Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Introduction to Collecting Comics, Part Two

Picking right up where we left off yesterday, when I refer to "ages" of comics, I'm talking about the era in which the books were originally printed and sold. As mentioned, there are four such ages--the Golden Age, the Silver Age, the Bronze Age, and the Copper (or Modern) Age.

Hard line dates for the beginning and end of each age are tough to nail down, and often debated, but I'll give the most commonly accepted time periods here.

The Golden Age begins anywhere from the early 1930s to the late 1930s, with the real watershed moment of the age being the release of Action Comics, issue one, which features the first appearance of Superman.
Action Comics #1Distributed to newsstands in 1938, it is the single most valuable comic book ever printed, and there are only a handful of them in existence today. Featuring what is probably the most iconic cover image of all time, Action one brought super heroes into prominence in American culture.

There were others before him, but Superman was the best-executed, and he clicked immediately with an entire country. And here we are, seventy-plus years after Superman's debut, and he's still as relevant and important today in his role as an American-spun mythical/legendary figure.

While it's pretty simple to pin down the beginning of the Golden Age, it's a bit tricky in trying to date the end of it. Comics kinda fell off the public's radar as the country became embroiled in the horrors of the Second World War. When WWII came to an end with the bombings in Japan in the mid-forties, and by the time the decade drew to a close, people just didn't care all that much about Superman and Batman anymore.

Crime and horror stories--most famously published by EC Comics--became the next big thing, and the content of comics shifted dramatically from super heroes to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
ShockTitles such as Tales from the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, and Shock SuspenStories were far edgier than anything the comics world had previously produced.

Those stories stand the test of time, and are still as impactful and haunting as they were decades ago. But, as with any cultural movement that scares the older folk, and as a further blow to the popularity of comics, the name Fredric Wertham officially became a curse word in comic book circles by 1948.

Wertham, a psychiatrist specializing in children's studies and dedicating much of his early life to helping the underprivileged, launched his infamous attack on comics in the late-forties, and solidified his position on the matter with the publication of his now-legendary book, Seduction of the Innocent, in 1954.

After Congressional hearings demanded that a "comics code" be implemented on every comic book--thus making it law that all titles adhere to a firm and ludicrous "moral" standard--the comics industry knew they had to lighten up, and fast.

So they did. Most people will put the start of the Silver Age in 1956, with the publication of DC's Showcase, issue four, featuring the first appearance of the modern Flash. Under the watchful (and brilliant) eye of editor Julius Schwartz, DC re-introduced and updated several other Golden Age characters, including Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom.
ShowcaseAdditionally, it was under Schwartz that the Justice League of America was formed, and their title quickly became a top-selling book. DC's contributions to the Silver Age were ushered in by such names as Schwartz, Gardner Fox, and Carmine Infantino.

Meanwhile, Timely Comics was also in the middle of a rebirth. Under the helm of Stan Lee, Timely/Atlas transformed from a mostly romance/weird monster publisher to Marvel Comics, the new leader in super hero fiction adventure.

Along with artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, and Bill Everett, Lee led Marvel Comics into the Silver Age and beyond with new characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Daredevil. Oh, and the Avengers, and Iron man, and Thor, and a new Captain America, and the Hulk.

Yeah. The Silver Age was a busy time.

And, because of the plethora of new characters and teams and genres, the comics published during that time are worth a premium today. Many of the early Silver Age Marvel issues include the first appearance of key characters. Additionally, those books (or issues that were printed very soon after) tell the origin stories of comics' most enduring characters.

And when you're talking about valuable comics, those two terms--first appearance and origin--are going to come up time and again in the discussion.

Even though the 1960s aren't that far back in the rear view mirror of time, the books that Marvel put out during that period are considered the cream of the Silver Age crop, increasing in value every single year over the decades.

Dubbed by collectors as Silver Age Marvels, titles like Amazing Fantasy, issue 15 (featuring the first appearance and origin story of Spider-Man), Amazing Spider-Man, issue one, Fantastic Four, issue one (first appearance and origin of the entire FF), and Avengers, issue four (re-introduction/first appearance of the modern Captain America) are considered comic book gold.
Amazing FantasyThere hasn't been a year that these books have dipped in value, and the scary part about them is that, while they were actually pretty affordable in the late 1990s, today prices have gone through the roof.

Even Daredevil, issue one, which introduces the character and tells his origin story, and was once a mid-level (at best) Silver Age title, is today considered a sure fire investment for comics collectors, increasing steadily in the 2000s.

But the thing that makes Silver Age books so highly sought after is the continued quality of the work produced in the era, which many agree ended in 1970. Before then, though, other comics revolutionaries such as Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Archie Goodwin, and Denny O'Neil added their indelible contributions to the art form.

