By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 27, 2010; C01
Even through his shaded glasses, Tim Burton clearly was wide-eyed.
The director who once begat a new legion of "Batman" fans was motioning toward the crowd at San Diego Comic-Con as he said, "I can't believe just how big it's gotten." He was referring not just to the physical size of the most recent convention, but also to the existential sense of this comics world itself: The scene shone a white-hot Bat light on just how massive comics have become as a financial force.
Comics can flex such monetary muscle, even the insiders sometimes flinch. This week, it happened again, at the hands of Superman and Burton's beloved Batman.
The comics world delivered a symbolic one-two punch when the Man of Steel and, just three days later, the Caped Crusader fetched record-setting million-dollar prices at comic-book sales.
Holy Sotheby's, Batman. Suddenly, by tripling the record sale price, comics as a collectible were being mentioned in the same breath as gemstones and paintings. The twin sales garnered headlines and Google searches worldwide. And all the while, longtime comics scholars and non-geeks alike mouthed the question with dropped jaws:
Why are people suddenly paying seven-figures for comic books? (Comic books that retailed for 10 cents when they hit the stalls, by the way, and even just a few decades ago sold for $100.)
Yes, these are extremely rare, "very fine"-condition comics that are freighted with history: Superman debuted in Action Comics No. 1 issue from 1938 (record price Monday: $1 million) and "The Batman" first swooped into a comic book in the Detective Comics No. 27 issue from 1939 (new-record price Thursday: $1,075,500). But really? One. million. dollars? (The previous record was $317,000.)
"This has a lot to do with timing, the serendipity of the right events at the right time," says Vincent Zurzolo, co-owner of ComicConnect.com and its sister dealership Metropolis, which orchestrated the Superman sale in New York. "I think you see people worried about the stock market and real estate and wondering what to invest in. For people who love this material or have the foresight to see years down the road, you realize this stuff is actually a great investment."
People, of course, could always invest in precious metals, so why Golden Age comics now?
"Comic geeks and nerds from 20 years ago are now the cool guys who are hip to popular culture and who are doing well with their business," says Zurzolo, 38. "They don't want a Van Gogh or a Warhol or a Picasso. They want something that means something to them. Spider-Man, Superman and Batman -- that's history to them. And in this country, we're a society built on popular culture."
Once Superman crossed the million-dollar threshold, Batman was quick to follow. "As they say: Without Superman, there would be no Batman -- as a character and as a record comic-book sale," Zurzolo says.
At Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, which conducted the Batman auction Thursday, the house's comics expert agrees.
"I think that the million-dollar result made somebody feel comfortable on [bidding] those kinds of numbers" in the Batman auction, said Lon Allen, 37, sales director for Heritage's comic books division. "This is going to give a boost to the . . . highest-grade of all comics."
But acclaimed comics scholar and cartoonist Scott McCloud takes a more skeptical view.
First off, McCloud says: "Neither the buyers nor sellers were disclosed in these sales. There can be something going on behind the scenes." Beyond that, these are probably not a trend, he says. "These are high-profile sales that focus on blue-chip investments," like the sale of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers."
McCloud says the true measure of comics as a cultural force rests with their literary value. "Until we have more sustained works that are considered classics more than just pop-culture artifact issues, these sales are only bubbles."