By Benjamin Nobel, November 15, 2015
Your typical comic book “top ten” type list will profile specific interesting or rare comic books to collect. I am going to take it up a notch and give you my top collecting themes, each of which will lead you to new ideas for comics to add to your collection. [Related slideshow: Rare Comics To Collect — Top 10 Themes]
Get ready to judge a book by its cover! You may have come across CGC graded comics that say “Classic Cover” on the label. One example I have always liked is Captain America #113. Others, like Fantastic Four #112 have a “Classic” designation that is more descriptive than just referencing the cover — in this case a “Classic Hulk vs. Thing Battle Issue.”
Comic book “authorities” like Overstreet and CGC have dubbed certain comic books as “classic” (here is an example list of classics). But one comic book getting this designation while another worthy candidate does not, often seems like a judgment call (which it is).
And when it comes to more modern comic books, collectors are on their own to identify which covers are “modern classics” (here is an example list). A cover I consider a modern classic is X-Men #268, by Jim Lee; another is Incredible Hulk #377, by Dale Keown. [Some more examples of modern classic covers will be included in the next theme section.]
A good “test” for whether a comic book cover should be considered “classic” is whether that cover has ever been swiped. If others are taking the time to swipe it, that is a pretty darn good indication that it is an important cover. [Here’s a related post of mine on this subject: 7 Variants Destined For Future Classic Cover Status]. And that leads me to my comic book collecting theme #9…
Call it a “twist” on a classic! When an artist takes an important, cool, or memorable comic book cover from the past and creates a new variation, that’s known as a cover swipe. These can be really fun to collect, especially when you happen to personally really like the comic book cover in question.
Two of the most frequently swiped comic book covers are Amazing Fantasy #15 (first appearance of Spider-Man) and Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman).
A few examples of modern classic comic book covers that have been swiped that I personally really like are Incredible Hulk #340 and Spider-Man #1 by Todd McFarlane, X-Men #207 by John Romita Jr., and Savage Dragon Limited Series #1 by Erik Larsen.
[Related: Cover Swipes Slideshow]
Works of Art
You don’t need an authority to tell you which comic book covers are works of art! Put aside Overstreet and CGC for a minute — which comic book covers do you think are “classic” works of art? Collect those!
Some particularly beautiful comic book covers are “painted” covers (i.e. the cover artwork is from an actual painting). If you are drawn to one particular painted cover, chances are that cover artist has done others too.
Among my favorites: Charles Vess was responsible for some beautiful Spider-Man covers in the 80’s; Joe Jusko’s “Marvel Masterpieces” in the 90’s; Paolo Rivera covers in the 2000’s.
Order ten regular copies, get one limited edition variant! Comic shops order from publishers on a committed non-returnable basis (regular sales of Marvel “direct edition” comics to comic shops would begin in 1979; also see Whitman multi-pack comics from 1977-1979), and sometimes to try and boost sales, publishers will offer special incentives.
A common type of incentive involves producing alternate covers, sometimes with those alternate covers featuring other artists (some of the covers shown in the prior section were such alternates). These alternate or “variant” covers then have a known rarity ratio versus the larger direct edition print run. For example if the offer was a 1:10 incentive, then for every 10 “regular” copies of that issue, there can exist a maximum of one retailer incentive copy.
This can lead to low print runs for these incentive variants, that attract collector interest and drive up values. Spawn #1 “Black & White Edition” was a 1:50 retailer incentive variant for Spawn #65 (i.e. the retailer had to commit to an order of 50 copies of Spawn #65 in order to receive one copy of Spawn #1 Black & White Edition), leading to a print run for this variant on the order of just 3,100 copies. Another example: a 1:5 retailer incentive variant for Savage Dragon #137 featured then Senator Barack Obama on the cover (his first comic book cover appearance), leading to a print run for this variant on the order of just 1,500 copies.
