Grading

The Overstreet Grading Guide, Staple Replacement, and ASM 238 Tattooz

By Benjamin Nobel, June 13, 2021

I picked up a copy of The Overstreet Guide To Grading Comics, Sixth Edition from Amazon (and I left a review there) because fellow CPV Price Guide collaborator Jon McClure contributed a featured article for it: an updated version of his epic variant article that first appeared in the Overstreet Price Guide (OPG) #40 in 2010. Entitled “A History of Publisher Experimentation and Variant Comic Books (2021),” the new article starts on page #338 and runs through page #381 of the grading guide.

Although I wouldn’t have been prompted to buy a grading guide from Overstreet otherwise, once I had it in my hands (to get hold of Jon’s article) I actually really enjoyed the entire book, from cover to cover. But one thing in particular that I read in the grading guide left me “with more questions than answers” and that was Overstreet’s official stance on staple replacement and how it effects the grade:

“Any staple can be replaced on books up to Fine, but only vintage staples can be used on books from Very Fine to Near Mint. Mint books must have original staples.”
— Overstreet Grading Guide, Sixth Edition, Page #23

(The individual grade definitions then clarify that original staples are also required in 9.6 (NM+) and 9.8 (NM/MT), not just Mint and Gem Mint).

In forming these rules, much like the presence of tape is “counted against the grade” in Overstreet’s definitions, so too is staple replacement apparently being “counted against the grade” whereby if the staples are replaced, with vintage ones, that “dings” an otherwise-perfect book down to NM capping its potential grade there at the near mint level; but if new/non-vintage staples are used instead of vintage ones, that meanwhile dings it down to FN.

This stance surprised me: many times I have come across a comic book in the wild that looked to me like a great find except for rust on one or both staples… How did I not know, all this time, that in “Overstreet’s world” it would have been totally fine to simply have those bad staples replaced!?

And: would CGC (and CBCS) have the same view as Overstreet? A strong clue on the answer to this was found on pages #51-52 of the very same grading guide publication, in the CGC article about comic book restoration: staple replacement was cited both under Restoration and under Conservation, listed among other line items.

“Conservation repairs are performed with the intent of preserving the structural or chemical integrity of a comic book using professional techniques and materials. It excludes aesthetic repairs such as color touch and piece fill.”
— Overstreet Grading Guide, Sixth Edition, Page #52

I wanted clarity about treatment when staple replacement was the only element in question, so I wrote to both CBCS and CGC to ask them, hypothetically, if I were to submit a book that is otherwise Near Mint and otherwise UNRESTORED, but in this hypothetical scenario I have had a professional remove and replace one of the book’s two staples, either with a vintage staple, a new staple, or just re-inserting the original staple — but aside from just this one staple replacement the book is otherwise unrestored and otherwise NM — how would such an example be treated/labeled? Would the label be Universal Grade (and the staple replacement “counted against the grade” as Overstreet’s grading guide definitions do), or, would the label cite this as Restoration (or Conservation)?

Here were the answers; first CBCS (note especially the highlighted portion):

“Hi Ben, CBCS & Overstreet do differ from time to time, & this is one of those cases. We do not cap the grade due to staples being replaced per se. If staples are replaced in the same spot with vintage staples, it would receive a Professional Conserved grade & label notation. If staples are replaced in the same spot with new staples, it would receive an Amateur Conserved grade & label notation. If the original staples are removed & staples are put into the book in totally new spots, it would receive a universal grade with the label notation, “Original staples removed. 2 staples added.” The book would then be downgraded significantly for missing staples & 2 additional staples added. The act of removing staples & reinserting them in the same spot does not constitute restoration or conservation. The only downside is if damage is caused by that action, the grade of the book could be lowered. I hope this helps clear things up!”
— CBCS, via email, June 2021

And here is what CGC said (note especially the yellow-highlighted portion):

