CMI Explains: Alternative Investing in Comic Books
On August 25, 2014, Darren Adams decided to put his copy of Action Comics #1 for auction on eBay. Starting the bid at 99 cents, the price grew to over $1.5 million in less than two hours. When the auction ended Sunday night, the owner of Pristine Comics in Federal Way, Washington, had sold the holy grail of comics for a profit of $3,207,852.
Such meteoric rises in prices are not as unusual as you might think. The rise of super heroes in the popular consciousness has led to a renaissance in sales, with issues like Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) which marked the first appearance of Spider-Man increasing from $3,000 in 2010 to $140,000 today. Other notable booms include the first appearances of Moon Knight (sales of $3,000 in 2013 to $14,500 in 2015 to $50,000 in February 2019) and Adam Warlock ( from $18,000 in 2018 to $25,000 in 2021, and likely to increase further with the release of GG3).
The processing of investing in comics will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever resold collectibles like sneakers. Whilst there are some organisations like withotis.com which offer the opportunity to buy literal shares in significant comics like Daredevil #001, most traders work across auction sites like eBay, Comic Connect, Comic Link and so on. Their stock is graded according to the standardised CGC Grading Scale, a highly accurate 10-point grading scale where a 9.2 for instance would mean “a very well-preserved collectible with some wear and small manufacturing or handling defects”. Inevitably, the potential for profits has spawned a vast array of websites and youtube channels offering market predictions, pricing recommendations and “hot picks” for particular weeks, led by associations like comicbookinvest.com and mycomicsvalue.com. On any given day, trading can range from the £25-50 mark all the way up into the thousands, although Darren Adams’ millions are a rarer story.
Historically, this has been the downside of comic book investing, as the low production costs of comics compared to other cultural assets (sculpture, painting) have kept the median price of assets very low, which makes it difficult to maintain a constant profit by day trading. However, for hobbyists, the comic book market is also one of the easiest to understand, requiring that traders have an in-depth knowledge of the cultural spaces which normally come as standard to fans of Marvel, Disney and popular culture in general. When the Black Panther movie was successful, for example, the increase in the price of Fantastic Four #53—which marked the Black Panther character’s first appearance— was a no-brainer. Likewise, when Disney announced their plans to reboot the Fantastic Four the first issue from the 1960s shot up 25% in just a week.
Unusually, the comic book market is often one in which younger people often have more industry insights, since key pricing information like the flop that was Marvel’s Iron Fist or the brave choice of Chloé Zhao for Eternals director is often directed through social media to these audiences which the products are aimed at. Compared to other collectible investing like watches or even clothing, this makes comic book investing an incredibly exciting and relatively low-resistance way into trading.
The actual evaluation of a comic book, then, occupies an interesting niche between the worlds of popular culture and financial investment. Investors need to keep a close eye on popular taste, whilst also trusting their own. Profiting from the stratospheric rise of issues like the first release of Spider-man (arguably the first major teenage superhero) or Miles Moralis, which, like wheels on luggage, were both long overdue and inevitable in hindsight, requires deeper insight into the styles of entertainment that will endure.
As well as large-scale cultural insights a deeper industry knowledge which can be gained by attending Comic Cons, visiting reputable comic book stores and talking to the experts. Some comic series from the Golden Age (1930s-1950s) with characters who have not yet been revived in popular culture make for some of the highest margins in sales, including “Blue chip characters” like Catman, Black Terror, The Destroyer and Phantom Lady. The hardest stocks to spot are those like the Walking Dead #1, one of hundreds of zombie comics in 2003, which now sells for $2,000 as a result of decades of good artwork, a successful TV tie-in and a healthy but surely unforeseeable dose of 2010s zombiemania.
In general, the key catalysts to look out for include first appearances, deaths, major events, and creative debuts of acclaimed artists. For expert investors, picking the best investment will mean picking the right grading for a particular issue: prices aren’t always linear on the grading scale, and bargains here can translate into the hundreds or even thousands of pounds.
With this in mind, two approaches to comic book investing are generally recommended. Long-term investors should consider selecting comics that have traditionally shown slow, reliable growth. For them, pre-1985 books are the best choice. These are comic books that have appreciated in value over time, and will likely continue to do so. This approach brings lower risks, but less opportunities for purchases - comic books auctioned on ebay, comic connect or bidstart can sell in hours or even minutes - and grails from the Golden and Silver ages bring with them a higher price point.
For short-term comic book investors, they should try to buy comic books when they’re just starting to get hot, with the intention of selling them before interest wanes. These are comics that have been out for just a few months that are selling from $50 to $100. For them, staying on top of industry news and popular culture remains the best way to tell what will go boom and what will go bust.