A collection of comics spread out across the floor

In Defense of Slabs and Comics Collecting

I don’t own a single slabbed comic. I have no plans on buying one.

The closest I’ve ever come to getting one of my comics slabbed was the day I realized I owned a copy of “Batman Adventures” #12, which is Harley Quinn’s first appearance in comics. I like the issue, but it’s worth hundreds of dollars more inside of plastic with a numerical grade on it.

I’d gladly take the tall dollars for it to buy a bunch of other hardcover books in an instant. And then I’d spend a dollar to buy a digital copy of the book to read, if I ever had the desire.

I’m thinking about all the Artist’s Edition books from IDW that I could buy with that one sale and I start drooling…

Right now, the comic sits in a bag and board in a long box. I’m too lazy to send it out to CGC.

The Slab Hyperbole

A variety of Marvel Avengers characters comics in snug mylar sleeves
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

There are those who condemn the practice of slabbing comics.

They think it turns the comics industry into a tool of collectors instead of readers.

Slabbing comics renders them inert. It kills their very purpose — to be read.

This is where I come in to take a very strong stance against taking a very strong stance. I think some of that hyperbole is silly. But I also think some of the slabbing practices are silly.

Do You Slab Comics You Want To Read?

Slabbing comics makes it impossible to read them.

It’s 2021. Are you seriously buying “Detective Comics” #27 to read on a lazy Sunday afternoon? No, you’re collecting it. It’s a very expensive comic. Why would you want to risk destroying it? The slightest wrong move with that book, and it drops in value by tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s been reprinted multiple times by now. You have your choice to read it in hardcover, paperback, or digital formats.

If you want to own that object and keep it in good shape, slabbing it is the best way to go. Like it or not, with dollar figures that high, it is an investment.

It’s For Collectors, Not Readers

Man holding a Silver Surfer comic book in a mylar sleeve
Photo by Jonathan Cooper on Unsplash

There’s nothing wrong with being a collector.

I collected baseball cards before I collected comics. I can tell you I didn’t spend all afternoon reading stats on the backs of those slabs of cardboard. I carefully arranged and organized the cards in 9-slot plastic sheets. I didn’t put them in the spokes of a bicycle wheel so they’d make a funny sound.

I bet you collect something, too. Maybe it’s statues. Or action figures. Or classic comics — you want that string of comics that are hard to find from that favorite creator or character.

You don’t read those books every day. You don’t play with those figures every day. You put them in a careful place to preserve them. You hang them on a wall or a display them on a shelf or organize and arrange them to keep things “neat.”

Many of us are collectors to one degree or another, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

I collect less now than ever, but there are parts of my collection that I cling to in the name of “collecting” more than reading. I could probably cut my physical collection down another 80% and replace it as I go with digital books to read, but there’s a small part of me that still enjoys owning a collection.

When I buy old French comics magazines, I’m very careful to pick ones that I want to own forever and ever — the ones with pages from specific stories I like that I already own in album form. While some of those purchases are write-offs for articles I’ve written on this website, I admit that I’m doing a little bit of “collecting” here.

Thankfully, the ones I buy are not expensive. People in France probably look at me cross-eyed for wanting to own these throwaway magazines from their parents’ youth. For me, a lot of the joy of owning them is in seeing how the material was originally published and all the ads that surrounded them and the forgotten comic characters and all the rest.

I won’t be getting my comic books graded and slabbing them. They’re not worth enough to justify it, and I want to be able to flip through them at any time. (But, then, I’m also not paying the big money necessary for the first Smurfs or Asterix appearance…)

I, too, am a collector. I’m primarily a reader, but I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m buying these items to own as much as I am to read.

Slabs for Collecting

CGC Logo

I understand the desire to collect slabbed comics. I can understand that spark of adrenaline when you send a book out and you can’t wait to see what grade it comes back in.

The world has always graded comics, by the way. That’s nothing new. It just used to be filled with slightly more vague, hand-waving terms like “Mint” and “Near Mint” and something called “Very Fine +”. (That one is splitting hairs, I always thought.)

