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YOUR MONEY | PERSONAL FINANCE / KATHY M. KRISTOF

Some Comic Books Become Gold Mines; Others Just Become Old

March 02, 1997|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Two young boys came into Marian Costa's collectible store one recent day and purchased a comic book. A day later they were back, inquiring about how much it was worth. The duo, well aware of the rapid rise in value of some cartoon adventures, were convinced their book must have at least doubled or tripled in value during the 24-hour period.

Such is the level of speculative fury in the comic book market these days, sighs Costa, co-owner of Another World Comics & Books in Los Angeles.

Fueled by a handful of sales of classic comic books at six-digit prices--one premier "Superman" issue, for example, recently sold for $150,000 and the detective book that introduced Batman went for a tidy $105,000--an avid group of speculators are taking a look at comics for their financial, rather than literary, rewards.

Under the right circumstances, the rewards can be great. But those circumstances are rare, says Stephen Fishler, owner of Metropolis, a New York-based comic book retailer that sold the two classic issues at six-digit prices.

Most of the time, the comic books you buy today will be worth the same tomorrow, the next week, the next month and for decades into the future--if you take good care of them. But occasionally the value of a rare old book--or of a particularly hot new one--will skyrocket.

Consider "Bone," an adventure about a group of blobby little creatures that meets with a host of frightening and funny incidents after it sets out from Boneville. The first issue came out in July 1991 and cost $2.95. It's worth $250 today, says Maggie Thompson, editor of Comics Buyer's Guide, a weekly newspaper covering the industry. Any one of the first three issues of this series is worth more than $100, she says.

Another early 1990s comic, "Evil Ernie," sells for about $125--roughly a fiftyfold increase over its initial cover price, Thompson notes. And the first issue of "Cavewoman"--also only a few years old--is worth $75. Kurt Busiek's "Astro City," launched in August 1995, has quadrupled in value, selling for about $12 today, Thompson say.

Another new comic, "Rich Blade," has so struck the public's fancy that the first issue--and there have only been 12 so far--is going for $30--10 times its cover price, Costa says.

"There is something that just happens when a comic book hits the public's fancy," she says. "If something is really good, it just lasts and lasts."

But the books that are really valuable today are old classics from the "golden" and "silver" ages of comics, experts say. The golden age was the 1930s and '40s, when some of today's most popular characters--including Superman--were introduced. The silver age ushered in Spiderman and a host of ancillary characters and superheroes. Thompson says those books could easily be auctioned at Sotheby's or Christies at prices exceeding $25,000.

"If you put $1,000 into the right books in 1982, you would have done remarkably better than somebody who put $1,000 into the stock market--despite the bull market," Fishler says.

Might you--or your child--have a comic book in a closet or under the bed that could finance a college education? Perhaps, says Fishler. But that's unlikely unless the comic book is fairly old, very rare and in great condition.

By and large, the books that are the most valuable are those from the 1930s and '40s. A good portion of their value comes from the fact that few are still around--and few in good enough condition to sell. Many of these books were lost by the kids who bought them, were tossed out by mothers or simply wore out. Books that are ripped or stained or missing pages generally aren't particularly valuable, even if rare.

And even a very old book may be worthless if it has no historical significance. Those that sell for top dollar tend to be the ones that introduced a popular character or launched a lasting series. Books that fall into the middle of an unremarkable run rarely become worth more than the paper they were printed on.

Think you might have one that's worth a mint? The best way to check is to find a comic book price guide in a bookstore or library. The industry's bible is the "Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide," which lists literally thousands of titles, what they sold for new and what they would list for today based on their condition--good, fine or near-mint.

Meanwhile, if you want to start collecting now, the thing to do is to become a comic book aficionado. Hang out in comic book stores; read and chatt with other buyers. Look for good characters, good stories, clever writing, attractive illustrations and humor. That way, even if the book never appreciates, at least you may have enjoyed reading it.

Kathy M. Kristof welcomes your comments and suggestions. Write to her in care of Personal Finance, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or e-mail kathy.kristof@latimes.com

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