If you’ve ever dug through dollar bins, you’ve probably noticed how they tend to be filled with American-published, English-language comic book reprints of Japanese manga from the 1990s. But do these consistently passed-over comics really represent one of the greatest investment opportunities of recent memory?
Proof of Concept
We’ve seen massive spikes in pricing for comic books based on American cartoons of the 1980s. DC Comics Presents #47, the 1st comic book to feature characters from Masters of the Universe broke $2K for a 9.8 back in March and may pass $3K by the time the Kevin Smith reboot hits Netflix–if not by the July 7th street date for the prequel comic from Dark Horse. Similar FMV can be reported for Thundercats #1, and sales records are even higher for Transformers #1 and G.I. Joe #1, which have new live-action films on the way.
Even kindergarten favorites like Care Bears #1 and Muppet Babies #1 are garnering increased interest and record-breaking pricing. But the correlating comics based on Japanese Anime are only starting to see their prices rise. Marvel’s Akira #1 in 9.8 had an FMV of around $500 for most of last year, but this year has seen four sales of between $750 and $950.
Comico’s Macross #1 from 1984 was in the same ballpark until a recent Heritage auction realized a price of $1350 for a 9.8. That said, FMV on a 9.6 is still only $200 (and even less for a 9.6 of Akira). Those prices are the new baseline. As soon as we get production updates on the decade-in-the-works, live-action film of Akira or news about the rumored Robotech reboot, it’s going to be a day at the races.
First Things First
Independent publisher Educomics’ I Saw It (The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima) was the first widely available English translation of Japanese Manga, published in November of 1981. It was an un-numbered one-shot. It was distributed primarily through the national public schools’ “Weekly Reader” program, rather than on Newsstands or via the direct comic shop market. This is a reprint of Barefoot Gen creator Keiji Nakazwa’s autobiographical stories, first published in Monthly Shōnen Jump in 1972.
It recalls in tragic detail his first-hand account of mankind’s first use of atomic weapons in warfare. As such, this is not just an incredibly overlooked key. It’s a rare Bronze Age war book. There are only 2 CGC 9.8 graded copies on the census and only 8 total copies in any grade. It’s been three years since a verified sale of any of them.
Have you picked up a large Copper Age collection recently? You might want to check for a raw copy in high grade. They were re-solicited to comic shops shortly after publishers First and Eclipse kicked off the first great wave of American manga publication in 1987. You might also look for Gen of Hiroshima #1 & #2, (the first English Language adaptations of Nakazawa’s Barfeoot Gen), which were published at relatively the same time, but were delayed and poorly distributed.
Miller Goes Manga
The first American adaptation of a Japanese manga title to be printed in standard comic book size as an ongoing monthly was First Comics’ April 1987 publication of Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima’s Lone Wolf and Cub #1. It featured new introductions and new cover art by Frank Miller on the first dozen or so issues. This was the first example of Japanese manga that most non-Japanese comic book collectors saw.
Miller was fresh off the success of The Dark Knight Returns, which saw a rekindled interest in his prior Ronin –a series that was massively influenced by Goseki Kojima’s style (and one of the very first prestige-format comic books). First Comics had established itself as one of the first indie publishers to break out of the direct distribution market. It found a presence beside DC, Marvel, and Archie on the newsstand.
As sponsors of the Creator’s Bill of Rights, founders Ken F. Levin and Mike Gold had the cache to entice Miller to adapt the series from Weekly Manga Action for U.S. readers. Notable among its many fans is Justin Lin, director of the Fast & Furious film series, who has been attached to a remake since 2017. There are fewer than 200 graded copies of #1 on the census, and only 26 of #2. For some of the subsequent issues, there are NO graded copies. If this were to be remade either as a film or a series, those issues contain the first appearances of important supporting characters. You can generally still get raw copies for little more than cover price.
One month after the debut of Lone Wolf and Cub, Eclipse Comics’ would enter into a partnership with Viz Media to release four bi-weekly manga titles: Area 88, The Legend of Kamui, Mai The Psychic Girl, and Xenon.