There are other types of incentive variants, such as those targeted at individual collectors themselves — for example variants produced as an incentive to attend a particular comic con. A variant of Amazing Spider-Man #638 with a cover swipe of Amazing Fantasy #15 that features Stan Lee on the cover is one such example; a HeroesCon variant cover swiping Secret Wars #8 is another.
Another type of incentive variant targeted at individual collectors are mail-away issues. One example was Image #0 from Image Comics, a mail-away issue that required mailing in coupons cut out of seven different issues (thus ensuring that any collector wanting Image #0 would buy at least seven different comic books). Another example was the series of “½” mail-away issues offered by Wizard, each requiring the purchase of a particular Wizard guide issue. And to provide an incentive to subscribe to the Wizard guide, special subscriber-only copies of these mail-away issues were produced, featuring a foil stamp that non-subscriber copies lacked. Mail-away issues were notorious for getting bent up in the mail.
There are so many different incentive variants out there that each individual one almost isn’t unique anymore — each next one almost becomes “just another incentive variant” in one large pile of other “unique” incentive variants. Also, the recipients of these variants keep them in pristine condition with hardly any copies getting read or naturally destroyed, as each one is treated as a collector’s item. So being choosy is warranted within this theme, sticking to the ones you happen to particularly like or ones that overlap other themes (for example an incentive variant that also features a cover swipe, or a cover that you like as a work of art).
Whoops! Sometimes a publisher (or the printer) makes mistakes! A batch of copies of Fantastic Four #110 were printed with a green color scheme in error. Venom: Lethal Protector #1 was meant to have a “foil cover” but a batch of copies were printed with a black cover and just a partial stripe of foil.
A famous misprint story took place at Mirage Studios in 1987, where a second printing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #4 was being produced at the same time as Tales of the TMNT #1. There was a mix-up of the cover artwork, and 60,000 copies of the TMNT #4 were mistakenly run off with the cover artwork from Tales of the TMNT. It was later revealed that all but approximately 1,000 copies were recalled and pulped.
An advance batch of 500 copies of TMNT #3 was printed for the 1985 New York Comic Con, and these copies were intended to be the same as the rest of the print run, but the colors were a slight mismatch to the rest of the print run. In 1986 another TMNT comic, How To Draw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, saw some copies mistakenly printed without yellow ink. In 1995, issue #13 of TMNT volume 2 was printed with the back and front artwork reversed (the intended back cover artwork on the front, the intended front cover artwork on the back). In 2009, a batch of 1000 copies of the “Color Special” 25th anniversary reprint of TMNT #1 were misprinted with a strange hatch pattern on the interior pages, and recalled.
As an astute reader pointed out in a comment and I’d like to make mention of in this section: There are also certain types of “one-off” manufacturing errors that can occur when a comic book is manufactured, that result in a unique and rare comic book collectible. For example, a comic might be manufactured with pages missing — or with extra pages inserted. Or with more than one cover stapled on. Below is an example of a CGC graded comic with a double cover:
Here’s an example of a comic that was manufactured with the 5th wrap inserted backwards and upside down, and the 6th and 7th wrap missing:
I Take It Back!! Misprinted comics are often the subject of a recall notice, but recalls can also take place for content reasons, such as unintended nudity, language, or drug or alcohol use. Action Comics #869 was recalled because the original version of the cover depicted Superman drinking a bottle of beer (it could easily have been root beer but if so, I guess they decided that wasn’t obvious enough). In the replacement version, the bottle’s label was changed to “soda pop.” Wolverine #131 was recalled due to an unintentional racial slur. (Here is a great resource for lists of recalled comics).
Think they’ll pay a little more? To test the market reaction to price increases, at different periods Marvel produced small batches of the same issue, but at a nickel higher in price. For example, most copies of X-Men #100 have a 25 cent cover price, but a small batch were given a 30 cent cover price. Marvel did this again to test an increase from 30 to 35 cents, with issues including Iron Fist #14 (first appearance of Sabretooth) and Star Wars #1 featuring small batches of copies with the 35 cent cover price.
