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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Was there a flaw in the Action Comics No. 1 grading?

Action Comics No. 1 sold on E-Bay on Sunday for $3.2 million, the most ever paid for a comic book. By far. And comic collectors are wondering how this specific comic, which was once rated in a lower condition, could have gotten better with age.

Action Comics No. 1 is known to collectors as the Mona Lisa of comics. Published by D.C. Comics in 1938 with a cover price of 10 cents, it features the first appearance of Superman. But, unlike the Mona Lisa, there is more than one. The copy sold Sunday is one of three believed to exist in a condition that is considered near-mint or better. And, like the other high-value copies of this issue, this one carries its share of intrigue and controversy.

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But first, it’s important to know what makes a comic valuable.

Significance of the issue is foremost; the first appearance of a series or a major character is paramount. Amazing Fantasy No. 15, featuring the first appearance of Spider-Man, sold for $1.1 million in 2011. Detective Comics No. 27, which contained the first appearance of Batman, sold for over $1 million at a 2010 auction. Even at the lower end, first editions are coveted: A copy of X-Men No. 1, worth an estimated $11,000, was stolen from a vendor at Boston Comic-Con earlier this month.

The second measure of a comic is its rating. The comic-collecting industry lies at the feet of a company called Certified Guaranty Company, or CGC, which rates comics based on a long list of possible qualities: spine ticks, creasing, cover gloss, tears, chipping, spine rolls, subscription creases (caused by the postman folding it in half during delivery), rusty staples, and on and on. Every time you scrawled your name across the front of a comic book as a child, you adversely affected its future grade. Conversely, if your comic book dealer put a date stamp on the book as it arrived in the store, the future collection value is unaffected, or possibly even increased. Dotting a faded area with a pigment pen will do terrible things to a rating: restored comics are encased in a special purple colored case, also known as PLOD, or “Purple Label of Death.”

A comic with a CGC rating is sealed in a tamper-resistant plastic case, or “slabbed,” and cannot be removed from the case without invalidating the rating. Some collectors own a slabbed copy of their favorite book and an unslabbed “reader” copy so the comic can still be read. A good rating can dramatically improve the value of a comic — that X-Men stolen from Comic-Con was unslabbed, or “raw,” so its value would have been subjective and influenced by the reliability of the vendor. If it had been slabbed at 8.0, which is the rating the vendor claims it was, its value would have been not subjective, making it worth upwards of $11,000.

Which brings us back to Action Comics No. 1.

The most famous is the Nicolas Cage copy, which was stolen from the actor’s estate in 2000 and resurfaced in an abandoned storage locker 11 years later. Cage sold it a few months later for $2.16 million, a tidy profit over the $150,000 he paid for it in 1997. Like the copy sold for $3.2 million, this copy is CGC rated at 9.0, although with “cream to off-white pages,” a point emphasized by the seller of the Sunday copy.

Then there’s the legendary “Mile High” copy, the only of the three not CGC rated, which is considered by experts to be the most valuable comic in existence. This copy is part of the famed Edgar Church collection, which surfaced in 1977 and is still considered the most significant collection that has surfaced in the history of comic collection. Church, born in 1888, worked for an independent telephone company in Colorado. He was also an amateur artist who bought comic books for reference and preserved them carefully in a cool basement. By the time he sold his collection, he had amassed about 18,000 comics, most of which were in high-grade condition, and one of which was Action Comics No. 1.

The Mile High copy, so named because it was purchased from Church by Mile High Comics in Denver, is currently owned by Dave Anderson, who is known as “The Dentist” in comic collector circles. Posters to online comics boards refer to The Dentist in near-mythological terms. One site poster claims The Dentist bought the copy for $20,000 in 1992. That he holds most of the major D.C. Comics runs. That the Mile High copy has never been viewed by the public. That CGC officials have seen it and rated it as high as 9.4, though none of The Dentist’s books have been slabbed.

The copy that sold Sunday resided in a cedar-lined hope chest in West Virginia, owned by a man who said the chest had been in the family for as long as anyone could remember. It was sold in the 1970’s and disappeared into the collection of a private investor, until Pristine Comics, a comic dealer out of Federal Way, Wash., put it up for auction Aug. 14.

But, somewhere along the line, something happened to it that has the collection boards humming.

The book was auctioned slabbed with a 9.0 rating. But it reportedly used to have a CGC rating of 8.o, then was resubmitted, and returned with an 8.5 rating. Finally, it was resubmitted again and awarded 9.0. Collectors wonder how the grade was bumped up. If a comic can’t be restored, how can its rating increase? One poster wrote, “this begs the question of what was done to the book.”

CGC guidelines state that “non-additive processes such as dry cleaning, (non-acqeous removal of dirt, soot, or non-original surface material), pressing (removal or reduction of bends and creases), and tape removal are not considered restoration.” Indeed, the seller of this book claims that his 9.0 is a better book than the Cage copy, because the pages are whiter.

Some collectors are crying foul; at this level of collection, in a book this rare, should any alteration at all be considered in the grading? Should this book even be considered in the same stratosphere as the Mile High and Cage copies? The situation is a ding on CGC, to be sure – they have no way of knowing if most books have been previously slabbed, but there’s no way they didn’t have a record of how many times they had seen an Action Comics No. 1. If a multi-million dollar comic has been improved in any way resulting in an increased rating, CGC should included that in their notes on the slab. That’s reasonable disclosure on purchases of this heft.

On the other hand, whoever bought the comic Sunday may not care. If the history of these books is predictive, the investment will pay off many times over. Like the original 10-cent cover price, perhaps some day $3.2 million will seem . . . cartoonish.

Heather Hopp-Bruce is the Globe’s op-ed designer supervisor.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the condition of Action Comics No. 1.

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