Sunday, August 28, 2011

Market Spotlight: Modern Investing!

I've been thinking a lot about investment strategies ever since I starting parsing the front portion of the latest Overstreet tome, as I do every time a new edition comes out.  I think the big takeaway from recent history is that $30,000 sale on a CGC 9.6 copy of Green Lantern # 76.  I think the takeaway is that investing did not die with the Silver Age. 

There are a lot of people out there that have cast a sneering backwards glance at the Bronze Age and later material, and they're still doing it.  There's a group of old blue bloods running around, and they laugh when they see somebody excited about their copy of Incredible Hulk # 181, and they just about throw up when they think about Iron Fist # 14.  "Those comics aren't old, and they aren't scarce, and they don't have any real value", say the stodgy bastards.

Well, they're wrong.  On several points.  And I think that Green Lantern # 76, published in 1970 and solidly inside the Bronze era, has landed the point home for good.  Let's take a step back, have a nice long breath, get the lymphic system going a little bit, and really think about things before we go hog wild and start backing up the truck on Youngblood # 1 again, though.  Because there are some wrinkles with the GL # 76 that are worth considering.

Consider first that it's a genuinely scarce book to find in investment grade.  Just as a comparison, let's look at the top grades for GL # 76 and Amazing Spider-Man # 76.  Sort of random, and it's not really an apples-to-apples juxtaposition, given that Green Lantern # 76 is a "key" book, and ASM # 76 is not.  But on the other hand, Amazing Spider-Man is eminently collectible, and those two comics were published within a year of each other.  (ASM 76 in 9/69 and GL 76 in 4/70) 

As I type this, here's the CGC census results for those books in top grades:

Amazing Spider-Man # 76  (278 total graded submissions)
9.8:    3
9.6:    24
9.4:    31

Green Lantern # 76  (688 total graded submissions)
9.8:   2
9.6:   10
9.4:   24

Couple of things to go over there.  Firstly, it's difficult to say anything specific or concrete about the actual scarcity of any particular book based upon the CGC census.  People grade books (and refuse to grade books) for many different reasons.  We could imagine a world in which some of the folks that own super-high grades on GL 76 don't submit them because they're "purists", they don't believe in slabs, they believe comic books should be reading ready, or maybe they're afraid to let a third party potentially undergrade their particular little gem.  Any or all of these might apply, and some of those objections might not apply to the ASM comic, which doesn't quite hold the historical clout that a seminal Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams collaboration does. 

So we can't simply declare that there are fewer copies of GL # 76 in grade extant, but there's certainly evidence for that.  CGC grading is not a new thing, the financial benefits are well documented, so there's a reward for doing it.  I think most folks who have investment grade (call it 9.0 or better) copies of that comic have sent them in.  Not all certainly, but most.  I would guess that a greater percentage of high grade ASM # 76 are currently unslabbed, because there's less of a financial incentive.  Having said that, I think the ASM books are in largely the same boat, it's just not identical. 

So when we compare GL and ASM # 76, what we find is that only 1.7% of the submitted copies of Green Lantern # 76 achieved a grade higher than 9.4, while nearly 10% of the submitted copies of Amazing Spider-Man # 76 did.  Again, it doesn't say anything gospel, but it appears significant.  For one reason or another, it appears to be disgustingly difficult to find that GL book in really nice shape, about five times more difficult than it is to find an Amazing Spider-Man book from the same time frame. 

So if you want to know why a relatively "modern" book can command a $30,000 price tag, that's why.  Well, it's a large portion of it.  As time rolls on, the Neal Adams legend continues to grow.  Just ask him, he'll tell you all about it.  That particular run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow also seems to collect affection as one of the prototype social conscience/social relevance titles.  It's got a lot going for it.

And it's also forty years old, mind you.  Can you believe it?  And those impossibly new-fangled comic books from 1980?  Those are now thirty years old.  Does that sound "modern" to you?  Those Valiant books are now twenty years old.  It boggles the mind, it does.

The prevailing wisdom is that anything newer than 1969 is suspect, and anything newer than 1979 is fit only for the dollar bin.  The operating theory is that after 1980, the direct market took over, and nobody was collecting except collectors.  These kids weren't rolling up their comics, sticking them in their back pockets, and playing tackle football with them.  Everything went straight to a bag and board, probably without reading them.  And the 1990s?  Forget about it.  Every issue had a print run of three million and were placed into protected sleeves with gloved hands. 

Not scarce
Prevailing wisdom has half a point.  By the 1980s, comic books are a known collectible commodity, and there are more high grade copies available from 1983 than there are from say, 1963.  I can think of some egregious examples of well-protected books, particularly Secret Wars # 8, the first appearance of the alien symbiote that would become Venom.  As I type this there are literally thousands of those books available in CGC 9.6 or better.  (2,513 to be exact, representing 61.2% of total submissions)  That is not a scarce book in high grade, and you'll never see a 9.8 of that comic close at $30,000.  I'll concede that. 

