How Did It Come to This?

By Steven Houston

“How did it come to this?”
Yes, for those of you “Lord of the Rings” fans out there, this is the statement that King Théoden makes during the Two Towers movie, while deep within Helm’s Deep, we hear the massed marching feet of hundreds of thousands of Saruman’s Orcs! So, what has this opening statement got to do with grading? I hear you cry. Well, I happen to think the feeling that the King is expressing is almost the same feeling as many of us within the comic collecting and selling community have right now. What am I talking about? I’m talking about a quiet crisis within our industry that very few are talking about. In later articles, I’m going to go into some depth regarding the shortfalls of the industry as it stands today, but before I can do that, let’s get our history straight.

Let’s take a journey back, a sort of history lesson that will bring the state of comic book grading to where it is today. If you read my last article here in Comics Illustrated, I went into detail explaining my own personal origins as a comic book grader, from humble collector in 1983 all the way up to the ‘wet behind the ears’, rookie dealer in 1993. In that article, I briefly went into the state of comic grading during that period, but now it’s time to examine the time period before the arrival of CGC—what some consider the most significant event in comic collecting history to date.

As usual, money brings change and exposure. While our little hobby had a single comic that someone would pay $1,000 for in 1970 (Action Comics #1), no one really paid attention to the hobby. By the early 1990s, key first appearance books such as Action Comics #1 (first Superman) began to get very expensive, breaking through the $100,000 threshold and then $250,000, and so on and so on. Suddenly, big-time investors began to turn their gaze upon our “little” hobby after dispensing with coins and stamps as possible investments. Investors began to swarm in, and what they found was a market with incredible potential but lacking a basic standard of grading throughout the entire industry. Even back in the early 1990s, huge key comics were being graded by a cabal of high-powered dealers whose word was sacrosanct. But was it? One dealer would sell a given book at Very Fine Plus, or 8.5, and then another dealer would say the book was only an 8.0. The actual grading definitions had remained stable for years, but the Overstreet Official Price Guide recognized that with the value of comics getting higher and higher every month, the price differential between Fine 6.0 and Very Fine 8.0 could be astronomical! And what if a book fell in between the fine and very fine grades? With no ‘official’ price value, it was left up to the individual comic dealers of the time to set a price. Finally, the Overstreet Guide created the ten-point grading system, which utilized 25 different grades ranging from 0.5 to 10.0. This method was extremely useful in the higher grades, where a book’s potential value could jump to insane levels per incremental grade improvement. Thus, instead of the old methods of $250,000, fine (VF), Near Mint (NM-) and Mint (M), the new method allowed for a far greater spread of conditions: Very Fine (VF) 8.0, Very Fine Plus (VF+) 8.5, Very fine/Near Mint (VF/NM) 9.0, Near Mint Minus (NM-) 9.2 (this is the highest grade in the Overstreet Price Guide), Near Mint (NM) 9.4, and Near Mint Plus (NM+) 9.6, Near mint/Mint (NM/M) 9.8, Mint (9.9), and finally Gem Mint (10.0). Back in the day, this grade was called ‘pristine mint’, but in truth, it covered issues ranging from 9.4 to 10.0.

This new grading standard opened up a pandora of heated debate and arguments. Dealers and customers would often get into screaming matches when the dealer’s stated grade of NM+ was challenged by a customer who swore upon his many years of collecting that they were dealing with a 9.4 at best. So there was the quandary: we finally had the best grading known to man, but no one could agree upon it! On a personal note, by the late 1990s, armed with these new grading criteria, I was extremely reticent to grade anything above NM 9.4. I’m well-known for being strict, and as I graded thousands of books at this time, I began to wonder what a true 9.8 book looked like. Of course, other dealers and collectors had shown me what they considered a 9.8, but when I saw such copies, I would think to myself, “That book doesn’t look perfect to me.” The industry needed to move forward; it needed a standardized grading system that everyone would trust and support financially. Enter CGC in 2000.