It’s slightly more rigorous with the scales of a CGC involved. The grading is more repeatable. People can trust it more. In theory. From what I’ve seen and read, most serious slabbers acknowledge that they’re the best comic book grading service.

It actually makes collecting more “fair” in a way. With a third party doing the grading without a special interest in what those grades are, it makes them more honest.

And, if you’re a collector, it means you can work on trading up to higher graded editions of those special comics you’re super serious about collecting.

There’s no different between slabbed comics and those baseball cards of my youth. Plastic sleeve, protection, organization, etc.

Standards

If there’s one positive benefit to this, it’s also that there are transparent standards in grading comics. In theory, that’s always been so. I think Overstreet used to publish a short guide to grading comics in its price guides back in the day. I don’t know if they still do that or not. But there were little pictures that gave a general range of things that could help or hurt a grade, and lead to a Very Good vs Very Fine vs Near Mint.

However, having a 10 point grading scale is a lot easier to understand. And having standards that are well know in the community and easy to reproduce is huge. It helps to even out the playing field, even if it can also inadvertently inflate values. That’s not the grading system’s fault. That’s the market’s fault.

I think it does help the hobby to have such a standard. Back issues and collecting have always been a part of the Direct Market era of comics collecting. You can’t and shouldn’t ignore that. These standards only help to keep things more consistent. That’s not a bad thing.

Choose your standards wisely, though. The market only went wildly astray when it trusted the price guide in the back of Wizard.

(CGC has a loose description of what the numbers mean in their guides. Heritage, the auction house that has the most serious volume for sellers of high grade comics, has its own comic grading guide you can read. Its descriptions track with everything I’ve seen over the years. They also marry the numbers to the common descriptions of Mint/Very Fine/Good/etc.)

Where Things Do Go Awry

Incredible Hulk comic book framed and hung on the wall
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

I don’t understand people who buy two of every comic on Wednesday with the intention of having one reading copy and one slabbed copy.

I don’t get the urge to jump and have the latest event book graded the week after it’s released, speculating on a future where it might be worth something.

That’s the new speculation. And it starts to distort the market. It causes prices to skyrocket for little to no good reason, shutting honest collectors out of the market with higher prices.

But it goes back to not-so-old comics, also. You know that Hulk cover by Todd McFarlane that has Hulk reflected in Wolverine’s claws? In the last six months that book has quadrupled in value. In near-perfect shape, it’s worth almost $2,000.

It’s a good comic. It’s an iconic cover.

But two grand?!? Heck, even the $400 price tag on it last fall seemed a bit high, but now the speculators are speculating on top of themselves and driving prices to artificial heights.

That’s the thing that amuses/scares me the most. People are going to eventually get wiped out by this. It’s a circular firing squad of speculation.

The Condition Catch

But, to look at it from the other side, those ridiculous prices only hold on books that are in near perfect condition. You need a book with a CGC 9.8 grade on them to fetch those rates. Take a look at the values of any of those comics and you’ll see how precipitously their values drop with every two-tenths of a point degradation.

It truly is rare to find 9.8 copies of comics, even the most highly printed ones.

Think about it — these books come off printing presses, get packed into boxes, are shipped to a distributor, are picked and packed into new boxes and shipped to comic shops. The comic shop employees then touch all of those boxes and every single comic to rack them on the shelves or put them in folders for people with pull lists. Customers paw through the books on the stands. Someone touch every book looking for the one in the best condition. Then they hand it to the person running the register, who throws them in a bag. Then you take them home, grab them out of the bag, open them up to read them, stuff them in a bag and board, and slide them into a box that hopefully is just tight enough to prevent the comic from sliding down and getting bent.

It’s a miracle any comic can still be in Mint or 9.8 condition after all of those hands have touched it.

Supply and demand. You pay for rarity. You pay more for rarity of an item that people want.

