Recently I had a conversation with a coworker that really got me thinking. I was asking if he had heard about the recent Action Comics #1 auction, the one that went for $3.2 million. While he was not surprised to hear that particular issue went for a high price, my coworker also expressed his amazement that a comic book sold for that much at all. Knowing the man as I do, I know that he was not at all trying to be derisive but instead was trying to understand how something as simple as an old comic book could be worth millions; he is not alone.
Since the early days of comics, there has been a collector’s market in one form or another. Early on I’m sure that these collectors weren’t interested in the monetary value of the books, in large part because there was none, but instead they were more interested in having all of the stories and all of the issues. I can personally relate to these collectors, being a completionist myself. It bugs me when I know there are one or two issues of a series that I have yet to find. On the flip side, few things make me as happy as when I finally find that book, take it home, put it in its matching bag and board, and then place it amongst its brethren, at last completing my collection. Before comics had any value greater than their cover price, this is how things went.
In more modern times, comics have developed a very bizarre and somewhat annoying characteristic of what it means to be collectible. Now comics can almost instantly have added value, regardless of what most of the market thinks. This is still the tail end of the fallout that started with the collector’s bubble during the 90’s. To say that the bubble nearly destroyed the comics industry is no exaggeration, and comic fans should be pleased and relieved to see it survived. The industry has settled into a new equilibrium, holding on to some of those things that caused the bubble (though admittedly in much smaller quantities) and adopting new ideas. The current market has room for both the casual collector and as the hardcore devotee, as well as pretty much everything in between. Gone are the most outrageous gimmicks, hopefully to be replaced by improved art and storytelling.
But what actually makes a comic collectible in the first place? The first, and in theory most obvious, thing is rarity. Part of the reason Golden Age comics are so valuable is that they are extremely difficult to find, especially in good condition. Just like gold is expensive because it is rare, so are old comics. I said “in theory” earlier because this is probably the biggest single contributing factor to the comics bubble. Publishers and consumers alike forgot that the reason many of these books are worth money is that they are hard to come by. Those comics which were produced at a quarter of a million last week are not rare and not worth extra money. I’d actually argue that if they don’t have good art and a good story, then they probably aren’t even worth the cover price. In a medium that is supposed to tell a story using art and words a comic that does neither of those very well is not going to make any money. Story, of course, is one of the other major things that cause comics to have value.
Issues that contain first appearances, important character moments, and character deaths often command some of the highest prices. This is even true for the Golden Age books. Issue #27, the most expensive issue of Detective Comics, is the first appearance of Batman, which of course makes it far more expensive than issue #1. Obviously the more popular the character appearing, the more the book is worth. (Don’t even get me started on New Mutants #98.)
There are of course plenty of other reasons for a comic to be worth money. This could be because it has a popular creator, or is being turned into a movie soon. One of my favorites is when there are misprints or other issues in the book that make it valuable. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #5, published by DC imprint Vertigo, was originally printed with a vintage ad for Marvel Douche. The issue was recalled and reportedly destroyed, though some still exist. I personally own two copies of the misprinted All-Star Batman and Robin #10, where curse words that were supposed to be blacked out are still visible. These oddities also allow the books to be considered rare, though mostly due to the books being recalled.
Though I’ve made a valiant effort to discuss the collectability of comics, I have yet to really answer my original question: what makes a single comic worth millions? I think the answer actually lies beyond the collector’s market. Items like Action Comics #1 are a part of the greater American culture. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, they are artifacts that are an intrinsic part of popular culture of America. I wouldn’t find it at all offensive to find issues of comics in the Smithsonian. Because of the short turn around in comic publishing, they are often windows into the world and times in which they were written. Superman’s first villains didn’t have powers, they were slum lords and crime bosses and abusive spouses. These books were written during the Great Depression about the things that mattered to everyday people.
The truth is there is no single answer as to why comics are collected and why some comics are worth more than others. Speculation is fine, but in the end it comes down to one person making a determination with the money that they have how much they desire to possess something. The value they place on the item is completely up to them.