When they asked me to discuss this, I immediately requested a less inflammatory topic. Like abortion, or creationism. There are only three certainties when discussing comic book investments: it’s fun, it’s value is inconsistent, and if you blog about it someone will be angry enough to set your house on fire. So read this while I make a pre-emptive call to the fire department:
The Two Markets for Comics
As an investment, comic books are a new and mostly untested market. Up till the early ’90s, comics were mostly swapped between friends, and not made to last.
Then as the crowd of comic book readers matured, nostalgia kicked in – working professionals could afford, and were willing, to pay top dollar for that issue of Spider Man they never got to read when they were 12. Comics also began to receive recognition as cultural artifacts, much like toys and coins.
Couple these factors with the durability of old comic books (the page material makes towel paper look like titanium), and you have a collectible: Few surviving copies, but a high and growing demand.
The trouble is, there’s a vast rift between those old school comics, and today’s comics. And one is clearly a more stable market than the other.
I spoke to Rowan Cobb, an accounts executive stationed in Singapore, who has been collecting comics for 22 years. He’s got a collection of just over 1,500 comics, and tells me that:
“There are actually two separate markets when you talk about comic book collecting. On the one hand, you have the ‘cream of the crop’ comics, the hyper valuable ones with historical value, and those comics are quite reliable as an investment.
On the other hand, there are comics produced from the ’80s onward, which were printed in bulk. For that particular market, I’d say collect for fun first, and don’t count on a payoff.”
The Market for Vintage Comics
“Whenever million dollar comic book sales make the news,” Rowan says, “They are usually talking about vintage comics. Ancient stuff from the 1930’s, 1940’s, and so on. The most famous one is of course Action Comics #1, of which only 200,000 copies were printed. And maybe 50 to 100 of them still exist in the world.”
Action Comics #1 was the first comic to feature Superman. It recently made the news in 2010, when a family facing foreclosure found it in a box of old comics. They probably netted $250,000+ from it in an auction.
Were it in better condition, they could have gotten over $2 million.
Sites like Nostomania track the most valuable comics, and almost everything on the list are vintage comics. Unfortunately, most would-be investors won’t have access to this market.
I talked to Pradesh (not his real name), a legal professional who collects comics, and has some of the issues on the Nostomania list. He’s confident that “These comics will hold their value, because they were printed in very small numbers, and in an age when people did not treasure them. Most of them were destroyed.”
But what about the fact that comic companies do reprint vintage comics? And that you can read them in library archives, or download them?
“Does the value of The Night Watch (a Rembrandt painting – Ed.) go down because you can print it on T-shirts, or because you can see it on the Internet? Of course not. The physical comic is a piece of history. Even if they reprint it, it does not affect the value of the original.”
But that doesn’t mean the price of vintage comics are stable. Momentary spikes (followed by sharp crashes) sometimes happen:
“Sometimes someone with money to burn will overspend on a comic, not for investment but just out of love. Then it will make the news, and the hype will drive prices to an unrealistic high. It’s just like the stock market really,” Pradesh says, “And sometimes I think it’s just market conditions.
Whenever there is a recession, people start to look for alternative investments. Coins, watches, wine, and all that. And sometimes they veer toward comic books. Then again the value will spike for a while, and the bubble will burst. So it has its ups and downs.”
But while vintage comics involve five to six digit figures, the market for newer comics seem less investment worthy.
The Market for Newer Comics
The market for newer comics is regarded with extreme skepticism, and seems to be based primarily on hope. Pradesh flat out disregards it as an investment:
“If you are talking about comics printed in the ’80s or beyond, I would not consider them an investment. Those comics are printed in large numbers, some with runs of up to a million copies.
And some of them are specially designed to lure collectors. There are many, many versions of Spider Man issue 1. Just like there are many Batman # 1’s, X-Man #1’s, and so on. They keep launching new series and creating issue 1’s because they know collectors will hoard it.”
Rowan is more ambivalent about newer comics, citing the example of Ultimate Spider Man #1, in 2000.
“It was quite highly anticipated, so much that after it sold out the price went as high as $400 to $600. Now it’s fallen to about $150. But you consider you would have bought it for a fraction of the price.”
Still, Rowan warns that the market for newer comics is a bit of a gamble:
“You need to actually be into comics, to get a sense of what’s popular and what’s not. Don’t just buy it on someone advice that it’s a hot comic, or that it will probably be worth something in future. However informed the person saying it is, it’s just speculation. Their guess is as good as yours.”
Is it Worth it?
If you already read comics, it’s definitely worth buying individual issues and preserving them. If you’re spending money on them already, you may as well .They may be worth nothing in future, or they may save your descendants from a foreclosure some day.
If you don’t read comics and just want the money, you should probably find something less exotic.
Tips on Comic Book Investing
Some combined tips from Pradesh and Rowan:
- Buy Individual Issues – Trade Paperbacks (TPBs) are thick compilations of multiple issues, which is how you buy comics in big bookstores. Sorry, but those are mostly worthless. It’s individual issues that have resale value. Subscribe or go to a comic shop.
- Buy Issue Two – Most people rush to buy issue #1, and comic book companies knowingly print large runs of these. Fewer people buy issue #2, and the runs tend to be smaller. So it’s not unusual for issue #2 to be worth more than issue #1.
- Check the Condition –There is an industry standard grading system. It doesn’t matter how rare your comic is, if it looks like the maid used it to scrub the windows. Most comic book collectors and investors won’t buy anything rated under a 7.
- Forget Gimmick Covers – Shiny covers, alternate art covers, hologram covers…these have little impact on the appreciation of a comic book. Even if it says “special” or “limited” on the cover.
- Keep Your Ears Open – Take note of what other comic book readers are saying. Attend conventions, frequent forums, and pay attention to what’s popular. Those are the comics that will potentially rise in value.
- Invest in the Right Equipment – You will need to buy backing boards, storage boxes, a gazillion comic book bags, and some sort of device for controlling humidity (e.g. silica gel boxes). Serious collectors, have temperature controlled rooms for storage.
Do you have any stories on a rare comic book issue you discovered you owned?