“I Threw Them Out, Honey”
On February 27, 2010, Heritage Galleries sold an old comic book for $1,075,500. Yup. That happened. Its 10 cent purchase price had appreciated at the astonishing rate of 25.6% per year, every year without fail, since 1939. That’s better than gold, better than the stock market, better than rare coins, rare stamps, antique cars … better than anything really.Yup. That happened. Its 10 cent purchase price had appreciated at the astonishing rate of 25.6% per year, every year… Click To Tweet
So what is it about a cheap little magazine, aimed mostly at kids, printed on low quality pulp paper, that makes it one of the best investments of all time? Welcome to the fascinating world of comic books.
Comics, or illustrated story art, got their start in the mid and late 19th century in the newspapers. A few “collections” of newspaper comics were published in the late 19th century and early 20th, but it was not until the early 1930s that the American comic book as we know it was born. Famous Funnies, a Carnival of Comics was published by Dell and Eastern Color Publishing in 1933, and is widely considered today to be the birth of the genre.
Things didn’t really get rolling though until a few years later. In March 1937, DC Comics began publishing a series called Detective Comics, and the following year, artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster launched the first superhero, Superman, in Action Comics No.1. It was an immediate hit, and in May 1939, a young artist named Robert Kane debuted his creation, the Batman, in Detective Comics No. 27. The Golden Age of Comics was born.
During the early 1940s, superhero comics exploded in popularity. DC Comics added to its arsenal with such heroes as Green Lantern, Spectre, the Flash, Hawkman, Wonder Woman and others. Timely Comics (later Marvel) added such characters as Captain America, the Sub Mariner and the Human Torch. Such titles as Adventure Comics, Whiz Comics, More Fun Comics, All-American Comics, and Marvel Mystery featured some of the lesser characters, while the big names such as Superman, Batman, Captain America and the Flash got their own titles.
The World War II era was certainly a time when young people needed fantasy and an escape, and the early superhero comics certainly filled the bill. Many of the superheroes were depicted fighting the Axis powers, and the patriotic colors of Superman and Captain America were no accident.
During this period, other types of comics were introduced as well. Dell (licensing from Walt Disney) began publishing characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, and other popular figures such as Roy Rogers, Tarzan and Archie began to appear on the newsstands. As the war drew to a close, the superhero mania subsided, and comics turned to more real life adventure (westerns) and humorous fare.
Most of the minor superheroes were discontinued in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but the main characters (Superman and Batman) soldiered on — although their stories were lighter, and incorporated increasing doses of science fiction and other popular 1950s themes.
A Revival of Comic Proportions
In 1956, DC comics began to revive some of the heroes from the previous decade, giving birth to what is known today as the “Silver Age,” which lasted until about 1970. Many of the familiar names were given new, updated costumes, and a new generation of kids once again followed the adventures of the Flash, Green Lantern and Aquaman.
In the early 1960s, Marvel returned to life after about a 15-year hiatus, with new blockbuster titles such as the Hulk, Spiderman, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four and Thor. The team of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee produced more realistic art, and better stories than DC, and gained a wide following throughout the mid and late 1960s.
By the early 1970s, the world was evolving, and comic books began to take on more mature and more socially relevant themes, such as racism, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, and environmental concerns. This marked the transition to the “Bronze Age,” which ran from roughly 1970 to about 1985. While some superhero titles endured, characters tended to be more mortal with titles such as Conan the Barbarian and Beowulf. A relaxation of the 1954 Comics Code in 1971 also brought an increase in more supernatural and horror oriented material with vampires, ghouls and werewolves appearing in such titles as Tomb of Dracula, Ghost Rider and Swamp Thing.By the early '70s, comic books began to take on more mature and socially relevant themes... Click To Tweet
Why the Surge in Comic Values?
I started off by talking about the extremely high values today realized by some of the most iconic comic books. So what is the phenomenon that has resulted in seven-figure prices? It’s actually very simple, and boils down to the formula behind the value of all collectibles: supply and demand.
First, supply. As I alluded to in the title, nearly all comics were thrown away. Even if the original reader wanted to keep it after reading it, how long was it kept? A few years at most? When the original owner grew up and left their parents’ home, how many of them took their box of comics? Not many, I’ll wager. These early comics are very rare, with only a few dozen copies remaining for many of the earliest titles. And most of those survivors were well used or damaged copies (though many have been restored today.) So supply is quite low for nearly all these titles.
Secondly, demand. Superman and Batman have retained their popularity for the past 75 years or so, entertaining millions both young and old. Because they have endured — not only in comic books but in radio, television, movies and graphic novels — interest in both these characters remains very high and at the forefront of American culture. Acquiring the original relics of their birth certainly ranks near the top of the list for dedicated collectors. All this is true as well for other iconic comic characters, just not quite to the extent shown by DC’s “Big Two.”
Very limited supply plus very high demand equals some incredible prices. Count on it. In future entries, I’ll take a look at some more comic book heroes, including two of my personal favorites, the Batman and the Hulk.