By Benjamin Nobel, 2/20/2018
Since the time our price guide team published The 2018 Price Guide for 1980’s Marvel & DC Newsstand Canadian Cover Price Variants (Type 1A), our guide has drawn the interest of many flavors of collectors in our great hobby, including collectors keen on investing in Canadian Price Variants. Here are 11 tips for the investors among us!
Tip #1 – Target Keys
Investors are fortunate that the 1980’s cover price variant window was nice and big — from 10/1982 to 8/1986 for Marvel and out to 9/1988 for D.C. for example — giving us a great number of major and minor keys! That’s a wonderfully large span, especially in contrast to the size of the 1970’s cover price variant windows (the 30¢ and 35¢ variants) which were tiny windows by comparison. Here is a top 50 list for the 1980’s cover price variants (50 keys not enough for you? Here’s 300!)
Tip #2 – Target High Grades
It is the case for both Marvel and D.C. that their 1980’s comic book cover price variants were only from the newsstand distribution channel (direct editions meanwhile carried both US and CAD prices on their covers worldwide). Newsstand comics are absolutely notorious for getting beaten up, because the primary newsstand customers were readers. For a collector to carefully preserve a newsstand comic of this era was the exception, not the norm. Finding surviving cover price variants in VF/NM and higher, and especially the top grades — especially up in 9.8 (check out this comparison to the 1970’s) — is a huge challenge, making the highest grade copies the ones with the most value potential, especially as collectors grow to more fully appreciate the newsstand-exclusivity-aspect over time.
Tip #3 – Get Your Best Variants Professionally Graded
Maximize the value of your best-condition variant keys by getting them professionally graded — compared to “raw” copies, professionally graded copies tend to garner a marketplace premium far in excess of the grading cost! [Note that as of today, CGC “breaks out” these variants on census with the label notation “Canadian Edition” which we feel should be improved upon — related reading on this subject: “Canadian Edition” vs. “Canadian Cover Price Variant”]
Tip #4 – Undervalued 1st Appearances
As different comic book characters have gained prominence and popularity, the value of their first appearances has tended to rise — and one way that comic book characters can gain popularity is through movies and television! One strategy that therefore might succeed is to target the cover price variant for a character you have identified as having the potential for greater future popularity. Here is a handy list of 1st (and 2nd) appearances from the 1980’s with cover price variants.
Another strategy is to keep your eyes and ears open for general recommendations of comics from the 1980’s — if you see a great recommendation for a Marvel comic from 1985 for example, you know that such a book lands within the cover price variant window and may have had newsstand distribution… Then, while others may go out and buy direct edition copies upon reading the recommendation, you can meanwhile seek the cover price variant!
Tip #5 – Seek “Mis-listed” Variants
Look for mis-listed variants as a great way to achieve a cost basis close to the going rate for direct editions! Awareness of these cover price variants of the 1980’s is still low enough that some original owners do not realize they own anything different, and many only recognize that they own a given title and issue number — so when they go to list their rare comic for sale, often times you will see a cover price variant pictured, and yet the listing is neither titled nor priced for sale as the cover price variant. For example: instead of titling their listing “X-Factor #6 Canadian Price Variant” a seller unaware of this “class” of variants may title their copy merely “X-Factor #6” and then put up the listing at a buy-it-now price matching the going rate for direct editions!
Tip #6 – Invest in Comics You Love
We all remember the “Great Recession” not too many years back. It is important to remember that asset prices of all types — whether stocks, bonds, houses, or collectibles — have their ups and also their downs, so be prepared to have the patience to ride the roller-coaster when you step aboard it. An approach that makes it much easier to find that patience is to invest in comics you already love anyway!
Tip #7 – Popular Titles Attract Completists
Like any valuable asset, the supply and demand ultimately drive market prices. The supply of Canadian price variants is an extremely low percentage — here’s a walkthrough of how we arrive at 2% of surviving copies. As for the demand side of the equation, an element to know about is the existence of completists (aka completionists), who look to collect entire sets and runs, not just individual key issues. Popular titles (like Amazing Spider-Man at Marvel and Batman at DC) tend to attract completists, driving incremental variant demand.
Tip #8 – Pay Attention to Publication Date
At the time of the 1980’s cover price variant window, the industry was undergoing a sea change when it came to how comics were distributed. Entering the 1980’s, direct edition comics (which were direct-sold to comic shops on a discounted but non-returnable basis) were a relatively new invention, and the newsstand distribution channel still accounted for the bulk of comic book distribution. But the direct edition distribution channel was a dramatic success, and by the middle of the decade the scales had tipped the other way, with direct editions now representing the majority of sales. This matters to Canadian price variant scarcity, because the variants at Marvel and DC were exclusive to the newsstand channel. So all else equal, the later the publication date of a given issue, the lower the percentage of cover price variants we’d expect for that issue.
Tip #9 – Know About The DC “Implosion”
With Marvel expanding its market share in the 1970’s, DC attempted to compete, with more titles… But by 1978 poor sales forced them to reverse course: in the summer of 1978, DC announced staff layoffs and canceled about 40% of its titles (incredibly, Detective Comics was almost among the titles axed!). Marvel’s dominance continued into the 1980’s, and DC went through a period of surprisingly low print runs — for example, Batman issues in the range of #357-402 have the lowest print runs in the history of the title at just 75,303 to 97,741 total copies per month. From there, layer on Canadian price variant rarity and the result is an astonishingly low number of price variants; layer on some of the other themes talked about earlier, such as a key first appearance, in highest grades, and professionally graded by CGC (or CBCS, or PGX), and the result can be a DC cover price variant so highly collectible that only a handful like it exist!
