Cover art © 1938 DC Comics. Photo of slabbed copy © 2010 CGC.
You may have seen the news reports of Action Comics #1, dated June 1938 and featuring the first published appearance of Superman, selling at a Heritage auction for $1 million last month.
I mostly shrugged it off as inevitable — and not nearly as exciting as it might once have sounded to me. Thirty years ago, when I got my first comic-book price guide, the prices themselves were to an extent beside the point; I couldn't do more than stare at (and fail to truly fathom) the thousands of dollars at which decades-old issues were listed in various conditions, but the details of when certain features stopped and started or which characters first appeared where and crossed over with whom fascinated me. Still, it was nice to show grown-ups that the comic books I was hoarding, especially the back issues I had begun to buy at marked-up prices, could appreciate in value.
My dad asked me about the Action auction the other day, though, or actually just offered his take on it, to which I responded with surprising heat. I couldn't write down my raw reaction right away, so I stewed on the topic for a while — my apologies to the hungry for the inadvertent cooking imagery — and ended up with a bit of a rant.
We probably wouldn't have seen a price this high before the advent of CGC, I don't think. Certified Guaranty Company came along in 2000 to do for the comic-book community what had been done for stamps, coins, and other collectibles: inspect an item, grade it, and then "slab" it — seal it up in a plastic case with a certificate of authenticity.
Had CGC not come along, another such outfit likely would have. And of course someone somewhere would have paid a million bucks for a comic book eventually. Everything is worth (in material terms, at least) exactly what the seller is willing to sell it for and the buyer is willing to buy it for — which includes bartering. This is particularly true in black markets, extremely deprived or disaster-stricken areas, and the collectibles world.
But seeing that CGC slab is what got me.
I have no personal experience with the company, which really revved up just as my involvement with the comic-book industry from both professional and fan perspectives regrettably waned. CGC's first big splash was made simply by virtue of its existence, with dealers and collectors wondering what it would mean for the hobby-slash-business (agreeing that, for one thing, the circulation of high-profile older issues would definitely become more of a business, or investment, than a hobby). A later quake came with the fairly unexpected boom in submission of newer, less rare items for CGC grading, in almost every case the cost of CGC's services for grading such an issue being greater than what the going rate was to acquire that issue.
When more commonplace comic books graded and slabbed by CGC began selling for ridiculous multiples of Guide price, however — that would be the Overstreet Price Guide, long the much-debated, much-abused standard of the community — more people started retaining its services for such books. The Guide was already losing its preeminence in the hobby, of course, not only to competing publications but to the evolving nature of collectors' transactions. EBay, other person-to-person online auction or marketplace sites, and the involvement of such established auction houses as Heritage and Christie's are all factors new to the community in the past dozen years or so.
If you're looking at a comic book in hand as a pure investment, absolutely no more or less than a commodity, then having it slabbed by CGC may indeed make sense if you can afford it. You then very literally seal its fate as a commodity forevermore, though; nobody will be able to open up that plastic case to turn its pages, breathe in its aged newsprint aroma, thrill to holding or even looking at it without a plastic case in the way. Because the moment CGC's seal is broken the grade and certificate are nullified.
It could be that CGC is run by very well-intentioned people who accept and even regret the bizarre requests to grade everyday issues as a strange but inevitable consequence of their efforts to document and preserve aging cultural artifacts. Maybe the injection of its process into the hobby-slash-business has made many folks rich and others happy in the very same transaction. But lots of readers, historians, and even collectors are sad about the whole slabbing thing, and obviously I'm one of them.
Even the comic books that I've bought purely for their cover art are more than merely the equivalent of trading cards to me. There are some that I own by happenstance, and more that I own by intent, which I'd like to sell if they'll bring in cash and to trade or give away if they won't — mostly for the space they'll free up and, yes, that cash, but also because I enjoy the thought of helping complete another reader or researcher's collection. I'll admit to having used a few comic books as objects, and not just in a decorative fashion, but not as the kind of objects CGC renders either; on occasion I've picked up stacks of issues for a dime apiece or less to hand out at Halloween or donate to the hospital, and when there are leftovers or damaged copies I'll repurpose them into wrapping paper.
My collection also includes some commonly highly valued comic books, some in eminently sellable condition (though nothing worth serious dough) and others that were either acquired in or devolved into a much less desirable state from a high-end collector's perspective. Those issues that I've owned and loved and re-read into far less than "Mint" since childhood are by far the ones that I cherish most.
I once stood next to somebody who was gingerly paging through Fantastic Four #4, dated May 1962. Few of us gathered had ever seen a copy outside a protective sleeve on a dealer's wall (certainly not I), let alone in that grade; the issue is only about nine years older than I am, but not many folks kept comic books in good condition, if at all, at the time, and this was a key issue featuring the reintroduction of Namor the Sub-Mariner. The experience of looking upon the original of such a landmark story, familiar but only through its various reprinted forms, was electric in a truly indescribable way — if you're not a comic-book person, you just wouldn't understand.
Seeing high-grade copies of issues that I own in more well-worn form is also neat, and a few times over the years I've picked up duplicates because mine are in such tentative shape that they really can't be read. Given the choice, however — and the consequent financial opportunities aside — I wouldn't trade my spine-rolled, faded, corner-chipped, read-to-death editions, precious exactly because they've survived a lifetime with me, for trophy versions.
None of the above factored into my dad's difficulty fathoming that a bunch of stapled paper sold for a dime seventy years ago could turn into a million bucks today. He acknowledged that people have different priorities, and his never included owning Action Comics #1, adding that he hoped I'd win the lottery someday so that I could. But I haven't dreamed of owning Action #1 for a long time, and back when I did it was a puffy-clouds dream rather than an actual aspiration. I'm with my dad that a million dollars for a comic book is crazy.
As Superman celebrated his fiftieth anniversary, the 1988 Official Overstreet Comic-Book Price Guide listed his first appearance, theoretically, at $28,650 in Very Fine to Near Mint condition, noting that only one copy of Action Comics #1 in actual Mint was known to exist and that it had not sold. Fifteen years later, the 2003 Standard Catalog of Comic Books pegged the issue at $300,000 in Near Mint. Now a copy has actually sold for $1 million, and just a few days afterward its record was broken when another Heritage auction resulted in Detective Comics #27, dated May 1939 and featuring the first appearance of Batman, going for $1,075,000.
Just how much money I would have to have before I spent a million dollars on a comic book, even the Holy Grail that is Action Comics #1, I don't know, but it would be many, many multiples of a million dollars. Even if such an amount had become utterly negligible to me, I wouldn't be able to stop thinking about what $1 million could translate into for people in need elsewhere. I'm truly glad to know that copies of such rare, culturally important comic books exist, but to have them exist entombed in plastic saddens and at times maddens me. I'd much rather put a million dollars towards figuring out how to preserve but display such a historic document with a device that could page through it to the delight of wondering eyes, letting it live and breathe, than "slab" it. Geez.