But to simply throw away the entirety of the Copper or Modern ages as over-produced and over-protected garbage is to be extreme and wrong-headed.  In terms of investing, I like the Golden and Silver age as much as anybody.  As more and more material lands in collections and out of the marketplace, the prices do go up with demand.  Provided, of course, that there remain a collecting base interested in the material.

As a side note, I would mention that the world is kinda scary at the moment.  Every other country is coming at their leadership with torches and pitchforks, and it isn't just the regularly ornery middle east, either.  Most of Europe is ready to burn itself to the ground, and if America thinks it can continue to print money like this without ramifications, well...history has a different story to tell.  My point is that when a group of hungry people are breaking down your door with automatic weapons for your box of Fruit Roll-Ups because bread costs 9,000,000,000 a loaf, nobody is really that interested in your Walking Dead # 1.  They are the goddamn walking dead.  The market for little luxury collectibles goes south when the world falls apart. 

But assuming that the world does indeed hold together, (let's go with that for the purposes of this article) the biggest gains are to be made in the newer eras.  You can probably make money buying Berkeshire Hathaway stock right now.  Probably.  But you would have made a lot more buying it thirty years ago.  The point is to be in on the ground floor, ahead of the curve.  All investing is contrarian investing, frankly.  Prevailing wisdom says that modern books are rubbish.  Perfect.  Sounds like an opportunity for a smarter jaguar to pounce.  I'm that jaguar.

All of this has been a very long-winded way of getting to a quartet of "newer" comics that represent solid or better investment opportunities.  It's certainly not an exhaustive list, but an attempt to show you a spectrum of what I'm thinking about, so you can apply that thinking to other stuff you know about that I probably don't.  And I've skipped a lot of material that already has too much of their value baked in. 

What do I mean by that?  I think that Daredevil # 168 is a prime investment.  It was published in 1982, so it's off most "serious" investors lists.  That's a mistake.    It also takes about $150 to get one in grade, even raw.   Frank Miller is probably the name of the modern era, and I don't see that changing.  It's a good investment, but not a cheap one.

How about Heavy Metal # 1?  I think that's an outstanding sleeper of an opportunity.  That magazine means nothing to the old guard, but for my generation it means robots with boobs, and Richard Corben, and Moebius, and hot alien chicks with boobs, and Luis Royo.  That's a Bronze or Copper item, depending on who you ask.  I think it has a LOT of room to grow, but it isn't strictly cheap.  Heavy Metal # 1 in grade should run you at least $50.  It's got some value already baked in.

So without further ado, here are some opportunities on modern books that you can probably purchase right now for the loose bills in your pocket:

Thor # 337
Marvel Comics (1983)

This is the first appearance of Beta Ray Bill, and the beginning of Walt Simonson's incredible run on Thor.  Interest in this book has been picking up recently.  I was grabbing NM copies of this comic for $2-3 about two years ago.  It's more difficult to do that now, but still possible. 

These days, you're more likely to pay something in the neighborhood of $10 for a high grade raw copy of this book, which is still quite ridiculous.  In terms of historical significance, I think this book far outshines Iron Man # 128, and it's consistently available for 25% of the entry price. 

The Walt Simonson run on Thor holds up extremely well, and it's one of the few old school Marvel properties that isn't dominated by "Stan and Jack" nostalgia.  When most people think of classic Thor material, they're thinking of Simonson.  That's a feat right there.

It's not strictly speaking scarce in high grade.  CGC currently lists more than 200 copies in 9.8 condition, currently the most plentiful grade for the book.  That's the closest thing there is to a downside, though.  Be a little discriminating about condition, but if you can find one in 9.4 or better I'd pay the measly $10 all day for a bonafide legend that continues to increase in adoration.

Batman Adventures # 12
DC Comics (1993)

The Paul Dini/Yvel Guichet one-shot draws all the attention, but this is the first Harley Quinn appearance in comics, beating that Paul Dini book by a full six years.  So why isn't this one the expensive one?

Perhaps because Batman Adventures is not set in the DCU "proper", but after all the many Crisises and Countdowns and 52s and reboolaunches, does that even matter any more?  Harley began as a cartoon property, so an appearance in the Adventures book seems even more poetic, in my opinion.

Frankly, it's difficult to think of many new characters with any lasting impact.  Deadpool, maybe?  That makes for fewer "key" books in the modern age, and that means this comic is even more special.  Like Thor # 337, I've seen interest pick up on this book recently, but also like Thor # 337, not nearly as much as it should. 

This one is actually difficult to find, period, and extra difficult to find in higher grade.  Contrary to that prevailing wisdom I keep downgrading, people were not buying Batman Adventures as investments and throwing them in mylar.  This was a cartoon book aimed at kids, and treated disposably for the most part.  When nice copies do show up, they typically command between $10-$15, which is an absolute bargain.

CGC currently lists 37 copies in 9.8 condition, which is more than 50% of all submissions.  It's not GL # 76, right?  But I'm telling you, this is not as easy to locate as you think, and most of the copies you will find land in VF town or worse.  Be patient, wait for that NM copy, and pay less than $20 and you've got yourself a winner, Mr. J.

