Vintage comic books may deal in fantasy worlds, but here in the real one, they are serious business.
The hobby right now is burning hotter than Ghost Rider’s flaming skull on the cover of his debut, Marvel Spotlight #5 — a comic from 1972 that originally cost 20 cents and recently sold at auction for $264,000.
Comic books have been making headlines fast and furiously for record-breaking sales. Just when collectors think prices can’t go up further, along comes another comic to shatter the previous highest one.
Last week, in fact, Spider-Man did just that when he surpassed Superman to become the world's most valuable superhero, after a copy of his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 from 1962 sold at Heritage Auctions for $3.6 million. This swoops over the Man of Steel's debut in Action Comics #1 from 1938, which had set the record of being the most valuable comic after selling five months earlier for $3.25 million.
But not only did Amazing Fantasy #15 sell for the record price in Heritage's September signature sale, the auction itself Hulk smashed the previous high auction watermark of $22.4 million set in June to bring in a world-record $26.5 million. Other records were set throughout the signature auction, beginning on September 8, when at the sale's outset Jack Kirby’s Dr. Doom-struck cover art for 1969’s Fantastic Four #86 sold for $480,000 – the highest price ever paid at auction for an original work by comicdom’s most influential creator. On September 10, Charles Schulz’s Dec. 18, 1966, Peanuts strip, sold for $360,000, the most ever paid at auction for an original Charlie Brown. By the time the auction closed on September 12, more than 6,400 bidders worldwide had participated in the near-sell-out event.
The market has been robust for years, but has been going particularly crazy since late 2020. In December, the finest known near-mint issue of Batman #1 from 1940 claimed the distinction of being the most expensive Dark Knight comic ever sold when it reached a world-record bid of $1,530,000 — a full week before it even officially headed to auction at Heritage. On the day of its official sale in January, vigorous bidding pushed the final world-record price to $2.2 million — a sale no doubt bolstered by the fact that this comic is the first appearance of the Joker and Catwoman, it is one of the top five issues in the hobby and it is the sole copy ever to receive a 9.4 grade from the Certified Guaranty Company.
Not to be outdone by a fellow superhero, that exceedingly rare copy of Superman's debut, Action Comics #1, sold for its previous record price of $3.25 million in April at online auction house ComicConnect.com. According to the auction house, this particular 8.5-graded copy, with an original price of 10 cents, was found buried in a stack of old 1930s movie magazines and had been sold at least three times before, including in 2018 for more than $2 million. Other issues of Action Comics #1 have also sold for historic prices: in 2014, an issue sold for $3.2 million on eBay.
Also in April, Heritage had its best results ever at the time when its signature auction of comic books and original comic art raked in a record $16.5 million, considered an unfathomable amount. But just two months later in June, another signature sale demolished that record and others with that $22.4 million haul. Nearly 5,800 bidders from around the globe participated in the market-resetting sellout. The auction’s first session alone realized more than $5.9 million in just one hour, led by a copy of Detective Comics #27 graded CGC 5.0 that sold for $1.125 million, not so far removed from the record realized in November when Heritage sold a Detective #27 graded 7.0 for $1.5 million. In any other sale, that 5.0 Detective would have been the headline, but even Batman was overshadowed.
The centerpiece of the June auction was the debut of The Promise Collection Pedigree featuring some 5,000 high-grade Golden Age books not seen since they were bought off newsstands in the 1940s by a young comic book fan. In just a mere four hours, 181 books from this collection sold for a total of $7.1 million — a staggering sum that made it among the most expensive collections ever sold, even before 93 more books hit the block the next day to raise the total to $7.9 million. There are still more than 4,700 books from the collection left to auction throughout 2021 and 2022.
As mentioned, that June record was short lived when the September 8-12 Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction blew past it to rake in $26.5 million.
“About a decade ago, the record sale price for a comic book was $317,000, and the biggest comics auction was $5 million. Look how far we’ve come,” says Heritage Auctions Vice President Barry Sandoval. “In last week’s sale, we had 500 different lots sell for at least $10,000 each – and 68 of those hit $50,000 or more. My favorite part of all this is that 26 different consignors will be receiving checks for more than $100,000 after the auction, and a couple of those will be for seven figures.”
This was such a remarkable auction that a half-million-dollar lot didn’t even garner a headline. During the opening session, a CGC Fine+ 6.5 copy of Batman #1 brought $576,000, the highest price ever realized for that historic book in that grade. This has been such a record-shattering year for the Dark Knight that even a CGC Good 2.0 copy of his 1940 solo debut now sells for $222,000, a once unfathomable number.
