Holy sunflowers! How Batman drove Van Gogh out of town
As a rare first edition of an Action comic sells for a million dollars, Ed Power looks at how our enduring affection for superheroes has left the great masters in the shade
Not even The Joker could have dreamed up a get-rich scheme like it. Last month one enterprising geek inherited the earth when he auctioned an ultra-rare May 1939 first edition Batman comic for a record-smashing $1.075m.
Coincidentally, just three days earlier, another collector had stumped up $1m for Superman's first adventure, as contained in the 1938 debut of Action Comics -- a sale that had some brokers advising the clients to get out of gold and oil and sink their money into rare comics.
In addition to highlighting yet again the silly things grown men (few obsessives are women) will splurge hard cash on, the Superman and Batman auctions raise an intriguing question. How many of us are unknowingly sitting on a small fortune in comic books? Could faded leftovers from our childhoods bring us a windfall, as happened for the Superman and Batman collectors who became overnight millionaires?
"There is always a market for that kind of old comic," says David Herman of Dublin auction house Herman and Wilkinson. "As well as for children's annuals, kids' books -- all of that stuff. We have book auctions every week. Tomorrow we will sell maybe 10 or 15 old annuals."
If there was shock over the amounts paid at auction, nobody was too surprised that Superman and Batman, the alpha and omega of crime-fighting men who wear their underpants outside their trousers, were the ones to bam! pow! their way into the record books.
"We had long theorised that Action Comics No 1 would be the comic to break the million-dollar barrier," said JC Vaughn, behind the Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. He added that, while the the first edition of Action sold 130,000 copies, no more than 100 remain in existence.
"This has a lot to do with timing, the serendipity of the right events at the right time," said Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner of comic dealership Metropolis, which arranged the Superman sale. "I think you see people worried about the stock market and real estate and wondering what to invest in. For people who love this material or have the foresight to see years down the road, you realise this stuff is actually a great investment.
"Comic geeks and nerds from 20 years ago are now the cool guys who are hip to popular culture and who are doing well with their business," he told The Washington Post. "They don't want a Van Gogh or a Warhol or a Picasso. They want something that means something to them. Spiderman, Superman and Batman -- that's history to them. And in this country, we're a society built on popular culture."
Super-heroes didn't arrive in Ireland until the 1960s -- the rain is understood to have played havoc with their capes -- so it is unlikely anyone has unwittingly acquired a hard-to-get Superman or Batman. However, British strips such as Beano and Dandy have been popular since the 1930s, and your sepia collection of Denis the Menace and Desperate Dan strips might be worth more than you imagine.
That said, the chances that a stack of mint condition Beanos will turn you into a instant millionaire are slim. Though there is a healthy demand for hard-to-find editions of UK comics, the sums paid are nothing like as those fetched for Batman and Superman. In 2004, a collector in London splashed out a then-unprecedented £12,000 for a first-edition Beano -- hardly a trifle, but nearly one-hundredth of the asking price for Action Comics Number One. Only men in tights, it appears, command superhero prices.
Then again, not even the experts believed Superman and Batman would fetch such astronomical sums at auction. Indeed, just a year earlier another Action Comic first edition -- albeit in shabbier condition --went for less than one-third of last month's figure. This has led some to speculate that, in the same way that gold and other commodities are in a bubble, 'irrational exuberance' is leading to an overpriced comic book market.
It wouldn't be the first time. Back in the early 1990s, comic books went through the equivalent of the dot-com rise and crash, as aficionados around the globe sank millions on what they believed would turn out to be rare collector -- only to see the market collapse and their paper fortunes crumple overnight. When the smoke cleared they might be forgiven for thinking they had inhaled some of The Joker's laughing gas and gone temporarily insane.
"The crash of the comics collector market really killed off the whole collecting industry and in several years we will be back to the original situation of comics being cheap throwaway objects or moving with the times with downloadable content and people buying collected editions rather then single issues," says Irish comic illustrator and enthusiast Cliodhna Lyons.
The eye-popping amounts paid for some early comics are, she believes, an exception rather than a rule. "Pop culture icons like Superman and Batman will always sell as they have moved out of the comic fan-boy only scene into the larger pop culture scene. And even then it needs to be super early issues or major character development issues (someone dies/new villain appears, etc) -- simply because a comic is old doesn't mean it's worth anything."
She adds: "My general feeling is that the industry as a whole is changing not only in Ireland but worldwide. The people who buy comics as investments are slowly dying out and being replaced by a new breed of comic book fan -- those who are picking the books up for story and art and not for investment."
"As with all collectibles, rare and first issues of the big superhero comics are always going to go for eye watering sums of money," says Liam Geraghty, co-host of Dublin podcast, the 'Comic Cast'. "It's the same old story of having old junk in your attic and not realising its worth."
Collectors covet early editions of Superman and Batman not only for their intrinsic value but also for their historical significance. Along with jazz, skyscrapers, rock and roll and noir fiction, the comic book is a uniquely American art-form. Granted, France and Japan, among other nations, have thriving comic-book industries. However, only mid-20th century United States could have given the world larger-than-life heroes like Batman and Superman, characters who surely embody American life as deeply as Uncle Sam, JFK or Al Capone.
Like many of the things that made America great, comic books were largely the creation of immigrants -- in this case, Eastern European Jews forced to slum it in the low-rent world of cartoon strips because they were denied access to white shoe graphic design firms. For instance, Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were respectively the children of Jewish migrants from Latvia and refugees from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Batman creator Bob Kane was born Robert Kahn and was of Jewish Eastern European extraction, Of course, as with Superman, his creation was unambiguously non-ethnic and all-American.
Comic books had been around in one shape or another since the late Victorian period. But the genre's Golden Age began with World War Two, as US troops serving abroad turned to these cheap, disposable titles to pass the time -- in the process, introducing them to readers across Europe and Japan. Over the next 25 years, the majority of the heroes we know today -- Spiderman, The Hulk, The Fantastic 4 -- made their appearance, so that by the early 1960s, most of today's favourites were well established. If comic book protagonists seem to retain a black-and-white world view it is because most began their careers between the fall of Hitler and the end of the Cold War, when the good guys were wrapped in the stars and stripes and villains spoke in iffy Eastern European accents.
Why, you might wonder, does Ireland not have a more dynamic industry? After all, as a recent spate of Oscar nominations shows, we're no slouches when it comes to animation. Combine this with our rich literary tradition and you'd expect us to punch above our weight in comics. Other small countries, like Belgium and Croatia, have thriving indigenous scenes. And yet there is a howling silence were our comic industry should be.
Though we have yet to give the world an Irish caped crusader (the closest was Slaine the King in Britain's 2000AD), the country is home to a vibrant underground movement. If you don't know where to look, it could easily pass you by.
"While you won't find people shifting books for millions there are still lots of wonderful and beautiful Irish-made comics that people can pick up and enjoy for only a handful of euro," says Nolan.
"People don't realise that we have a lot of professional Irish comic book artists,"says Geraghty. "Declan Shalvey from Co Clare now living in Dublin is the artist on the official 28 Days Later comic, Dublin artist Stephen Thompson is the artist on Star Wars, Star Trek and Die Hard comics. Dublin's Bob Byrne, now living in Spain, draws regularly in 2000AD. Stephen Mooney, living in Meath, is drawing the upcoming A-Team comic based on the characters of the new film. Will Sliney in Co Cork draws the comics of Farscape. Wexford's Nick Roche draws and writes official Transformers comics. So we have a whole wealth of great comic book artists in this country."