This page has the ambitious project of describing how one should collect comics, regardless of what your goal in doing so is. This is currently a rough draft.
Major divisions of condition with both verbal label and numerical designation on a 10 point scale.
Keep in mind that the scale is inverse-exponential. Each increase in rating represents a smaller increase in the actual physical condition of the comic than the previous one. Thus VF to VF/NM is a much subtler change than VG to VG/F.
Ratings above 9.4 are possible (Mint, NM/M), but extremely rare and represent exceptional copies.
actual descriptions of grades to come
NM (9.4) Near Mint
VF/NM (9.0) Very Fine/Near Mint
VF (8.0) Very Fine
F/VF (7.0) Fine/Very Fine
F (6.0) Fine
VG/F (5.0) Very Good/Fine
VG (4.0) Very Good
G/VG (3.0) Good/Very Good
G (2.0) Good
Fr (1.0) Fair
Pr (0.5) Poor
Golden-Age: Comics before 1954.
Silver-Age: The Silver-Age began in 1954 with the advent of the CCA (Comic Code Authority) by comic publishers to police themselves so that the federal government didn't decide it needed to do so. The limits of the CCA rating basically drove out many comic genres that had previously been successful, and reduced a diverse field to one primarily dominated by Superheroes.
Bronze-Age: Colloquially 1970-1979, the actual start of the Bronze-Age is the first appearance of the Punisher in Amazing Spider-Man 129. Vaguely co-inciding with this was a major overhaul of the CCA which, among other things, allowed undead like Vampires (the living dead) and made horror comics possible again.
Modern-Age: Begins in 1980 or 1981.
Knowing Why You Collect
There are many reasons to collect comics, and with different reasons come different priorities. A few general 'archetypal' collecting behaviors are listed and described below. Note that collecting for one reason doesn't prohibit one from collecting for other reasons. These archetypes will be returned to repeatedly in varying contexts.
The Reader: The reader mostly wants the comics for their story. While he probably appreciates the cover art, he fully intends to read each and every issue that he buys. Most people who collect to read will be perfectly satisfied with lower condition comics (see Grading below), and will even take coverless or otherwise poor condition comics if the price of better condition instances of that comic become too prohibitively expensive. Reader-grade copies tend to be VG condition and below.
The Collector: The collector doesn't necessarily want to read the issues (although many of them are both readers and collectors). Rather, like a stamp collector or a shell collector, he acquires comics to have them. Collectors tend to prefer mid-grade comics - they enjoy the look of the comics and want some gloss on the cover and a reasonable minimum of damage. Collectors tend to prefer approximately F condition (VG/F to F/VF - see Grading below). Some collectors are interested in graded (CGC, PGX, etc...) comics.
The Displayer: Some people treat comics like artwork - to be displayed for their covers. These people are typically interested in good looking comics, and not necessarily interested in the condition or even completeness of the interior! Displayers will typically be happy with no less than F condition, because a F condition comic looks at least VF if not VF/NM when held at arm's length - which is the distance they will typically view them at (See Grading below). Displayers will often frame their comics, or have them professionally graded and encased (CGC, etc...) for the purposes of display. This is one of the least frequent reasons to collect.
The Investor: The investor really is in it for the money. Many comics are worth a lot of money, especially in high-grade condition. Even some newer comics appreciate rapidly because of unexpected popularity. An investor will be happy with no less than a VF comic, and many won't want anything under VF/NM - high-grade comics appreciate in value faster because they experience full returns on increases in the value of the comic. Investors, especially those interested in the truly valuable comics, really like having CGC certified gradings and the sealed case - it protects their investment. If the investor is also a reader, he will likely own two copies of issues he considers an investment - one high-grade copy that is likely sealed in a CGC case, or at least never opened/read, and one low-grade copy that he reads.
Knowing why you collect comics will help you make decisions on the prices you are willing to pay and the standards issues meet before you buy them. Obviously someone who is only a reader has very different objectives from an investor, and therefore is interested in a totally different subset of the older comic market.
