Is it a bird? Is it a plane? The 101 on collecting comics


Comics – or graphic novels, if you prefer – share a piece of DNA that’s common among quite a few popular collectables.

Back in the days before streaming movies, 3D virtual worlds or video games, comics were the gateway to incredible realities bursting with heroism and where anything was possible. That they mean so much to so many is of very little surprise.

It was only in the 1960s that comics began to be seen as more than just childish escapism, and instead as a worthwhile and notable art form. The conventions that started to crop up in that decade cemented the idea that they were ripe for collecting.

Like anything, the key to getting into collecting is to get a firm idea of what it is that interests you most. It may be a character, like Superman or Spider-Man; it could be a publisher, such as Marvel, DC or IDW; instead you may choose to align with a brand, like The Avengers, Transformers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; or it might be that you want to focus on a specific era, maybe one that has some personal meaning for you, or a period in which you especially enjoy the art.

Either way, identifying a particular series with a contained arc, such as Avengers vs X-Men or Hellboy in Hell, is a good way to get your head around collecting the many pieces that make up a set. From there you can branch out down other paths. Also, don’t be intimidated by a series having a high issue number. Your superhero of choice may be into their 400th or 500th issue, but nearly all series have several ‘jumping on’ points where a new story arc starts and newcomers can pick up the ropes. Think of it like starting Doctor Who as a new actor or actress steps into the role – the first episode is always a brand-new introduction.

A good local comic store, if you’re lucky enough to have such a thing, will be a huge help, and offer the opportunity to meet with other collectors. Of course, the chances are that you’ll end up scouring the pages of eBay, but also be sure to check out the likes of comicdomain.co.uk, reedcomics.com and megacitycomics.co.uk.

Of paramount importance, of course, is storage. Comics are by their nature quite delicate and fragile things. Sunlight and moisture are both potentially damaging, as are creases and blunted edges. Small boxes called comic containers have become very popular, although die-hards will often card and bag issues in specifically designed plastic sleeves. In fact, despite the nature of modern mass production, examples of any comic in pristine condition stand a good chance of becoming valuable over time.

There’s more diversity to comics than you think, too. So even if the lycra-clad antics of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne don’t appeal to you, the gritty adult worlds of Preacher, The Boys or Stray Bullets Killers may well do. The chances are, if you’ve got this far into the article, you’re interested enough in the genre to find something that will resonate.

The most valuable comics

It will come as no surprise that some of the most valuable comics available date back to the origins of the format. An Action Comics #1 (1938), which heralded the debut of the iconic Superman, will fetch at least $75k, although the most expensive one ever sold fetched a whopping $3.2m. Detective Comics #27 (1939), which gave us the debut of The Batman, will fetch at least $70k, with the highest ever sale recorded at $2.1m.

Superman #1 (1939) can fetch as much as $500k, while Batman #1 (1940) can be worth even more, once hitting $567k. All-Stars Comics #1 (1941), which offered the first ever appearance of Wonder Woman, has previously fetched almost $1m, whereas a pristine Wonder Woman #1 (1942) once sold for $291k. Captain America Comics #1 (1941) can be worth as much as $300k.

Spider-Man’s debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) has sold for as much as $1.1m, while a copy of X-Men #1 (1963) once fetched $492k. An Amazing Spider-Man #1 (1963) previously hit $262k. Iron Man and Hulk’s comic debuts in Tales of Suspense #1 (1963) and Incredible Hulk #1 (1962) respectively have sold for as much as $375k each.

Values drop once we get to the ‘70s, although Wolverine’s debut in Incredible Hulk #181 (1974) has sold for $150k. Many of the tertiary characters who debuted throughout the decade (including the likes of Luke Cage, The Punisher, Darkseid and Iron Fist) will reach only four figure dollar values.

There are some notable ‘80s editions – Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 (1984) once hit $27k and Wolverine #1 (1988) can fetch $17k. And even some modern editions are already very valuable. The Walking Dead #1 (2003) can already sell for as much as $11k.

Digital vs physical comics

Like all forms of media, the graphic novel market has undergone plenty of change thanks to the introduction of digital editions and downloads. Certainly for the casual reader, services such as the Amazon-owned Comixology are tremendously convenient. Carrying around a vast library (with perhaps a bigger collection accessible from the cloud) for reading on a large-screened tablet has changed the hobby for many people, as have subscription services such as Marvel Unlimited.

The good news is, statistics show that the rise of digital has not cannibalised sales of physical copies at all. In fact, CNBC data from 2016 shows that there has been a steady year-on-year increase in both print and digital comic sales since 2010. It is only the sale of physical trade paperbacks (which are collections of previously available single issues) that has shown any sort of decline, and even that is minor.

Not so Marvelous controversy

Marvel has come in for some criticism recently, with many fans expressing frustration at its treatment of key characters. A recent series called Secret Empire revealed that the beloved Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers was actually a secret agent for Hydra, the evil organisation that until now he had opposed. Worse still, Hydra had always been presented as an analogy of Nazism (and, indeed, Cap’ was created by the Jewish pair of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon). So for Marvel to choose this narrative path at a time where there are legitimate concerns about the rise of Nazism in both American society, and its high office, was quite bizarre. The tale concluded with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions of Rogers battling it out, and while our established hero prevailed, the publisher’s decision to sail so close to the wind left a sour taste in the mouth of many fans – a fact demonstrated by the series’ poor sales.