Why not let a superhero save you from the evil economy? Investing in comic books can be a recession-proof path to steady returns, according to experts at last weekend's New York Comic Con. Just don't let ignorance be your kryptonite. Do your research, focus on the must-haves and be prepared to fight — BAM! ZAP! POW! — for vintage editions you can acquire at relative bargain prices.
As a middle-aged man wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jersey and hat, Jamie Graham fit right into the nerdosphere at Comic Con, the East Coast's pop culture extravaganza. But as owner of Graham Crackers Comics, with nine stores in Illinois, he's dead serious about making money. Graham told DailyFinance he recently reinvested $2 million into so-called Golden Age comics (printed in the 1930s and 1940s) and $500,000 into Silver Age comics (1955 to 1970). He expects at least a 10 percent return on investment.
"It's a good place to park your dough, 'cause it doesn't have the ups and downs of stocks," he says.
Comics are a lot more fun, too. When was the last time your mutual fund picked up a nuclear reactor and hurled it into space? Gemma Adel, customer service supervisor for the authentication firm CGC, which grades the condition of comic books, says stocks are often politically influenced, "but the comic book industry is passion-driven."
This color-splashed slice of Americana has held its own through the last century. An original Action Comics #1, the 1938 issue in which Superman first appeared, sold for $1.5 million in 2010. Disney gobbled up Marvel Comics in 2009 for $4 billion. It doesn't take Dick Tracy to detect that comics could be a new haven for market-stung capitalists.
While we hate to be the bad guy, please note that investing in comics does carry risk. One retailer likened it to day-trading. Here are tips from dealers, auctioneers and graders on how to turn your Clark Kent-modest savings into super-wealth.
Focus on the biggies
A relatively small set of classics consistently appreciates, Graham says. Post-1970 boils down to a handful, including Amazing Spider-Man 129 with the Punisher (1974) and The Incredible Hulk 181 (1974), in which Wolverine made his debut. The latter was being offered on eBay for $19,000 as of this writing. Pre-1970 presents more options — and often costs more. After Action Comics #1, the aforementioned holy grail of the comics world, comes Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962), which spun the first tale that included Spider-Man. A near-pristine copy sold for $1.1 million. Next is the Batman debut in Detective Comics #27 (1938, $1.07 million). Several more fetch six figures in excellent condition. Try this list for starters.
Downgrade to your budget
If you're wondering how you can afford any of the above, look for less well-preserved copies. The dog-eared, torn or loose-stapled cost a lot less, and they still increase in value. You might not get rich, but what asset on the NYSE put you on Easy Street? Some coveted issues can be had for $400 to $600 in fair (or worse) condition. For instance, an unrated original of Marvel's Silver Age Daredevil #1 can be had for as low as $449, but a 9.2 graded one just fetched $12,100 on eBay. You'll need a minimum of $1,000 to start, advises Dave Reynolds, owner of Dave's American Comics. Focus on just one or two comics. Avoid the temptation to burn up your capital by buying a bunch of old comics at swap meets or garage sales. That's just collecting.
Move the moderns
As a rule of thumb, investors tend to resell their newer comics faster for profit while holding on longer to the Golden Age comics to give them time to appreciate, Graham says.
Buy only the officially graded
Your great-uncle Nate boasting he has a 9.6 1942 Archie Comics #1 when Jughead's crown has been painted black is a little suspicious. All high-end collectibles need to be validated by certifying bodies such as CGC, the industry leader. They come sealed in plastic, with a bar code and a holographic verification. DO NOT OPEN the case. No reading. No touching. Exposing your investment to air or your hands could lower the grade and wipe out your profit.
Check for restoration
CGC's Adel says her firm runs across a lot more botched attempts at hiding flaws — a no-no — than complete fakes. Make sure your acquisition is free of any kind of touch-up. No repainting, no nothing.
Cruise the auction sites
Heritage Auctions and Mile High Comics are among several venues that can give you an instant read on what the hot comics are. EBay is a good bet, too. Pay more attention to what bidders actually spent than what consigners asked for.
Speculate by nostalgia
For those on a tight budget, Barry Sandoval, the director of operations at Heritage, recommends forecasting what today's youth will be nostalgic for when they turn 40. Case in point for this generation of 40-somethings: A near-mint 1984-hatched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 fetched $22,752 at an auction in June.
Be wary of movie hype
Every time Hollywood releases a comic book adaptation, the inexperienced assume the publicity will spike the value of the source material. Not always. Remember "The Green Lantern" last summer?