Trash or Treasure: A Collector’s Conundrum

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I’ve heard it a thousand times: “My comics collection is my kids’ college fund,” or “That’s my retirement in those long boxes!” Chances are, unless your kid is going to clown college and you’re retiring at 90 to live in his basement, your comics collection is, at best, a hobby you can enjoy and, at worst, an amusing inheritance that explains why Chuckles couldn’t go to Princeton. The common misconception that comics are worth their weight in gold generally comes from news coverage every few years of someone selling a copy of Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) or Detective Comics #27 (first appearance of Batman) for several million dollars apiece. This usually sends crowds of expectant fathers out in droves to pick up whatever #1 issues happen to be on the shelves at that time with the hope that it will be a cash cow in eighteen years. The reality is that comics are a business that works on supply and demand like any other. The minute people think an issue is going to be valuable, it automatically won’t be, because companies will print enough copies to supply everyone who wants that issue, thus eliminating the demand. This is true with very little exception.

X-Men #1 (Vol 2)

In the early ’90’s there was national news coverage of DC’s plan to kill Superman. This drove up interest in the character, which just so happened to coincide with the sale of a copy of Action Comics #1 for over a million dollars. In combination, these events were enough to herd people to comic shops by the thousands to buy multiple copies of the
coveted Death of Superman. DC, anticipating this, initially printed three million copies in sealed plastic bags and three million more in subsequent printings. If you wanted to read it, you had to open the bag and significantly decrease the value, so people bought reader copies and collector copies. The problem with keeping the issue sealed is that the cheap plastic happened to be slightly acidic, fading and washing out the covers of the sealed comic. The cover price in 1992 was $1.25, which is still accurate over twenty years later. A signed copy can fetch upwards of about $8. This was far from unprecedented, however. The most overprinted comic in history was the rebooted X-Men #1 in 1991. Marvel printed eight million copies. Comic shops bought about five million and sold only about three million of those to readers and collectors, leaving three million in Marvel’s warehouse and two million gathering dust in the back of comic shops. These issues are often given away for Free Comic Book Day or other promotional campaigns.

To understand why certain comics are worth millions and the others are barely worth their cover price, we have to look back to the origin of the medium. Comics cost one thin dime per issue in 1938, which is the equivalent of about $1.69 adjusted for inflation. They were for kids and were largely seen as disposable. The cheapest newsprint available was used in production, which was a short step above toilet paper. The ink faded and ran, the pages yellowed and tore, and parents either threw them away or used them to line their bird cages. In 2012, one lucky man bought a $10,100 house and found a copy of Action Comics #1 stuffed into the wall as insulation. Even graded at a 1.5 out of 10, it still fetched him a whopping $175,000, paying for the house more than seventeen times over.

Slide 1Other key factors in the rarity of Golden Age comics are the infamous Seduction of the Innocent, published by Fredric
Wertham in early 1954, followed by the United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency in April of 1954. In his study, Wertham posited that comic books taught children to be communists, homosexuals, rapists, murderers, and all-around horrible people. He was brought forth to testify in front of the Senate as an “expert” witness on the correlation between comic books and juvenile delinquency (in no way as free advertising to bolster his own book sales…). This hearing was nationally broadcast, resulting in a witch hunt. Thousands of neighborhood comic book burnings took place. Comics were banned in schools, churches spoke out about their evils, and parents forbade their children from reading them. Any comics that survived this era are extremely valuable and sought after. Therefore, ironically, Wertham is in large part responsible for skyrocketing the value of the very same comics he hated and feared.

Death of Superman

So if you are a comic collector, or looking to become one, do it for the comics and not as an investment. Read them.
Trade them. Enjoy them. Bag and board them if you’re as neurotic as me. But never collect anything you don’t love. You don’t want to wind up like those sad Beanie Baby moms of the 90’s. And most importantly: start an actual college fund for your broodlings, you cheap bastard! And maybe start an IRA for yourself, because the only value your comics hold are the blood, sweat, and tears the creators put into their storytelling and art. So dig out that long box, dust off your old favorites from childhood, and take the kids on a stroll down memory lane, because they’ll remember that more than the eight bucks you got on eBay for your 9.5 copy of Spawn #1.

D.W. Romshe

Beanie Babies

1 Comment

  1. Erin V says:

    Doug… this is awesome. Truly enjoyed the read!

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