If the names Stan Lee, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster are the comic book equivalents of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Cy Young, then Adams, Steranko, Goodwin, and O'Neil can be likened to Mantle, Musial, Mays, and DiMaggio.

[And,for the three baseball fans out there, that one was for you.]

But there is one book that is considered the key book of the Silver Age. And that title is, in fact, Amazing Fantasy 15, since Spider-Man is arguably the most popular character to emerge in a time when the great super heroes of a generation were created.

In my mind, and in the minds of many collectors, there are only a very small handful of "safe" comics to collect that will retain (and exceed) the amount you will pay for them. And they are all from the Silver Age. I mean, sure, you can't ever go wrong with a copy of Detective Comics, 27, but unless you have a quarter of a million dollars (or a really eccentric propensity towards crime), big ticket Golden Age books are off the table.

Mostly because they're encased in foot-thick glass, or tucked away in off site steel vaults.

Since this is an introductory post to collecting comics, I'm sure some of you are wondering how one might--with (somewhat) modest money set aside--start collecting worthwhile books. Well, two words: Silver Age, Silver Age, Silver Age.

And a little Bronze Age, too.

Actually, before I get into what books I think are the best values at the moment, let's finish up this pseudo-history of comics with a brief intro to the Bronze Age. Beginning in 1970 (or thereabouts) and lasting until the mid-eighties, the Bronze Age featured a dynamic shift in the tone of comics.

Starting early on in the 70s, it became apparent that comics were growing up. In 1971, Marvel and Stan Lee published the first comic without the approval of the Comics Code Authority, which was set up as a result of the Congressional hearings in the 50s. The comics showed drug use--a major no-no under the Code--but portrayed it in a negative, frightening light.

It was certainly a morality tale, centered around Peter Parker's friend Harry Osborn. But because the Code didn't even allow the mention of drug use in comics, they did not approve the book. When Stan Lee explained that he was asked by the U.S. government to write an anti-drug issue as a way to scare kids off substance abuse, he was met with silence from the Code. They didn't budge, and they wouldn't approve the two-issue story.

So Stan Lee published it anyway.

Around the same time, over at DC, Green Arrow's trusted sidekick, Speedy, was revealed to have a serious drug problem in Green Lantern, issue 85. Shocking as it was, stories with deep social resonance were commonplace in the Green Lantern (also referred to as Green Lantern/Green Arrow) stories by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams.
Green Lantern and Green ArrowThe legendary creative team brought a new relevancy to comics during their run on the title, with stories that focused on difficult social issues such as race and equality and Native American rights. Their run on the book is so well respected that the first issue they collaborated on is today one of the finest examples of a late Silver Age/early Bronze Age book that has soared in value.
Green Lantern and Green ArrowGreen Lantern, issue 76, featured the first time Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) and Ollie Queen (Green Arrow) shared a book. Because fans remain so fond of their run on the book, any Adams/O'Neil issue during this era will sell. But issue 76 has been far and away the best investment book of the run.

This book started to get hot a couple of years ago, but it just exploded in 2008. I bought a mid grade copy of the book in the summer of 2008 and since then, the value of the book has nearly doubled. High grade copies sell for what we professionals call "stupid money" and by all accounts, it doesn't look like it's going to slow down for a while.

Now, while drug use was shocking and radically different from anything printed in the Silver Age, where Marvel went next changed the landscape of a medium. They did the unthinkable in the realm of comics--they killed off a beloved character. In 1973, Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, was killed by the Green Goblin in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man, issue 121.
Amazing Spider-ManAlthough Stacy's father was killed back in 1970, that death didn't have the same impact as Gwen's. She was a beloved character in the classic Stan Lee/John Romita years on the book, and many fans were horrified and upset with Marvel's decision to kill her.

Times were changing, and so were comics.

During the 70s, another important contribution to comics history came from the underground. Underground comix sprouted up, and there soon became a glut of black and white books hitting the market. Soon, independent publishers emerged, and for the first time since the Golden Age, Marvel and DC saw competition from unexpected places.

In many ways, the 70s proved to be an appropriate precursor to the broiling 1980s comics scene. Marked by watershed books like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen, the 80s were an entirely different beast. And it was those two titles that marked the end of the Bronze Age and the start of the grim and gritty Modern Age of comics. And we all know where that got us.
WatchmenSince I started off (a long time ago in a post from yesterday) with Modern Age books, I think this is a good place to stop with the history lesson and to elaborate a bit on the "art" of actually collecting these things.

Picking up where I left off a few paragraphs ago, if you want to get into older books, the best bet for a "safe" investment is to go with Silver Age Marvels. The market is smoking for that stuff today, and it was the same way last year at this time, and five years ago at this time. And it'll still be hot next year at this time.

