Say the low interest rates have gotten you down? CDs not earning what you’d hoped? Or you’re just bored watching the stock market?
Never fear, there’s always comic books.
“Last year was a great year for old comics,” said Robert Overstreet, author of the “Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide” (Gemstone, $17) and an industry-watcher for more than 25 years. “The value of old comics increased tremendously. There were so many sales records set across the board - for comics from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Consider these prices. An Action Comics No. 1 from 1938, the book that introduced Superman, sold for $75,000 last year - up from $15,000 in 1990.
Check out the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, printed in 1963 and sold for 20 cents. Today, in near-mint condition, it can bring $15,500.
Sound fantastic? Want to jump in?
Hold on, bucko. Investing in comic books is not for the faint of heart. It requires nerves of steel, a rocket scientist’s knowledge of the field and, in some cases, superhuman psychic abilities.
And if you want to collect the really valuable comic books - those from the so-called Golden Age years of the 1930s and ‘40s - you’d better have one more thing: deep pockets.
The Golden Age heralded the first appearance of the superhero - which started when Superman made his debut in 1938. The popularity of superheroes continued through the early 1940s, but nose-dived in the late ‘40s. Superheroes disappeared in the 1950s, giving way to horror comics, detective comics, western comics and even romantic comics.
But the superheroes made a resurgence in the early 1960s - and the period from the 1960s until 1970 is known as the Silver Age. That’s when such modern superheroes as Spider-Man and the X-Men came to life.
In the world of comic-book collecting, nothing is hotter than Golden and Silver Age comic books. At comic-book conventions, most of the comic books on display are vintage books from the ‘30s through the ‘60s.
Generally, Golden Age comics are the most expensive comics - primarily because they are scarce. During World War II, Americans turned in their scrap paper for paper drives. So most American kids did their patriotic duty - and destroyed a lot of the 1930s and early 1940s comic books.
For that reason, there may be fewer than 100 copies of a particular issue in existence from that era. And that’s why collectors pay astronomical prices for them.
Take Detective Comics No. 27. It features the first appearance of Batman, and there are only 150 copies of the book left. Last year a collector forked over $68,500 for that issue.
Age alone doesn’t make a comic book valuable, however. Most run-of-the-mill comics are worth little even if they’re old. Instead, collectors look for firsts: The first issue of a new comic book is usually bankable, as are issues that introduce a new character.
For instance, in 1974, in issue No. 129 of The Amazing Spider-Man, a villain named the Punisher makes his debut. That issue is worth about $275 in near-mint condition. But issues 128 and 130 are worth only $13 to $22.
The book’s condition is also crucial, because the difference between near-mint and good condition may be 10 times the value.
Comic books are rated in eight grades, from mint to poor. But decades ago comic books weren’t stuffed in plastic bags for posterity. Instead, the original owner may have stuffed it in his back pocket, thumbed through it a dozen times and then passed it on to a friend.
That’s why most price guides don’t list “mint condition” prices. Instead, prices start at near-mint and work their way down.
Collectors usually won’t buy a book that’s in poor condition (torn and possibly missing pages) and most would balk at a book in fair condition (very heavily read and soiled, but still complete). But if a comic book is very rare, collectors are more forgiving.
That’s certainly the case for Action Comics No. 1, the 1938 book that includes the first appearance of Superman. One of the most sought-after comics of all time, even tattered copies can bring big bucks.
Bill Ponseti of New Orleans has one beat-up copy that he claims he has been offered $50,000 for. Why the high offer? “Because there are only 75 or 80 copies around,” Ponseti said. “And most of them aren’t for sale.”
Rarity isn’t the only factor that makes a comic book valuable. Nostalgia fuels the vintage comic-book trade - and that’s why characters count.
“A Superman comic from the Golden Age is infinitely more desirable than a Little Orphan Annie,” said Vince Oliva, a comic book dealer from Spring Hill, Fla. “They’re both old, but while Little Orphan Annie sells for a couple of hundred dollars, a Superman book from that era can go for thousands of dollars.”
If you don’t have the big bucks to buy for Golden Age or Silver Age comics, what can you do?
There are opportunities out there, Overstreet says.
For instance, horror comics of the 1950s are good buys because they’re not overpriced yet - and some feature the first appearances of today’s superheroes. Many are still reasonably priced, from $20 to $50.
In the ‘60s, comic book companies churned out books based on the popular TV shows of that era, including “I Dream of Jeannie,” “The Flintstones” and “Dark Shadows.” In fine condition, those books are priced at about $20 to $50; if you bought near-mint, you could pay $40 to $100.
And don’t count out comics from the 1970s, which are currently considered valueless. “I think there are a lot of sleepers from the ‘70s that will suddenly become popular,” he said. Again, you should probably follow the basic comic-collecting rules: Look for No. 1 issues and issues that introduce new characters.
If you want to buy old comic books, you can try the usual sources: comics conventions or mail-order sources. But Overstreet suggests checking the back-issue bins at comic book stores, where you may find lower prices.
He also suggests that you buy the highest grade you can afford. If you can’t afford near-mint, buy a very fine or fine copy.
“And then just sit on them. Put them in storage and wait,” said Overstreet. “Many of these books go up in value more than 10 percent a year.”