Thursday, March 04, 2010

Culture Shock 03.04.10: Is there gold in Golden Age comic books?

Superman isn't letting a little thing like a recession keep him from going up, up and away. But can the rest of us take advantage?

A copy of Action Comics No. 1 set a record last week when it sold for $1 million, the highest price any comic book has ever commanded, and a sizable sum even for the book that introduced Superman. But that record didn't stand long. Three days later, Batman proved he has what it takes to take down the Man of Steel. A copy of Detective Comics No. 27, the Caped Crusader's debut issue, sold at auction for $1,075,500.

Both comics are in excellent condition, each rating an 8.0 out of 10 according to the Certified Guarantee Company. But the sale prices were staggering nonetheless. Before this year, no comic book had come close to the $1 million threshold. The top sale price I could find was $350,000 for a copy of Marvel Comics No. 1 purchased in 2001.

So, is this the start of a bull market for old comic books? And, if so, does it reflect real value, or is it a bubble waiting to pop?

The last time comics entered a boom period was the late 1980s and early '90s. And that boom continued even through the recession of 1990-91.

That boom, however, turned out to be the perfect set-up for a disastrous crash. The official history of the period tells of speculators — mostly people who had never seriously read or collected comic books before — entering the market and driving up the prices of newly published books. That fueled the growth of upstart publishers looking to cash in on the increased demand.

My own pet theory is that many of those speculators thought comic books were a safe haven in an otherwise sluggish economy. But whatever their motives, the speculators thought wrong.

In 1993, while the rest of the economy was recovering, the comics bubble burst. During the next four years, many of the publishers that had helped fuel the boom — Broadway Comics, Tekno Comics, Eclipse and Valiant — went under. Retailers and many of their customers were left holding boxes filled with near worthless books, some of which had fetched hundreds of dollars during the boom's peak.

But if history is repeating itself, it's not following the same script. The '90s comics bubble was limited to newly published comics with large print runs. When demand dropped, there were simply too many comics in circulation for prices not to fall to near nothing. This time around, we're looking at two books published in the late 1930s, the beginning of comics' "Golden Age." Publishers can't flood the market with 70-year-old comics.

Another difference this time is comics have not run counter to the rest of the economy.

According to, virtually all of the top 100 most valuable comics have lost value during the past year. Two of the few exceptions, Showcase No. 22 (first appearance of the second Green Lantern) and Tales of Suspense No. 39 (debut of Iron Man), can be explained by Hollywood hype. A Green Lantern movie is in the works, and the Iron Man sequel hits theaters this spring.

Ultimately, the record sale prices of Action Comics No. 1 and Detective Comics No. 27 could be meaningless anomalies. Or they could drive speculation that might extend to other vintage comics and end up crashing down in a few years. Or, just maybe, all of this is a real reflection of the enduring value of old comic books.

But for now, I wouldn't bet a copy of Amazing Fantasy No. 15 on any of those possibilities if I were you.

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