“Hello Mr. Nobel, Thank you for your email. CGC does not factor replaced staples into the physical grade of a comic book. A 9.8 comic can still achieve a 9.8 with replaced staples, vintage or otherwise. Instead, CGC classifies a comic book with replaced staples as either conserved or qualified; If only the staples have been replaced, the book can receive a conserved grade, but if tape is also present (which is not allowed in the conserved category), the book will instead receive a qualified grade. Disassembly (and reassembly) of original staples will not affect the category of a comic, although this practice can often cause damage or enlarged staple holes to the paper, which can adversely affect high-grade comics.
— CGC, via email, June 2021

I found it particularly fascinating to consider the varying treatment of staple replacement by Overstreet, CBCS, and CGC, in the context of Jon McClure’s controversial stance on the Tattooz inside of Amazing Spider-Man #238. Long-time blog readers may have already read Amazing Spider-Man #238: The Tattooz Situation (October 2017) on this subject, as well as Jon’s updated 2021 advisor note within the CPV Price Guide on the Amazing Spider-Man #238 value page.

Whether you’re new to this tattooz debate or already familiar with it, when it comes to how staple replacement would be viewed in my hypothetical scenario posed to CBCS and CGC, there are actually wider implications to the answers than just the ASM #238 tattooz situation itself, as I’ll walk through next — consider for example how Mark Jewelers inserts would be impacted, as well as “Double Covers” (and other such manufacturing mistakes), under similar thinking where staple removal/reinsertion is permitted under the guidelines.

And I find that a great way to initially approach the thinking about this subject it is to first consider the idea of “Frankenvariants” / home-made variants. Perhaps you will agree with the following statement: If you or I can theoretically “create” a given “variation” at home then collectors should not be prizing such doctored comic books nor considering them as legitimate variants.

A really basic first thought experiment towards this notion would be the idea of adding a sticker to a book (like the example at right). I.e. if we affix a sticker to the cover of a comic book, have we just created a new “variant” of that comic book? To my way of thinking, no way… That’s something we can do at home (for example we could create a new sticker of our own — or replicate or scan one of the other stickers found in the wild — then print it out at home on sticker paper, peel, and stick). To my way of thinking, there’s no possible way that doing this hypothetical “stickering” should enhance the appeal of a given comic or render it a legitimate variant.

Creating a Frankenvariant from tattooz-shuffling would be a similar hypothetical home-made variant situation: For example, suppose we “harvest” the Tattooz insert from a copy of, say, Captain America #279. (The tattooz advertised on the cover of ASM #238 were not unique to that specific book, but instead appeared in several different comics that month including the aforementioned Captain America, and also in Star Wars #69, and Fantastic Four #252; and as per MyComicShop’s listings, tattooz were also distributed in Spectacular Spider-Man #76 and Uncanny X-Men #167). These tattooz were stapled in, but only loosely at the top staple (and as reported by original collectors, some literally fell out onto the floor when the books were originally for sale).

If we are free to remove and replace staples with entirely different ones from the same vintage — as in Overstreet’s grading guide definitions — and remain in NM territory, then surely removing the original staple temporarily (either to “harvest” the tattooz insert or to shuffle one in) and reinserting that original staple again is implicitly acceptable in terms of conforming to Overstreet’s grade definitions, as far as the staple is concerned. So in our hypothetical scenario, let’s do just that, with our Captain America book.

Now, suppose we have carefully harvested the tattooz insert in this way from our Captain America book, and next instead of re-inserting it into the same book, we instead transfer it from the Captain America over into a different book by removing and replacing its upper staple. Now suppose, for this hypothetical, that we insert it into some other issue which wasn’t supposed to have tattooz to begin with? Have we just created a new and desirable variation of that other issue, one that collectors should prize? A new “tattooz variant” of a book that “shouldn’t” have them? Nope: in this hypothetical we’ve created yet another example of a home-made Frankenvariant.

