Child’s Play

by Catherine Curan
Worth, 1/1/2006

Philip M. Hecht and his girlfriend live with Superman.

Virile and confident, the Man of Steel covers an entire wall in Hecht’s apartment, printed on movie posters and inked onto original cartoon cells. Across from this wall, a custom-built wooden cabinet stretches 30 feet long and stands 8 feet high. The drawers are filled with comic books in protective sleeves made of acid-free plastic; special glass with UV filters shields rows of shelves crammed with Superman figurines and memorabilia ranging from commemorative pins to coffee cups. To accommodate his favorite superhero’s special needs, every window in Hecht’s apartment is coated with UV-blocking material, and he keeps the temperature set to 72 degrees.

The items on display are only a portion of the vast collection of comic books and artifacts Hecht has amassed over the past three decades. Hecht, a technology executive, owns nine of the first 10 issues of Superman. Proudly showing off a few of his choicest comics, Hecht explains: “I can easily spend $50,000 to $100,000 a year on my collection, and have. For me, it’s the character, the completeness of the imagery and iconography of Superman.” As a teenager in the 1970s, Hecht had to step over stacks of comics to reach his bed. When considering how his girlfriend feels about the massive collection dominating their home now, Hecht smiles. “It can have an overwhelming quality. But I try to do it with style and grace.”

VALUE JUDGEMENT
The most sought-after comic books are now approaching half a million dollars in “value.” The surge in demand for these brightly colored volumes comes as collecting grows in sophistication. A comic book investment index and a grading service, for example, recently became industry standards. Some lament the new attention to condition, saying it shifts the focus from the adventurous tales found within. Still others caution that comics remain a perilous investment that, like all bubbles, will eventually deflate.

Like many fans of Superman, Hecht would like to someday own a high-quality copy of Action Comics #1, which sold on newsstands for 10 cents in 1938. Featuring the first appearance of Superman—who could lift a car and leap tall buildings, though not yet fly—issues of Action Comics #1 in top condition are the current Holy Grail of DC Comics’ superhero fans. In 2003, a sale of one of these books by Dallas-based Heritage Galleries and Auctioneers netted $120,750. Industry bible Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide lists the 2005 retail value of a very well-preserved Action Comics #1 as $485,000, 10 percent higher than the 2004 figure.

Superman is hardly the only character in tights to routinely command six figures in today’s red-hot retro comics marketplace. The Overstreet Guide includes the Metropolis Index of 30 blue-chip vintage comic books chosen by New York–based MetropolisComics.com’s experts. The index is heavily weighted toward superhero books published by both DC and rival Marvel (home of Spider-Man), although other types of comics, including Vault of Horror and Walt Disney Comics & Stories, also earn places. The index had a total value of $832,086 in 1995, and $2.8 million in 2005. (The index is not adjusted for inflation.) Batman made his first appearance in DC’s Detective Comics #27, and the index lists that issue, with a condition grade of 9.2 Near Mint Minus at $410,000. The compound annual growth rate for the group between 1995 and 2004 was 13.04 percent, and the total return 240.8 percent—both of which compare favorably to stock market returns over the same period.

James Halperin, cochairman of Heritage, one of America’s largest auction houses and the dominant player in the comics field, estimates that the market for all U.S. comic books, including new issues, is worth about $1 billion, with vintage books making up just 10 percent of this total. While he contends that the outlook for comics collectors is “very bright,” his optimism is somewhat guarded. Noting the recent history of astronomical sale prices for rare, high-quality vintage books, he cautions: “You can’t be sure history is going to repeat itself.”

Making the Grade
Comics Guaranty, known as CGC, is arguably the single most influential driver behind the comic book market. The company, formed five years ago, is a grading service similar to the type used for rare coins and baseball cards. For a fee, experts at the Sarasota, Fla.-based firm will scrutinize every inch of a book for possible flaws, such as corner creases and rusty staples—or for signs of restoration, now considered a serious flaw. CGC will then assign a grade on a scale of 1 to 10, and seal the book in a tamper-resistant plastic shell.

In addition to spurring collecting by giving investors a sense of security about their purchases, CGC ratings have sharpened the focus on condition as the primary component of the value equation. Meanwhile, the Internet has made it easy for newcomers to enter the collecting field, enabling them to learn about rare comics and transact deals from the comfort of their own computer screens. There is even a new online source of real-time market data on CGC-rated comics, through a subscription-based website run by GP Analysis of Melbourne, Australia.