Modern age price variants exist as well, with many newsstand editions in the 2006-2013 time-frame published with higher cover prices than their direct edition counterparts. For example, direct edition copies of Amazing Spider-Man #529 have a $2.50 cover price while newsstand copies have a $2.99 cover price.
Another example is issue #569 of Amazing Spider-Man (1st Anti-Venom), where the direct edition cover price was $2.99, while the newsstand edition cover price was $3.99, a dollar higher (in percentage terms, about a 33% cover price premium). This same phenomenon exists for several subsequent highly-valued ASM keys, including issues #601, #606, and #607 (J. Scott Campbell covers), as well as issue #611 (Deadpool appearance). Here’s even more examples.
As for copper age price variants, you’ll find those out there too, and that brings me to my next theme…
Canadian Price Variants
Copper age price variants! In the early 1980’s when the standard cover price at Marvel was 60 cents, it was common to place the 60¢ price in large type, with “CAN. 75¢” below it in small type to indicate the alternate price in Canada.
However, some copies only have a 60¢ price — or only a 75¢ price — on the cover, these being copies printed for the returnable newsstand distribution channel. The 60¢ copies were printed for U.S. newsstands, while the 75¢ copies are part of the smaller batch printed for newsstands in Canada.
Many Amazing Spider-Man comics have 75¢ price variants including keys like issue #238 (first Hobgoblin appearance) and issue #252 (first appearance of the black costume). The Wolverine Limited Series has 75¢ price variants for issues #2-4 — I find these to be especially neat considering that Wolverine’s debut on the cover of Incredible Hulk #181 was heralded as “The World’s First And Greatest CANADIAN Super Hero” and the origin of the 75¢ price variants was Canadian newsstands.
CGC separately tracks these cover price variants, labeling them “Canadian Edition” on census (a better name might have been “Type 1A Cover Price Variant” or “Canadian Price Variant” — which is how you’ll see these variants described out there in the marketplace — but what can you do, that’s what CGC decided to call them; more on the subject of this terminology here).
[10/8/2018 update: CBCS now labels them “75¢ Canadian Price Variant” 🙂].
[5/6/2019 update: CGC announced that as of May 6, 2019, they will label as “Canadian Price Variant” going forward 🙂]
Read more about these rarities in my separate post: 75 Cent Variants (Canadian Newsstand Editions) [also see: 95¢ and $1.00 DC Price Variants: How Do We Know What They Are?; and The 2018 Price Guide for 1980’s Marvel & DC Newsstand Canadian Cover Price Variants (Type 1A)].
[Related: I recently learned that Marvel did something similar in Australia: Australian newsstand edition comics exist with variant cover prices, including such keys as Amazing Spider-Man #361 (1st full Carnage appearance) and New Mutants #98 (1st Deadpool appearance)]
Learn to love the UPC code! Information published by book author Todd Allen, as well as industry insiders Jim Shooter and Chuck Rozanski, reveal that comic book distribution at Marvel had reached an approximate 50/50 split between direct sales to comic shops and the returnable newsstand distribution channel sometime around 1985/1986. Direct edition sales to comic shops had started in 1979 (1977 if you count Whitman packs), when publishers began to sell distinctly printed comics on a non-returnable basis to comic shops (a guaranteed sale but at discounted prices). This sales model differed from newsstand editions, where unsold copies were returned for a refund (in the early days, the entire comics were returned; later, torn off covers could be returned as evidence of unsold copies).
But after that 1985/1986 time-frame, newsstand sales would take a dramatic turn south while direct sales exploded, with estimates out there that newsstand sales dwindled to just 15% of total distribution by 1990; and sometime circa 2010-2011 Marvel would discontinue newsstand sales to all but Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million outlets. Then by 2013 Marvel discontinued newsstand sales to those last remaining bookstore outlets; toward the end, newsstand sales were estimated to be an astonishing 1% fraction of the total for Marvel. Meanwhile, industry-wide, Comichron published 2013 comic book sales estimates of 6.8% newsstand ($25 million), versus direct edition at 93.2% ($340 million).
