Grail Comic (noun): An elusive comic book that holds significant personal meaning and value for the seeker. Usually one that has been sought for an extended period of time; due to rarity, expense relative to the means of the seeker, or both.
Get comfortable, this is going to be a long one…
For those unfamiliar with my “comic book origin”, Spider-Man got me into comics. While I’d read a number of comics previously (Harvey and Disney kids comics, and a couple of single issues of FF, Batman, and Justice League) but the one that got be coming back for more each and every month was Amazing Spider-Man #88, cover dated Sept. 1970, which would have meant I picked it up off the rack around July 1970. I’ve been buying comics every month since.
I was set from #88 up to today. I was buying them as they came out. At some point I started buying back issues and one of the things I made a point of doing was filling in Amazing Spider-Man. I got back to issue 20 or so fairly easily over the years, but they got pricier below that and it took a bit more of a concerted effort to collect back to #1. I found several issues at conventions, but mostly it was eBay that really helped me get back to #1. eBay gave me access to a world of sellers. By about 2007 I had every issue of ASM except #1, and it was eBay that got me that #1 issue. I put in a bid that was about half Overstreet Guide (at the time) on a copy of #1, CGC’d at 4.0. The auction ended and I was the high bidder but had not met the reserve price on the auction. Oh well, I’d live to seek a copy another day. But the seller contacted me via PM. He was desperate for cash and was willing to sell at my high bid price. He re-listed it with a Buy It Now price of my max bid at a pre-agreed time of day and I swooped in and bought it. The first thing I did when I got that copy was crack it out of the CGC slab & read it! I’ve always had mixed feelings about CGC and have freed a bunch of comics from their plastic imprisonment.
Those early issues of Spider-Man have been on display in my comic room for many years. I get daily enjoyment out of looking at them. And in case anyone is curious (people have commented about this before), those windows they are near are sealed double-pane glass with reflective and UV blocker coating. Heat does not transfer through them. Those wood shutters are typically about the same ambient temperature as the rest of the room, even when the windows are getting direct sunlight.
So, I had every issue of Amazing Spider-Man. But I was missing Spider-Man’s first appearance, Amazing Fantasy #15. This was the true “Holy Grail” for any lover of Spider-Man and is also currently the single most sought after Silver Age comic, even more so than Fantastic Four #1 that started the Marvel Age of comics. As such, it also carries a pretty hefty price tag and I had pretty much consigned myself to never getting my hands on a copy.
Until I went to New York back in October 2014 to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
I visited friends while I was back there and every one of them seemed to have a copy of AF #15. Lenny had a copy. Tony had one. Rick (my co-host on the Pop-Cult Online and plus One lifeline on Millionaire) had one. When they asked what I’d do with the money if I won, one of the things would have been “buy a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15”.
Then I started to notice articles on-line about Wall Street types investing by buying key Silver Age comics, because the perception was that they were out-performing the stock market. Did these people actually care about comics? I’d say mostly probably not, they cared about money, but their actions were causing the prices to increase month-over-month. It became clear that the longer I waited the more it would end up costing me, if I was ever going to get a copy. But this was a substantial expense and not something to just jump into, so I had to do my research if I was really going to get serious about buying this comic.
The first step was talking to several friends of mine who were big time into buying CGC’d comics and also interested in the concept of investing in comics. I also talked to Dinesh Shamdasani (CEO and Chief Creative Officer of Valiant) when I was at Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo. I’d chatted with Dinesh a number of times in the past and knew he was also big time into getting his hands on key comics, in talking to him it seemed like it was for the love of comics with a side interest in the investment potential of these books. He gave me a lot of great advice and stressed the fact that I’d need to do some legwork. I also talked to several comic dealers at Comikaze about the market for key books and their insights on buying/selling CGC books and key silver age books in general. All of these people told me about GPA Analysis for CGC’d comics and the CGC Collector Society message boards.
