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Holy plastic slab!

It's not superpowers that make comic book heroes untouchable today. It's the stiff sleeves that render them unreadable and more valuable.

August 21, 2007|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

REMEMBER when comic books were considered too juvenile to be read? Now it appears that they have become too valuable to be touched.

A company in Sarasota, Fla., has created a sensation among collectors by taking their comic books, both rare vintage issues and brand-new ones, and encasing them in plastic slabs that make them both unreadable and instantly more valuable.

The Captain Marvel and Donald Duck comic books that arrive at the offices of the Certified Guaranty Co. are treated like archival treasures of the highest order -- armed sentries guard the lobby, technicians and appraisers wear latex gloves as they carefully examine each page and a sophisticated sonic device is used to seal the books up in the sturdy plastic containers that some collectors call "coffins."

Depending on the age and pedigree of the book being appraised and "slabbed," CGC charges from $12 to $1,000 for its services and, in upcoming months, the 7-year-old company will slab its 1 millionth comic book. That book may be a 60-year-old issue of Detective Comics that costs as much as a Porsche but it could also be the latest $3 issue of World War Hulk -- about half of the books that come to CGC now are fresh from the printer and probably 80% of them have never been read.

All of this seems like heresy to many old-line comic book purists.

"It's changed the nature of the hobby, it's turned comic books into a medium of exchange instead of a medium of entertainment," groaned James Friel, who works at Comic Relief, the longtime landmark store in Berkeley. To Friel, who has been collecting comics since 1958, "it makes these books a sealed-up commodity. You can't read them. It makes me sad. Some of these books will be sealed up forever."

Frank Miller, arguably the most important comic book artist of the last two decades, has seen plenty of fans lock up his books in the slabs in recent years and he shakes his head at the whole concept.

"I think it's all pretty silly," said Miller, whose graphic novels "300" and "Sin City" have led to major Hollywood success stories. "But I'm of a generation that love the feel and smell of these ephemeral old leaflets. . . . Maybe it will get to the point where I can put out comics that have blank pages inside -- just covers -- and no one will notice."

The slabs are made with two sheets of thick, stiff plastic, and the books inside are encased in a thin, heat-sealed interior sleeve as well. A label inside the archival slab has a CGC hologram, a unique bar code and a description of its condition with a numeric grade. The overall package is as sturdy as a plastic clipboard and lands with a clatter if you drop it on the floor.

The CGC success story is not based on just the plastic "coffins" -- it's also the company's introduction of a 25-point scale for grading the condition of comics. That new standard has brought a precision to the once-subjective hobby that has inspired a wave of investments by non-collectors. In other words, lots of people who don't know the difference between Green Lantern and Green Arrow are now buying slabbed comics and putting them in safe-deposit boxes.

"With our grading, it's much easier for novices to come and buy valuable comic books and know what they are getting," said Steven Borock, the president and primary grader at CGC. "In essence, what we offer is the cheapest insurance in the world. If you're buying a $5,000 comic book, why wouldn't you send us the book to be sure it's what you think it is? There is a long, long history of people getting ripped off."

And Borock should know: The reason he has his job now is that once upon a time he was the naive collector getting ripped off.

It's a sad day when a starry-eyed fanboy finds out that, in real life, truth and justice are not always the American way. For Borock, that heartbreak moment came in the mid-1980s after he decided to sell vintage issues of the Amazing Spider-Man and the Brave & the Bold that he had been buying at comic-book conventions through the years. That's when the Brooklyn native discovered that many of his most prized issues had been doctored with acrylic paint, glue and paper patches to disguise their flaws.

The surreptitious surgery made Borock's books into kryptonite on the collector's market. "They were worth about $16,000 less than I paid," Borock recalled with a groan. "If I wasn't such a die-hard fanatic the whole experience would have chased me out of the hobby."

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