By Steven Houston

With this column being my first for Comics Illustrated, it seems rather appropriate to delve into my personal origins regarding grading. I have a reputation for being rather strict (some would say rigid), finding it hard to adjust to new grading standards—something rather common for those of us who have been grading for over thirty years.

Did I say thirty years? Indeed, I did. To be specific, I actually began to grade (to the best of my ability) in 1984, only a year after purchasing my first comic books. Looking back into this distant past, I can readily remember purchasing brand-new comics off the rack and then comparing them with back issues I was purchasing at the same time. I would spend hours poring over different issues, making mental notes of flaws, such as creases, bends, water damage, rusty staples, coupons cut, missing pages, or writing or drawing within the issue or on the cover. I even noted the differences in page color.

What I lacked was an understanding of the terminology used to differentiate the various grades. However, I did not have to wait long, as I purchased my first Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide in 1985—the 15th edition, to be precise. And lo and behold, on pages 14-15, there was a handy breakdown of the ten known grades ranging from coverless to pristine mint. I feel I should take a moment here to try and explain the sheer amount of impact this publication had on me at the time. The price guide was full of invaluable information, noting basic comic collecting terminology and giving a rundown of the most significant comics of the Golden Age in chronological order!

Suddenly, I was becoming an ‘expert,’ and I would spend every spare hour flipping through the guide, reading and rereading sections like “How to start collecting,” “Collecting back issues,” and even “How to sell your comics,” even though I didn’t have a real collection yet. To understand the level of fanatism I had back then, you just have to understand that over the course of a week, I wrote down with pen and paper, within a thick notepad, every Marvel title from 1961 to 1985. Then, with a focus only a madman can have, I created a chronological list of every Marvel comic ever published. Yes, I was seventeen years old with little money, but I had made the decision to collect every Marvel comic published since 1961.

How that story ends is for another column. Right now, let’s return to the subject of grading and how I began to learn, book by book, to differentiate the various ‘official’ grades of the time. From 1985, my collection began to grow due to purchase after purchase of back issues from my local comic store. At the time, there were no grades on the books. I just purchased them and, using the terminology in the price guide, began to assign them a grade. I can imagine those of you fellow collectors went through this phase as well, grading to the best of your abilities, but not yet confident that your actual grading was ‘up to scratch,’ meaning that a dealer (a professional grader!) would agree with you. The first indication for me was after purchasing comics from a mail-order catalog—yes, remember those? I discovered almost immediately that I was a bit tougher on the books than the seller. Back then, I took that to mean that I needed to adjust my grading because there was no way a novice grader like me could be stricter than a professional seller! The naivete of my conclusions back then makes me laugh today, but I’m sure most collectors go through the same situation.

The first real test of my grading did not occur until after I had moved to the United States, where they have ‘proper’ comic stores! Back in 1992, at a store called ‘Hi De Ho’ Comics in Santa Monica, they actually had grades on their back issues, and now I knew I was dealing with real comic professionals. I could test my personal grading against the industry ‘standard’! Oh my, what a statement that is. As we all know today, back in 1992, there was no standard grading across the industry. Each dealer graded and priced their books according to their standards, and if you did not agree, they would most often, or not, tell you to deal with it. Anyway, I’m losing focus here—back to my grading test in 1992.

I purchased a bunch of back issues, and as soon as I was home, I checked each issue to compare the grades. To my astonishment, I was still a bit strict. This was the first time I had a crisis of confidence, concluding that somehow, I was being overly ‘petty,’ assigning lower grades due to flaws that were not actually that bad.

From 1992-93, I purchased thousands of comics, including older Silver-Age books for the first time. I continued to practice and hone my grading skills. Then in mid-1993, I got a job working in a comic book warehouse. This was my first one-on-one grading training from a veteran comic seller. My employer, Nick Scotto, had been selling comics and magazines since the 1950s (according to him)! I look back on this time with great nostalgia, as I was like a gangling rookie puppy, apparently making every mistake in the book. I discovered that I was indeed grading books way down for inconsequential flaws, but I had a sense that maybe his grading was not ‘up to date,’ as most of his terminology was ‘good,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘sharp.’ It was hard to gauge his method, as he was not a fan of the Overstreet Price Guide, grading, or pricing.

My real test would come later in the year when I got a job in an actual comic store in Torrance, California, after Nick suggested I needed real retail experience. The store was owned by Tom Cook (a former customer of Nick’s since the 1970s), and the store’s name was ‘Silver City Comics.’ On my first day at the store, Tom took me into the back room and informed me that his store specialized in selling Silver-Age comics, so I would need to know how to grade and sell them. He produced four comics in various conditions and asked me to grade them.

There I was, faced with the first real grading test of my life, where bad grading on my part could cost me a job. The pressure was immense, and the fear of failure and embarrassment was almost all-consuming. How would my grading stand up to a grading specialist—a store owner who had been collecting since the 1960s and had been a dealer for years? My memory regarding the actual comics has mostly faded, but I do remember a Green Lantern comic featuring Gil Kane art, probably around 1965. In the heat of the moment, I decided to be as strict as I could possibly be, trying to put myself in the owner’s shoes, wondering how strict he could be. I graded all four books in quick succession and called him into the back room. One by one, he looked at my grades and perused the books, with no emotion showing on his face. My heart began to sink. I remember distinctly pondering my next move within the comic world after this humiliation, but then, much to my surprise, he said, “Good work,” and proceeded to show me the rest of the store. I had passed my first grading test. An enormous sense of accomplishment washed over me.

I was in—on the ground floor to be sure—but there I was, late 1993, and the world was mine to conquer.

About the Author

The young Steven Houston began collecting comics in England in 1983, and after ten years of furious collecting and a move to the United States, he transitioned from fan to dealer in 1993. After working in various stores in Southern California, Steven began working for Torpedo Comics in 2004 as their senior comics purchaser and grader. A few years later, Steven became an Overstreet Comic Book advisor, and then shortly after that, he was hired by Pawn Stars to be their comic book expert. Since then, Steven’s presence within the comic community has continued to grow with the addition of the “Steve and Cimino Says Boom” podcast on YouTube.

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Comics Illustrated