Remember, we have Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and an Avengers movie all on the horizon in Hollywood, and new blockbuster movies mean that any and all important titles with these characters in them will be gaining in price.

Now, one common trap that many new collectors fall into is the aphrodisiac provided by a new comic book movie. For example, when Spider-Man 3 was in development, copies of (the movie's villain) Sandman's first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man, issue four, went sky high.

Now, that book was already an expensive item because it's a low numbered Spidey featuring a major villain. Throw in a prominent role in an upcoming film, and the price goes a little nutty.

The time to pick up a book like that is NEVER during the run-up to a movie, or a DVD release.

And the best piece of advice I can give on something like this is the following--only collect what you like. I typed that in bold face, so you know it's important.

Unless your goal is to buy and then resell these back issues, don't drop cash on a book because you just know it's going to be the hottest thing ever. Because that will fade, and then you'll be stuck with a book you really didn't want in the first place.

Personally, I only really, officially collect three types of books. First and foremost, Goon issues--which, even though they are Modern Age books, are surprisingly rare and tough to find. Because Powell self published his book, the initial print runs on early issues are quite small, and now there seems to be much more demand than supply.

A great thing if you have some copies lying around and are looking to turn a profit.

A not great thing if, like me, you just want to have the issues because the book is near and dear to your (twisted) heart.

Second, I collect Neal Adams Batman issues. Along with Silver Age Marvels, these books are as safe a bet as there is in comics collecting. Just as they did to Green Lantern during their run on that book, Neal Adams and Denny O'Neil revolutionized the Batman character for a new generation (not mine, mind you--I'm not that old!) and they laid the foundations for the dark and mysterious Batman we all know and love today.
Batman #235One of my collecting goals is to own a copy of each issue of Batman featuring a Neal Adams cover. I've actually managed to get pretty far along with this goal, and because I really don't care all that much about condition, I haven't spent all that much money, either.

My personal favorite issue of their run is Batman, issue 227, which features a classic cover by Adams. It's not the easiest book to find, but there are enough of them out there that you should be able to secure one for a good price after a little Googling online.
Batman #227Speaking of condition, I've just realized that I have failed completely of condition. As with any collectible, condition is key to value in comics. The better condition something is in, the more it's worth.

But you knew that already.

There's a whole grading system when it comes to comics, ranging from Poor to Neat Mint. The official scale goes something like this: Poor, Good, Very Good, Fine, Very Fine, Near Mint, Mint. A book in Poor condition is usually pretty beaten up and kinda resembles the newspaper after the dog's had his fun with it.

When you're talking key Golden Age books, it really depends on how significant the issue is. A Detective 27 in Poor condition is still going to sell for thousands of dollars. When you get into high grade Silver Age stuff--like that Green Lantern 76 I was talking about--you're also talking big, big money.

The difference between a mid-grade and a high grade can literally be tens of thousands of dollars. And when it's a Golden Age book, that difference can be hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Anyway...back to my collecting objectives.

The third type of book I collect is, of course, Silver Age Marvels. I have very few of them, and they are all in pretty horrible condition. Personally, if I were to choose a book, I'd want a mid- to upper mid-grade copy of Daredevil, issue one.

Beyond that, I think Silver Age appearances of Thor and Captain America are going to become pricier as their movies get closer to release dates. So, if they're among your favorite characters, be wary of the possible inflation. Iron Man, I think, has just about hit his ceiling, price-wise.

But Daredevil has cooled of quite a bit, and there are no plans for a new movie anytime soon. There are rumors that there might be a relaunched film franchise, but that seems quite a ways off at the moment.

So my best piece of advice is, if you're a fan of DD, try getting into some of his earlier appearances from the Silver Age. Like I said, even DD books have increased in price, but there hasn't been this huge jump. Instead, they have risen slowly and steadily, and many of the books remain pretty affordable.

With that character especially, there's also the 1980s (Bronze Age) run on the title by Frank Miller, and if there is ever another movie, it's probably a safe bet that Hollywood is going to borrow heavily from Miller's "Born Again" story that takes place in issues 227 through 233.
Daredevil #227I'd actually reccomend that a new collector seek these issues out as a way to get started. Great character, great story, great writer and artist. They are very affordable--most commonly sell for under $20, and many for under $10--and they're easy enough to find.

But not so easy that you'll find all the issues you want at the first store you look. So you'll have to hunt around a bit for them, and as any collector will tell you--that's the best part.

And, with that, I will (mercifully) let you all go and enjoy your Saturday. Thanks for reading, and if you stuck around until the a whole lot. That's pretty cool of you. I know this particular subject targets a niche audience within a niche audience, so many people probably fled for the door when they started reading part one.

Finally, if anyone has any questions or anything they'd like to add, please feel free to leave comments!

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