Know What You Want
Knowing why you collect will let you know what condition comics to look for. Knowing what you want to collect will save you from impulsive decisions and keep you focused on those comics you're really interested in, especially if you are collecting on a budget.
Most people collect particular titles. Some of those people will only collect a certain range of issues for those titles. My primary interest is in Uncanny X-Men, especially pre-1990s. (1963 through 1989). This establishes both a title I am interested in and a range in issue numbers.
Some people collect particular time periods. Someone might be interested in Golden-Age comics in general, and collect every title from that period.
Some people collect particular companies, such as all Marvel comics.
Some people collect key comics. A key comic is a comic that is important in the history of comics. Some examples everyone is familiar with - Amazing Fantasy 15 is the first appearance of Spider-Man. Some are generally familiar to people who know a character or time period - Tales of Suspense 39 is the first appearance of Iron Man. Not all key comics are first appearances - Amazing Spider-Man 121 is a key comic because it is the death of Gwen Stacy. Comics can be key because of their impact on an important title (as Gwen Stacy's death is), because they introduced an important character, or because of an effect they had on the industry as a whole - the first appearance of the Punisher, Amazing Spider-Man 129, is the comic that defines the beginning of the Bronze-Age.
Some people collect a particular artist, writer, or other contributor whose works they really liked. (I have read a letter from a fan expressing his approval of Tom Orzechowski's lettering, so anything is possible.)
These categories can be combined - A person could be interested in all Marvel Silver-Age comics, or all Golden-Age Action comics.
The key is to figure out what you want, and focus on that. If by some miracle you get *everything* you wanted, you can always expand your interests later. This seems like really basic advice, but a lot of collectors, especially young collectors, get caught-up in some advertising campaign or other and go and buy something they won't be really excited about in the long run.
Obviously, one of the key acts in collecting comics is buying them.
(A) Know what the comics are worth. This is actually harder than it sounds - price guides exist but those price guides are wrong. Let me repeat that - the price guides are wrong. (Not 100% of the time, we'll talk about when they're right later). Price guides consistently overprice most comics because they use faulty data. They don't look at failures to sell, only sales that occur, and only sales that occur in a comic shop. Now, basic economics tells us that Supply and Demand sets prices, but we're only getting the tail-end of the demand curve represented here - those rare people who are willing to pay outrageous prices for comics that aren't actually rare.
Lets put it this way. By the Modern Age (~1980), comics were recognized as something that had value. People were protecting them. There is no shortage of Modern Age comics (with some rare few exceptions - and most of those are small independent publishers). Not even high-grade Modern comics. *Nothing* from Marvel or DC in the 90s has any chance of being rare. Even Bronze-Age comics are pretty abundantly available in general, even in high-grade, much less reader copies.
Even Silver-Age comics, while they are mildly rare, aren't nearly as valuable as the price-guides would have you believe in 80% of cases.
The price-guides are right in two cases. (1) Golden-Age comics. Lets face it, "rare" applied to even a high-grade Silver-Age comic is a total misnomer compared to "rare" for Golden-Age comics. Marvel Mystery Comics #2's only known example is *just the cover*. There are comics with as few as 3 known copies in existence. The reason is that comic publishers pushed recycling comics during WWII to support the war effort, and many kids happily did so. As comics weren't considered to have value, many mothers threw out comic collections - most of which were stored in attics or basements and not treasured at all. However, the reason price guides tend to get Golden-Age values right is because they *have* to look at auction data for their prices, because most comic stores will *never* see a copy of many of them. Auctions measure the actual value as perceived by the market, and thus the price guides are getting direct evidence for the items 'real' value. (2) Silver-Age Key comics. Because they are key issues, there is a lot of demand for them, so comic shops don't tend to have abundant inventory of any given one, and most shops won't have more than a few of these comics on hand at any point in time. Furthermore, while Silver-Age comics survived better than their Golden-Age forefathers, they still weren't recognized as valuable yet, and thus the condition of many surviving copies suffered. Due to this rarity of great condition copies, auction data is often used for these key issues as well, making their price guide prices much more accurate.