Underwhelmed by the sales on the first three titles in their Eclipse deal, Viz Media would eventually pull the licenses before the stories were actually finished. The fourth title, Xenon, achieved higher circulation numbers and continued to publish through issue #23. It’s worth noting that Xenon was the only series in the Eclipse deal to get new and exclusive artwork from the original creative team. This nuance was not lost on the next wave of manga licensors.
Viz amassed an impressive roster of popular Japanese manga properties, which they would release themselves in several publishing formats. They solicited American-style comics to comic specialty shops and marketed thicker volumes and traditional Japanese digest size collections as “Graphic Novels” to mainstream bookstores. They eventually published an English-language version of Shonen Jump magazine, which they marketed to newsstands.
This multi-format plan thrived. By the early 2000s, English-language reprints of Japanese manga occupied a significant amount of shelf space at major book retailers and department stores across North America. New comic series were timed to coincide with DVD releases. Syndicated broadcast deals and the afterschool TV time slot had completely transformed from reruns of innocuous American sitcoms to two and three-hour programming blocks of Japanese anime. Comics like Ranma ½, AD Police, and 3×3 Eyes benefit from the elevated profile of daily afternoon cartoons and Original Video Animation, and Viz would see even greater success with Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and Yu Gi Oh.
The sweeping omnipresence of Anime had cultivated interest in the manga that inspired the animation. Thus, a cottage industry was born.
There is no doubt that this brought a massive new audience into comic book shops. Still, there was little crossover between the long-established collectors of superhero and alternative comics with this new, younger demographic that loved anime and manga. The sheer volume of new products in different formats proved massively profitable for publishers. However, it failed to attract rank and file comic book collectors whose buying habits were built upon scarcity. To Bronze and Copper Age fans, these books were reprints. In that era, reprints were rarely perceived to have value. Because those comics were overlooked back then, they may be great spec now. Especially when you weigh the cost of tracking down the original Japanese key issues.
The first appearance of Dragon Ball (and specifically of Goku, the series lead) is in issue #838 of Shueisha’s Weekly Shonen Jump –a telephone book-sized manga constructed of the cheapest newsprint you’ve ever seen. There is no such thing as a 9.8. Not since none of the third-party grading companies makes slabs that can fit anything this size. Even if they did? The cheapness of the paper and the near impossibility of keeping these books in decent shape would relegate the highest probable grade to around a 7.0.
Those sell for upwards of $7K in Japan. The raw copies that turn up on eBay for less (still in the $2k or above range). They would probably rate around a 4.0. That makes Viz Media’s Dragon Ball #1 a crazy bargain at $20 or less for a raw copy in NM. The last recorded sale of a CGC 9.8 for $125 was way back in 2017. It’s likely in today’s market that it could cost $400 at this point. But that would still be worthwhile. There are only 12 copies across all grades on the census, three of which are 9.8.
Note: Dragon Ball Z is the second series. It’s probably a good idea to go scouring for high-grade raw copies of those, too. Almost every issue is a key first appearance of a prominent character beloved to fans of the anime. It is literally just a matter of time before this gets a proper big-screen adaptation.
Last week in a ComicLink auction, a 1998 Sailor Moon #1 in CGC 9.8 hit $286. That’s only a bit higher than the listed FMV. This means that the next sale ought to crack $300, at least. Granted it wasn’t the pink foil SDCC variant, which logged two sales a year ago in 9.2 for less than $100, but now has two listed on eBay at $10k for a 6.0 and $20K for a 9.4. Most importantly, neither is the first US appearance of Naoko Takeuchi’s beloved magical girl guardian. That happened a year earlier in Mixx Zine #1. Mixx Zine #1 has no graded sale history nor even a mention on the registry.
Strange that no one has gotten one graded, since it also contains the first English Language publication of Iceblade, Parasyte, and Magic Knight Rayearth. Mixx #1 should be seen as the Marvel Super Special #16 of manga. In other words, drop whatever you are doing right now and seek it out. But don’t overlook other generation-defining titles either. Pokemon #1 is a $5-10 comic raw. I’ve never seen one graded. Yu Gi Oh #1 is probably even cheaper. Judging from the robust animation cel market, the nostalgia for these is massive. It’s only a matter of time before there is a price correction that reflects the global demand.