Against Speculators

Comics in the early ’90s were full of collectors, people who bought comics not to read them but to collect them. And comic book companies catered to this market, printing multiple covers, foil-enhanced covers, holographic covers.

The death of Superman in Superman #75 (cover-dated Jan 1993) was published in November 1992 in two editions: a normal one at a dollar and a collector’s edition in a black plastic bag with a bleeding red Superman logo, a bag containing the same issue with a different cover and additions like a cheap armband to memorialize your loss, all cover-priced at $2.50. On the day it was published, the collector’s edition was already being sold for $25. Some stores reportedly didn’t even put any copies on the shelves, seizing the opportunity to sell the copies they’d ordered behind the counter for multiple times the price.

In response, comic book retailers in early 1993 ordered both editions of Superman’s return in Adventures of Superman #500 in astounding numbers, planning to set aside dozens upon dozens of copies. Of course, everyone else did the same thing, and millions of copies were consigned to quarter bins. The speculator market suddenly tanked, comic stores closed, and a whole industry went into freefall for years.

You’d think we’d have learned our lesson. Multiple covers never utterly went away, and one can understand if certain zealous fans — who read the comics — want to own variant covers. Dynamic Forces, a company that mostly sold signed editions through catalogues (itself a strange phenomenon), has expanded to sell variant editions with “Dynamic Forces cover”s. Wizard magazine has expanded not only to sell its own comics and to buy own the largest comic book convention, but to offer “Wizard Ace Editions” reprinting old comics with new covers.

The worst incarnation of this new speculator boom is Comics Guaranty Corporation (CGC), a company that grades comics on a 10-point system. In theory, this is a worthwhile service that corrects for individual inconsistency between comic book shops: it provides a supposedly objective third party to grade the condition of comic books. It evaluates comics with rubber gloves, ascertains a grade, and then heat-seals the comic in a plastic pouch with a grade above the comic book itself, also sealed within the plastic. Sealed within plastic, of course, no one can read the comic. The comic is thus purely reduced to a commodity. Perhaps worse, the seal is not utterly airtight, and the plastic allows light through, thus allowing the comic book to continue to deteriorate, while its marked grade remains the same. Surely, this is of no use to intelligent people who can grade their own comics — hardly that difficult a process — or to people who buy comics to read them. CGC has even branched out, offering a “Signature Series” of comics creator signatures authenticated as legitimate by the company.

Yet CGC-graded comics have become very popular. They sell in online auctions for multiple times their value, even at the grade indicated — the added price apparently indicating the added value of CGC’s third-party authentication.Wizard magazine promotes CGC-graded comics relentlessly, including routine features in the backs of their magazines featuring prices for a few books at particular CGC grades, as well as news stories on particular comics at particular grades. Wizard #136 (January 2003) featured a promotional inset showing how the months-old Captain America (fourth series) #1 is priced at $7.50, whereas a copy grade by CGC at 9.8 sells for $35.50. This is ridiculous: comics arrive to stores in boxes and are sometimes mutilated in shipping; a fold or slice on a comic is one thing, but the CGC standards distinguish between new, undamaged comics and perfect comics. Surely, at this level of apparent precision, the difference in UPC code or lack thereof between newsstand editions and those bound for comic book shops, which essentially produces two different editions with different circulations, would merit noting in terms of worth before attending the difference between new comics and CGC grades of 9.9 or 10. Moreover, this process of authenticated grading seems to be applied mostly to recent comics: Captain America (fourth series) #1 was published in 2002 with a wide circulation and is overpriced at $7.50, let alone $35.50 sealed in a heat-sealed plastic pouch. Absurdly, CGC-graded editions of new comics are now sold already graded so that once can buy a new comic already sealed in an inviolate plastic pouch with a grade already attached.

Of course, all of this relies upon the reliability of CGC. According to anecdotal evidence, people have resubmitted the same comic book to the company and received a different grade — a fact the company acknowledges, as differences inevitably exist between individual graders. Yet no careful investigation of the company and its grading process has occurred. Scandals have been alleged in which powerful people have arranged to have grades attached to large masses of books. I do not mean to lend legitimacy to such allegations, and I certainly think people have a right to buy or sell such material, but one has to recognize that the value of CGC-graded comic books rests upon the continuing reputation of that company, which has not itself been graded. Who grades the graders?

Whatever the reliability of CGC, its services are distinctly targeted for collectors, for people who just have to have a copy of Ultimate Spider-Man with a 9.9 grade attached. I am myself a comic book collector who owns dozens of thousands of comic books, but the idea of not being able to open them and read them appalls me. I like having rare but important graphic novels in the same way that I like first-edition novels. The trouble is when comic books are treated not as literary artifacts but as baseball cards, any content between the covers being irrelevant. And that is not only an offense to comic books as art, but a part of the market that one cannot rely upon, as past crashes of speculative markets have indicated over and over.

When I go into a used book store, I am elated to find editions that I want but do not have, but I am elated first to be able to read a work I find important and second to be able to add to my library a particular edition of some historical importance — as I define it, based on my own sense of merit. Comic book price guides evolved precisely for this purpose — for people who appreciated an under-appreciated art form and needed some measure of determining, in a budding convention culture, just what old comic books should sell for. Overstreet, that pioneer of comic book price guides, was similarly accused of immorality, of hording particular comics and inflating their listed prices. Again, we should have learned our lesson by now — though that requires knowing our history. As Neil Gaiman has reminded us, they sold tulips too. You buy a Picasso because it’s a Picasso, to stare a genius ready on your wall, and because it’s a privilege to own, not because someone has told you it’s worth money.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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