Comic books frequently make appearances at estate sales. Whether it be the collection of someone who spent a lifetime seeking out and preserving issues featuring his or her favorite characters, to the casual reader who wasn’t concerned with cardboard, plastic sheeting, and the various other precautions taken to preserve the integrity of the comic.
The value of comic books can be hard to place. You’ll hear tales of people selling their collections and buying a car, and others taking their comics to the resale market when times got tough and discovering that their life’s collection didn’t provide the safety net they expected. And the fact of the matter is, collecting comic books for the sake of collecting them is not as lucrative as it once was. The successful collector is likely going to be one who collects for the love of the media, and not just to make money. Because at least that way you can enjoy them for their original, intended purpose.
That’s not to say there aren’t some very valuable comics out there, of course. There are. It’s only to say that quality is far more important than quantity, if you’re only interested in an investment.
Comic books are, by and large, categorized by the date they were published. Not unlike our generational nomenclature (millennials, gen X, baby boomers…) comic books have their own eras.
It is generally agreed upon that the Golden Age of comic books begins in 1938, when the first Superman comic was offered as a part of DC’s Action Comic Series (Action Comics #1, to be specific).
Comics existed before this—strips appeared in the newspaper as early as the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until the Depression era that comic books became its own industry. They started with bound versions of newspaper comic strips, which were sold for 10 cents a piece. But it wasn’t long before publishers needed new, original material.
A year after Superman flew onto the scene, DC introduced a much darker, grittier superhero, Batman, who made his first appearance in Detective Comics #27.
Captain America, The Spectre, Wonder Woman, The Green Lantern and The Flash were also introduced this period, as well as Captain Marvel, who’s comics frequently outsold those of Superman’s in the 1940s. These comics were straightforward, cartoonish (though not childish) and often patriotic.
Following the war, interest in superheroes dropped off, and western and romance comics gained popularity. Archie Comics made its debut in 1942 as well.
From 1956 to 1970, the Silver age of comic books brought new characters and new artistic innovations to comic books. Pre-existing characters got upgrades.The Flash was modernized. The Justice League and Hawkman, and the Green Lantern were all updated as well.
The Comics Code Authority (CCA) was formed in 1954, as a way for publishers to self-regulate. What this meant for comics during this era was more “family friendly” themes. The grit of wartime comics was gone. Instead storylines were pushed forward by science—X-Men, Hulk, Fantastic Four and Spiderman were all created by science that went awry.
The updates were brought to the comics by a long list of new and rising artists and writers now revered in the industry, most notably Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but not discounting others, like Steve Ditko and Gil Kaine and Roy Thomas, among others.
During this period, comic book prices started to rise. Between 1961 and 1962, the generally accepted price jumped to 12 cents, and then to 15 cents by the end of the era.
This era, which lasted until the early 1980s, brought about a darker tone as CCA rules became looser. Stan Lee introduced an arc about drug abuse (which was generally a taboo subject) in his comics. Iron Man confronted his own issues with alcoholism. The death of Gwen Stacy haunted Spider-Man.
Comics became more socially conscious. Racism was addressed. More minority superheroes were introduced, starting with Luke Cage, followed by Storm, Blade, John Stewart, and others. Male characters were now given female counterparts, like She-Hulk and Spider-Woman.
Continuity between issues became more prevalent—what happened in one issue would affect the story and its characters well into the future.
This era also saw the introduction of mainstream horror comics, and western and romance stories fell to the wayside.
Dark Age / Modern Age
The next generation begins somewhere around 1986, when Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns came onto the scene. This was also the year Dark Horse Comics published its first two books.
We saw a turn to darker themes in the Bronze Age, but starting in the mid 80s the comic book scene was getting a gritty reboot, and aiming toward more mature audiences. The DC Universe was essentially rewritten following the Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Diversity continued to increase after the Bronze Age as well. Milestone Comics, published by DC, came onto the scene with the goal of making sure minority characters received more representation in mainstream comics. Elsewhere, gay characters became central to the plots (e.g. Kevin in Archie and Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, was reimagined as a gay man).
The 80s and beyond also saw a rise in Manga comics.
The basic rundown may suggest that there have been only a few comic book publishers over the last 80 years, but that is indeed not the case. But razor-thin profit margins did keep many from succeeding the way DC, Marvel, Archie Comics, Darkhorse, Image, and MAD, and a few others have.
The value of comic books varies widely based mostly on quality and rarity. But some have found the re-sale market isn’t what it once was. A crash occurred in the market around 1996, and lasted several years. Direct market shops kept the comics on the shelves long after interest in a certain comic had waned. Because the books could not be returned, they went to bargain bins rather than being remaindered, so newer comics are not, and won’t be, as scarce as others.
Publishers’ marketing tactics also caused collectibility problems: Relaunching series and numbering them with #1; producing pre-wrapped comic books so readers would be encouraged to purchased two at a time: one to keep for posterity and another to enjoy; adding trading cards or holograms to issues when a sales boost was needed, and gimmick storylines (I’m looking at you, Death of Superman) meant a glut of product—rarity is needed for high-dollar collectibility.
So what does this mean for you, the novice collector?
It means comic book collections from the Dark Ages are unlikely to have the resale value of those from previous generations. At least not in our lifetime. I’m certain there are exceptions, and with research you can find them. Regardless, if you’re interested in these comics, by all means, collect them. Read them. Enjoy them, just as you would the wide variety of comic book movies and TV shows ever-available at our fingertips. Preserve them if you wish.
But don’t plan your retirement around them.Rules of thumb
- If you’re interested in collectible comic books, estate sales are a legitimately good place to start, especially if you’re ready to do your own research. It’s not uncommon to come across a sale where a person’s entire collection is being sold. If a sale has hundreds or even thousands of books available, perhaps that collector knew a thing or two.
- Quality is nearly as important as rarity, and you should consider that when you consider the price. It’s not uncommon for collectors to have certain issues professionally graded on a 10-point scale spanning from Mint to Poor condition), so the value can be based on official quality.
- Consider how the previous owners stored their books. The estate sale company may have some insight into that. Light, both natural and artificial, can affect the quality. Does it look like the original collector changed the bags and cardboard backing with any regularity? (Over time, as with anything, the bags deteriorate and can let in the elements. Changing them every 3-5 years will preserve the integrity of the book inside.)
- Watch for reprints. So you came across a copy of Action Comics #1. There’s Superman, with a car over his head, making his comic book debut. It’s in great condition. The price seems surprisingly reasonable. Before you call your boss to say what you really think of him, examine the cover. This particular comic, a holy grail, had been reprinted more than ten separate times since the 1970s, and many of them can be pretty convincing. And it’s certainly not the only comic to be reprinted. Before you make an investment, know what you’re buying. Research the specs of the original printing—the trim size, paper stock, etc. There will be differences in the reprints.
- Watch for books that contain the first appearance of a character—those are likely to hold more value.
- Adjust your expectations. Demand changes, and values wax and wane. If you collect for the love of the story, not for the potential windfall later on, you'll at least find the activity emotionally lucrative.