Comic investments – would you pay US$1.5m for a Superman book?

Spare US$1.5m? Then this comic can be yours

Not even Superman’s archenemy Lex Luthor could have dreamed up such a money-making scheme – buy a 1938 comic for 10c and sell it for U$1.5 million. Andy Round is knocked out by the investment superpowers of superheroes.

So, if Superman and Batman were to scrap it out who would you bet on? Earlier this year it became a million-dollar question when issue one of 1938’s Action Comics featuring the first appearance of Superman sold for US$1 million. Then, just a few days later, Detective Comics featuring the debut of Batman was sold for US$1.075 million.

Typically, Superman came back fighting. Big style. Within a month another copy of Action issue one came on the market. It was in excellent condition and sold for a staggering US$1.5 million.  As headline writers around the world had it – “Holy Kryptonite Superman!”

“The string of million-dollar sales was the catalyst but this was the ultimate copy the highest grade ever known,” says ComicConnect’s Stephen Fishler, the man, who sold the man of steel. “It’s graded condition was 8.5 out of 10 and the person who owned it had refused hundreds of offers over the past 17 years but I managed to buy it and sell it on.”

Sadly, like his favourite superhero, the identity of the new owner remains anonymous, but here’s some insight from Vincent Zurzolo, Fishler’s business partner. “Some of today’s successful entrepreneurs were yesterday’s comic geeks,” he says. “They don’t want a Van Gogh or a Picasso. They want collectibles that mean something to them. Superman, Spider-Man and Batman are pop culture icons now. The fact that Superman was the first superhero means this is the Holy Grail of comics.”

George Pantela runs GPAnalysis from Melbourne a worldwide online ‘stock exchange’ of comic book sales. It’s the biggest comic information pricing service online reporting on almost a million books and monitoring more than US$200 million in sales.

“The million-dollar sales are incredible but what impresses me more are recent increases in high-grade 1960s and 1970s comics,” Pantela says. “For instance, Spider-Man’s first appearance in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy in high-grade condition commands six-figure sums. Even the 1970s comics that nobody thought would be collectible and were traded for a few dollars in the 1980s and ’90s are generating interest. Now we’re seeing high-grade key issues of titles such as Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four selling for five-figures.”

One of the owners of that Amazing Fantasy Spider-Man debut is George Xanthis in Sydney who has a collection of over 20,000 books. “Of these I would say about 100 are valuable and the others you can pick up anywhere from 50c to A$5,” he says. Since Xanthis started collecting 15 years ago, he has seen the market improve dramatically. “There are better stories these days, more big budget comic book-related movies and trade paperbacks that have complete storylines so you can just buy one book rather than a whole heap of comics to cover a story.”

Condition, of course, is key to value and Pantela’s analytics only monitor the prices of comics audited by the independent Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) in the US who assess condition, grade books and then lock them in tamper-proof plastic ‘slabs’. “When the CGC process started 10 years ago it drove prices up. Way up,” says Pantela. “As CGC records how many books they grade available for free on online a way of calculating rarity was possible.”

Pantela collected horror and science fiction produced by notorious publishers EC Comics in the US during the 1950s, but sold his collection in 2002 to finance his love of original comic art. “It was amazing seeing books I collected as a kid for A$20 to A$50 sell for over A$100,000. It was a reflection of the skyrocketing prices of comics.” Three years ago Pantela helped a New Zealand lawyer sell a copy of 1942’s Wonder Woman number one which had been discovered in her father’s office when he died. At auction it achieved US$25,000.

So if you want to collect comics where do you start? Jim Papagrigoriou manager of Sydney’s Kings Comics outlet is the man with a superhero plan. “Buy what you like,” he says. “Comics are meant to be enjoyed not handled with gloves and displayed like a relic. Buying comics now to sell them in the future is a pipe dream. These days print runs are substantial and you’ll find many collectors out there with the same books being stored up for future gain. The reason why books from 1938 to 1970 are worth so much to collectors is their scarcity. Unlike today’s market and collector mentality, comics were read and shared not stored in acid-free bags and sold down the line.”

According to Pantela there are three types of comic buyer in Australia: those who collect mainly ‘raw’ or ungraded American titles; a growing market for CGC-certified books and, those who collect Australian published comics such as The Phantom.

Ah yes. The Phantom. An Australian legend since 1948 and the longest running comic book in the country. The man behind the Phantom’s mask is Jim Shepherd, who took over Sydney’s Frew Publishing in 1991. Shepherd is the life force behind the man who cannot die, directing covers, writing editorials and supervising everything Phantom-related. When Penthouse catches up with him the 1,603rd issue of The Phantom had just gone to press. Thirty-one issues are published every year – including annuals and specials – selling up to 45,000 copies an issue, Shepherd says at least 20 per cent of readers are over 40.

“How much would a perfect condition first edition be worth now? About A$30,000,” he says, speaking from an office packed with collectibles that would make any Phantom Phan salivate – ranging from 1950s rubber skull rings to box-fresh 1940s water pistols. “I know of an American collector who bought a complete set from one to 999 – minus seven issues – for A$132,000… but that was in 1986. I know of only four or five complete collections. And have two of them. They are in a safe place. Not here. I have original artwork on the office wall here and I get regular offers of A$10,000 for it.”

With the persistence of the Phantom himself, Shepherd began accumulating his comic book collection in the 1980s, placing adverts in newspapers, attending country town hall fairs, being given complete collections by “some amazing people” and on one occasion tracking down a mint set in Hobart. “Then after eight years, one day I had them all.”

Of course it’s not only caped crusaders that inspire comic collectors. Original Peanuts art is a regular favourite at one of the world’s biggest online comic auction sites. “It’s interesting because the strips ran for 50 years and there must be thousands of strips out there, but they are popular at auction because Schultz seemed to have tapped into every neurosis of modern times,” says HA’s comic specialist Barry Sandoval. Recently a strip featuring Snoopy as the Red Baron sold for US$101,575.

In Europe last year original 1932 cover artwork for the comic book Tintin in America sold for US$1.2 million at the Artcurial auction in Paris. “There is no shame in collecting comic strips now,” Eric Leroy, the auction house’s comic expert, tells Penthouse.

“Many of major collectors of comic art in the US are baby boomers,” says Sandoval. “Recently Heritage sold a huge part of the comic collection belonging to actor Nicolas Cage. Barack Obama has also said he used to collect comics. He was fond of Conan the Barbarian and Spider-Man. It’s hard to imagine other US presidents admitting to collecting comics but it shows how far the medium has come in terms of popularity.”

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