Clark Kent wouldn't necessarily rush to a telephone box to change into superhero garb, but he'd probably put a call in to The Daily Planet after learning that a copy of the comic in which he made his fictional debut has turned up safe and sound, more than a decade after being stolen from the home of Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage.
An original copy of Action Comics No 1 – the 1938 publication which introduced Superman to an unexpecting world – was being pored over by detectives yesterday after apparently being discovered among the contents of a disused storage locker in the San Fernando Valley, just north of Los Angeles.
The comic, which features on its front cover a picture of the all-American superhero lifting a car above his head as he foils an attempted kidnapping of his girlfriend Lois Lane, was originally sold by newsagents for 10 cents. But today, with around only 100 copies still in existence, its value to collectors is upwards of $1m (£615,000).
It tells the story of how the superhero was born on a dying planet called Krypton, but sent to Earth by his parents to grow up. Cage brought his copy from Stephen Fishler, a New York comic dealer in the mid-1990s, only to have it taken during a raid on his Bel Air home in 2000. Police are now attempting to establish how exactly the stolen comic came to be in the hands of a local collectibles expert called Mark Balelo.
He insists that an anonymous client found it inside an abandoned storage locker which was bought during a liquidation auction some time in early March. Mr Balelo said he advised his client to have the comic valued by Mr Fishler, a well-known expert, who duly recognised it as the stolen publication.
"Stephen is extremely knowledgeable," Mr Balelo said. "He compared the markings to photographs and it was the one he sold to Nicolas Cage." Police are refusing either to confirm or deny whether Mr Balelo is now considered a suspect in the original theft.
"I don't want to prejudge anybody," Detective Donald Hrycyk, of the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD's) art-theft detail, told yesterday's Ventua County Star. "But it's just too bad that Balelo with his big mouth thought it was necessary to contact the media." Cage, who was once hired to play Superman in a sequel directed by Tim Burton which never got off the ground, said in a statement: "It is divine providence that the comic was found and I am hopeful that the heirloom will be returned to my family."
That will not necessarily happen, however. The Oscar-winning actor, who is facing severe financial difficulty and has been forced to sell most of his homes – and the rest of his antique comic-book collection – in order to avoid bankruptcy, accepted an insurance payout to compensate for the loss of the antique comic several years ago. The comic is therefore officially now the property of an insurance company.
Industry protocol suggests it will first offer Cage the right to buy the comic back for the cost of his payout (plus inflation) before offering it for sale at a public auction to regain the money they lost because of the theft. For now, though, it remains in police hands.
"We have it protected in a safe and it isn't going anywhere until we finish our investigation," added Detective Hrycyk. "Whether he will regain legal title or not is between Cage and the insurance company."
Holy heroes! It's the top five most expensive comics!
1. Detective Comics, No. 27
Estimated value: $1.38m (£850,000)
Published in 1939 with a cover price of 10 cents, this was the first issue of the popular monthly series to feature 'The Batman'. Fewer than 200 copies exist, one of which was sold for a record $1,075,500 in February 2010.
2. Action Comics, No 1
Estimated value: $1m
Dubbed the 'Holy Grail' of comic books, the first issue of this American series introduced Superman to the world when it was published in April 1938. It became the first million-dollar comic book at auction last year.
3. Superman, No. 1
Estimated value: $671,000
The first comic book dedicated to just one superhero was published in 1939 due to popular demand.
4. All-American Comics, No. 16
Estimated value: $430,000
Fanboys everywhere are gearing up for the release of the new 'Green Lantern' blockbuster later this year. It stars the hero who made his first appearance in this issue of 'All-American Comics'.
5. Detective Comics, No. 1
Estimated value: $405,000
Featuring appearances by Superman and Batman, one of America's longest-running comic series began with this issue in 1937.