NEW YORK — Since they were first published, comic books have been mostly male-centric. They were and still are, created primarily by boys and men for just that audience: boys and men. In today’s collector marketplace, rare vintage comic books starring Batman, Superman, the Green Lantern and Spider-Man can bring six- and even seven-figure prices. But one would be hard pressed to find a comic book featuring a female character on the cover that hits the five- or six-figure price range — not yet, anyway.
Over time, female characters have evolved from being bit players or scantily-clad femmes fatales to superheroes — or villains — in their own right. They’re making their mark on comic book pages and slowly diversifying readership.
“As for comics featuring women, it has historically been a boys’ club, but thanks to more progressive writers and artists, female characters are starting to be more widely featured, and not just as the fetishized depictions so commonly seen in the ’90s,” said Mike Bollinger, senior cataloguer at Hake’s Auctions in York, Pennsylvania. “With the addition of more female comic heroes and villains, as well as women writers and artists, the comic collecting community has also seen an appreciable influx of female fans. While still somewhat lagging behind in terms of monetary value compared to the debut of their male counterparts, key issues featuring strong female characters are steadily gaining ground.”
But women still have a long way to go to achieve parity. The top prices for most older comic books starring female characters would be a few hundred dollars. There are notable exceptions, though, like Action Comics #252, which has the first appearance of Kara Zor-El, aka Supergirl, on its cover and inside its pages. Several copies of this title sold at auction houses in 2021 in the range of $6,000 to $8,000. One copy earned $6,619, including the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in June 2021. The concurrent airing of the Supergirl TV series likely helped drive interest in this character.
Firsts are big business in comic books. A first issue in a series, say Batman #1, or the first appearance of a character in a comic book is usually a desirable property for collectors. Topping many wish lists is Wonder Woman, a beloved character who also had her own TV show in the 1970s and two major movies in recent years. A copy of Wonder Woman #1 (DC Comics, 1942) attained $49,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2021 at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, despite its being graded 6.5 out of 10. “This issue launched a series that ran for over 40 years, making it one of the few superhero titles to continuously run from the Golden Age through to the Modern era,” according to Heritage Auctions.
The stars of the Batverse in comic books are clearly Batman and Robin but the Batgirl character debuted in January 1967 in Detective Comics #359. While she became entwined in some storylines, she didn’t often grace the cover. A key modern issue for collectors is Batman Adventures #12 (September 1993), the cover title on which is graffiti-style rewritten as Batgirl Adventures. The storyline for this issue is that Barbara Gordon, daughter of Gotham’s police commissioner, attends a costume party as Batgirl but the party is crashed by villains Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Catwoman. This issue was Quinn’s first appearance and she is a fan favorite. A 9.8-graded copy of this issue earned $1,628 plus the buyer’s premium at Hake’s Auctions in November 2019.
In comic books, it’s good to be bad; the storylines are usually more interesting. Sometimes the “bad” characters evolve into the good guys such as the case with Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff. At first a Russian assassin, she became a hero with the Avengers. Thanks also to the proliferation of Marvel movies in the last decade, including her own movie in 2021, Black Widow is quite a popular character. She made her comic book debut in Marvel’s Tales of Suspense #52 (April 1964) and is pictured on the cover. A copy of this notable Silver Age issue made $1,700 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers.
Supervillains are always appealing in comic books and have dedicated fan bases. Among those whose comic book origin has branched out to TV and movies is Poison Ivy, who debuted in Batman #181 (June 1966). The character was reportedly created after seeing the success of Catwoman on the Batman TV show. She and other female anti-heroes were soon drawn up. The cover of DC Comics’ Batman #181 featured Poison Ivy on the cover. A copy sold in February 2022 for $1,400 at Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers.
Arguably one of the most popular female anti-heroes is Catwoman, the socialite/jewel thief who slinked into comic books in Batman #1 (spring 1940) as a friendly foe. That issue, one of which sold at Hake’s in September 2020 for $33,633 including the buyer’s premium, is of high interest to collectors. It’s desirable being the first in the series and also marking the first appearance of Catwoman and the Joker. Catwoman didn’t make it onto cover artwork until much later though as in the example pictured here from Batman #62 (December 1950/January 1951). This mid-grade copy took $708 at Hake’s in March 2020.
Comic book readership demographics are difficult to determine, but if one gauges interest by factors like fan-convention attendance, it’s probably just about an equal split these days. The number of strong and popular female characters has certainly grown, too, with recent additions like Spider-Woman, Ms. Marvel, Dark Phoenix, and Sara Pezzini of the Witchblade series. Fangirling is now officially a thing in the comic book world.
# # #