But notice that in our above hypothetical, if we were careful enough as to not cause other damage to the books we used (damage like enlarging the staple holes), then technically we’re actually within the boundaries of not just Overstreet’s grading guide definitions, but also CGC’s and CBCS’s answers as far as remaining in their Universal grade tiers with our Near Mint Frankenvariant [“Disassembly (and reassembly) of original staples will not affect the category of a comic, although this practice can often cause damage or enlarged staple holes to the paper, which can adversely affect high-grade comics.” And, “The act of removing staples & reinserting them in the same spot does not constitute restoration or conservation. The only downside is if damage is caused by that action, the grade of the book could be lowered.”], although I didn’t ask either of them specifically about insert-shuffling and the unexpected insert in a book where it didn’t belong would most certainly raise eyebrows if we were to submit it.

To now circle this concept back to the ASM #238 debate, what if instead of creating a Frankenvariant by inserting the harvested Captain America tattooz into a book where they didn’t belong, what if we inserted them into a book where they do belong but happen to be missing from the particular copy we have found? I.e. what if we insert them into an ASM #238 where they are missing? Before you answer that hypothetical question, consider that if submitted to CGC without the tattooz, the submitter would get one of these (the dreaded green qualified label, with a note “TATTOOZ INSERT MISSING. INCOMPLETE”):

One way of thinking about the green label — and the following line of thinking provides the main “counter-point” to Jon’s stance — is that every copy of ASM #238 was manufactured with the tattooz included, and since the tattooz are thus supposed to be there (as confirmed by the “Bonus Feature: Free Lakeside Skin Tattooz Inside” printed on the front cover) it makes the book incomplete should they be absent: hence the green qualified label is totally appropriate, and collectors who made the smart choice to preserve their copy exactly as it was originally distributed should be “rewarded” while those who removed the tattooz should be “penalized” (via the qualified label).

But now consider the following important point made by Jon, which in my view is one of the strongest parts of his argument:

“Ideally, the Tattooz are absent due to the slow degradation of the contents that will eventually affect the paper quality inside.”
— Jon McClure, Overstreet Grading Guide, Sixth Edition, Page #349

And this point really hits home in the context of some of the Grading Guide content I read when going through the new Sixth Edition: there are entire articles in the grading guide on proper long-term care and preservation of comics that certainly made me think twice about whether I’ve taken enough care for my own collection; and it certainly seems to me that a collector who carefully removed the tattooz insert (perhaps even storing it separately) under the thinking that the tattooz could harm the book itself in the long run, and then carefully stored the book separately in archival quality materials and acid free boxes, has arguably made a thoughtful and considered choice…

Should such thoughtfulness really be “penalized” when the collector was merely thinking critically about what is best for the preservation of the comic book in the long term? It seems to me that if you and I were charged with setting up rules/standards for the hobby, then in an ideal world we’d want those rules to incentivize behavior that is best for the comics themselves, the collectors, and the hobby. We wouldn’t want collectors who were that thoughtful about preservation to be penalized (nor would we want to incentivize insert-shuffling or other forms of doctoring books).

Yet, with the green label carrying a stigma in the marketplace, arguably it is hurting the market value of copies where the tattooz are absent. Indeed, in the latest Overstreet Price Guide (OPG #50), guide value in NM- for ASM #238 is listed at $180 with tattooz and $85 without. Some quick math here: $180 – $85 = $95… In other words, the listings in OPG #50 are implying that “the book itself” is worth $85, and the tattooz are worth $95, for a total of $180. Yet, Fantastic Four #252 is given an NM- value of $8 with Tattooz and $6 without… implying that the tattooz in that case are worth just $2…

But they are the same tattooz insert in both cases. And in theory they can be “shuffled” from book to book… introducing a clear financial incentive to “harvest” from a cheap source and reap the added reward of shuffling them into ASM #238. [Buying a book where the tattooz are worth $2, and transfering them to a book where the same exact tattooz are now worth $95, hypothetically yields an immediate $93 uplift in guide value]. Behavior which, according to the note in Overstreet’s price guide page for this issue, is exactly what is happening out there:

Jon’s solution — his controversial stance — is that ASM #238 should not be considered “incomplete” if tattooz are absent (should not be given a green label), but rather, that such inserts should be considered an extraneous and unnecessary item that is not part of the book; he advocates that grading companies should change their treatment to use a blue/Universal label and simply include a note:

