NEW YORK — If you are a serious comic book collector, your Holy Grail is the issue that features the first appearance of a character. People pay big bucks for issues where a beloved superhero or villain makes their debut. The gold standard has been issues such as Action Comics #1, which saw the debut of Superman; Detective Comics #27, which introduced Batman; and Amazing Fantasy #15, in which the comics-reading world met Spiderman. A host of less heavy-hitting characters are prompting collectors to pay robust prices for their debut issues, too. In June 2021, Heritage Auctions sold a copy of Marvel Spotlight #5, which contains the first appearance of Ghost Rider, for $264,000, making it the most expensive comic from the 1970s.
While there is some quibbling over terminology, with some in the industry calling a character’s debut a “cameo”, a first appearance is generally agreed to be the first time a character is depicted in a comic book and has a certain level of integration in the storyline; the appearance should last beyond one panel and shouldn’t just pop up on the last page of an issue.
It’s no secret the collectibles market has been skyrocketing during the last year or so. While this intense pace likely can’t be sustained, one thing is true: the dwindling numbers of comic books featuring first appearances are driving prices upwards, especially at the higher grades. Top graded comic books can command million dollar prices, but given the scarcity of those sought-after issues, even lesser grade comic books are bringing big money.
Comic books have long served as source material for movies and TV shows, and the trend is only intensifying. Marvel is leading the way. Its almost absurdly popular Avengers movie franchise has spawned a dozen or so movies featuring Iron Man, Ant Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Black Panther, among many others. DC Comics has raised its profile through its Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies, its Wonder Woman films, and its TV shows on the CW network, including Black Lightning, Green Arrow, and the Flash.
“Driven by TV and movie tie-in speculation, first appearances, particularly in high grade, have gone more than a little crazy. The smallest successful movie has quintupled the number of people who know about the character and obviously with the Avengers, we are not talking about small successes,” said J.C. Vaughn, vice-president of publishing for Gemstone Publishing, home of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide.
Any time a new movie or TV show based on a comic book character is announced — or even rumored to be in the works — interest in comic books featuring that character takes off, and the issue containing the first appearance typically enjoys the biggest boost. “I think that’s going to continue to drive people to discover new characters and while there is money to be made, there will be speculators who will say ‘I’m going to grab that issue,'” Vaughn said. “Sometimes it’s funny because the character never appears in the show that they think that it will, and sometimes, those issues come right back to Earth. Sometimes they come most of the way back, but they don’t come all the way back to their previous price, and that is sort of a function of the economics right now. Collectibles are crazy at the moment.”
Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson in several Avengers movies, starred in her own feature film released in July 2021 (its original release date was delayed due to pandemic). Sales of copies of Tales of Suspense #52, which contained her first appearance, have ranged from more than $5,000 for a high-grade copy a few years ago to a few thousand today. Now that the movie is out, it would not be surprising to see renewed interest in the early comic books that feature her. Even a copy with a low grade of 3.5 did better than its estimate when one sold at Bruneau & Co Auctioneers in April 2020 for $550 plus the buyer’s premium.
“It’s funny because other than a miniseries, Black Widow has never starred in her own series,” Vaughn said. “She first appeared as a villain, then became a hero, and would typically be seen in the Avengers. She never had her own title at all. The early appearances are commanding much more attention than they did previously.” When the Disney + series WandaVision debuted in January 2021, it spurred interest in comics featuring its lead characters, Vision and the Scarlet Witch, who is also known as Wanda Maximoff.
These examples reflect the trend of lower grade copies of key issues with first appearances earning heightened attention from collectors. Only a finite number of copies of certain comics exist in high grades; supply is limited, and that drives prices up. That fact motivates collectors to be less squeamish about buying a restored copy or buying it in lower grades if they must have an issue that boasts the debut of a major character.
“Comic Connect, which has had a pretty amazing track record of selling Action Comics #1, they just sold a restored — they call it an ‘Apparent 9.0’ — copy for $452,000 on June 22,” Vaughn said. “‘Restored’ used to be the kiss of death, and if it’s a common comic that is easily accessible, it still would be. We see this with the first appearance thing, the desirability, and it is extending to characters and works by creators that might not have previously garnered attention.
“Right now I don’t know if there’s ever been a period where these things as a group have been more sought-after and part of that is driven by their presence in other media.”
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