The full origins of CGC require someone who was there to really explain them. To that end, it would be very beneficial for the ‘founding father’ of the third-party grading method, Steve Borock, to explain more—come on, Steve, let’s see it. So, leaving the minutiae and first-hand information regarding CGC to Steve, I want to examine the effects of CGC on the industry. The earth-shaking ramifications of collectors being able to send their books in to be graded by the finest graders in the world. The biggest impact on the industry was the ability to catch restoration. Steve is a grader of the highest pedigree, with a special ability with golden-age books, and quite quickly collections from higher-end collectors were being sent in, and to the horror of many, books that were deemed unrestored by reputable dealers turned out to be restored. One such famous comic collector, Nick Cage, sent in a host of key books only to discover that many were restored while he had paid the full price for unrestored copies. CGC was finding staples being replaced, new covers being attached, pages being replaced, or rips and tears being sealed in a professional manner, almost invisible to the untrained eye. Comic values soared as older books published in the 1930s were obviously extremely rare to have been untouched, especially from the dealers in the 1980s, when prices began to increase to a level that it was ‘worth it’, to alter a book for their high-end customers. Well, with CGC, the gig was up, thousands of books were discovered to have been restored, and some well-known dealers from the 1980s ended up having their reputations ripped to shreds.

The benefits of CGC went along with the exploding online sales world, especially through eBay, where in those first few years on the platform, the lack of grading skills was showcased for all to see and deal with. Also, purchasers would sometimes keep returning comics, not happy with the grade they were told they were purchasing. CGC cured all of that, with some sellers simply avoiding raw comics and selling CGC-graded books. CGC had a reputation, and very quickly, the entire collecting and selling world moved in their direction, except for a few old mavericks who simply could not move with the times. The other major effect CGC had on the industry was the census! For many, this was the key that broke the stranglehold of information closely guarded by that cadre of dealers who would tell people how many copies of a certain book were out there; suddenly, actual information about graded copies was available for all to see. Prices on certain books exploded, as it was revealed that a given book had a 6.0 as the highest copy grade and then a 7.0 turned up. The power was in the hands of the purchaser for the first time ever.

If one thinks of CGC as a cake, the census would be the icing, but what about the cherry? That would be GPA, or GP Analysis, with the letter GP standing for the founder’s name, George Pantela. GPA takes sales information from a number of sites (not all) and gives detailed information on CGC sales, allowing one to follow trends and see patterns—another true force in the industry. For the first time, customers could tell dealers the sales history of a given book. Then they could negotiate from a position of power. Gone were the days of dealers saying, “This book sells for this much; deal with it.”

Okay, we are almost up to date; there is just one part of our contemporary comic industry left to talk about, perhaps the second most important after CGC itself—yes, I’m talking about pressing! The ability to make a book look better using various pressing techniques, either with water or heat or a combination of both, to improve a given book’s look. I became aware of this rather innovative but controversial technique when I first met a young Matt Nelson, who assured me that his methods were not restoration. Others were not so sure, and Matt would be the first to tell you himself that he received substantial pushback on his ‘pressing’ idea, but quite soon people were sending in raw books to Matt to press, starting with a book that on first appearance looked like an 8.0 copy, and getting higher grades such as 8.5, 9.0, or even 9.2 through CGC. Then collectors began to look at older CGC books, and using their knowledge of higher-level grading, would have Matt crack open the book, press it, and then have CGC regrade

it. Suddenly, books from the earlier days of pre-pressing were getting substantial bumps in grades, something that is incredibly valuable to those who have super-key books with price ranges above $100,000. After some years, Matt was hired by CGC, and CGC has had a successful pressing and grading operation ever since.

So that’s where we stand today. This all sounds rather rosy, to be sure, a collector’s paradise, but oh, in future articles, I’m going to shine a light on the dark corners of the CGC world, the true ramifications of where we are, and possible dark futures.

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