Let’s Talk Comic – Auction history for comic books was made in April

A high-grade Action 1, the first appearance of Superman, was sold for US$6 million. A copy of Detective 27, the first appearance of Batman, sold for US$1.82 million at auction. These prices, however, put most collectors on the sidelines, gawking, salivating and wishing they were born into a tycoon’s family. 

Not many collectors have spare millions in their back pockets. 

But collectors won’t be deterred. They turn to other titles and new interests. Titles once ignored suddenly find a new interest. Prices of affordable and once-ignored titles do rise because of demand. So here are a few musings based on casual observations from various auction sites.

It used to be the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide would be the arbitrator in setting prices, but auctions have taken over that role. Prices rise almost instantly during sales. Watching the numbers rise during an online showdown can be breathtaking. 

The numbers moved quicker than the pennies on a gasoline pump at a recent auction involving some Donald Duck and family Dell comics with art by Carl Barks. The same was true for other higher-grade Dell and Gold Key books. 

One artist who seems to be commanding a sudden high demand is Dave Stevens, who died in 2008 of cancer. His career began with inking newspaper comic strips, including Star Wars and Tarzan. His most famous character is the Rocketeer, of which Disney made a film. 

He is also remembered for his spectacular good girl art, found on covers of sci-fi comics, Jonny Quest, Airboy and DNAgents. He admired famous 1950s pinup model Bettie Page and used her likeness for the Rocketeer’s girlfriend. 

The comics with his work just a few years ago commanded prices ranging between $1 to $20. They’re now edging towards $50 a book and beyond at one auction house, and demand for his work appears strong.

Horror comics and horror magazines, such as Famous Monsters of Filmland, command interest from dealers and collectors in any grade, but higher grades demand deep pockets. People seem to love getting scared. Famous Monsters was launched in 1958 by publisher James Warren. 

What began as a one-shot magazine continued publishing until 1983 under the Warren banner. Other publishers tried to print the title on and off during the late 1990s and early 2000s with little to no success. It wasn’t until 2008 it relaunched as a website. Print editions appeared two years later and became an annual edition in 2017. It’s the Warren issues that are in high demand.

Warren’s stable of magazine-sized comics — such as Blazing Combat, Creepy, Eerie, 1984 and Vampirella — also command great interest among collectors. 

Classics Illustrated books are always in demand. But it’s time to dissuade interested buyers of the books that they are cheap. Lower-grade later prints were in the past found in the cheap bins at comic conventions, but demand, especially for first prints and key books — including Frankenstein — is high and expected to remain so in future. The demand for later prints is growing, so the days of cheap CI books are over, especially in high grades. 

Frustrating for the casual collector is the complicated system CI uses to identify editions. Rely on the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide for guidance to reduce the chances of being bamboozled.

Romance books, a genre created by the greats Jack “King” Kirby and Joe Simon in the 1940s, now require a deep wallet to win at auction. The genre also includes the “sort of romance books” like Millie the Model

War is hell, but comic books about war are in serious demand. In particular, DC’s Weird War achieved prices in auction are more than triple or quadruple of guide prices. Other titles from the Silver Age from 1956 to 1970 and the Bronze Age from 1970 to the mid-‘80s are also edging upwards.

Non-English comics or foreign English-language comics have garnered interest among collectors and dealers. Many of these books are reprints of American comics. 

A related field to watch is the burgeoning interest in pulps, a precursor of comic books. There was always a market for them but auction houses and dealers are offering more of them. And when that happens, prices rise.

They are difficult to find in higher grades. Cheaply constructed, the binding is often faulty. The glossy covers can be wider than the newsprint interior, causing the cover edges to round. Applying the comics grading system to pulps can be a frustrating and disappointing exercise.

Pulps are being slabbed, graded between zero and 10 by a third party and then encapsulated in plastic like comics and trading cards were for years. This type of grading, for better or worse, creates a market where buyers and dealers quibble over the amount of dollars, not the grade.

Pulps were published between the late 1800s to the mid-1950s. They got their nickname because of the cheap wood pulp paper used. And that’s what helps make higher grades of issues difficult to find and in high demand. Pulp art is a joy, but pulp fiction was a hit-and-miss affair. The hardboiled crime story developed in the pulps. They gave rise to resilient sci-fi characters, including Flash Gordon, The Spider, The Shadow and Doc Savage. 

The Argosy is considered the first pulp magazine. Relaunched in 1896, it had no illustrations, but the publisher used modern technology — the steam printer — to print more than 500,000 a month cheaply. Street & Smith followed suit with Popular Magazine in 1903 and eventually became an industry leader. 

The business peaked between the 1920s and 1940s with titles including Black Mask, Spicy Detective, Marvel Tales, Thriller Wonder Stories, Flying Aces, and too many westerns to mention. Publishing companies that started with the pulps and low-brow magazines would later morph into the comics biz. 

And the rest, as they say, is auction history.


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