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John Jackson Miller and other pop culture archaeologists interested in comics history.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Million-dollar Action #1 copy was once one-in-200,000

by John Jackson Miller

I've observed here that the comics industry isn't so much "recession-proof" as it is insulated from external market forces. When things go very right — or very wrong — it's usually been due to internal factors. The reason the "recession-proof" term started to be associated with comics has nothing to do with new comics publishing at all — but, rather, the secondary market for truly scarce comics. And that, as we see with today's announcement of a $1 million private sale for Action Comics #1, seems to be showing its usual vigor in the face of broader economic problems. Where Superman's first appearance is concerned, money remains not much of an object.

The sale, brokered by Stephen Fishler and Vincent Zurzolo's (an affiliate of Metropolis Comics), involves a CGC 8.0 (Very Fine) copy of Action #1 that had been in a private collection for 15 years. And while it's probably not, as Zurzolo says, "the single most important event in comic book history”  — the actual creation of Action #1 would be on a list of candidates for that — it's still pretty big news. An Action #1 in 6.0 (Fine) went for $317,200 last year; this is more than three times that. It's been known for some time there was a standing $1 million offer for the best-condition copy — and while this isn't quite the best copy, it's awfully close.

How long has a million-dollar offer been around? At least since the summer of 2001, when Richard Evans, owner of Houston's Bedrock City Comics, mentioned it at a forum on the aftermarket that I organized at Comic Con International: San Diego. "At some point," Evans said, "certain comics are going to reach a price ceiling where it they are going to become museum quality items. If the guy who owned the nicest Action #1 put it on the table, well, there’s already an offer of $1 million. I don’t think it would be any stretch of the imagination to believe that that guy’s offer is low." (The forum in its entirety appeared in Comics Buyer's Guide #1451.) Now, there's no telling whether the ComicConnect buyer is the same potential buyer mentioned back then, or someone else — but it's clearly not the first time Action's been picked as the first book to hit the $1 million mark.

The news release states that "only about 100 copies Action Comics #1 remain in existence, and of those 100, only two [including the one sold] have received a grading of 8.0." The CGC Census lists 42 copies of Action #1, including an unrestored 8.5 (VF+) and three restored copies above 8.0 (one 9.0 and one 8.5) — but restored copies are not generally as commercially desireable, and it's unclear whether the population report includes duplication due to comics being removed from their holders. That said, 100 existent copies overall sounds about right to me — my instinct is that even with this kind of high-profile book, probably as many copies are unslabbed and/or undiscovered as are graded by CGC.

How many copies of Action #1 originally existed? According to Audit Bureau of Circulation data detailed here, in January 1939, several months after Action #1 was released, all the issues on sale from the Detective Comics Group had combined sales of 709,379 copies. That group in that month for the ABC included four titles:
• Detective Comics  • More Fun Comics  • Action Comics  • Adventure Comics

...and any issues that shipped that month would combine for the 709,379. Now, we can't really link up specific issue numbers to these titles, because the cover months and the auditing months might not be the same. But we know that at this time, all four books were monthly. So we're looking at a four-way split, and so by January 1939 — when, even with post-dated covers, Action probably would still have been in high single digit issue numbers, the title wasn't likely selling much more than 250,000 copies. Newsstand draws on the first issue likely would probably have been less, probably landing closer to 200,000.

This isn't to say that that many four-color lottery tickets are still out there — comics were notoriously disposable in those days, and interceding paper drives did away with many of our pop cultural artifacts. If anything, Action #1 is among the most hunted-for-and-found comics, so if the 100 copies figure is accurate, we're looking at a "survival rate" of 0.05% — and that's of copies in any condition. But there are reasons hunting for old comics remains an important part of our comics-collecting pastime — and stories like this are one of them. Comics are about reading, sure enough — but if you're headed to an estate sale, it doesn't hurt to bring along an Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide just in case...

Update 4/5/12: As Mark Seifert notes in the comments, the specific issue of Action #1's sales came up in Detective Comics, Inc. vs. Bruns (Fox) Publications. The whole testimony can be found here, along with some interesting detail about when the issue went on sale and other distribution-related trivia, but the specific reference regarding the sales of Action #1 and #2 can be found here.

So the issue was still one of 200,000 -- 202,000, specifically -- with sales of 130,000, with draws on #2 at 211,000 and sales of 136,000. That suggests that while it was a steeper climb to reach the January 1939 numbers, it was already on its way. Thanks for the tip, Mark!
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Mark Seifert said...

In Detective Comics Inc v Bruns (the Wonder Man lawsuit in 1939), Jack Liebowitz confirmed on the stand that Action 1 sold 130,000 copies from a print run of 202,000

John Jackson Miller said...

Yep, that would seem to settle it. From the last page of his redirect:

So the issue was still one of 200,000 -- 202,000, specifically -- with sales of 130,000, with drawns on #2 at 211,000 and sales of 136,000. That suggests that while it was a steeper climb to reach the January 1939 numbers, it was already on its way.

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