“All any grading company would have to do is say ”no Tattooz” on the label and have a blue label, leaving it to the collector to decide on the relative importance of its inclusion.”
— Jon McClure, Overstreet Grading Guide, Sixth Edition, Page #349

Having learned about Overstreet’s official stance towards staple replacement in the new Grading Guide (Sixth Edition), I feel that Jon’s argument becomes even stronger: because if Overstreet is saying that an entire staple can be replaced with a vintage one in grades up to and including Near Mint, then surely it is implied that the original staple can be temporarily removed and reinserted — and that in turn opens the door wide open to tattooz shuffling while staying squarely within the Overstreet grade definitions, i.e. a tattooz shuffler doesn’t even need to have their work with the staples go undetected (the way pressers need to ensure their work isn’t detectable) because even entire staple replacement is specifically allowed under the Overstreet Grading Guide definitions!

And based on CGC’s and CBCS’s answers to my inquiry, disassembly (and reassembly) of original staples will not affect the category of a comic in their eyes either — i.e. it would still be categorized as Universal, but with any resulting damage inflicted to the book during staple manipulation then being counted against the grade.

The implications surrounding how staple replacements are treated by the “authorities” in our hobby are far wider than just the tattooz situation. Consider for example a few other scenarios:

(1) Temporary cover removal.

Suppose you like to bring books to conventions to be signed. Suppose you don’t want to have to lug the weight of all those extra interior pages, when really the only part of the book you’re interested in having a creator sign is the cover.

At home, you could temporarily open and remove the staples, take the cover off, and leave the rest of the book behind — later returning the now-signed cover into place once you return home from the convention. For one or two books this wouldn’t be worth the effort, but multiplied by dozens or hundreds of books that you want to get signed, well, carrying only the covers like this could save you a huge amount of weight.

And indeed, if you search YouTube you can find this exact cover removal technique, for this exact purpose, shared in tutorial-like fashion, such as the example tutorial pictured above where he walks through popping a cover off and on again within minutes.

(2) Other types of inserts.

We talked about tattooz (which involve just one staple) but what about Mark Jewelers inserts, which involve both staples? These were inserted only into a portion of the print run, targeting military personnel on government bases in the US and/or overseas. That relative scarcity makes them interesting as a relative value opportunity. But the same insert found in one book will have also appeared in multiple other books — they are not unique to one given issue (much like how the same tattooz inserts are found in many different issues and not just ASM #238) — so, might someone be tempted to try to “shuffle” an insert from a low-value book into a high-value book?

18 years ago, back when I first got “re-hooked” on the hobby as an adult, my initial goal was to acquire high-grade copies of a handful of my all-time favorite keys that I had originally owned as a kid (but had owned in very low grade). One of the books I decided to “re-collect” was one that I happened to notice also existed with a Mark Jewelers insert. I liked the idea of having a version that was more rare, and so I decided to seek out copies with the insert, and my strategy of the time was to message every listing’s seller who didn’t specify, and ask them if their copy had the insert or not?

I figured that with enough messaging effort, this strategy would eventually lead me to a copy with an insert, because mathematically, if I messaged enough sellers, then some fraction of the sellers should have one, i.e. roughly in proportion to the slice of the print run that received the inserts. Little did I expect that one of the answers I would receive along the way would entirely change my approach to this type of variant. One of the dealers I had messaged answered me with, to paraphrase, “If you really want an insert, buy my copy and I could put one in for you from another book; it is no problem.”

That struck me as “cheating” and I would only have wanted to collect a book with its own original insert… Clearly this dealer was just trying to “make the sale” and there was zero indication that he would have “pre-shuffled” in an insert ahead of posting a listing; but this experience still led me to conclude that if I was to make a real push into collecting comics with inserts, I’d always need to be on the lookout for ‘insert shuffling’ and I’d have to gain expertise regarding how to spot this type of manipulation (for a shuffler to find a perfect match where the staple holes line up would be a big challenge, and under magnification an expert should be able to notice if the staples of a comic book have been manipulated).