And luckily for collectors, the more rare newsstand editions can be told apart, stemming from the fact that publishers needed a way to refuse refunds for direct sold comics and only accept refunds for newsstand comics. The difference? Where direct sold comics have a Spider-Man rectangle or other such logos, newsstand print runs were published with UPC codes. [Tip: When searching eBay for newsstand copies — e.g. “Amazing Spider-Man #300 newsstand” — some sellers mis-title their listings with “newstand” (one ‘s’), and others instead use the word “UPC” in the title but not “newsstand,” so conduct a variety of searches to reveal the most newsstand listings available — or, just scroll through all listings and do your own visual search for the more-rare newsstand copies when hunting for any given issue, which is more time and effort but often pays off in well-priced copies where the seller is unaware of the newsstand vs. direct edition difference].
In later years, direct sold comics had UPC codes as well (instead of logos like the Spider-Man rectangle — this development was to make it easier for comic shops to scan items at checkout) but with the words “direct edition” or “direct sales” somewhere next to the code and a different product code as compared to the code placed on newsstand copies. A newsstand copy, with its different UPC code, would not have scanned at a comic shop checkout counter, because that alternate code would not have been in their inventory system. And collectors seeking out the more rare newsstand versions can differentiate them in the same way a checkout scanner would do so, i.e. by zeroing in on the UPC code box, hunting for the rare newsstand version. But unlike a checkout scanner that would read the bar code itself, collectors can point their eyes to the words “direct edition” next to the UPC code to differentiate the prevalent direct sold copies from the rare newsstand ones.
Throughout comic book history, publishers have given collectors (and authorities) important “hints” that two versions of a given comic book issue number were intended as two different and unique products… whether those hints were a different price tag (one product costing one amount to buy, the other product carrying a different cost to buy), or a manufacturing difference (such as different quality paper used for one of the two versions), etc. But with later modern comics that all carry UPC codes whether direct edition or newsstand, even when the paper and the cover price are the same arguably the publisher has made the intended distinction loud and clear by placing two unique UPC codes on the two different products.
There were also instances in comic book history where newsstand editions had a UPC code but direct editions had nothing in that spot at all (no alternate box like the Spider-Man rectangle, just the absence of a UPC code and a continuation of the artwork instead). At Image Comics, where it was revealed in 2013 that hardly any newsstand editions were sold — on the order of just 1% of the total — direct edition copies lack a UPC code and newsstand copies have one on the cover.
Look for late modern newsstand editions published by Marvel in the 2007-2013 timeframe (and DC after that, including their “Rebirth”) that have variant cover prices in some cases $1 higher than their direct edition counterparts, distinguished by CGC as “$3.99 Newsstand Edition” or “$4.99 Newsstand Edition.” CGC also distinguishes newsstand comics as variants when the UPC code “mis-identifies” the comic as a different title, showing up on census as “Newsstand Variant.” And then in the case of certain manufacturing differences, CGC will use the variant name “Newsstand Edition.” Read more about these “special situations” here: Newsstand Variants, $3.99 Newsstand Editions, and The Doc Collection
Stan Lee CGC Signature Series
Stan The Man! Stan Lee is like no other figure in comics — the man is an icon. Everyone has a favorite Marvel comic book, usually an X-Men or a Spider-Man or an Incredible Hulk. And as of this writing it is still possible to participate in a Stan Lee signing at a convention, where he will autograph your favorite comic book for you.
The number of comics that have been autographed by this legend is still, currently, increasing. But some day, there will be a finite number of comics that have been signed by Stan Lee and that will be it… At that point, there are bound to be many attempted forgeries; but any comics that have been signed under the CGC Signature Series will be trusted, with his autograph witnessed and certified to be authentic by CGC.
