Bloop! Boff! Bonk! FLRBBBBB! Glipp! POWIE! WTF!
Last week, reported The Hollywood Reporter, a near-mint copy of the Batman No. 1 comic, published in 1940, "sold as part of Heritage Auction’s comics and comic art events. … The final price was $2,220,000, which included the buyer's premium fee." Just in case you're worrying about how you're going to pay your monthly health insurance premium or children's college tuition, that number, to repeat, was $2,220,000—a record for "the most expensive Batman comic ever sold."
Does that mean that other comic books have sold for more? Well, according to Helen Stoilas in The Art Newspaper, "The rare 1940 issue, which marks the first appearance of the Joker and Catwoman, is the second most-expensive comic book ever sold. Even before the live sale opened on Thursday [Jan. 14], the start of Heritage's four-day Comics and Comic Art event, online pre-bidding for the comic book had shot up to $1.9 million. Its sale of $2.22 million, to a U.S. bidder on the auction house's online HA Live platform, knocked out the previous Batman record holder, a copy of 1939's Detective Comics #27, which introduced the character to the world and sold for $1.5 million at Heritage this past November."
Houston-based father and son comic book dealers Billy and William Giles provided the copy for sale, which the elder Mr. Gates had bought from Camelot Bookstore for $3,000 in 1982, "after it failed to find a buyer for the advertised $5,000 price tag," The Art Newspaper added.
Collectors often spend unfathomable prices for objects of all kinds and for rational and irrational reasons—some for love, some for investment, some out of compulsive desire. So it is naive to be astounded that an avid collector would invest so much in comics, baseballs or a slew of other pop-culture ephemera items. But prices are entirely out of hand—forcing the market to be increasingly narrower. Just for comparison, a complete Gutenberg Bible sold in 1978 for $2.2 million and is now assessed at around $35 million. Is there a false equivalency between paying the GNP of a developing country for the first book ever printed versus a first edition of a mass-market comic?
Although I understand the concept of supply and demand—and that art and artifacts are a form of currency—there is still something wrong about this picture. Paying such prices monetizes art, although not necessarily the artist. Granted, the artist, estate and other collectors are benefitted since a value is recorded. Yet value is not an end in itself; I believe it is simply obscene, given the state of the pandemic world at this time, to spend such sums. Ultimately, the value of anything is so tied to random economic whims, that the standards of value and worth are up for grabs. I admit I am no economist, and the broader theme of how value is decided, especially in ephemeral art and design, is the subject for a much deeper investigation (watch this space in the future).
Batman No. 1 (originally sold for 10 cents) was not the only high-priced item at the Heritage Auction. A Pokémon First Edition Base Set Sealed Booster Box (Wizards of the Coast, 1999) sold for $408,000 (I paid $10 for the same pack, long discarded, almost 30 years ago) and Captain America Comics #1 (Timely, 1941) sold for $384,000 (yes, it is the one with the Captain punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw).
The dollar amount establishes ground rules, though abstract. So, let me offer this simple question: How do I reasonably suggest to art and design students what to charge a client for illustrations or comics or graphic design when the appraised value of the ephemera, even such rare ephemera as Batman No. 1, is destined to have an arguably irrational metric of worth? It is all Bloop! Boff! Bonk! FLRBBBBB! Glipp! POWIE! and a perpetual mystery to me.