a cosmic ray storm to Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, The Invisible Girl and The Thing.
A closely guarded book in high grade, with only two copies trading hands at greater than 9.0 in the decade so far, the CGC Near Mint + 9.6 copy on display (with no price listed) at Doug Schmell’s site pedigreecomics.com is an ongoing temptation for many in the hobby.
Other key Silver Age books include Amazing Spider-Man #1, Daredevil #1, Showcase #22 (1st appearance of the Silver Age Green Lantern), Incredible Hulk #1, Brave and the Bold #28 (1st Justice League of America), Journey Into Mystery# 83 (1st Thor,) X-men #1 and Tales of Suspense #39 (1st Iron Man)
- Giant Sized X-Men #1 published by Marvel Comics in 1975. The X-men had been in reprints for half a decade when this book hit newsstands, introducing “new” X-Men to the world. Within a couple of years these new X-Men had risen to the top of the sales charts and they’ve stayed there ever since. The three X-Men films were the direct result of this book.
- Incredible Hulk #181 published by Marvel Comics in 1974. The first appearance of Wolverine, the most popular character in the X-Men and one of the most popular characters in the Marvel Universe
- Amazing Spider-Man #129 published by Marvel Comics in 1974. The first appearance of the Punisher.
- Green Lantern #76 published by DC Comics in 1970. First Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up with art by legendary illustrator Neal Adams. This series set the thoughtful, artistic tone for many of the comics that followed throughout the decade.
Growth and maturation in the Hobby
In addition to the movies, interest in super hero comics has been fueled by several other developments over the past decade that have combined to create a liquid, vibrant market for old funny books. The most important changes include the rise of eBay, the formation of CGC, and Heritage entering the comic book auction market.
- eBay created a liquid, always on market for comics that allowed people to greatly compress the time it took to complete runs or find individual books. While prime material rarely makes it ont eBay these days, there’s still thriving trade in lower priced comics. Those are the kind of comics that make up the bulk of the hobby.
- Taking a cue from the world of coins and cards, Comics Guaranty Corporation (CGC) introduced the idea of grading and “slabbing” (sealing them in hard plastic) books to the industry and, almost overnight, became the de facto standard for grading and restoration detection.
CGC has lowered the barrier for entry into the hobby considerably by taking at least some of the mystery out of questions of condition. Before CGC, a new collector would need to spend considerable time and effort learning the complexities of comic book grading in order to better evaluate a book’s value. With CGC’s impartial, expert grading less of the onus falls to the buyer, allowing new collectors to spend more money with greater confidence earlier on in their entry into the hobby. CGC also makes it much easier to complete mail order and internet sales by providing an impartial third party whose opinion both the buyer and seller can agree.
- While both Christies and Sotheby’s produced blockbuster auctions annually throughout the ‘90s, it was Dallas based auctioneer Heritage that truly took the high end of the hobby to the next level. Running several major auctions a year, Heritage consistently brings out superb material that focuses and excites the hobby. Heritage has also forced existing dealers to more aggressively track down top quality material and to get more creative in the ways in which books are marketed and sold. ComicLink.com, especially, has risen to the challenge, running regular auctions that have drawn out significant material and produced dozens of record results.
Overstreet Advisor, Dan Cusimano (flying-donut on ebay ) offers up sage advice on the subject of getting started with the hobby:
"If you're looking to get into comics collecting, don't buy what people tell you is a 'good investment'. Buy what you like and understand. Comics collecting is just like collecting anything else. Become informed, listen to experts, become knowledgeable, and then make a decision to buy what you like."
The internet is a great source for information on comic collecting with dealer sites like those run by Metropolis Comics, forums like the one CGC keeps at their Collectors Society site at and blogs offering up a wealth of information on the current state of the hobby.
Another excellent source of information, and a must-by for any new entrant into the hobby, is the Overstreet Price Guide, an annual guide to comics values published by Gemstone publishing which contains a wealth of basic information of great sue to the new collector.
Recent Notable Results
- Tales of Suspense #39 CGC VF/NM 9.0 sold by ComicLink.com for $23,250
- Batman #1 CGC VF/NM 9.0 sold by ComicLink.com for $280,000. The third highest price ever paid for a comic book
- Action #7 CGC 8.0 sold by Heritage for $143,400
- Amazing Spider-Man #129 CGC NM/Mint 9.8 sold by Heritage for $14,340
- The Incredible Hulk #1 CGC VF+ 8.5 sold by Pedigree Comics for $32,500
- Green Lantern #76 CGC NM 9.4 sold by Heritage for $8,365