But it occurred to me that even if I gained such expertise, most of the buying I intended to do was Internet-based, where seller pictures would be less-than-ideal as a baseline and could also be “carefully controlled” by the seller (if they were trying to pull off a shuffle scam, they’d leave out any pictures that might reveal what they had done, or take pictures at “just the right light angle” to disguise flaws) — it was not like I could hold their book in my hands and examine it when buying online; most of the time I’d be relying on pictures that someone else snapped.

Therefore, I might one day come across a book where, upon examination of the pictures, I wouldn’t be fully sure if the insert had been manipulated or not… That scenario sounded stressful to me and I quickly decided that that stress wasn’t compatible with my re-entry into the hobby… so that’s why I never got into collecting Mark Jewelers inserts, although I definitely understand their appeal and I applaud those who do put in the work necessary to collect these. [Thankfully I found many other types of variants that would scratch the itch for something more rare than the ‘normal’ copies, but where the difference is printed in rather than stapled in. Like newsstand comics and cover price variant comics.]

(3) Double Covers.

Suppose someone has a couple of copies of a given comic. Might there be a temptation to “merge” the two, in order to create something that could be marketed as rare and valuable? And by “merge the two” I mean the idea of mimicking the double-cover manufacturing error by purposely affixing a second cover. I could especially envision this happening in the case of an otherwise-nearly-valueless issue, i.e. where alone it might be impossible to sell the books, but meanwhile a Frankenvariant hawked as a “rare double cover!” might get found right away online by those who routinely search for double cover listings.

Here once again it would seem that with careful screening, one could be able to detect such a homemade creation, and that it would be exceedingly difficult to get a perfect line-up when both staples are involved. But much like with the Mark Jewelers vigilance, there’s always the chance of coming up against a situation where you are not fully sure if what you’ve found is a true manufacturing error or a frankenvariant, and that could be a stressful situation, especially if you are thinking about shelling out big bucks, and especially if you are relying solely on photos posted to an Internet listing versus being able to examine the book in person. As Jon McClure warns on page #342, under the definition for Type 6 Variants (cover printing errors):

“Books with double covers fall under [the Type 6 Variant] category because the item is not defective, but beware bogus variants that do not snugly fit the staples and the entire book if you collect these.
— Jon McClure, Overstreet Grading Guide, Sixth Edition, Page #342

As all of these various examples make clear, the way the “authorities” in our hobby approach staple replacement can have a large impact on us as collectors; and Overstreet’s grading definitions in their new Grading Guide (Sixth Edition) definitely caught me by surprise in this regard, leaving me with more questions than answers. I thought that the answers to my inquiry from CBCS and CGC were both highly interesting, and worth sharing here.

Bottom line: It is definitely worth knowing about these approaches by Overstreet and other authorities, because for one thing, any dealer out there could — without lying and with a completely straight face — market a book with replaced vintage staples as Near Mint, saying that they have graded it strictly and in accordance with the Overstreet Grading Guide. And given that such a staple replacement stance in turn “opens the door” to being able to shuffle in/out items like tattooz inserts while remaining within the technical boundaries of the definition, I find Jon McClure’s “controversial” stance on ASM #238 has in turn grown less controversial in my view, i.e. within the Grading Guide context Jon’s viewpoint now stands even stronger.

If you haven’t already done so, I’d definitely recommend picking up a copy of The Overstreet Guide To Grading Comics, Sixth Edition (here’s its Amazon page) both in order to own a reference copy of Jon’s variant article (more like a variant reference encyclopedia than an article), and also for the other content included.

Happy Collecting! 🙂

– Ben p.s. It was also very cool to see our CPV Price Guide promoted on page #381!

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One thought on “The Overstreet Grading Guide, Staple Replacement, and ASM 238 Tattooz

  1. paquettea2015 says:

    FWIW: I don’t own a copy of ASM 238 today because of the Tatooz insert. I don’t want a comic containing something that will damage it. I also don’t want a comic that is considered incomplete without the insert. I remain mystified that this is a high value comic because the Tatooz insert ruins its collectability for me. I feel the same way about the other comics that have this insert.

    Liked by 1 person

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