Published on June 30th, 2014 | by Swamp Thing0
Making The Grade.
The Quantum Mechanics of Comic Grading.
Right, so stop me if you’ve heard this one. Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger walk into a comic shop…
Not a joke that’s likely to make it into many stand-up routines, but the business of grading comics is a field rich in the humour of absurdity.
Like all good absurdities it’s underpinned by a certain amount of logic. It makes perfect sense that a comic that looks like it’s been used as bedding for a gerbil is going to be worth less than one that hasn’t, but when did we – the collective ‘we’ of the comic consumer – become quite so anal about it all? It’s not easy to pin down the exact moment, though there were certainly warning signs towards the end of the 1960s. That neatly coincides with the shift in comic retailing away from newsstand/newsagent to ‘direct sales’. The creation of the direct sale retailer – or specialist comic shop to you and me – was a response to the decline in demand for comics through the traditional outlets. The specialist shops were a shot in the arm to the ailing comics market, in part because they could get new issues into circulation much faster than had happened previously, and from a business point of view the comic publishers saw an immediate benefit. Supplies to the direct market were not ‘sale or return’, as they had been for the traditional retailers, so it was the comic shop that took on the risk when they placed an order for an untried title. In return they were offered better discounts and other ‘dealer’ incentives. The creation of these specialist outlets also did something that changed the nature of reading comics. As there simply weren’t enough titles to stock the shelves each week they filled out their floor space by dealing in back issues, and suddenly an entire generation of ‘comic fans’ were turned into ‘comic collectors’. By the dawn of the comics ‘modern age’ in the 1980s the direct sales market had become the driving force behind a resurgent comics industry, and the demand for back issues and the clever marketing of new titles created a burst of hyperinflation that saw prices rise faster than a speeding bullet.
As the sums of money changing hands increased so did the importance of a comic’s perceived condition. Clearly if you’re going to pay £10 for a comic, you’d rather have one where the cover wasn’t ripped or the previous owner hadn’t drawn huge genitalia on the Hulk. Retailers then began wondering if you’d pay £12 for it if they told you the pages were off-white rather than cream or yellow. Better yet, if it had centred staples and no spine roll, would you pay £15? The answer was yes, and a whole new set of benchmarks for categorizing a comic’s condition were born. Until then you had no idea that you needed your comic to have white pages with centred staples and no spine roll, you just knew you didn’t want giant green knobs all over it. Now that we knew what we wanted that we hadn’t known that we wanted until we were told that we wanted it, we wanted it in spades. By the late 1980s as far as comic condition went we all seem to have inserted our heads firmly into our bottoms.
To go with this newfound need for comics to be in the best condition possible there came a set of grades to place a comic in a particular price band. Starting at the bottom end with Poor (the one from our gerbil cage), going up to Mint (pretty much non-existent, as I’ll explain later using quantum physics and Venn diagrams) with levels of Fair (FR) Good (GD), Fine (F) and Near Mint (NM) in between. To cover more minor variations in condition you can stick a ‘Very’ in front of most grades (so VG would be ‘very good’) and add a plus or minus at the end as well (so VG- would be ‘very good minus’, which presumably means ‘almost but not quite very good but a bit better than just ordinary good’).
By the 1990s the hyperinflation bubble had all but burst, but its legacy was the realization that there was money to be made by speculation on the comic market. You just needed to pick the right comic and keep it in the right condition. But why speculate at all? Certain longer-running titles had a proven investment record and there was cash to be made by buying a rarer issue and then selling it on in a few years, and with comic grading still relatively new you could get a NM copy of Hulk #181 for little more than a VF+ copy. The problem was that most people actually couldn’t tell the difference between a VF+ and a NM, it’s a very fine line. Sometimes it’s fine enough to be invisible and the only way you know it’s there is because the seller tells you it is.
That was a problem. There were profits to be made from inflating the description of the comic’s condition, and savings to be made by trying to argue that a comic was over-graded. That was merely an irritation when buyer and seller were standing in the same shop at the same time looking at the same comic and trying to reach a compromise over grade and price. That irritation become an open sore with the rise of Internet sales and online auctions where the seller’s description and a few often inconclusive photographs were all the buyer had to go on. Over-grading was rife. So were the arguments between buyers and sellers that resulted from the subjective nature of grading. Even legitimate sellers may honestly grade an issue as VF+ and then fall foul of a buyer who honestly grades it at just VF. It may sound pedantic, but for rare issues there can be a really scary difference in perceived value across those grades (in the case of Action Comics #1, the most recent sales would value the VF+ at around $500,000 more than the VF).
