Anticipation is rife among collectors awaiting the sale of Detective Comics #27 - Batman's first-ever adventure - at Heritage Auction Galleries later this month.
It is second only to Action Comics #1 - Superman's first-ever comic appearance - in terms of collectability. With the latter valued at around $1m, and Detective Comics #27 promising a recording-breaking result, 2010 is a big year for comics.
In the run-up to the sale, Paul Fraser Collectibles got in touch with veteran cataloguer David Tosh, a trained graphic designer with more than 30 years experience and a former vintage toys and memorabilia dealer, now entering his sixth year at Heritage.
David is at the forefront of collectible comics, and kindly took time out to run us through what to expect from one of the most exciting collectors' markets in 2010...
Were you an avid comic reader as a child? What was your favourite read?
I learned to read by looking at comic books! I was pestering my mother to buy paperback books with comic strip reprints when I was six, and I began buying comic books around two years after that, in 1961.
I vividly remember my first purchase: Batman Annual #1. I'll never forget that initial experience of going to a large newsstand, in downtown Houston, and seeing an entire wall of comics for sale.
There was no going back after that, and soon I became known in my neighbourhood as the kid with the biggest pile of comics.
I always hated when kids would want to come over to my house, not to go outside and play, but to make a beeline for my closet and grab a stack of comics to read.
Where does your fascination and devotion to superheroes come from?
It has to come from the 1950s Superman syndicated television series. Like every kid I knew, I started tying a blanket around my neck and running around with it flapping in the wind, pretending I could fly.
From that point on, I was a DC Comics fan - though my interests drifted more towards Batman than Superman when I began actually buying comics.
Best of all was the aptly titled "World's Finest Comics," which teamed Superman with Batman & Robin.
I also picked up the occasional Marvel in the 1960s, as well as a little of everything else. Harvey "kids" comics, Disney, Archie, Classics Illustrated - I read 'em all.
With your background as a graphic designer, what comic artist or publication has most inspired you?
Dick Sprang, who was referred to as "The Good Batman Artist" during the 1950s, was a major influence on my graphic design work.
He was the one who popularised the "tilted panel", a look that made its way to television with the '60s Batman series. As Batman and Robin would fight with a gang of thugs, the camera angle would tilt to the left or right.
I loved that. In the comics, it made action scenes jump off the page.
In your opinion, why are comics and comic art such popular and sought-after collector's items?
It's hard to say, but of course the immediate answer that springs to mind is nostalgia.
People love capturing a little bit of that innocence of childhood when it was easy to suspend belief and accept heroes with super powers, wearing fantastic costumes.
It's more than that, though: comics are pop art every bit as much as Andy Warhol ever was.
Even comics done in the modern style with more realistic artwork are still viewed by many as pop art, reflecting popular culture.
Not everyone "gets it" - but those who do are the same ones who flock to the movie houses, buy video games, and love outlandish music videos by Lady Gaga.
It's kind of a "revenge of the nerds" thing. People - mostly guys - who collected comic books past their youth were considered outcasts, nerds... These turned out to be the same people who got into computers, and now pretty much run the world!
Are you seeing a growth in the number of collectors? Are they from any particular countries or nations?
Heritage has a strong customer base all over the world, especially Europe and the UK.
The giant comic conventions, like San Diego in the US, and the Festival International de la Bande Dessinée in France continue to attract new people every year to the hobby. There's no slowing down, that's for sure.
With the potentially record-breaking sale, Heritage's February Signature Comics & Comic Art Auction (February 25-27), can we expect to see comics emerge as a major collectible in 2010?
It will certainly get plenty of press coverage, and that usually leads in turn to more investors giving a serious look to putting their money into old comics.
The stock market is volatile, unsteady... The days of getting rich buying and selling "penny" stocks is probably over and done with, but there are still ways of getting good returns on your investments.
Vintage comics are becoming a popular alternative for many "baby boomer" investors.
Of course, collecting on a serious level requires a good understanding of what to buy. Not all old comic books make good investments. If you don't know for sure, seek out the advice of an expert.
Another exciting auction this month is Hugh Hefner's Funnies: Over 55 Years of Playboy Cartoons (February 26). In your opinion, what is it about these artworks that appeal to collectors?
For years, Playboy Magazine was as much about living a fabulous lifestyle as much as it was an excuse to look at pictures of beautiful women taking their clothes off. The attitude was, "I'm young, hip, on my way to making it big, and this is my style guide."
