Tuesday, 14 May, 2024

$2 million for a copy: Inside the crazy world of vintage comic books

How profit-making and nostalgia increase the value of comic books, attracting people to invest big bucks in purchasing them.

In 1979, a man by the name of Mark Michaelson purchased a comic book for a few thousand dollars. On December 17 of this year, he sold it for $2.6 million via ComicConnect, one of the world's biggest online auctioneers of vintage comic books. Obviously, the comic book in question is not just any comic. It's a rare edition “Superman” #1 comic, one of the most highly sought after pieces of “hybrid” literature in the world. As you can see, contrary to popular belief, comic books are not just a thing for “kids”. They are a multi-million dollar business.

But, not all comic books are created equally. Some are worthless; some, like Michaelson’s, are worth millions. To understand the appeal of comic books, as well as the exorbitant prices being paid for very specific copies from very specific periods, one must acknowledge the four ages of comics: Golden Age, Silver Age, Bronze Age, and Modern Age.

Comics from the Golden Age, which spanned from the late 1930s to the mid-50s, are the most valuable. In 1938, the world was introduced to “Superman”, the first-ever bonafide superhero. The man from the planet Krypton birthed the Golden Age of comics, an era that also gifted us with the likes of “Batman”, “Captain America”, and “Wonder Woman”. It also gifted us with DC Comics and Marvel, the two biggest comic book publishers in history. Their rivalry, which continues to this day, is fierce.

The Silver Age of Comics, which ran for 14 years, from 1956 to 1970, saw the rise of “Spiderman”, “The Flash”, as well as “The Fantastic Four”. Meanwhile, the Bronze Age, which ended in 1985, saw the birth of “Blade”, “Green Lantern”, and “The X-Men”. The Modern Age, which continues to this day, gave rise to more psychologically complex characters. Storylines became much darker in nature. Heroes could also be antiheroes; they suffered from many of the same issues that we mere mortals suffer from. They actively embraced their dark sides, and because of this, we embraced them.

To truly grasp the significance of comic books, especially classic comic books, the opinions of genuine experts must be sought. In the world of comics, few people carry as much authority as Bob Bretall, a man who has collected comic books for over half a century. A true aficionado, Bretall owns more than 100,000 different comics. As a purist, he does not like the idea of comic books being viewed solely through a “big money” lens. For any purists out there, be they music lovers, movie buffs, or comic book lovers, there is something inherently distasteful about pieces of art being reduced to dollar signs. Nevertheless, the purists must learn to co-exist with the opportunists and those who are in the business, not out of love, but out of a desire to make a quick buck.

There are some “absolutely crazy prices being paid for comics”, Bretall told me via email. “Perennial classics/keys like “Amazing Fantasy” #15 & “Action Comics” #1 get the largest money. These have very specific people buying them," he explained. These people have access to "absolutely ludicrous amounts of disposable income”.

Then, according to Bretall, we enter murkier waters. With the mid-range "speculator frenzy" stuff. He explains: “[Thousands of dollars] are spent – in many cases when a character is announced for a movie/TV project – and people dump stupid amounts of cash into their first appearances in hopes that they will be the next mega-uber dollar value book.” These people, in Bretall’s opinion, “are likely to be very disappointed in five to 10 years if they hold onto some of these”.

Finally, we enter the scam-driven lows of the comic book world. Bretall referred to it as a “pyramid scheme”, based solely on crazy speculation. These comics, he argued, are “driven by websites and apps" that endlessly tout the next "hot comic". Here, he continued: "Naive [mostly younger] collectors are driven into a frenzy of paying from $25 to $200 for books of extremely recent vintage because they believe they will be going up in value.” Not surprisingly, many of these people are being manipulated. Bretall said: “99 percent-plus of these comics will be worth significantly less than they are paying for them in anywhere from one to five years.”

All this talk of pyramid schemes and speculation reminded me of cryptocurrencies, a world that I am intimately familiar with. With more than 10,000 cryptocurrencies in existence, 99 percent of them worthless – parallels with comic books certainly exist. Bretall certainly agrees: “My suspicion is that the mentality driving all levels of this is the same one that drives people into buying NFTs and investing in cryptocurrency, and I also suspect there is a lot of crossover in people who have made lots of money on crypto turning around and using that on buying collectibles.”

Besides the desire to make considerable amounts of money, could there be a more benign reason for the purchase of comic books – like nostalgia, for example? I reached out to Dr Clay Routledge, one of the most respected names in the field of psychology and an expert in nostalgia.

He told me: “Several decades ago, consumer psychologists and marketing researchers figured out that nostalgia influences consumer behaviour. People like to spend money on products that remind them of the past, particularly their youth. But they didn't really know why.”

File: A growing number of investors tired of taking their bumps bouncing around on Wall Street's roller-coaster-like stock market and have found vintage comics to be a safe equity haven.
File: A growing number of investors tired of taking their bumps bouncing around on Wall Street’s roller-coaster-like stock market and have found vintage comics to be a safe equity haven. (AP)

'Nostalgia is very emotional'

Routledge got to work answering this question. His team discovered that nostalgia “serves a number of psychological functions", including helping us “feel socially connected and meaningful”. Purchasing a classic comic book, for example, “might remind us of a special time spent with a friend or family member”. As a scholar of psychology, I couldn’t agree more. The association between nostalgia and cherished memories is undeniable. Also, as Dr. Routledge added: “Nostalgia helps us create a self-story. Life is full of experiences that can generate uncertainty and self-doubt. Nostalgia focuses us on past experiences that we think really help define us, that give us a clear identity, and one that is often connected to social relationships.”