And you’d pay more for a book that you know will stay in that condition through your term of ownership, since it’s graded and sealed up in a way that it can’t degrade. (Sure, you can put a bullet through one or stab it with something pointy or sink it to the bottom of the ocean for a decade, but in general practice, you’re safe.)

[For more on this topic, check out the 72nd episode of the Pipeline Comics podcast.]

The New Normal a/k/a “It’s the Internet, Jake”

The internet has changed the world, and often in ways we might not realize just yet. Sometimes, we don’t realize how the tool changes the system until it’s too late.

This speculative round of interest in comics is fueled by the internet. A new generation of people are looking for ways to “Make Money Fast, On-Line!” Comic books are not alone on this. Look at what’s happening across all sport cards now. Check out the insanity surrounding Pokemon cards. These are, in theory, low entry points with the potential for high returns.

You can see this same thing happening across multiple markets at the same time: Pokemon cards, sports cards, comics, sneakers, vintage video games, coins, etc. The world is fractured, and the same thing can happen across multiple markets. One learns lessons from the other.

When I was growing up, the speculators had just left the stamps market and moved into baseball cards. When that market slowed down, they moved into comic books. When comics imploded, they went somewhere else. Maybe Beanie Babies?

The internet is the great equalizer in many ways.

It’s the internet playing the arbitrage game. We live in an era where you can buy something off the clearance rack at Target and sell it for twice the price on eBay or Amazon. People buy from Amazon and sell on the Facebook Marketplace.

Buying this week’s issue of Batman featuring a new character for $4.99 could net you $20 the next day, or $100 next year.

And let’s face it, it’s easier to learn the ins and outs of the comic book market that you’ve been involved with since childhood than it is to study the stock market and all of its eccentricities.

To a certain degree, this is never going to go away now, unless comics as a whole go away. There have always been collectors. There have always been speculators. But now there are the tools and the online marketplaces that make these industries profitable.

As with all economies, there will be ebbs and flows. The numbers driving the market right now seem crazy, and it won’t take long before the Shorts realize they’re not getting their money’s worth and go away. The Longs will stay in the game and maintain the marketplace, at a lower level than those highs. Eventually, a new generation of Shorts will return and goose the market when they think it’s low, thus artificially inflating it and causing another correction. The circles go on and on.

Welcome to economics and free markets.

[For more on this topic, check out the 73rd episode of the Pipeline Comics podcast.]

Judge Not Lest Ye Etc. Etc.

This is why I don’t judge people who collect comics differently from the way I do.

Yes, comics are made to be read. License plates are made to show proof of registration and ownership on the car its attached to. Coins are money to be spent. Stamps get your birthday car to your dear Aunt Bertha five states away.

Beanie Babies. American Girl dolls. Pokemon cards. Wine labels and corks. Pens. Playing card decks.

The list goes on and on.

They’re all made for one useful purpose, and they’re all also all collectible. That’s the way the world works. Comics is big enough to embrace both the collectors and the readers, but small enough to need them both to survive.

Blame the Publishers (and a Baseball Analogy)

If you want to stop the bad behavior in collecting, cut off their supply. Start with the publishers who can’t sell comic books to readers anymore, can’t grow their audience, and rely on milking the collectors markets with dozens of alternate covers every week to artificially create demand so they can hit their quarterly sales projections at any cost.

Imagine a world in which comics were valued because of their actual scarcity and their importance, not the artificially limited 1 in a 1000 covers meant to fake sales statistics.

On the other hand, alternate covers are the designated hitters of the comics world: For popular artists who can’t make deadlines anymore, you create a new market where they can skip the grinding work of fielding ground balls or shagging flies, and just let them have the glory of showing up to swing at a few pitches. All the glory, less of the physical exhaustion.

Think of all the ruined careers if “cover artist” wasn’t a commonplace profession in comics…

P.S.

If you thought “floppy” was a horrible term for comics, I can only imagine what you think about “raw comics”…

Bonus: Fun With CGC Add-On Products!

While working on this article, I chanced across a few products that made me scratch my head and, if I’m being honest, laugh out loud. I may have even snarked on Twitter, since that’s what it’s there for.