Megaton # 3
Megaton Comics (1986)

I don't know exactly why, but nobody at present seems willing to give The Savage Dragon its due.  Erik Larsen is a founding and key member of Image, and he's produced nearly 200 issues of Dragon comics.  It's good stuff.  Larsen is important, Savage Dragon is important, and eventually history will look kindly on their contributions to the comics landscape. 

I guess the proper response is to just thank the investment gods that nobody is paying attention right now, because it leaves Megaton # 3 wide open.  Published in 1986, Megaton features several prototype Erik Larsen creations.  (and some Rob Liefield ones, too)  Dragon first appears in Megaton # 2, and that's not a bad investment, either.  Sometimes first isn't best, though.  Wolverine makes a cameo in Hulk # 180, and nobody seems particularly impressed by that.  Gambit first appears in an X-Men annual, but the money flocks to Uncanny # 266.  Same thing with Megaton # 3.

I don't know what the print run was like on Megaton in 1986, but it couldn't have been huge to begin with.  Couple that with the fact that the indie crowd tends to disdain bags and boards and the fact that Dragon doesn't get national attention until the early 1990s and you have a situation where high grade copies are legitimately scarce.

As I type this, only 9 copies have been graded in CGC 9.8 about 20% of total submissions.  These are not lying all over the place, but it is still possible to find copies.  Usually in VF or less.  I would expect to pay around $20 for a NM raw book, but I just bought one in VF for $6.  That's just criminal!  This book is WAY too historically significant to languish at those levels forever. 

Hellblazer # 41
DC/Vertigo (1991)

Speaking of underdogs with not enough love to bask in, Hellblazer is at the top of the list.  You can put the first issue on your investment list as well, but I think 41 has an even higher ceiling and currently cheaper to obtain.

This is the debut of one Garth Ennis on the book, (you may have heard of him) and the opening chapter of "Dangerous Habits", loosely inspiring the feature film starring Keanu Reeves.  This is the comic that put Garth Ennis on the map, and for good reason - it's goddamn brilliant stuff.

Traditionally, "key" issues are centered around first appearances of creators and artists.  I think as the market evolves, it will catch up with the way we read comics now, and that trend is more writer-centric.  This may not be a # 1 issue or a first appearance, but it's probably the most important book in the run.

And let's remember now that Hellblazer is a grand old dame, not far from reaching 300 issues.  She's the best survivor in the Vertigo brand.  Books like Sandman and Y The Last Man may hold a little more cultural capital, but where are they now?  Constantine just keeps chugging, and eventually it will catch up with people - this is one of the most important comics of the modern era. 

As I type this, only 9 examples of this book have even been submitted to CGC, and we're still waiting for our first 9.8 grade.  Now, that's a little crazy.  It doesn't say anything definitive about the actual scarcity of the book in high grade.  But ordinarily, if you're going to send something like a mid-run Hellblazer comic for grading, it's because you think it's going to score the high.  So far, no dice. 

Right now, we don't have a single NM/MT book available, and that smells like money to me.  And it makes a certain degree of sense.  People didn't buy Hellblazer books in 1991 because they thought they'd be valuable.  Sandman, maybe.  But not John Constantine.  I'm not at all surprised that this book isn't readily available in super high grade.  Take that, ya damn Silver Agers!

Hellblazer # 41 is picking up interest, as it should, but it is possible to find NM copies for less than $10, which is an absolute steal.  If you find one in REALLY nice shape, I'd pay up a little for that if I had to. 

- Ryan


Web Wreckage Stephen said...

Created in 1970 and forty years old now? Geez, that sounds like me!(Thanks for making me feel just that much older, Ryan.)

Interesting assortment of modern opportunities you have there. Funny thing about the Megaton book: back in the day (a.k.a. the '90's) I was able to pick up a small stack of that book - both issues 2 and 3 and flipped them for a minor profit at my local comic shows. Course this was back when there was buzz for any and all founder books at Image, since then for whatever reason, Larsen has just kept on keeping on largely below the comic talk radar. I suspect that some were possibly turned off by his well publicized feuds with other creators back then that sometimes almost made their letter columns a distraction from the books themselves.

As for Hellblazer, I seem to recall that back then there were a number of the DC books (esp the Vertigo stuff) that seemed to often make it to the stores in less than impressive shape - stuff like a rolled or curved spine from the way the book was stapled and folded - could help to explain the lack of higher grades seen for it. Just throwing it out there...

PS. August = Best month ever playing the "game"! ;) (guess Amazon Canada customers are finally over the postal strike that ended up here back in late June, lol)


Chronic Insomnia said...

If it's any consolation, I'm also a forty year-old relic. (sigh)

Congratulations on your good run lately. Web Wreckage shows me you've really taken the ball and run with it, and it might even be with a handicap since you're stuck on Amazon ca-ca. Here's the extra good news. As the cycle goes, August is generally the last month of the doldrums, and then it swings up all the way through December. So if you're setting records now...buckle up!