Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?

by Matt Kennedy

031022E-1024x536 Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?A hot topic in all the Facebook comic-collecting groups has been the closing gap between raw and graded comic prices –especially for Silver and Bronze Age keys. This begs the question: Are graded comics really worth more?

What is ‘value,’ anyway?

hulk179-195x300 Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?There is a lot of nuance involved in assessing the worth of a collectible. This is because the value is based not on the sum of its parts but something intrinsic that goes well beyond supply and demand.

The material value of a comic book (the total value of each element of its construction) is low. So, what assigns value to these stapled-together pieces of paper? It’s the text and images printed upon them. And since the inks that form those words and pictures are also relatively valueless, we must attribute almost all of the value to mere concepts. With further deconstruction, we can consider the quality of the prose, appreciate the dynamics of the narrative, and recognize the aesthetic pleasure of great composition and color.

But in the most basic sense, the things that make comic books valuable are arbitrary compared to the contributing factors normally considered in determining the value of most other tangible assets.

Except, of course, that there is nothing arbitrary about why collectors want certain comics.

The reason that Hulk #180 is worth $46,000 in a hermetically-sealed, plastic slab with a 9.8 in the upper left corner while a Hulk #179 (a technically older book from the same creative team) in the same condition is worth $200 is because of the introduction of a new character in the more recent of the two. Hulk #181 is even more valuable because that character appears not just on a single page but on the cover and throughout the issue. Take any of these books out of those plastic slabs and that comic drops by as much as 90% in value.

The Sizzle Not the Steak

CGC-custom-labels-300x244 Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?If you are a comic book reader, the mere idea of slabbing a book may be anathema to you. For one thing, the element of the story that provides the bulk of value is frequently not on the cover (and basically never on the back cover). When you slab a baseball card, you preserve the value and visibility of everything that contributes to the price. But when you slab a comic book you sacrifice a hefty portion of enjoyment in favor of a memory or even a rumor of its contents.

Investors aren’t bothered by this, because the Fair Market Value is instantly recognizable. Consensus (as decided by an impartial expert) provides a metric for that value via grading. While still somewhat arbitrary, there is a standard in professional grading that allows near-instant monetization. Becoming an expert at grading takes a lot of time and investors happily pay the premium for an instant qualification of grade because it allows them to focus on speculation and speeds up the return on their investment. If you’ve ever bought a comic on eBay, you have likely had a dispute about the condition advertised in that listing.
A slab eliminates that.

These days you can order custom labels to boost the aesthetic presentation of your graded comic. But that’s not to say that a sealed plastic slab (or the extra paper between it and the comic book) makes it more valuable; they are an avatar of value, not the value, itself. The plastic makes a comic book more sellable, not more valuable. The undeniable exceptions are for Signature Series and Pedigree copies for which the color-coded labels provide authentication.

So Why the Mark-up?

marvel-spotlight-5-9.8-189x300 Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?In truth, the mark-up on a slabbed, blue-label book should not be much. Logistically, the added value should be only a convenience tax added to the actual cost of grading. At current rates, a modern (1975 – Present) comic with an un-slabbed value of $400 max costs $24 to be graded plus the cost of shipping to and from CGC. It’s a little less if you choose CBCS or some other competitor. If you want it faster you can spend a lot more money –$130 or 3% of FMV or both.

It’s probably not a wise investment to pay the Express premium on a $400 comic book, so if you are worried about a price drop it may be more profitable to sell it raw. In most cases, a comic will have increased dramatically (not diminished) in value over the course of time it takes to get graded, but big-dollar collectibles can only become liquid assets if you can sell them. If time is not of the essence, economy service warrants an average mark-up of about $65.

So how does a 9.8 slab of a raw comic with an FMV of $12 get to be $500 or more? Because at some point, the value of eliminating any dispute over perceived condition got very valuable. And that, of course, works both ways.

