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Action Comics #1 Sells for Multi-Millions in eBay Auction – Milestone or Menace?

Greetings and salutations fellow Fridge Nukers! Bradfield here, reporting from on top of my soapbox, in beautiful, scenic, Oldtown Upland!

Ladies and gentlemen, the three-million dollar comic! [Pristine Comics/eBay]
Forbes Magazine isn’t always right. After Action Comics #1 sold for $100k some time in the early 1970s, they dubbed it the “Dubious Investment of the Year.” Yesterday, a CGC 9.0 copy sold in an eBay auction for $3.21 million. I’m not sure if it’s the same copy that sold for 100k in the 70s, but even if it was, that’s a pretty impressive return on an investment – even for those of us who don’t collect comics on that scale.

In fact, I’d hazard to guess that the person who coughed up millions of dollars to purchase it may not be a comics fan at all. When the pricetag gets higher than four figures, most small to middle level collectors — who make up the vast majority of comics collectors in the world — are out. So while it’s an undeniable milestone in the world of comics, I do feel that Forbes may be a little bit right in that it’s a dubious investment, not because I don’t see the cash value in it, but for me, it forever cast a dark cloud over a hobby that ultimately should be about fun.

The Expectation Gap

I used to work in a shop, and encountered many people who had bizarre ideas on the real value of comics.

Sometimes, it was somebody trying to sell books because for whatever reasons, they were in want or need of quick money. More often than not, these folks were not comics collectors, let alone long time hobbyists. They would come in with a box or duffel bag of comics with inflated dreams of their comics’ value, having purchased a price guide, or thumbed through one in a bookstore. The problem lies in people’s perceptions of what a price guide does, which is tell you what you can expect to pay for a given collectible, not the price you can expect to get for it. This often leads to prospective comics tycoons feeling screwed when they attempt to sell a comic to a store owner for the guide price, and they are offered pennies on the dollar. For the record, this is exactly why the shop in which I worked did not buy collections. The expectation gap creates too much hassle.

Then there are those who buy with an eye toward pie in the sky – the Speculators. People who bought a dozen copies of Spawn #1 (any first issue, really) and The Death of Superman with the idea that these similar milestones would turn a nice profit in years to come. They never want to know what the best read in the store is, they want to know what the “hottest” book on the shelves is. It gets worse when, in a misguided attempt to get their kid into comics, they bring them into a store and tell them to pick one because “someday, it will be worth money,” unaware that most comics are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

Frankly, I blame Superman.

“Aw, gee. Do I gotta get rid of my Detective Comics #27?” “Well, you wanna beat Hitler, don’t ya?”

Well, I’m not pinning this on Kal-El specifically, nor DC Comics, nor even the person or persons that shelled out over $3 million Action Comics #1. Rather, I blame news coverage. Sure it’s a milestone, but focusing on one very rare book creates a skewed mindset. A “buried treasure” mentality that is based on the sale of one very scarce book. Though the story has been on every major news feed — popculture and otherwise — I first became aware of it on my local morning news. The end-cap went something like “It sold for that much money because it’s the first appearance of Superman.” I immediately thought, “No. Not really.”

Exploding the Myth of the Million Dollar Comic Book.

Though the Man of Steel is a draw without a doubt, the bigger reason for its value is rarity. You can find a reprint of AC#1 in a number of formats and at a reasonable price. However, there are only fifty known copies of the initial printing in existence. Time has something to do with it, but not in the context of buying a book and sitting on it for 75 years. Rather, history has more to do with its rarity than anything else. During World War II, communities on the home front would often have drives for recyclable goods such as tin cans, rubber, and of course, paper. At the time, most people considered comics no more collectable than a daily newspaper (“kids’ stuff”), so the comics were sacrificed in the name of the war effort. So really, it’s Hitler’s fault.

However, in the decades since its sale in 1970, every once in a while, the news reports that it has sold for more and more money — the last time I heard about it was Nicolas Cage buying a copy for a million dollars — fueling the delusion that every comic is an investment. The reality is that, with publishers today printing plenty of copies, reprints, collections and the fact that more people save and preserve the comics they buy, the average comic book is like a used car. It’s worth about half of what you pay for it the moment you buy it, and continues to dwindle in value over time. There’s a reason many shops and flea market kiosks have 25 and 50 cent bins.

So sure, it’s interesting that Action Comics #1 sold for $3 million. However, I just see a long week ahead for sellers of comics.

“Spawn number one is worth way more than five bucks. I checked the price guide.”