Heritage isn't the only auction house where comics are on fire. Others, including Hake’s Auctions of Pennsylvania and Bruneau & Co. in Rhode Island, are also seeing big sales and comics breaking records, and increasing in value in general.
At Hake’s Premiere auction in June, which set a house record of $3.6 million, a copy of Gobbledygook #1 (1984), CGC 9.0, sold for an astounding $71,390, a world record price for this title and issue. Signed and sketched by co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, it has a back cover ad for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 that predates their first appearance. Generating much interest with bidders, its record price far surpassed two previous sales of $26,400 and $12,000 earlier this year.
At a Bruneau sale in July, which included a collection of Silver Age comics, the bidding action was non-stop, with over 10,000 collectors clamoring for them. More than 50 comics sold for new market records. It may not have been the most expensive book of the day, but the comic that stuck out the most for Travis Landry, Bruneau & Co.’s pop culture specialist and auctioneer, was a copy of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (1964), graded a 6.5. The day of the auction, the market average was $1,920 based on seven transactions, with the last one approximately three weeks earlier. The copy that sold there hammered down for $3,800 — a 97 percent gain in less than a month.
“There are not too many antiques or collectibles with that kind of selling potential,” Landry said. “The comic market is hotter than ever before, and books that once sold for $100, $50, or even $25 can sell for hundreds if not thousands.”
What the Heck is Happening?
So why is the hobby exploding? The three main factors cited by industry experts are the pandemic, investment opportunity and nostalgia. More serious buyers had the time and focus to pursue their collections online when the pandemic sidelined in-person auctions and conventions. Rising markets, including in areas like cryptocurrency, may have created a “wealth effect,” encouraging people to open their wallets wider for passion purchases. Getting the condition of collectible comics graded by third party agencies like Certified Guaranty Company is also creating a clearer picture of the exact number of copies of rare issues in existence and targeting certain high-grade issues for blue-chip buyers.
In a blog post about the July auction, Landry wrote that COVID-19 was tragic and destroyed a lot of lives, but it also brought the biggest economic boom to the collectible comic industry he has ever seen.
“People were bored at home with nothing to do. You couldn’t go out to eat, the movies, or vacation; and Marvel was dominating the streaming service land,” Landry wrote. “People who now had additional expendable income were looking for something, and a large population found interest in comics. The short is that the pandemic created an exponential increase in demand while supply stayed the same. The beauty is even though we are returning to normal life, the collecting bug is a hard one to shake. Additionally, once you’re invested in a market, it’s in your best interest to see that market flourish. The collecting must go on.”
Heritage Auctions Vice President Lon Allen, a specialist in comics and comic art, told Forbes in June that during the first few months of the pandemic and suspension of live events, Heritage’s first online sale was flat, but then things took an upward turn and kept rocketing.
“It’s got to just be a number of factors, a perfect storm of things coming together. I wish I had a good answer. There’s just a sustained higher level of interest. Marvel, Disney, TV shows, Star Wars stuff, all that. It’s non-stop," he said, adding that all of the properties coming from comics are such a household name now. "So new people are coming in,” he said.
Comic books, as well as other collectibles, including trading cards and digital art NFTs (non-fungible tokens), are increasingly growing in value for investors. A new wave of Pokémon fever is also hitting adults hard.
Comic Link, an online auction for comics that’s been operating for 25 years, saw the average price of comics sold at auction there in April more than double in price since 2020. Douglas Gillock, the consignment director with Comic Link, told WMFE-FM that he thinks one driver is a younger generation now collecting comics, fueled by the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but more people are also seeing comics as a financial asset with a pretty good return on investment.
“Comic books in particular, I think they’re viewed both as an asset with a pretty good track record of return — and in some cases, extreme, extreme returns — but they’re also fun to own,” Gillock said. “There’s pride of ownership involved in it. People are invested financially, but they’re also invested emotionally.”
Regarding the copy of Action Comics #1 sold in April, ComicConnect co-founder and COO Vincent Zurzolo, also COO of Metropolis Collectibles, the world’s largest dealership of vintage comics, said the seller was relatively new to comic investing and made a $1 million profit after owning that copy for just three years.
“With all collectibles on the rise, plus cryptocurrencies and NFTs minting new millionaires almost daily, we expect to see comic prices increase as (investors) look for new places to park their money,” he said in a press release.
Allen told Forbes that the big gains in Heritage’s June auction were not localized in one specific area of the market like high-grade books, but more a general trend across the whole collectible category.