Detective-Comics-No.-1-220x300 Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?For major keys, it is not uncommon to see raw copies advertised at graded prices. This is a by-product of the extended, peak-pricing market. Scarcity and the long turnaround time for grading has pushed raw prices up again. In a way, the raw copy is way cooler if there is consensus about the condition; if handled with care it can even be paged-through.

The Advantage of Wishful Thinking

That’s why the ungraded Mile High Collection Action Comics #1 is perceived as having a value above $10 million even though it is ungraded and therefore not slabbed. The highest grade ever sold was a 9.0 which went for $3.2 million a whopping 8 years ago. This past January a 6.0 sold for almost that much. The Mile High copy is perceived as being a 9.4, so realistically it could be worth as much as $25 million because it has no peer.

This crystalizes how scarcity can make a raw comic way more valuable than a graded comic. Once graded there is no dispute, but an ungraded comic gives a seller the advantage of wishful thinking. Buyers have used the potential for a comic to be downgraded as a means to pay less for years, but if you have a reasonably high-grade, raw copy of scarce Golden Age grails like New Adventure Comics #26 or  Detective Comics #1, there is no reason why you can’t price it as high or even higher than than the most recently sold, graded copy. And to be honest, there is nothing preventing you from doing the same with a Silver or Bronze Age Key. The market will decide. Someone will either pay graded price or they won’t.

Plastic slabs are a form of altruism in actual practice. Their perceived value-add is an example of how aspiration can become consensus. Any collector with a trained eye and the right collection can extract just as much profit from a raw comic (and its inherent potential) without any requirement of grading.

This being the internet and all, I’m sure you’ve all got opinions about this, so please comment below.
Keep it civil and be sure to like this post if you do!

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Signup_Footer Are Graded Comics Really Worth More?*Any perceived investment advice is that of the freelance blogger and does not reflect advice on behalf of GoCollect

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12 comments

Nick March 14, 2022 - 7:23 pm

I figure there is a healthy amount of overlap that is occurring now. Raw collectors don’t want a slab, but they still want the comic. Slab collectors are willing to take the gamble and buy raw to slab. Speculators are willing to invest the time and risk in buying raw to slab and then flip at the higher sale price. All three markets are now competing for that same raw comic book and its value rises. In the end, this reduces the slab “premium” to the cost of grading, shipping, and handling. In this way, speculators are like miners in a gold rush. They are racing to new claims hoping to cash in before the raw value rises too much and their ROI shrinks.

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Matt Kennedy March 16, 2022 - 9:55 pm

Thanks for your comment, Nick. Since so much speculation is tied to what happens in other media comics are almost uniquely open to insider trading but there is no regulation. That might also impact the market down the line –for slabs and raw books, alike.

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daniel robinson March 14, 2022 - 8:00 pm

Another thing to consider is the demand. Raw books are almost ALWAYS in demand,because of the ‘discount” compared to a slabbed book. It is usually harder to find a buyer for the price-inflated slabbed book than the “discounted” raw book.

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Matt Kennedy March 16, 2022 - 10:02 pm

That’s a good point and very much in line with what Nick said about there being so many different audiences buying raw comics that they should be a hotter commodity than slabbed books. It seems I’m not the only person seeing that price gap tighten.

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Ron Gorup March 15, 2022 - 2:14 am

Something to consider for the mark up on slabbed books is the population of higher-grade books. A person can check the population and see how it drops off from 9.2 to 9.8. Some conditions simply aren’t available very often including raw. And be careful shelling out big bucks for books with high pops being driven solely by speculation. As a collector of Golden and Silver Age comics I absolutely love slabs for one simple reason: Preservation.

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Matt Kennedy March 16, 2022 - 10:05 pm

Thanks for your comment, Ron. You can purchase slab-style protection without paying to get your comics graded (if preservation of your golden age comics is the aim and not locking a grade).

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Nerd Alert Comix March 15, 2022 - 11:47 am

The value is what someone will pay for it. That’s it. I disagree that it goes beyond supply and demand.

