Comics are big business these days, as Disney's $4bn (£2.5bn) takeover of Marvel Entertainment proved this week. More readers are flocking to graphic novels every day, and Hollywood is mining the industry's back catalogue for movie ideas. Yet many amateur collectors are finding to their dismay that the comic books themselves are worth little more than the paper they are printed on.
The 27th edition of Detective Comics, which was published in 1939, is one of the most significant in the industry's history, as it introduced the world to Batman. Any collector lucky enough to have a mint edition copy could sell it for a little under $1m. Yet, as the series hits its 857th edition this month, those published less than 40 years ago are unlikely to bring you $100. The original Batman comic, as well as the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics a year earlier, marks what many call the Golden Age of comics and are still much sought after today.
Gareb Shamus, chief executive of Wizard Entertainment, an industry magazine, said: "The high-quality and older materials have thrived. That has kept up with the art market."
The mainstream market for collecting comics exploded in the late 1980s, when amateur collectors saw the market as a lucrative investment opportunity. Comic chic grew with Tim Burton's first Batman film in 1989, and appetite for collecting soared.
Marvel's X-Men and Spider-Man went head to head with DC Comic's biggest stars, and both launched dramatic storylines that had fans queuing round the block, with multiple special editions clad in foil and holographic coating. Upstart independents launched titles including Spawn, which briefly challenged X-Men in the Nineties. This culminated in DC's move to not only cripple Batman in 1993, but kill off Superman. His death made the cover of Time Magazine. Then the market stumbled and the prices fell. Mr Shamus described it as the "low-cost, low-investment type collectors, who thought they were buying the books of their generation". He added: "Any time there's huge demand, there's often a high supply."
Publishers increased their print run to cope with demand, and even the collectors finally became sick of the faddish variant covers, according to Lou Ryrie, assistant store manager at Forbidden Planet in London. "It is about supply and demand. There was a lot of overprinting and some collectors just became a bit jaded," she said.
The mid-Nineties marked a tough time for the industry. As many collections plunged in value, independent publication houses hit the rocks and even Marvel was forced into bankruptcy in 1996. Now, the comic book is back in vogue and parts of the market are growing strongly. Yet the economics have changed, especially as eBay has widened the network of dealers.
Comics are less viewed as the "books of a generation". Ms Ryrie said: "Your average monthly comic book, once it has passed 12 weeks on the shelves, isn't worth the paper it is printed on. If it hasn't been bought by then, it is unlikely it ever will be."
Comics are still popular – Wizard estimates that readership has stayed pretty flat, despite suffering in the credit crunch – and some, such as the Final Crisis series run in Batman, still sell out in less than an hour. Yet the print runs are unlikely to see the series accrue much in value.
Those with value – beyond the true collectors' items – are those that take the market by surprise, such as the Amazing Spider-Man edition with Barack Obama on the cover. Ms Ryrie said: "There are a few creepers, the Obama Spider-Man edition wasn't expected. The queue was as long as I've ever seen it. It sold out in 40 minutes."
The popularity of comics has risen with the popularity of graphic novels, which have opened up new distribution channels and made it into general book shops.
Ms Ryrie added: "The problem for comics is that the availability of graphic novels has become much more widespread. Not long ago there was no certainty a comic run would make it into graphic novel form. So there was an incentive to buy the comics.
"If most story arcs take seven issues, rather than risk missing one, you can just buy the collection. People who wait on a monthly basis tend to be the die-hard fans, or kids who can't afford graphic novels."
ICv2, experts in pop culture, said that the graphic novel market in North America rose from $75m in 2001 to $375m in 2007. Graphic novels have thrown off the childish stigma previous generations associated with comic books, partly through work including Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Alan Moore's Watchmen, which was listed on Time Magazine's 100 top novels. Yet a mint first edition of a Watchmen number one comic fetches $11. Simba Information, a market research group, said: "Graphic novels have almost become their own industry at a time when traditional forms of print publishing are being challenged."
Michael Norris, senior analyst for Simba Information, said: "Graphic novels are much more accepted, and are more available. Publishers see the value in it. Crucially, the larger book stores are offering a wider selection.
"The fall in comic book prices had to do with overproduction, especially relating to short-term trends and fads. There are still people who collect comics out there, but publishers are trying to figure out how the rest of the readers connect to the content. If they want to pay $3 for a comic and toss it away, or keep it and display it."
Old vs New Money
* Action Comics #1, published in June 1938, sold for 10c. The Big Comic Book Database now estimates a mint copy is worth $985,500.
* Detective Comics #27 published in May 1939 also at 10c. It's now worth $955,200.
* The Fantastic Four #1, November 1961, sold for 10c. Now worth $48,520
* X-Men #1, September 1963, sold for 12c. The first issue is now worth $18,960.
* The Amazing Spider-Man #1 came out in March 1963 costing 12c. A mint condition copy sells for $57,600.
* Watchmen #1, released September 1986, $1.50. Now sells, despite the recent movie tie-in, for $11.
* Spawn #1, out in June 1992, retailing at $1.95. The first issue of the comic, which once challenged X-Men, now sells for $12.50.
* Superman #75, January 1993, for $1.25 marked the death of the Man of Steel. Now worth $32.50.
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