So in 2000 a company appeared that tried to sort out this mess and end the arguments, and hoped make a decent profit doing it. Comics Guaranty LLC, also known as CGC, was the first independent third party grading service for comics. The idea was that for a fee they would independently grade a comic on a scale of 0-10 and then seal it in a transparent container so there would be little or no deterioration from the grade they assigned (a process that has been nicknamed ‘slabbing’) . The grade would be plainly visible on a label also sealed in the container.
The idea caught on, and a quick search on ebay for graded comics shows how many have been through CGC’s hands, and consequently into one of their tamper-evident explosion-proof plastic encased Barex sleeves. I just tried it, and of the current total of 1,890,000 comics on ebay around 33,000 mention CGC graded in their description. That’s around 1.75%. If that’s a true reflection of CGC’s stake in the global comics market then they’re doing very nicely, thank you. If nothing else they earn a certain amount of kudos for bringing the phrase ‘tamper-evident’ into everyday usage.
Now as far as I can work out, the highest grade a comic is given by CGC is 9.9, which according to their website equates to Mint. Yes, that does mean there’s a grade higher then Mint. To get a perfect 10 the comic would need to be Gem Mint, whatever that may be. Presumably, then, a comic can never be given this perfect 10 because the moment it is created it begins to decay, as do we all. As soon as the pristine comic is exposed to light those nasty old photons (behaving as horrid particles rather than soothing waves, as the principle of the duality of light says they can do…a bit) must pummel the cover and immediately do 0.1 points worth of damage on whatever the arbitrary scale comics are graded against is called. Clearly this damage must occur pretty much instantaneously, so it then seems logical to surmise that merely exposing the comic to any form of illumination would soon reduce said comic to a pile of paper dust.
So what, then, if the comic is printed and stored entirely in the dark and never exposed to light? Ever?
Whilst it has potential as a theoretical exercise, there are issues to address that undermine the usefulness of ‘keeping it in the dark’ as a practical solution. There would be little purpose to being confident that your treasured comic still had white pages and strong colours if there was also a nagging doubt that the cover was on the right way up.
As already explained, the act of examining a comic’s condition by looking at it (which by definition requires the comic to be in the light) changes that condition. And that’s just the outside. For those comic collectors brave enough to actually open their comics there’s a whole new set of complications to deal with. This is where Heisenberg comes back in. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, as applied to comic grading, states that it is impossible to know both the internal and external condition of a comic simultaneously. When a comic is opened to examine the interior pages (exposing them to light and therefore serious irreparable damage) there’s no way to tell if there has been any creasing, cracking or rolling to the spine or other external damage. You could check by closing it again, but that may crease or dog-ear one of the interior pages. You’d need to open it again to be sure, risking further cover and spine damage. With all of this opening and closing there’s a real danger of catastrophic staple failure, or worse still, that the comic might accidentally get read, and that would never do. Clearly the kind of reckless disregard for a comic’s condition that comes with reading it is to be actively discouraged, and thankfully in the world of comic grading it is. Once your comic is in one of CGC’s ‘tamper-evident’ cases (or the equivalent from one of the other grading companies that have started boarding the gravy train) then reading it involves either hammer-and-chisel surgery or the use of alternative dimensions. The hammer-and-chisel option voids the CGC grading; there’s no indication on their website of how they would view the use of alternative dimensions.
It would appear then, in keeping with all other branches of quantum physics, comic grading is a complex intersection of paradoxes. Perhaps the easiest way to resolve them is for us to get over ourselves and accept that a comic exists to be read and enjoyed. Its true value isn’t fiscal, we can keep it safe without sealing it in a lead-lined vault, and barely visibly spine creases and staples that are 0.014 degrees off vertical matter not a jot. Condition is not the ‘c’ that should dictate a comic’s worth; content, creativity, concept or challenge are much more worthy when it comes to assessing value. And when all is said and done, having a really tatty gerbil cage copy of Tales of Suspense #39 is a lot more fun than having no copy of it at all.
Oh, and for anybody that’s interested, the two issues of Batman #1 in the photo earlier in this article were both CGC graded and slabbed when they last sold. The one on the right is a 9.2, the one on the left a 0.5.
Of course the rising cost of original back issues, in any condition, makes an argument for not bothering with them at all and using the reprints, anniversary issues and trade paperbacks to access the same material. But as that argument falls outside the scope of this article we’ll save it for another day; quantum physics and a Venn diagram won’t help explain why it’s not a valid argument anyway. For that one I’ll need to use fluid dynamics and an overhead projector.
And what of Schrödinger? Well when you pop down to the shops and leave your comics unattended, can you be absolutely and scientifically certain that the cat hasn’t used your comic box as a litter tray?