Tip #10 – Yellow Label — Witnessed Authenticated Signatures
Yet another layer of collectible interest you can add to your investment is the addition of creator signatures: Both CGC and CBCS offer a “yellow label” service whereby authorized witnesses will watch your comic being signed, and afterward the book is taken into the grading company’s possession to be graded. The result is guaranteed-authentic autographs! If you picture a Venn Diagram of overlapping circles, starting with a given issue number of collectible interest, then layering on the Canadian Price Variant rarity, then the rarity in highest grades, then the copies that have been graded professionally, and then, of those, the number that have been signed by creators and given a yellow label… You can see how it is possible to achieve an incredibly rare collectible. And over time, many important creator signatures also eventually become irreplaceable with no fresh signature possible.
Tip #11 – Relative Value Is Key
Something to always keep in mind when it comes to investing (in anything) is that some types of assets can be approached on the basis of intrinsic value and expected cash flows, while others can’t — if you invest in an office building, you can expect tenants to pay you rent which can help you figure out a fair value for the building; if you invest in a high quality bond, you can expect to collect regular interest payments which can help you figure out a fair value for the bond.
But what’s the correct value of a work of fine art, or a baseball card, or a coin, or a comic book? You can’t value a comic book by adding together the worth of the paper plus the worth of the ink… and if you were to buy a given comic book today, that comic won’t throw off any cash whatsoever between now and the time you finally sell it, hopefully for a higher price — so all of the gains need to come from that final sale.
But the “hopefully for a higher price” aspect of that last sentence requires that the price rise in the future… which ties back purely to supply and demand for the comic. A great phrase often used to describe the need for a future buyer willing to pay more than you did in order to make a gain is requiring “a greater fool.” It can be argued that this dynamic therefore makes “investing” in all collectible categories — whether comic books or coins or fine art — really actually fall under the category of “speculating” instead, by relying on that greater fool in order to make money in the end (if you hear someone arguing “you aren’t investing, you are speculating” when it comes to comics, then that’s probably where they’re coming from, and they have a valid point).
But there is an approach to comics that I feel can be considered investing, and it comes down to a relative value viewpoint… where Canadian Price Variants are one example of a tremendous relative value opportunity in today’s marketplace.
Suppose you and I each own a pair of copies of an important issue, for a total of four copies between us: for each of us, Copy A of the pair is a direct edition, and Copy B is a newsstand edition of the very same issue — and the newsstand book is a Canadian price variant. We know that the price variant is dramatically more rare than the direct edition, but for the purposes of this thought exercise, suppose I offer to make a market and either buy from you or sell to you one or both of the books in question, at a flat $10 a piece in either direction. If you were to sell me your direct edition for $10, and then buy my price variant for the same $10, you’ve just advanced yourself nicely ahead of me on a relative basis: you now own two price variants (leaving poor me with the two prevalent direct editions)!
In this thought exercise you basically just did an arbitrage transaction, where you upgraded to the most rare type from the least rare type, without adding to your cost basis. But with the Internet enabling the whole world as your trading partners, opportunities like this aren’t just a thought exercise, they are real — in fact, all sorts of relative value opportunities can be found on a routine basis to those with their eyes open!
Another type of successful arbitrage you hear about all the time is an upgrade on grade without adding to cost basis: such as, for example, selling a professionally graded 9.2 copy of an important key, then investing the proceeds into an even nicer looking “raw” copy of the same book, getting it graded, and earning a 9.4. Those who succeed at such upgrades deserve to brag their accomplishments, because they are not without hard work (and risk-taking), where studying a raw comic to ascertain its grade potential (perhaps identifying flaws that can be “pressed” out) and then landing it for the targeted price, all requires skills of observation, careful study, patience, and negotiation — an investor investigating buying an office building would need similar skills.
And then of course the attractive attributes of different keys themselves can be compared as well, with an eye on the market price each key has been achieving — perhaps reaching a conclusion that it is a good time to sell Relatively Overpriced Key A, and invest the proceeds into Relatively Undervalued Key B.
So by comparing comics on a relative basis — A versus B (vs. C vs. D…) — one can identify opportunities to capture relative value, and in capturing such opportunities, you can invest in turning that relative value into actual cash… in an outcome that does not require a greater fool! In the 9.2-to-9.4 upgrade example, the market price for the key need not rise in order to come out ahead — rather, it is the spread between the 9.4 value and the 9.2 value that was captured if/when you sell the 9.4.
Now imagine if the 9.2 sold in that example was a direct edition, while the 9.4 acquired was a newsstand edition, and the newsstand edition was a Canadian Price Variant, and before getting it graded you got CGC or CBCS to witness a creator signature, getting you back a yellow label! Think of all the relative value angles you would have captured! Point being — there are ways you can earn a return on your investment in the world of comics that come not from requiring a “greater fool” (requiring that the value of the issue number rise in the future) but instead comes from capturing different types of relative value: and that type of activity is a better fit with the term “special situations investing” than it is with “speculating” if you ask me!
And in the end, if you also follow the tip to invest in comics that you love, then in between acquisition and sale you’ll earn a “happiness dividend” each time you look upon your comic and smile, for as long as you own it! 🙂
Happy Investing! 🙂