Monday, August 9, 2010

The Real Deal on the Man of Steel

Last week, the news carried the story of a family somewhere in the southern United States whose home was saved by Superman. The family, who understandably choose to remain anonymous at present, was evicted from the house that they have lived in since the 1950s. While packing up their belongings, they discovered an object in the basement that must have been left by the previous occupants: a copy of Action Comics #1, the first appearance of Superman from 1938.

Action #1 has been in the news a lot lately. In the past two years, three copies have sold for $317,000, $1 million, and $1.5 million, respectively. The family contacted and had their copy appraised. It is expected to bring in a quarter of a million at auction next month, and the bank has agreed to hold off on foreclosure until then.

[UPDATE: The issue sold at auction for $436,000 -- almost twice what was estimated. I haven't read any more about the family who sold it, but I assume that they saved their house -- or maybe bought a better one -- and are now living in comfort.]

Only about 100 copies of Action #1 are known to exist. Seven copies have turned up since all the publicity began. Though there’s been no publicity about it, I suspect that a number of counterfeits have turned up as well. As such a landmark in comic book history, the magazine has been reprinted several times. A speculator might try to pass off one of these reprints as the original, intentionally or otherwise. Here are a few tips to help you tell the difference between the real debut of the Man of Steel and the many imperfect duplicates.

In most cases, the easiest way to tell a fake is by thickness. The original 1938 issue was 64 pages long (not including the cover), 13 of which were taken up by the Superman story. Most of the duplicates have reprinted only the Superman story. The original also included Chuck Dawson (a Western), Zatara (a crimefighting magician), South Sea Strategy (a two-page text story), Sticky-Mitt Stimson (a humor strip), The Adventures of Marco Polo (the 13th century explorer), Pep Morgan (a boxer), Scoop Scanlon (a crusading reporter), Tex Thomson (a world-traveling adventurer), Stardust (a page of Hollywood trivia) and Odds ‘N Ends (a page of sports trivia).

There is one notable exception. In 1974, DC Comics reprinted several classic comic books from the 1930s and ‘40s under the blanket title, Famous First Edition. These issues were exact copies of the originals, right down to the advertisements, wrapped in a protective cardboard cover. An unscrupulous con man could remove the outer cover and claim that he had a copy of the original magazine.

But there are two keys to identifying a Famous First Edition reprint. The first is size. Our hypothetical con man will tell you that comic books in the 1930s and ‘40s were larger than today’s comics, which is true. They were the same height, and about ¾ of an inch wider. The typical Golden Age comic book is about 10 inches high by 7.5 inches wide, a little smaller than a sheet of letter-size paper. But the FFE reprint measured 13.5” by 10”, a little larger than a modern tabloid newspaper.
A modern comic book on top of a Golden Age comic. Both are the same height, but notice the small difference in width.
A genuine Golden Age comic book next to a significantly larger Famous First Edition reprint.
A Famous First Edition reprint, with the outer cardboard cover, next to a tabloid-sized newspaper.

It’s impossible to judge the size of a book from a photograph, though, if there’s nothing else in the picture to compare it to. But there's another giveaway clue. On the cover of the real Action #1, there’s a streak of reflected light on the fender of the car that Superman is lifting. In the reprint, the fender is solid green.

Ironically, if our con man had left the cardboard cover stapled to his Famous First Edition, he might have been able to get up to $10 for it from a collector. But with the cover removed, it’s not even worth a dollar.

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