“Lately it’s really been across the board. For a long time, the big key issues — first appearances, high grade copies, things like that — or pieces of artwork that had something special about them, have been greatly out gaining everything else. But lately, especially over the last six months, it has just been across the board: modern books, ’80s and ’90s books, Silver Age (1960s), Golden Age (1930s-’50s). It just seems like everything has a huge upward trend,” he said.
Allen said Heritage expected the Promise Collection to do well, but it blew away all expectations, including Detective Comics #140, featuring the first appearance of the Riddler, and highest graded known copy at 9.6. He said he knew it was a six-figure book and maybe worth $200,000, but it ended up selling for a record $456,000, which was more than a little surprising. The same with a copy of Phantom Lady #17, graded 9.6. He said it has been a super-desirable book for 50 years, but was also surprised that it, too, sold for a record-breaking $456,000.
“But the one that I might be the most surprised by is the first appearance of Ghost Rider, Marvel Spotlight #5, from 1972 (graded 9.8). The guy who brought that in, when he told me that he thought that was a six-figure book, I kind of thought he was crazy. For that to go for a quarter million dollars, that was just hard to believe,” Allen said.
But not just the high-grade comics are shattering expectations. Big percentage gains are also happening at traditionally lower tiers.
Allen said that if anything, the lower tiers are doing even better: “You have comics from the ’80s with a high census population (lots of high-grade copies known to exist). They’ve been selling for years at $100 at 9.8, then, last year, $300, then $600. Now $1,000. As a percentage gain, it’s higher.”
A centerpiece of Bruneau’s July sale was a collection from New
Jersey, amassed by a retired academic, who purchased many of his Silver Age comics off the newsstand in the 1960s. Landry said the consignor read them once or twice and then put them away into a liquor box, where they sat until being auctioned.
The top lot from the collection was a copy of Avengers #1, which a dealer had previously offered $1,500 for.
“We got it graded and slabbed, and it came back from CGC as an 8.0. It sold for $23,125, just $1,000 under the record for that grade,” Landry said.
Other books from the collection that did exceptionally well include a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #14, featuring the first appearance of the Green Goblin and the first meeting of the Hulk and Spider-Man. that sold for $16,800. Graded a 9.0, the CGC census lists only 83 books in this grade and only 108 higher, Landry noted. Another comic that did well was a copy of X-Men #1, Graded only a 3.0, the 1963 book brought $12,600.
“When we tallied it up, his initial investment was $212. His collection hammered at $102,000,” Landry said.
The Comics of Future Collectors
Golden and Silver Age comics may be the ones setting the market ablaze right now, but more modern issues are also entering the spotlight. On August 26, Heritage had its first Certified Modern Age Comics Showcase Auction dedicated to comics published after 1980.
Heritage Auctions Comics Specialist Xavier Chavez said these comics will be some of the most important to future generations of collectors. "There obviously is lots of value in Golden Age and Silver Age comics, but there is a lot of value to be found in Modern Age, as the next generation gets nostalgic, buying back memories,” he said.
Featuring more than 550 lots, sale highlights include Thorn Tales From the Lantern #nn (No publisher listed, 1983) CGC VF+ 8.5 – one of just eight CGC-graded copies – that was the top lot, selling for $11,400; Edge of Spider-Verse #2 Variant Edition (Marvel, 2014) CGC NM/MT 9.8, featuring the first appearance of the new Spider-Woman (Gwen Stacy), that sold for $9,000; Spawn #1 (Image, 1992) Color Error, CGC NM/MT 9.8, which sold for $8,400; Danger Girl #2 (Image/Cliffhanger 1998) Ruby Red Smoking Gun Cover, CGC NM/MT 9.8, which sold for $5,400; and The Walking Dead #1 Black Label (Image, 2003), CGC NM/MT 9.8, which sold for $4,560.
Landry said that if collectors are looking at a pile of comics they’ve always wanted to move, now is a good time.
“You don’t want to be at the other side of the peak when values start to slump. You need to strike while the iron is hot. The important thing to remember is a comic collection needs to be properly managed to maximize your return. You do not want to sell yourself short, especially by selling them outright. Comics need to be pressed, graded, and advertised properly. Your best bet is to always work with an auction house on consignment,” he said.
Allen said that for less experienced collectors who want to get in on the high-value collectibles market, the old adage “collect what you love” has always panned out well. Also find the genres and artists you like and buy one best thing you can, rather than 10 cheap things.
He also noted that he has not seen any signs that there may be trouble ahead for the market.
“I haven’t seen any clues to that yet. I wonder how much higher it can possibly go. Stuff keeps going through the roof.”