This unique class of certification and the limited number of comics signed by Stan Lee under the Signature Series will effectively make Stan Lee CGC Signature Series comic books in a class of their own — a sort of “variant” if you will. Another way to think about this, is that for any conceivable comic book issue a collector might possibly want signed by Stan Lee, there will at some future date be some fixed limited number of Stan Lee CGC Signature Series copies of that issue. For some comics this might amount to only a handful of copies. For more obscure comics, it might be possible to have in your collection the one and only copy of the issue ever signed by Stan Lee under the Signature Series.
As far as the idea of “rarity” is concerned, this dynamic is very interesting for a collector to consider.
CGC Signature Series (In General)
Witnessed and certified autographs! Any comic book you collect will have at least one creator — the artist and writer. Most comics are a team effort. Any comic you collect can be made more special, if signed by one or more of those people who contributed to its creation. Take Wolverine Limited Series #1 as an example, a comic many collectors wish to own in their collection. But wouldn’t you rather own a CGC Signature Series copy signed by Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, and Joe Rubinstein?
If only it were that easy! Different creators show up in different conventions across the globe at different times, some charge a hefty fee for their signature, some make a convention appearance but it is impossible to get near them, some just don’t show up at conventions in the first place. So getting a CGC Signature Series comic, especially signed by multiple creators, can make for an interesting challenge. For many collectors, taking on this challenge will be right up your alley, and an incredibly rewarding way to make your collection of comic books more rare and special!
The First Appearance! I saved the most important theme for last: the first time a comic book character shows up! Famously valuable first appearances include Action Comics #1 (first appearance of Superman) and Amazing Fantasy #15 (first appearance of Spider-Man). Those major examples are very clear-cut initial appearances, but “first” appearances can also sometimes be a little more complicated when it comes to comic book collecting… Wolverine made a first “cameo” appearance on the final page of Incredible Hulk #180. That was the first time Wolverine appeared in a comic book, but issue #180 is not nearly as highly valued as issue #181 which features Wolverine on the cover and throughout the issue, and is considered Wolverine’s first “full” appearance.
There are also advertisement or “preview” appearances, for instance ahead of Spawn’s first appearance in May of 1992, Spawn appeared in a full-page promotion on the inside back cover of Rust #1 in April. Witchblade’s first appearance in Cyblade/Shi #1 was preceded by a “Special Preview Teaser” issue. Invincible appeared in a five page preview within the pages of Savage Dragon #102 (then three months later another Invincible preview was included in Tech Jacket #1 leading some who were unaware of the earlier Savage Dragon issue to erroneously assume that Tech Jacket contained the first Invincible appearance).
Savage Dragon debuted in 1992 in Savage Dragon Limited Series #1, but had appeared as “The Dragon” in 1985 in Megaton #2 marking the first appearance of the character in a “professional work”… but before that, The Dragon appeared in a self-published “fanzine” called Graphic Fantasy #1 in 1982. Another “it’s complicated” situation is the first appearance of Krang in comics. There’s also a very interesting debate in the hobby over Gambit’s first appearance.
There are countless superheroes and villains whose first comic book appearances can be collected (here is one top 100 list, which cites the first appearance of each). You can also collect key creator appearances, i.e. the first time different artists and writers worked on specific characters they are well known for, or their very first professional works. For example, Spectacular Spider-Man #27 marks the 1st Frank Miller Daredevil; Amazing Spider-Man #298 marks the 1st Todd McFarlane Spider-Man.
Among these themes for interesting and rare comics to collect, there are often comic books that fit into more than one theme at the same time. I love it when this happens! Here are a few examples.
Suppose you are interested in collecting the first appearance of Spawn. There is a known misprint (Theme #6) of Spawn #1 where some copies were printed without black ink. There is also a retailer incentive variant (Theme #7) of a black & white reprint of Spawn #1, with a low print run. From Theme #2 there are the rare newsstand copies of Spawn #1 out there, part of the 1% that Image Comics sold with a UPC code on the cover. Theme #8 applies to Spawn #1 (and so many of the other early Todd McFarlane covers), as the cover is simply a work of art and beautiful to look at. And then for any copy you collect, you could also try to get it signed by Todd McFarlane under the CGC Signature Series.