For the rest, how can you tell price guides overprice? Watch some ebay auctions. Most comics sell for 50% or less of the guide price. Modern comics often aren't even sold singly because they lack sufficient value, which can lead to them selling for pennies on the dollar according to guide prices.
(B) Where to buy. Don't get me wrong, we all like our neighborhood comic shop. Its nice to go chat with someone about your hobby, and peruse the available issues, and walk out with it in your hand when you buy it. Don't get me wrong, comic shops have their place, but for most back issues, they aren't the first place I'd look.
Ebay is a great place to get deals on comics because guides overcharge, and therefore stores who price by guide overcharge. Its not so much a question of "when should I use ebay", its more a question of "when shouldn't I use ebay".
- New comics - they have a cover price, that's what they're selling for. A comic store is a great place to get these, and often if you maintain an 'account' (have a box, whatever) there, they'll give you a discount in addition to storing a copy of every title you tell them you're interested in each month.
- You're interested in high-grade comics. Don't get me wrong, ebay will give you a deal, but you can't always trust the guy selling them to grade properly. Most sellers don't include a satisfactory picture to verify their grade. Some may be trying to pull a fast one. Making friends with a shop-owner will give you someone who's experienced at grading comics that will be willing to look for you at conventions and the like. He benefits because he knows he has a customer, you benefit because you have his expertise working for you.
- You're missing a few Modern Age issues out of a run. Lets face it, it isn't worth paying $5 in shipping for a $.99 comic auction when you could buy the same thing for $2 at your neighborhood comic store. If you're only missing a few scattered issues, you can't get the savings that come from winning a whole run that's on auction at the same time, and that means its overpay for shipping, or just give your local store some business.
This is the 'oh duh' section for anyone who's been collecting for any reasonable length of time. It's included mostly for completeness.
Depending on your reason for collecting, you might get your comics CGC graded, and thus sealed in a plastic case. You might just bag and board them. You might use Mylar. Regardless, most comics have value, even if only their appeal to your senses (visual, tactile, or otherwise), and thus you should protect them somehow - even if it is a reader. The method you choose should allow you suitable access to the comics for your purposes. (Someone interested in reading his comics shouldn't get them CGC graded, for instance). What's most relevant is that any board and plastic be acid-free, so that they don't cause damage to the comic they are meant to protect.
Additionally, comics should be stored upright - usually accomplished using banker boxes or similar. Stacking comics flat causes the comics on the bottom to be deformed from their normal flat-lying position, resulting in rolled spines and other defects.
Lets face it, many collectors will ultimately sell some or all of their collection. The following is my recommendation on how to do so.
Unless you are a store, you will personally realize more profit by selling your comics on ebay (or similar) most of the time. However, you need to do some things to get the best results - this is discussed below. For truly valuable comics you may want to go through an auction house, who will do most of the below for you (or make it unnecessary).
- Grade the comic to the best of your ability. If you are uncomfortable doing so, get someone else who has experience to do it for you. [b]List this grade in the title of your auction.[/b] This allows you to communicate effectively with the buyers so they know precisely what's on sale.
- Take large high-quality photographs or scans of the front and back cover. This allows people to judge your rating of the comic's condition, and make their own assessment.
- Describe the color of the pages. This is separate from the condition of the cover.
- Do not use a reserve - start the bid price off low. Most comics will be bid up to what the market considers its value to be.
- If you list a lot, it should be a run of contiguous numbers. If you are missing any from the run, it shouldn't be more than 1 per 10-20 issues. Random collections of comics, either from different titles or of numbers from the same title often fail to generate as much interest because you alienate buyers. They may not be interested in all the titles, or in issues that lie outside the range of issues they're interested in. Continuous runs will interest people looking to expand their collection beyond some well-defined range, and increase the value because the person doesn't have to hunt down missing issues in that range.