Comic-book heroes with strange and mysterious powers first appeared at the end of the Great Depression, and have since become an established part of American culture. Their early adventures are now hugely collectable.
American comics have always been different. Where British ones tended to be loosely bound, monochrome creations, mainly aimed at children, their transatlantic counterparts were smaller, full-colour, stapled magazines ('comic books') that appealed to teenagers and young adults.
Comic books focussed on action stories, with tales of cowboys, detectives, soldiers or figures based on popular movie heroes. Then, in I 93~, Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, made his debut in issue 27 of Action Comics, published by DC comics.
The immediate impact of the Man of Steel led other publishers to rush to create their own versions. What might have been a passing fad was given a boost when the USA entered World War 2 in 1941. Suddenly, rather than besting ordinary denizens of the underworld, superheroes faced the challenge of Japanese spies and Nazi saboteurs. The adventures of heroes like Captain America were followed by GIs as well as their younger brothers.
The Golden Age of superhero comics came to an end in the late 1940s, when there was a fad for horror comics. These soon ran up against the innate conservatism of the 1950s; the resulting furore led to the setting up of a censorship body, the Comics Code Authority, in
1954. The Comics Code affected superhero titles as well as horror. Humour and romance comics flourished and the bland superhero comics that did survive - mostly from DC were aimed at younger children.
The second coming of superhero comics known to collectors as the Silver Age - was ushered in by Marvel Comics, who challenged the supremacy of DC's Batman and Superman in two ways. They set up a jokey rapport with their readers, addressing them directly, and introduced superheroes with personalities and problems; Spiderman's alter-ego, for instance, was a bookish, nerdy misfit who was shy with girls. Marvel also revived Golden Age characters such as Captain America with new twists to their personalities.
The first comic in this new style, The Fantastic Four, was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the driving forces behind Marvel; both had been in the industry since the 1940s. DC responded in kind and American superheroes hit a new high of popularity, cemented when comic books particularly mystical titles such as Marvel's Silver Surfer - were adopted by the hippy counter-culture at the end of the 1960s. They have since gone from strength to strength.
In the 1940s, superheroes won the war for the Allies flzany times over, but in the 1960s and after they took on mythic villains whose powers almost matched but never surpassed their own.
Though superhero comics do have an investment potential, it's a complex market, and if you don't have an interest in them as an art form, or simply a good read, you'd be better off not collecting them. If you are interested, though, they can make an absorbing hobby.
It can be fun to pick up odd issues of different titles, but most collectors settle on some particular favourite and try to amass a complete run. Some comics only had a short life, so this is fairly easy, but other titles are a real challenge; The Amazing Spiderman and The Fantastic Four are close to 400 issues, while Superman has racked up 500 appearances in his own title alone. It's possible to collect a favourite artist, though the best will have been associated with thousands of issues and dozens of titles in their careers.
TOMORROW'S HITS TODAY
Specialist dealers are the best place to look for collectable comics, as well as the new issues that may be the collectables of tomorrow. Comics fairs and mail-order sales and auctions are other good sources, while comic books sometimes still turn up in boot sales, jumble sales, flea markets and the like, though rarely in collectable condition. It may be worthwhile looking through attics and cupboards for old copies squirrelled away in childhood, though these will probably have deteriorated unless stored with care. Comics were printed as throwaway items, using very cheap grades of paper. They generally brown, chip and decay unless kept in a special environment.
Condition is very important. Comics are graded for sale on a scale which ranges from mint down through near mint, very fine, fine, very good, good, fair and poor to coverless.
Copies from very good down tend to be seen as reading copies only; fine comics, the minimum collectable grade, should be clean, flat, with no marks on the cover, and no writing anywhere. Slight wear is acceptable at the edges or around the spine. The pages should not be significantly yellowed.
Chipping (flaking at the outer edge of the cover seen on Marvel comics from the 1960s), creases and small tears, obtrusive price stamps on the cover, rolled spines, rust marks around the staples or loose centre pages all devalue a comic. Issues with missing pages, cut-out coupons and so on are virtually worthless.
Keep valuable comics in individual plastic bags, which should not be airtight. These can be bought from dealers. Ideally they should be stored upright, stiffened by acid-free backing boards, in a dark, cool, and not too dry place.
There's more to enjoy in comics than the stories and artwork alone. The small ads appearing in Gold and Silver Age comics are a treasure trove of frankly bizarre novelty products.
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