I see by the media that a copy of Action Comics #1 is up for sale, and the bidding is supposed to soar into seven figures. This follows along nicely with one of last week’s columns, about the two most famous High Points of High Point Book Collecting: the Gutenberg Bible and the First Folio. It is true that not everything the Book Fair sells is a book, and that there are high points in other areas as well.
In the world of comic books, Action Comics #1 is one that can always get media attention. Other comic books are rarer, and there were other milestones of 1930s comic book publishing which people drool about. (Detective Comics #27, which featured the first appearance of Batman, say, or Marvel Comics #1, which introduced the Human Torch and the Submariner…unless, of course, you want a copy of Motion Picture Funnies, which…the subject rapidly becomes complex.)
But Action Comics #1, which introduced Superman, and gave set off the whole superhero comic market and what is called the Golden Age of Comics, is an icon. It’s the icon in collecting which generates the most publicity, and publicity generates higher prices. You can read this comic book for a good deal less than a million dollars, of course, just as you can read Hamlet without buying a First Folio. It is probably one of the most reprinted of comic books, and you want to look at your copy and make sure you don’t have a 20th anniversary reprint, or a 40th anniversary reprint, or even an 80th anniversary reprint. But it’s worth a look as an example of American initiative. Two kids (let’s see if I can remember the sequence) wrote a short story, made it into a comic strip, pasted it up to make it into a comic book, cut it into a comic strip again, pasted it up into a comic book and finally, after dozens of rejections, saw it published (by a company that bought all the rights and made all the money and they eventually filed a lawsuit to get some of the profits and…yeah, it’s an example, all right.)
Anyway, it’s a thin item, and there is a chance you might have one tucked away somewhere…if your great-grandmother didn’t throw away all your grandfather’s comic books.
Now, in the world of sports card collecting, the icon is Honus Wagner. If you don’t know this story, there’s not much excuse: there’s even a book just about the collecting of this card. Honus Wagner, who makes most lists of the greatest baseball players of all time, was featured on sports cards, which in those days were primarily issued with packs of cigarettes rather than bubblegum. Wagner, horrified at the thought of kids buying cigarettes to get a piece of cardboard with his face on it, prohibited the use of his image, and only about a hundred of these cards got out. People were already collecting cards by the 1920s, and during the Depression, the T206 Honus Wagner card was already the most expensive baseball card in the world (at fifty bucks.)
After that, the story grows, as does the price. Is a piece of cardboard WORTH a million dollars? (The record price for this card is apparently two million.) Or, critics ask, is it all hype? These critics miss the point of High Point collecting (which can be pronounced Hype Point.) The reason people who would not ordinarily collect comic books or baseball cards WANT these is that everybody talks about them. Everybody KNOWS they’re rare and famous (including forgers, by the way, and people who can tart up a damaged copy with delicate repairs.) One of my volunteers asked once why anybody would pay a six figure price for a scarce first edition of The Great Gatsby in the even scarcer dust jacket when they could read it in paperback for a dollar. He would not have bought a million dollar comic book he could read online, either.
I was trying to come up with a record that fits the case, but I’m not sure there’s one which qualifies. The Beatles produced a number of rarities: the Butcher Cover album, which was suppressed, and some of their early items. A donor once gave us a rare single by the Beattles (that misspelling makes a big difference to the price) but the plastic bag got tossed in a corner and snapped in half (I sold the broken record for $25.) Elvis is good for one or two wild rarities. And I have a four figure offer from a customer if anyone donates the original soundtrack album for The Caine Mutiny, which may exist in as few as 20 copies because Herman Wouk….
But we can tell the stories of other high points in another blog. I need to go through this stack of 1990 NFL cards and see if someone hid Honus Wagner in here.