Since Hef' was, from the start, a big fan of cartoon art, he made sure that some of the best cartoonists and pin-up artists in the world were published in his magazine.
Naturally, all those hip, stylish guys reading Playboy were digging the fantastic cartoons, too. The cartoons were great, no doubt - not to mention colourful and (for the most part) risqué.
Anyone who picked up a Playboy in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s would love to own one of these original cartoons, and now, finally, they have their chance.
Heritage Auction Galleries is one of the world's auction house leaders. What do you think makes Heritage such a strong leader?
Heritage built its business slowly and carefully - first by becoming a leader in rare coins, and then finally branching out to other fields, like comic books, movie posters, sports collectibles, and so on.
It was the foresight of people like co-Founder Jim Halperin, who pushed the company into new directions, which made it happen.
Halperin was an early believer in the power of the Internet, and made sure Heritage was at the forefront in developing a presence there.
He also collected things like comics and movie posters, and saw the potential for these markets. All along he believed in keeping the auction business transparent, with honesty and integrity the keys to making Heritage the powerhouse it is today.
What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
Are you kidding? For a lifelong fan like me, this is the ultimate "kid in a candy store" situation. In my six-plus years with the company, I've seen and handled just about everything - twice - including rarities I thought I'd only get to read about in books. Now I'm writing about them myself!
What is the most demanding part of your job?
There are many long hours I put in, but for me, the hardest part of my job is letting people down who think they've found something worth a fortune, when it's really worth next to nothing.
Back in the '70s, DC Comics published a series of oversized reprints of some of their most famous comics, including Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman, and other key issues from the late 1930s and early 1940s.
This series of reprints, called Famous First Edition, came with an outer cover printed on heavy stock and an inner cover, on thinner, glossy paper. The outer cover with correct publishing information and dates often slipped off the book, leaving behind a perfect replica of the original comics - with one big difference, the size.
I must get 10 or 12 calls a month from people who find one of these reprints without the outer cover, and think it's the real deal. They almost always seem to think it's been in their family for 60 or 70 years, and they just know what they have is worth thousands.
They have a nickname for me here: I'm the "Dream Crusher", because I've had to let so many people like that down.
Often, it's someone with modern era comics, from the '80s or '90s, and they're positive that what they have should be worth lots of money. I have to crush their dreams, and tell them that not all "old" comics are worth the big bucks!
What have been the highlights for you during your years in the business?
For me, the biggest thrill involved finding the original art from a 1969 "underground" comic by Robert Crumb - all 24 interior pages for the book, Big Ass Comics #1.
Robert Crumb is one of the hottest, most collectible artists around today.
What is the most unusual comic you have seen sold at auction? Has there been an item at auction that has taken everyone by surprise with its success?
The Marvel Comics #1 Pay Copy has got to be one of the most interesting and historic comics in the business.
This was the book that launched the company then known as Timely, and now Marvel Comics, and the book featuring the first appearance of the Human Torch, among others.
What is unusual about it is the fact that it came from the publishers, and was used to note what each artist was paid.
We've had the comic several times. The last time, it brought $205,000. It's being offered again in the current (February 2010) auction.
And the most expensive comic you have seen sold?
That Marvel #1 might be it, but all records will be shattered by the upcoming sale of the unrestored Detective Comics #27.
It's expected to do possibly $500,000, possibly more, and is being sold with no reserve.
What is your own personal most valued collector's item?
I've pared down my personal collection quite a bit over the past few years. One of my all-time favourite characters has always been Henry, the little bald boy from the newspapers.
There was a Dell Comics series, written and drawn by John Liney, who also drew the daily strip. In the comic book, this usually mute character spoke.
I own a set of publisher's bound volumes, featuring issues #1-60 from the series. These are my personal favourites from my collection.
Do you have any hot leads for 2010? Which market will excel? Are there any new trends emerging to look out for?
The hot trend is for comics graded and encapsulated in extremely high grades, and I see no sign this will fade in popularity.
In particular, I see DC superhero titles from 1969-75 as the ones to watch. These have been slowly creeping up in value, and I predict a huge surge in demand for these comics in the very near future.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Two things: first, do your homework. Learn all you can about the hobby, and keep a close eye on things like Heritage's auction results.
Second, buy what you personally like. That's what being a collector is all about. If you don't love it, move on to something you do love.