Suppose you are interested in collecting Amazing Spider-Man #252. This issue features the first appearance of the black costume (and in another example of how first appearances are sometimes complicated, this issue “ties” with Marvel Team-Up #141 for that first costume appearance). In addition to this first appearance, issue #252 falls under Theme #9, as it is a cover swipe of Amazing Fantasy #15. From Theme #3, there is a Canadian Newsstand Edition (75¢ cover price variant) of this issue and it is drastically more rare — as of this writing there are 6,355 “regular” copies on the CGC census, and only 99 “Canadian Edition” variants. And then this issue is ideal for Theme #1 — Stan Lee CGC Signature Series.
The CGC census database reveals just 10 CGC Signature Series copies on record of the “Canadian Edition” variant. So here in the case of issue #252 we have one of the most widely collected Spider-Man comic book issues I can think of, but by applying some overlapping themes from my list we have now gotten ourselves down to a collectible with a known rarity as of this writing of just 10 copies!
Rare Comics To Collect
WAIT! HOLD THE PHONE! Are you really going to end this without talking about the comic book collecting theme of CONDITION/Grade? OK ok… this one is just such a prevalent theme that there is not much to add (the better the condition, the more valuable a rare comic becomes — isn’t that obvious?), but here are a few thoughts that might not have occurred to you.
For Theme #7 (incentive variants), each and every copy is highly likely going to be treated as a collector’s item off the bat. People didn’t attend HeroesCon this year and shell out $20 for their copy of the Secret Wars variant only to get home and read it and then toss it haphazardly in a pile… But for Themes #2 and #3 (newsstand editions and Canadian newsstand editions), those comic book buyers for the most part absolutely did buy their copy off the stands to bring it home and read it.
Remember those 10 Signature Series copies of the “Canadian Edition” variant of Amazing Spider-Man #252? The highest grade among those ten as I write these words is one single 9.6 (NM+) copy. For comics distributed on newsstands, if you think about it, 9.6 is an absolutely remarkable grade… I picture an employee grabbing a bunch of copies at once and dropping them into the wire rack, the outside copies instantly getting bent down to VF range condition, but the middle copy protected by the others. High grade newsstand survivor copies definitely had a lot of luck to remain in top condition.
Let’s think about your reaction if you were to send two comic books in to CGC — one a Canadian newsstand edition of Amazing Spider-Man #252 and the other a HeroesCon Secret Wars incentive variant — and now let’s imagine that both comics come back graded 9.4 (NM). For the HeroesCon variant you might actually feel disappointment that it wasn’t a 9.6 or a 9.8… but for the newsstand copy, a grade of 9.4 should make you feel ecstatic!
Going back to those 10 Signature Series copies of the “Canadian Edition” variant of Amazing Spider-Man #252, after the 1 copy in 9.6 there are 3 copies in 9.4, then 2 copies in 9.2, one in 9.0, two in 8.5 and the final copy in 6.0. So only 40% of the ten copies are graded 9.4 or higher. Let’s compare that to the HeroesCon variant of Secret Wars #1 — the CGC census shows 182 Signature Series copies, 153 of which are in 9.8… that’s right, 84% of those copies are already in the NM/MT tier… Remember, this compares to ZERO Signature Series copies in 9.8 of the Canadian Newsstand Edition of Amazing Spider-Man #252! And in fact, only 1 copy out of the 182 (less than one half of one percent) has a grade below 9.4!
So although it may seem “obvious” that higher condition grades are more desirable, it is also important to keep in mind how different comic books were distributed and what that means for the ratio that survive today in top grades. Take that into account and adjust your expectations accordingly, as you seek out your own targets of rare comics to collect.
Thanks for reading, and Happy Collecting! 🙂
p.s. I’ve also put together the following Lists of Key Comic Books by Year to help identify key comics to look for by age, decade, and individual year.