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Comic Books: Not Just For Reading

Remember when a comic book cost less than $.20?

We had a candy store down the block from my elementary school and during recess my friends and I would walk over to see what new issue of our favorite comic books had just come out, and with our allowance buy as many as we could afford. With our change, we picked out a piece of candy that we could enjoy while reading it. When I went off to college, the comic books in the shoe boxes in my closet were thrown out. By that time, I had lost interest in buying and reading comics and hadn’t looked through these back issues in years. Never in a million years did I imagine that comics from that era, known as the Silver Age, would have investment-grade value in the market some 50 years later!

If you follow auction news then you know how hot the comic book market is today. It even has its own Price Guide! And interest is across the board: Golden Age (1930s-50s), Silver Age (1960s), and more contemporary late 20th-century titles. The New Mutants #98 comic book from 1991 is now valued at $7,500!

While comic books have traditionally been bought and sold at comic book stores, comic cons, and ephemera shows, through dealers and collectors, and on eBay, today they are the marquis lots that fuel bidding wars at high-profile auctions. And like all other 401K investments, comics have also entered the Blockchain Universe. Ten NFT artworks showing Stan Lee on the covers of his comic books and signed by the late Marvel superhero creator went up for blockchain auction in October through Mogul Productions, with winning bidders getting the physical as well as digital versions of the canvases created by pop artist Rob Prior. Prior began working with the man behind the likes of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Black Panther, in 2017 on “The Legacy Collection: Portraits of Stan Lee,” which depicts him as his famed characters or in cameo images. The final sale price has yet to be publicly announced.

And just when you thought the market for particularly vintage, pristine-condition, rare, and first introduction issues of the golden oldies couldn’t realize more, Heritage Auctions’ September Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction demolished records and shattered expectations with a $22.4 million haul from its recent sale of high-grade collectible comics, surpassing its recent high-water mark of $16.5 million set in April. Of note, Spider-Man’s debut in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, which sold for $3.6 million – the most amount ever paid for a single-issue comic! How could comic books fetch so much money?! In this particular case, the auction results were led by a new “pedigree” collection Heritage called The Promise Collection, featuring nearly 5,000 comics that were bought new off the newsstands in the 1940s and preserved in perfect condition for the past 70 years.

An article written this past summer in Forbes magazine reports that informal conversations with dealers and collectors suggest that prices in smaller auctions, public sales, and private transactions have increased well over 100% across the board in recent months, with some highly desired or unusual items realizing significantly more. While seasoned collectors express surprise and occasionally delight at the skyrocketing prices of items that, until recently, were not seen as top-tier collectibles, there is also rising concern that ordinary collectors could get priced out of the market and turn comic book collecting from a lifelong passion hobby into an investment commodity, following the same path as baseball cards.

The Forbes article suggests that several factors may have contributed to the boom: Though the pandemic sidelined in-person conventions and auctions where many expensive collectibles changed hands, sometimes through impulse purchases, more serious buyers had the time and focus to pursue their collections online. Rising markets, including in areas like cryptocurrency,
may have led to a “wealth effect,” encouraging people to open their wallets wider for discretionary passion purchases. Also, the practice of getting the condition of collectible comics graded by third party agencies like Comics Guarantee Corporation (CGC) has now been around for nearly two decades, painting a clearer picture of the exact number of copies of rare issues in
existence and painting targets on certain high-grade issues for blue chip buyers.

While these may be the key factors driving today’s 401K market for comics, there are still plenty that can be purchased in the more affordable range. If you are interested in building a comic book collection with an eye towards future value, seasoned collectors offer you these tips:

1. Learn everything you can about comic books. Talk to experts. Attend conventions. Track prices on eBay. And, know your superheroes. Comic books are about more than the “blue chip” superheroes: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the like. Expanding your knowledge beyond the big names can make you a savvier investor.

2. Get to know the popular artists and writers. Their cover artwork or association with an issue can make it more valuable.

3. Do your due diligence. It’s important to find reputable sources that will stand behind what they are selling. Accurate grading and a return policy are important.

4. Condition, Condition, Condition. The most valuable comics are those that were never opened, read, and enjoyed. Know the grading system. Individual comic books are graded for quality to give a score relative to the condition the comic book is in. A rating of 0.5 (Poor) means there are pages or part of the comic book’s cover is missing, or that the comic has been heavily damaged by spilled substances. A rating of 10.0 (Gem Mint) means the comic is in perfect condition, with no blemishes. Comic books with a higher quality grade are much more valuable.

5. Think forward. Issues that feature a character’s first appearance or death, or an artist or writer’s first professional publication, are more likely to be good investments down the road.