Why do I pay more for a slabbed copy than a raw? Because I cannot trust what I cannot personally examine. If I could physically examine it myself, I would pay close to the value. The grade on it means someone trusted has examined it carefully in person in my stead…..it’s that simple.

Where the values get out of whack are when information is not fully available to everyone, or someone buys in expectation of future value (speculation). They are guessing what something will be worth later and when the commodity that is bought will have a supply greater than demand, it will drop.

As far as information, if you do not have a service like gocollect, you can see ebay sales for a few months, or can rely on Overstreet. These are not perfect, and therefore introduce inefficiencies in proper pricing. For example, prices in Overstreet are resistant to falling over time, because comics that do not have active sales are listed as the same price over time because stores hope to sell for a historic price. Check what Overstreet lists for Lil’ Abner comics for example. This character was a popular culture icon for many years, but is unknown now, and so the sales of these comics currently will never reach what is listed there.

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Matt Kennedy March 16, 2022 - 11:25 pm

Thanks for your comment, Nerd Alert. I think that “what someone will pay” contributes to the value but is not the only factor, because that supposes all value is transactional. Value is perceptional (like aesthetic), but because it is so often connected to some kind of exchange we tend to think of it as a constant that can be easily determined. In truth, one may buy something with no expectation or need for short-term valuation. Even in investment terms one might just be taking money out of the market and parking it in a comic book to limit capital gains tax. That allows a delay in the need for determinaton of value until access to that capital is again required. So what someone might be willing to pay for it now will have no consequence on it’s value as a tax shelter or a future dividend.

As others have pointed out in this thread, you can’t really trust an assigned grade either. Seasoned collectors will look past the number in the top left and look at the actual comic in the slab and decide if they agree or not with that grade before making a purchase –because not all 9.6s or 9.8s are equal. We’ve all seen 9.8s that look like 9.0s and quite a few of us have seen 8.5s that were really 9.4s. Grades are as imperfect as non-graded descriptions, but they benefit from the perception of accuracy for quick transactions.

Regarding Lil Abner, it may be safe to assume a character as problematic as AL Capp’s signature Southerner isn’t due for a comeback, but stranger things have happened. TBH, the un-PC nature of some Golden Age comics may be their primary appeal to some collectors. In some capacity, all Golden Age Comics are bound to rise in price.

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Martin Davidson March 15, 2022 - 1:02 pm

Slabbing does not eliminate grade debate. I would say it helps reduce it. Especially at high end grades. Have you ever placed a 9.8 next to a 9.6 it is nearly impossible in most cases to tell the difference. Also with the lack of grading companies giving these books grading notes it seems to be arbitrary at times which grade a book gets. Even low end books have some serious grade miscalculations. If you have been in this hobbies for decades like I have you know when a book is over graded or under graded. It happens all the time. Using the third party system is great but they do not always get it right.

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Jason Carpenter March 16, 2022 - 3:32 am

Often a 9.6 next to a 9.8 may look identical—on the cover. In many cases, there may be a small tear, scuff or crease on an interior page that dropped the grade. Many people tend to forgot grading goes beyond the cover. That said, you are spot on when you say that grader notes should be supplied.

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Matt Kennedy March 16, 2022 - 11:27 pm

Totally true –and thanks for your comment, Martin. If you’ve ever watched MintHunter’s unboxing videos, the disparity between predictions and actual grade can be huge. To Jason’s point, most people never take into consideration the pages between the slabbed covers.

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nicholas Dalessandro March 17, 2022 - 6:15 am

The value of a book really is not in the slabbing now that I think about it deeply, it is in the story, art and how popular ie demand. A major factor is if a comic is considered a “key”. Slabbing, however, gives a very good guarantee that those elements will be preserved over time in the condition that you bought it. Condition means everything when collecting. So if I want a reasonable guarantee of condition, I will buy the slab every time. To hedge that bet I might buy raw realizing that the chances of getting the grade I want are a gamble.

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