Why CGC? For key books, particularly Marvel 1st issues/appearances from the early 1960s, pricing gets all crazy. These are the books the investors are gobbling up and the books are rising in price month over month. It’s absolutely crucial to know exactly what you’re getting and make sure you pay accordingly.
I’m cool with buying a comic for a couple of hundred bucks and rolling the dice on condition and whether or not it’s restored. For super-key comics, the price/value differential for every half grade and the huge hit that restoration provides to the price/value means that knowing a precise grade and whether or not the book is restored makes a HUGE difference. I can judge grade myself if I’m buying in person, but I’m no expert on identifying restoration. If you are opening yourself up to online buying there’s a huge incentive for sellers to knowingly or unknowingly inflate the grade of a book. For non-key books this isn’t that big of a deal. I judge what I think the grade is based on the pictures and typically put in a high bid that’s below guide value for a book a grade lower than it looks just to be on the safe side. I’m not going to overpay by any significant amount. Telling if a book is restored from a picture is typically going to be really difficult unless it’s really amateur/obvious restoration.
GPA Analysis for CGC is a paid service that offers sales information, trend analysis, and other info on what CGC’d comics are selling for at a lot of the top online auction and dealer sites. This allows you to get a feeling for the minimum, maximum, and average price (by specific number grade) that the comic you’re interested has been selling for. This cost me $10 per month, and I subscribed during the months I was seeking out and buying AF #15. It was well worth the price, because even taking into account that prices are going up, it let me know when someone was asking for a ludicrous price based on the realized market and also when a book was actually a pretty good deal compared to the current market (like the one I ended up buying).
The CGC Collector Society message boards are pretty typical for internet forums. There are a lot of really knowledgeable people there but also a lot of folks who seem to get off mostly on bragging about what they have and acting superior to people who are new to the hobby (in this case, the sub-genre of comic collectors who buy CGC’d comics). The forums also seemed to be very heavily trafficked by dealers who are there to buy low and sell high. It’s a useful resource, but also one that you need to be wary of as a newcomer. I found that most of the useful information I got, after making a few posts, came from people who PM’d me. I think they also realized that responding in the threads would open them up to trolling and it was much more productive to have private exchanges of information. I suspect this would be different if I were to hang out and participate in the forums over time as people got to know me, but buying comics on a sustained basis that are unreadably encased in plastic shells is really not my cup of tea outside of certain fairly specialized cases (e.g. key silver age books). I got all the information I needed from the folks on the forums and moved on.
Another useful resource was the CGC Census. You can access this information for free, but you need to register for a free-level account with CGC. The census basically tells you, for any given comic, how many CGC’d copies exist and in what grades. That way you’ll know, if for instance you’re looking for CGC 6.0 or higher, how many actually exist and how big a pool of targets you’re searching in. You can also get details on the number, grade, and degree of restoration on all restored copies of a particular book, if you’re willing to consider getting a restored copy.
The next step in my personal journey after talking to friends and a variety of people (including dealers) was reaching out to dealers and internet sites who specialize in Silver Age keys. I touched base with several dealers who had been recommended to me via PMs on the CGC boards, but struck out there. A couple of them didn’t have any copies in stock, the others were asking for more than I was willing to pay. I think most people are aware that you are rarely going to get the best price if you let a dealer know you want something REALLY BAD. That has a strong possibility of setting off $-signs in their eyes as they think they can get absolute top dollar from you because you really want what they have. This is where I needed to be disciplined. Armed with the CGC census data and GPA price analysis, I knew how many copies were out there and what they were selling for. There are plenty of copies out there, if I didn’t get the one Dealer A was trying to sell, another one would be along from Dealer B tomorrow. Or the following week. The bottom line was that you should take your time, set the parameters for what you want to pay, and wait until the right deal comes along. Be an informed buyer. In the end, I only ended up looking for about 6 weeks before I found the right book at the right price and pulled the trigger on it.