Turns out, there’s a whole ecosystem of products around CGC-graded comics that make little to no sense to me.

Maybe one of you slabbers reading this will love these ideas and jump to buying these things. Go for it. This website is a safe space for you.

The Folio for Your Slab

First, there’s this CGC Slab Holder. Because sometimes you need a holder for your holder for your comic book:

a folio case that holds one cgc comic

For $25, you can buy this handsome folio protective carrying case. It holds a grand total of one slabbed comic. It has a felt lining and a sewn-in bookmark that you can use to pop the comic free, like a battery that’s been stuffed too tightly into a child’s toy.

It doesn’t come with a handle or a strap or anything else. It’s just a case to carry your case that carries your comic.

$25. God bless America.

The Ultimate Case for Your Case(s)

If the comic you’re carrying with you is one that’s worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, then I might see the value in overprotecting it to a ridiculous degree. If that’s your need, don’t worry: the folks at Pelican have you covered. Naturally.

Here’s your CGC Pelican Case:

Pelican case holding a slabbed CGC graded first appearance of Thor comic

It will run you $199, but it’s far superior to that simple folio case. For starters, this case will hold up to four slabbed comics. In case you’re carrying fewer than four, though, it comes with inserts to fill up that dead space so the comics don’t shift around during carrying.

The Label for Your Label

Finally, there’s a labelling system you can buy.

A collection of graded labels with new labels over top of them to indicate the plain English grading term.

You place these labels on top of the CGC labels so the new label will read “Near Mint-” just about the “9.2”.

Gee whiz, people, just pick a system and stick to it!

In case you’re curious, only 10 and 9.9 CGC-graded comics are considered truly Mint. A 9.8 is a meager Mint/Near Mint. Very Fine+ starts at an 8.5.

All the other products I’ve found have been variations of comic stands, ways to hang comics on walls, and storage boxes. Those make sense to me. Some of the plastic storage bins they have are actually kind of nice looking for what they do.

But the idea of a single-CGC folio still makes me laugh…

(That last link goes to Amazon. I’m an affiliate. If you buy from that link, I make enough money to pay 1/100th of the postage needed to ship a comic to CGC. It won’t cost you a dime extra.)

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

2 Comments

  1. My goodness, I didn’t realise how much of a cash cow CGC thinks some people are.
    First of all, slabbing books is a sin.
    Second, this senseless speculation, as it’s been analysed here in European Business journals, is caused by quantitative easing, western central banks flooding markets with cash to keep inflation down. So there is too much money around and not enough ¨proper¨ investments.
    Last time it happened was 2008, remember that?
    So some idiots stack up on this and crazy pieces of virtual art on the internet. I forgot the acronym for that ungodly concept. As if Roy Lichtenstein hadn’t done enough damage already.
    But if I want to read Detective #27 I have a tough choice to make because the Archives/omnibus are being reproduced in a way very unfaithful to the original, recolored in the most ugly fashion, on shiny paper that hurts the eye, sometimes the art traced, tampered with to say the least. So the best way to enjoyit as it was intended is to find a reading copy. But even that is out of reach for most. Hence the dilemma.
    Luckily I have about 12 bookstores here in Bruxelles within walking distance. So I’m good 😉
    Just running out of shelf space, somehow…

  2. Yeah I tend to laugh at spending all that money to buy something in a plastic case.

    Some day, I’ll go through my boxes of comics to sort them out, see what I can toss because I now have a trade of it, and maybe I’ll have some gem that would be worth the hassle of getting slabbed.
    Who knows, maybe those Frank Miller variant covers to All-Star Batman & Robin might be worth something.
    I’m sure I have some 90s #1 or first appearance I’ll never read again that could be valuable if they’re still in minty enough condition. Do people still care about Witchblade and Darkness? haha

    CGC usually has a table at the local comic cons, something to think about for next time maybe.

    If anything, I’d like to have a few cherished comics neatly framed for display, but that definitely wouldn’t be in an ugly thing with a ratings sticker on it.