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Comic Books

Discover how comic books made the leap into mainstream popularity.

Comic books are divided into four eras: The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age, and The Modern Age. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Comic books are divided into four eras: The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age, and The Modern Age.

Once regarded as lowbrow art and juvenile escapism, comic books have leapt into mainstream popularity in the last few decades. Comic book stories are regularly reprinted in graphic anthologies sold side by side with original graphic novels in bookstores or placed on library shelves. Universities such as Penn State and Cal State Northridge have even conducted classes on comic books as literature and serious studies of comic book history.

Although this level of popularity has fueled and been fueled by movies featuring such superheroes as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men, comic books have been popular with readers since the 1930s. Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw on the cover of the first issue of his comic book boosted the morale of the soldiers who would later fight during World War II as much as it entertained the children who would remain on the home front. Many who read comics as children or as soldiers became lifelong fans of the medium.

Comic Book Eras

Comic books originally began as a medium to reprint popular comic strips of the era, starting with the Yellow Kid in 1896. In 1935, "New Fun Comics" was the first comic book to feature original stories; the first costumed hero, Lee Falk's Phantom, appeared the following year. The popularity of both comic books and the superhero can be traced to one red-and-blue garbed figure who premiered in Action Comics #1 in June 1938 and ushered in a flood of imitators -- Superman.

Comic books can be divided into four publishing eras:

  • The Golden Age (1938-1955)
  • The Silver Age (1956-1969)
  • The Bronze Age (1970-1979)
  • The Modern Age (1980-present)

Golden Age stories tended to be simplistic tales of good versus evil, such as Captain Marvel preventing Dr. Sivana from becoming "the rightful ruler of the universe." Silver Age stories, while still simplistic, often dealt with social issues in allegorical ways, such as the X-Men's mutant nature serving as a commentary on racism. Bronze Age stories dealt with social issues more directly, such as Green Arrow's discovery that his former sidekick, Speedy, had become a drug addict. Modern Age stories often feature "grim and gritty" realism, such as in "The Dark Knight Returns," where a middle-aged, world-weary Batman returns to fighting crime in an anarchic Gotham City of the near future.

According to Heritage Auctions, the most collectible comic books are those published from 1938-1979 (that is, prior to the Modern Age). Many Golden Age comic books are hard to find due to World War II scrap drives and a public outcry against comic books that led to a number of comic book burnings in the latter half of the 1940s. One of comic books' leading opponents was Dr. Frederic Wertham, whose "Seduction of the Innocent," published in 1954, claimed that comic books promoted homosexuality, improper gender roles, scientific ignorance, and juvenile delinquency.

Collectible Comic Book Titles

Among the world's most valuable comic books listed at It's All Just Comics are the issues that feature the premiere or early appearances of the following seminal comic book characters:

  • Action Comics #1 (June 1938) -- Superman
  • Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) -- Batman
  • Superman #1 (Summer 1939) -- Superman's original story
  • Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939) -- The Human Torch and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner
  • Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) -- Spider-Man

Other valuable issues include All Star Comics #8 and Sensation Comics #1, which premiered Wonder Woman, the first successful superheroine; Detective Comics #38, which premiered Robin, the first junior sidekick; and All Star Comics #3, which premiered the first superhero team, the Justice Society of America.

Marvel Comics #1 was the first title published by Timely Comics. In the early 1960s, this company would rename itself after its publication to launch the careers not only of Spider-Man, but also the Fantastic Four and X-Men, among others. Similarly, "Detective Comics" #1, though less sought by collectors, lent its initials, DC, to the company that would publish Superman continuously for more than seven decades.

Not all of the most collected comic books are superhero comics. Pep Comics #22, in which the teenaged Archie Andrews premiered, is also sought after by collectors. In fact, Archie proved popular enough that his publishing company, MLJ, renamed themselves "Archie Comics" when his sales topped those of their superhero titles.

Determining Values for Comic Books

The condition of the comic book is another factor affecting how much a collector will pay for it. Determining the comic book's condition, or grade, has evolved from a loose set of standards to tight scrutiny as the market itself has evolved, spurred in part by the popularity of conventions devoted to comic books and their fans. Many comic books are grade-certified by Comics Guaranty, LLC (CGC), thus commanding higher prices than non-certified comics. Comic books that were once part of well maintained, or "pedigree" collections, such as those owned by Edgar Church, known as the "Mile High Collection," command still higher prices. In some cases, a lower-graded pedigree comic may command a higher price than a higher-graded comic book without a pedigree.

The industry bible for comic book prices is "The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide" by Robert M. Overstreet. It is available at bookstores and comic book shops, or online from its publisher, Gemstone Publishing, which also publishes a number of other works related to collecting and to the history of comic books. However, comic book prices can vary wildly between printed editions, so it is recommended that prospective collectors and sellers also check the online archives of auction houses that deal in comic books to get a more current handle on what a particular issue may be worth.

It should be noted that when looking up a comic book title in the Overstreet Guide or online, the correct place to look for title and publisher information is not on the cover but in the small print of the indicia on the inside cover or title page.

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