Some notes on restoration: There are collectors who think of restoration as a total show-stopper, they won’t even consider getting a restored book. CGC identifies restored books with a purple label that some call the “purple label of doom” since it’s the kiss of death on realizing a high price when selling that comic, it pretty much immediately halves the value of a book that was sent in for slabbing. The new CBCS slabbing service doesn’t identify restoration in anywhere near as flashy a way. Their label notes the restoration along with other features, but you need to read the label to see this, you wouldn’t notice it from across the room like with the purple label. In any event, conventional wisdom seems to be that a restored book will go for about 30% – 50% of the price of an unrestored book in the apparent grade (though uber-key issues like AF #15 seem to run closer to the 50% end of this range). Additionally, “professional” restoration is obviously more well-regarded than “amateur” restoration, and a book that is trimmed (some material sliced off the top, side, and/or bottom to give the book a sharper edge) is considered a cardinal sin by some. When I talked to Dinesh he made the point to me that comics are one of the few forms of art where professional restoration is considered a major detractor. “Fine Art” is professionally restored all the time and it’s seen as a plus, preserving and enhancing a rare object. Personally, as long as the price is right I’m perfectly fine with a restored book. That is, I’m OK if I’m paying a fair price that factors in the reduction the current market dictates for a restored book.
Back to the hunt: Since I had no luck with sellers from the CGC boards it was time to move on to other internet sites and dealers. If you’re interested in buying these kinds of vintage comics there are a few sites where you should set up accounts (which are free to set up) and then put the book(s) you’re looking for onto your Want List, this way you’ll be notified when one of them becomes available:
Heritage Auctions – A lot of material moves through this site. Be careful about the fees, which are numerous. Buyers pay a “buyer’s premium” of 19.5% on top of the winning bid, PLUS you pay some fairly high shipping & handling fees. On top of that, since I live in California and Heritage has an auction house in Los Angeles, I get an extra 9% sales tax added. I’ve found that in the past, I’ve had almost 50% added to the price of some items because of all the fees. When you’re buying a really pricey item, these fees can be killers.
ComicLink – This site has a lot to choose from and has both auctions and a decent number of “Buy it Now” type listings where you can make a bid lower than the asking price that will sometimes be accepted. They charge a 3% buyer’s premium (much more reasonable than Heritage’s 19.5%) and their shipping/handling fees, while not cheap, are reasonable ($20 the last time I had 6 comics shipped to me).
ComicConnect – No buyer’s premiums, what you bid is what you pay. This site also has a combination of auctions and “Buy It Now” that you can make offers on.
MyComicShop – This is one of my favorite sites on the internet for back issues. They have monthly auctions that I’ve gotten some good deals on. They seems to have far fewer of the “uber-key” silver age issues than the other auction sites listed here, but are good sites for a lot of other items many collectors are looking for. I also have found them to be meticulous in their grading and have been very happy with books I’ve bought from them.
eBay – The largest auction site in the world. Tons of stuff is bought and sold every day. A marvelous place as long as you follow the simple rules of buying from established sellers with a lot of positive feedback and being meticulous about examining the auction description and photos. What I found to be most helpful was creating a custom advanced search and then “following” it. This way I was automatically notified via e-mail whenever a comic meeting my search criteria was listed for sale. The obvious keywords to search were “Amazing Fantasy 15 CGC”. I set a price range on the search with a lower end at $1000 to filter out a bunch of the “noise” like reprints and other ephemera, like prints of the cover of this iconic comic. I also filtered out listings with the word “variant”.
Next I moved on to the dealers/sites that were recommended to me by friends and from the CGC boards. In checking out the sites, some I decided not to pursue after an initial evaluation:
PedigreeComics – They had a restored 5.0 listed at a price that was around what an unrestored was going for on the GPA analysis, which was a “high priced site” red flag for me since they were not taking the restoration down-tick in price into account.
Doug Sulipa’s Comic World – A terribly designed and formatted site that was very difficult to navigate around. In addition, it’s in Canada which results in high shipping costs to the US as well as possible customs costs, potentially significant on pricey books shipped to the US.
