One thing that book collecting and comic books certainly have in common is the vagaries of grading. And I don’t mean that as a pejorative. It’s just that how do you really qualify a set of often subjective standards beyond a general set of guidelines? Of course, that hasn’t stopped comic books from going the route of coins and baseball cards by being sealed in plastic and assigned a grade. Would it work for books? Who am I to say at this point in my far-from-illustrious bookselling career, but I can tell you a little about what it has done to the comic books market.
First off, grading any type of collectables is an art. The time it takes to make an accurate assessment varies greatly, but it seems to me, books and comics share a similar level of scrutiny as compared with, say, a vase or chair. Aside from the occasional near perfect copy, most comic and books have a variety of blemishes . A sizable tear to one collector is a tiny tear to another, moderate rubbing might also be called light, and sunning has so many varying degrees that you would need a Pantone color chart to accurately describe them all. Making an accurate assessment takes time and experience.
Where comics and books appears to vary on the grading front, at least on the outset, is the addition of a dustwrapper. And while it does add an additional layer of grading, the split grade (Fine/Near Fine) makes the process pretty clear and concise. What I see as the biggest difference is the level of attention paid to even the tiniest detail, which the grading of comics, called slabbing, has accelerated.
When I was a lad, comic grades were like book grades; good, very good, fine, very fine, near mint. Slabbing ushered in a numeric system similar to coin collecting that directly corresponds to the descriptive grades while also greatly expanding them. The numbers range from 1 to 10, along with half numbers to 9.0, then .2 increments to 9.8, and .1 increments up to 10. The numbered system doubled the quantifiable grades with a special emphasis on extremely high-grade copies. That created a shift in grading focus to the most miniscule of blemishes, scraps and abrasions, which now can drop a comic several tenths or half a point, dramatically affecting the value of some comics. Let me explain.
While the price of any of the highest graded comics (9.2 and higher, depending on ) can bring many multiples of the near mint price, the real insanity is in modern comics. Some of these high-grade, but nevertheless very plentiful, examples have cause otherwise sane people to spend ridiculous amounts of money in their quest for perfection, a.k.a. 10.0. Case in point: A slabbed 10.0 copy of New Mutants 98, the first appearance of a character named Deadpool and still available everywhere unslabbed for $50-$60, just sold to a collector for over $12,000.
Some collectors and dealers love slabbing, now in its 10th year, because it is a universal standard and each comic submitted is given a restoration check. Others abhor the practice because slabbed comics can no longer be handled and are now just objects – for irrational buyers to overpay for. The only positive is that it makes online purchasing more reliable because even if you don’t stand behind either slabbing service, their grading is often more accurate than many amateur graders.
Do I like the practice? I’m not sure. It creates ridiculous expectations and silly decisions making by collectors. Am I above submitting a book? No, I’ve had fairly good success as the two accompanying pictures show. Would slabbing ever work for book collectors? I don’t know, but where there’s money to be made there’s always a possibility. This really is a topic for others far more knowledgeable persons to discuss, such as our own Dan Gregory. Take it away Dan…