“CGC lends legitimacy,” explains Michael Carbonaro, promoter of the Big Apple Con Comic Book, Art & Toy shows and head buyer for North Bergen, N.J.-based comic book dealer NeatStuff Collectibles. A member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society when he was 10, Carbonaro now earns a living from his childhood obsession, traveling the country buying stashes of old comics. Even after 35 years in the business, Carbonaro exudes a boyish, almost manic enthusiasm. “I’m seeing an increase in new investors and collectors,” he says. “More and more people understand the hobby, and they know no more [of these vintage] books are being printed.”

While CGC and the Internet have advanced the market place, prices for the rarest books are soaring because comics pack a powerful emotional punch. As children, many collectors formed deep and lasting associations with the modern American heroes portrayed in the pages of the comic books. Superman, with his chiseled chin, straight-arrow sensibility and amazing powers, offered a vision of what America could be. Hecht is well aware of this backdrop; he points out that Superman imagery and stories were used by the U.S. government to help promote war bonds during World War II.

Spider-Man, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962, provided another, more accessible take on the American hero. Instead of a grown man with a youthful sidekick, Spider-Man was a high school kid who lived in Queens. “He was somebody closer in age to you,” says collector Doug Schmell, who gave up his New York–based law practice to run Wellington, Fla.-based Pedigree Comics, an online business. “He had problems with dating girls, and he wanted to get on in life, and not get beat up by neighborhood bullies. He was actually a regular guy you could relate to.”

While most of the general population still considers comic books disposable fluff, fans see many of these books as visual art and literature in their own right. Upgrading to high-grade copies represents the fulfillment of boyhood ambitions and provides a nostalgic trip back to the carefree days before adult responsibilities. Finally, vintage comics can still be enjoyed for their original purpose: as well-told and illustrated stories.

California-based collector Bob Underwood recalls that as a fifth and sixth grader he boasted an advanced vocabulary, including words such as “symbiotic” and “apocalyptic,” that he gleaned from comics. “Early Marvel books were more literary,” says Underwood, a screenwriter who values his collection of vintage comics at several hundred thousand dollars. “I have a specific memory of a teacher saying, ‘What book did you get this [word] from?’ thinking I would say, Of Mice and Men. I still remember the look on her face when I said, ‘It was The Incredible Hulk.’ ”

Hollywood hotshots such as Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio are reportedly comics enthusiasts; their interest has contributed to the recent spate of comics-related films, which in turn, have boosted sales of the vintage books. Comics characters have been in theaters for decades: Superman debuted in a live-action film in 1948. The rise of computer-generated imaging has enabled a greater range of characters to reach the big screen. Underwood says he started investing seriously in comics when computer imaging arrived, realizing that live-action films with characters such as the Fantastic Four—who could not be adequately captured by simply putting actors in capes—would now be possible. “It became clear to me that people in the industry, having grown up on this, were going to get around to a lot more sci-fi in TV and movies.”

Eager to cash in on this lucrative trend, Marvel in September announced plans to make films rather than licensing the characters, and completed a $525 million credit facility to finance up to 10 new movies.

Dumb Money
Yet comics still represent a risky investment. They are fragile and require careful, often costly, storage. CGC has undoubtedly helped standardize the market, but some veteran collectors say the ascendance of grading has had negative consequences. Underwood dislikes the intense focus on condition at the expense of content, which he considers the inherent reason for comics’ value. He also fears that too many novice investors may be misled by high grades for books that are not rare, and therefore, make poor investments. “This obsession with the number leads to [what stock brokers call] dumb money. And if dumb money suddenly feels it’s made a mistake, that could lead to a ripple among the really rare stuff.”

As with any passion investment, savvy players should follow two rules: learn as much as possible about the market and purchase what you like. Information is widely available on the Web; Heritage has an online archive of more than 100,000 auctioned items and their prices, accessible for free after registering on its website. Auctions and comic conventions are good places to listen for market buzz and make contacts, as well as view comics in person. Buying CGC-graded books makes a good entry strategy while you spend time learning how to distinguish unrestored comics from restored books, and while you build relationships with reputable dealers.

A few thousand dollars is enough to begin creating a collection, and, despite the dramatic price increases, optimists still see room for growth. But newcomers should be aware that even with several million dollars in capital, they will not be able to readily scoop up the rarest books in high grades. Many of these already belong to collectors, such as Schmell, who enjoy owning them.

In the end, it may be best to approach vintage comics with the eyes of a child, focusing on fun first, financial returns second. When Schmell is asked if he ever actually reads comic books, he responds with mild outrage. “Are you kidding me? I still read a comic at least every night.”