Metropolis Collectibles – They had what I considered to be grossly overpriced AF #15s (a raw 3.0 for what a slabbed 4.0 was going for on GPA). Additionally, in looking at the pictures of their raw books, I personally considered them to be over-grading a decent number of the books I was looking at. While this is totally subjective and others might very well agree with their grading, it’s a personal decision and I’d rather work with a site where I generally agree with the grading.
For the sites that I liked upon 1st examination, I set up accounts (where applicable), added the book I was looking for to my Want list where that capability existed, and sent e-mails to the site owners introducing myself and describing what I was looking for. Four sites never bothered to respond to my e-mail, so they were removed from consideration:
QualityComix.com, PGCmint.com, EsquireComics.com, and BunkyBrothers.com
If they couldn’t be bothered to respond to my e-mail then I didn’t feel like I needed to spend money with them. Five other sites responded to my e-mails. Three of them within a couple of hours (and this was on a Sunday afternoon), the other 2 by the following morning (Monday):
ArchAngels Collectibles – Rob Hughes
Detective27.com – Jeff Delaney
HighGradeComics.com – Bob Storms
Southern California Comics – Jamie Newbold
SuperWorldComics.com – Ted VanLiew
I got some nice notes back from each of these guys, but unfortunately none of them had any copies of AF #15 for sale. They mostly let me know that they’d keep an eye out, with the exception of Jamie Newbold, who had several copies, they were just not for sale. It turns out that he had decided to buy up key silver age comics for investment purposes, building a nest egg for retirement. While this wasn’t going to do me any good for the purposes of buying AF #15, it was great for another reason. SoCal Comics is in San Diego and is located less than an hour drive from my home. I drove down there the following Saturday with my wife and we talked to Jamie. He’s a great guy, extremely knowledgeable, and willing to share his experience.
Jamie is probably the single most important factor in me now owning a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, even though he didn’t sell it to me himself. By speaking to my wife and I at length about the investment potential of these key Silver Age books, as well as the fact that he himself was buying these books as an investment, it really drove home for my wife that while I don’t primarily consider comics to be an investment, and I would not buy them solely as an investment, it sure is nice to know that any money spent on them is not money just pissed away on some ephemeral object of my affection. There is a tangible value associated with these books, you won’t lose money on them, and they are an actual asset.
Since I’m not going to make a major purchase like this without my wife’s blessing, getting her on board with the lasting value associated with these books was truly essential. This made it a win-win for us both. I got a comic I’ve coveted for as long as I can remember, she got the knowledge that the money spent had not evaporated into the ether upon my purchase of the comic. The concession I made was that I would (for assured long-term value and liquidity) buy a CGC’d copy and leave it alone in the slab. No “slab cracking” on this book (and looking back in time, I’d probably have been better off leaving that ASM #1 and Showcase #22 in the slab too)… but que sera sera.
So I had put out all kinds of feelers. I had done my research. Now it was time for the waiting game of examining the copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 offered up for sale at the various venues, deciding which ones were good deals, and making offers or bids on them as appropriate. Believe me, I didn’t come close to getting the first comic I took a try at. I was outbid on a number of comics by people who obviously wanted those specific comics more than I did because they were willing to pay more money than I was. No harm, no foul. I knew more would come along, and they did, almost every day. AF #15 is a very heavily traded book, as I mentioned before it is probably the hottest Silver Age book out there right now. I put in offers on “Buy it Now” listings that had a ‘best offer’ option. I didn’t low-ball anyone. I put in offers strictly based on a fair price according to GPA and added notes to the sellers explaining my rationale. I had a lot of these rejected, the sellers deciding they’d like to set a new high price with their sale. This conflicted with my personal criteria which was to pay at least slightly under the existing high. While always desirable for the seller, as a buyer I didn’t want to be setting any new records for price paid.