Our fascination with comic books could be tied to “childhood and teenage experiences”, he added. It makes sense. After all, he said: “This was a time in which we are developing our identities and starting to have the freedom to explore and discover interests, build our own relationships, and plan our futures. We are attracted to products that reconnect us to that time in our life.”

This is all well and good, I responded, but can nostalgia cloud our judgement? “That is a very interesting question,” responded Routledge. “Nostalgia definitely influences our priorities. For instance, our studies show that people become more focused on maintaining close relationships when they are nostalgic.

“Nostalgia orients people toward investing time and money in things that help them feel meaningful. This could inspire people to become very passionate about something, perhaps even too passionate if it leads to a bad financial decision. Nostalgia is very emotional.” If we become too emotional, we can lose sight of the bigger picture, letting our hearts rule our minds, and our minds control our purchasing habits.

Interestingly, added Routledge: “Our research finds that people are more likely to become nostalgic when experiencing psychological distress such as loneliness or feelings of meaninglessness. Nostalgia functions as a self-regulatory resource that helps people restore wellbeing and future-oriented motivation.”

Routledge wonders “if societal or personal uncertainties and stress are playing a role in the comic book craze”. It is an interesting question. Certainly, when we are apprehensive, tense, or otherwise uncomfortable, the desire to reach for something that provides comfort – be it the warm embrace of a loved one, a tub of peanut butter, or a comic book – makes complete sense. One assumes that a potent mix of fear of missing out (FOMO), nostalgia, and a desire to make insane sums of money like the aforementioned Michaelson is also fuelling the comic book craze. Going forward, as Hollywood continues to churn out more and more superhero movies, expect the world of comic books to create even more controversy.

Doug van Praet, an expert in unconscious behaviourism and behavioural economics, told me that we tend to make purchasing decisions “based upon feelings much more so than facts”. Collecting comic books, he continued: “Has always been a passionate and pricey endeavour among a zealous niche audience. The only thing that has changed is the market size.

“This is due mostly to the exploding popularity of comic book films and the increasing popularity of now mainstream fanatical events like Comic-Con and Free Comic Book Day, which is now a national and global holiday. Not surprisingly, numerous superhero flicks are among the highest-grossing films of all time.”

He added: “While supply is limited, the consumer audience and demand has skyrocketed. What seems like highly irrational behaviour, is classic supply and demand economics. If a comic book collector can combine their passions while outperforming the S&P or the price of gold, why wouldn’t she?”

However, the aforementioned Bretall, a man who knows more than most about comic books, has a different take. When people see that these comics are selling for lots of money, many are attracted to the idea of getting rich, he said. “It's very sexy to talk about the comics that are selling for lots of money while never mentioning all the comics that people bought that did NOT go up in value that much…. or that went DOWN in value.” This, again, took us back to cryptocurrencies.

“I don't mean to disparage people who invest in crypto (and I'm no expert in cryptocurrency by any means),” said Bretall “But it seems like a similar mechanism to try to ‘get rich quick’ by investing in something that appears to be increasing in value. The similarity is that neither seems to be tied to any tangible value in the real world… both have a perception-based value.

“Things are worth what someone is willing to pay for them. As long as new people come along who pay more than the last person for their purchases the values go up. The problem is that there can be a crash if people stop paying ever higher prices and move on to the next thing.”

Like crypto and NFTs, the comic book craze is driven by hype and emotion, rather than objectivity and logic.

I asked, for a novice looking to invest in comics, what advice would you give them? He responded: “My advice is that if you are a novice DO NOT invest in comics. Read comics for enjoyment. If you want to invest, go talk to a financial advisor and buy stocks, real estate, cryptocurrency, etc. Something that a legit financial advisor can help you understand the risks of and purchase investments that are the best for your particular financial situation.”

He continued: “My advice is to buy comics you enjoy reading, then you will never lose… and MAYBE you will get a windfall profit down the road. When someone goes to the movies and pays $15 to see the latest action film, do they expect to make a profit off seeing the film? No. They paid to be entertained. Look at comics this way. Pay to be entertained, and then MAYBE the comic you bought that entertained you will be worth something in 10 or 20 years.

“Almost all of my currently valuable comics were bought exactly this way. I bought them to read and now they are ‘worth’ something. But for every comic I have that jumped in value, I have 50-100 that are not particularly sought after by anyone and are ‘worth’ a dollar or two. Not a loss for me since I didn't buy them as investments, but I'd have a terrible track record if I was doing this as an investment. The people who consistently make money are the comic book dealers….and not even all of them. The ones who make good money work VERY hard at it.”

In other words, they do their homework. Lots of it.

So, there you have it. Purchase comic books for love, not with misplaced notions of making millions. Michaelson’s story is a fantastic one. But, for every Michaelson, there are tens of thousands non-Michaelsons, many of whom harbour somewhat deluded dreams of becoming millionaires.

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