And then I saw it. A really sharp looking copy that was restored, which meant it looked a lot better than the price I’d have to pay for an unrestored copy in the same condition. PLUS, it was a certified Signature Series book signed by Stan Lee. As a Signature Series book it got a yellow label from CGC, with a much smaller purple band along the top indicating the restoration. This meant it would not be screaming RESTORED from across the room. As desirable as an unrestored book? No. But given that I thought I could get it for about what I would otherwise have paid for a book in 2.5 condition that looked considerably more beat up and I really was looking for some eye candy to put on display, not just an book that was going to be squirreled away in a safe deposit box somewhere, I decided to make a run at this book. It had a Buy It Now price and a ‘Best offer’ option. A bit of negotiation back and forth via PMs and the seller and I came to an agreement on price. They told me to put in a ‘Best Offer’ at the agreed upon price which I thought was very fair while still being what I considered to be a great deal. The offer was placed as agreed, accepted, and I had just bought my Grail book. (Please don’t ask me to tell you the specific amount paid, I’d rather not say, but the ballpark price can be figured out easily enough using the techniques I’ve described here…)
Now it was a waiting game. With an item of this value, the seller wanted the book in the hands of the USPS, since it is a federal crime to mess with the US Mail. It was sent registered, insured, 2nd day air. The book had to make its way to me in the mail and it was December, with heavy loads on the USPS. 2 days passed with no package being delivered. I checked the tracking information online and it was extremely poor. As it turns out, sending something registered and 2nd day are pretty much mutually exclusive, especially in December. The package moved at a snail’s pace with its extremely slow progress only intermittently updated on the USPS tracking site. I called customer service and opened a case to track the whereabouts of the package, having to ask repeatedly to escalate the issue since the 1st line people would pretty much read me the tracking info off the web-site which I was perfectly capable of seeing myself and was not much help.
In the end, it took 10 days for the package to make it’s way from Seattle, WA to Orange County, CA. I could have gotten in my car, driven to Seattle, picked it up personally, and driven home again in about half that amount of time, not even “driving hard”. It arrived on the first day it had rained in So Cal in about 9 months. And it was pouring rain. When I got the automated notification from the post office that it was “out for delivery” (status was updated by the USPS at 8:30am, the e-mail finally arrived in my inbox at about 11am). Someone had to be home to sign for the package, so I blew out of work and drove home with a quick “I’m working from home this afternoon, call my cell if you need me!” to my boss. Thank God I have the kind of job where this was possible. I was home around noon and not finding a note on the door about a missed delivery, I breathed a sign of relief.
But the heavy rain was still freaking me out.
The door bell rang around 2pm and a sopping wet postal worker handed me a wet box and had me sign for receipt of the package. Now it was time to unpack it and see how it had weathered it’s lengthy stay in the custody of the USPS.
Fortunately the seller (eBay ID highgrademagic-pristinecomics) packed the book in a pretty bullet-proof fashion. The CGC holder was inside 4 layers of wrappings, all waterproof, and the outer bubble-wrap was suspended in a large box surrounded by packing peanuts:
Bravo to PristineComics, outside of the USPS snafu which was outside of their control, they were a complete pleasure to deal with. They get my recommendation as a top notch eBay seller.
Now that I had my Grail book in my hot little hands the last step was “How do I display it?” I wasn’t about to lock it away in a box somewhere. For this I turned to Gweedo’s Showcase, where I got a hand-made wood frame with Museum Quality 99% UV Glass. Not the cheapest solution, but really high quality and a home worthy of a Grail book:
That’s it. The journey from inception to completion. The question that remains is “What book will be next?” I had been picking up Ant-Man books in parallel with my search for AF #15 and I realized I was only 40 total books away from completing my Marvel Silver Age super-hero collection. I set up a web page to track my Countdown to Complete and I’m getting closer every month. Watch the countdown as I get closer and follow the ComicSpectrum Comics Tumblr where I post pictures of significant/interesting back issues as I buy them.
Bob Bretall: firstname.lastname@example.org
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