Professional Comic Grading Guide

I’ve been wanting to write on professional comic grading for a long time, but over of the years I found my opinion changing. I think it has been long enough that I can properly offer my personal preferences and the reasoning behind it. It is worth noting that while there are several grading services available, I have only dealt with Certified Guaranty Company or CGC as they have been around the longest and because of that are widely regarded as the industry standard. So while CGC is more expensive and slower than their competitors to grade, I believe it is worth it as the value of their graded books routinely fetch higher prices on auctions.

My gateway into serious comic collecting was through my favorite superhero group from my childhood, Uncanny X-Men. I grew up with the animated TV series as a child, collecting cards on the playground. I didn’t actually read the comics though until I was about to graduate college. I had found a complete X-Men comic run torrent that contained 40 years of comics and spent a several weeks reading through the full Claremont run and absorbing it, having a new appreciation for the stories presented to me in other forms in my youth.

In my early thirties I was in a bad place in my life and was looking for a hobby to lean into and focus my attention on. Comics made perfect sense because it was decades of rich stories and beautiful art along with a nostalgic appeal. I was fortunate to be in a position in my career to have the required disposable income to get serious with collecting. This is important to note because dipping into professional comic grading is not cheap. You have to be prepared to spend a lot of money to risk being disappointed. So a combination of all of these things led me to my first milestone goal – I would collect and grade the complete run of Chris Claremont’s X-Men. That was very stupid in retrospect for reasons I will dive into. I started with the sure purchase of an already graded X-Men 101, the 1st appearance of Phoenix.

CGC requires a membership to submit books and offers discounts and credit at higher levels. The Free tier didn’t exist when I started and is a great way to start.

I had always seen graded books at conventions and marveled at how pristine they looked, with a clinically precise value assigned and the ability to safely inspect it with no fear of damaging the comic. If I was going to collect all of Claremont’s X-Men what better way then to have them all in this format? And so over the next year instead of getting my feet wet slowly I made a cannonball in the deep end of the pool. I bought up all the early books on eBay auctions, all claiming to be of VF+ to NM quality. I then purchased the elite membership over at CGC, knowing I would be submitting over 30 books that year. With dollar signs in my eyes assuming I had a stack of 9.8 mint copies I attended my local convention WonderCon and submitted my treasure trove in person to the CGC booth. The waiting began.

How long you wait is determined by how old the book is and how much extra you are willing to pay to expedite. It will always take longer than you want and the sooner you can accept that, the less stressful it is.

The waiting might be the toughest part. It can easily be 3-4 months before you see those books again. It will take even longer if you elect to clean and press your books which I did not and should have. After submitting the 1st batch I grew impatient and made another round of purchases and submitted those as well at another convention, Comic Con Revolution, just 2 months later. Then I finally got the e-mail that my books had been graded and were being prepared for shipment. With excitement I went to the tracker on the site to see my report card. I was met with mild to large disappointment. Nothing was graded a 9.8, most of the books didn’t even score a 9 at all. Shortly after, I believe because the con season was over the next batch was finished as well. The same results. Pump the brakes, what was I thinking? In hindsight of course I should have done the research and thought about what I was submitting. So for the next 3 years I slowed down and did just that. One silver lining of that initial plunge is that I acquired working examples of grades ranging from Fine to Near Mint and I could study those books and learn what happened. I’m hoping this post can help anyone out who is thinking of submitting their books for grading and how to approach it better than I did.

About the average score of all those X-Men books.

The first question I should have asked myself is “Why are you getting these books graded?”. My answer then would have been to increase the value of my collection and make them easily presentable. Okay, so increasing the value of a book makes sense. The very earliest part of the Claremont run is worth a lot, but the majority of it holds a more moderate but respectable value of around $40-60 a book in the Very Fine range. A rule of thumb is that grading a book, assuming high condition, doubles the value of it. Factoring in the cost of about $35 to grade and ship the book, in theory you are spending 30% of it’s value to realize it. The problem is the majority of the books I was submitting weren’t at a high enough grade to achieve that. A graded 7.0 of X-Men in that era is optimistically worth 20% more. So a $40 ungraded book is now worth $50, but that assumes someone even wants to pay for that. Once you get into the bronze age or later, people mostly want to buy books graded a VF+ or higher only.

Current values of Uncanny X-Men 118 on, you can see that even an 8.5 of the book is valued the same graded or not.

The second reason was to make the collection more presentable. But when all I’m doing is taking 60 books and slabbing them all in heavy plastic, I have done the exact opposite. It is cumbersome to store and go through a set like that. Plus Uncanny X-Men #144 for example is not even noteworthy, why would I want to show someone that book?

If you asked me today why I grade books my answers are the same. I want to increase their value and make them more presentable. The difference is in the books I’m submitting to meet those goals. I only send a book to get graded if the following 3 conditions are true.

  1. The book is valuable enough to risk the cost of the grading against a worst case scenario grade.
  2. I’m confident in my self grading of the book using the guide. If the book is modern it MUST be in excellent condition before consideration.
  3. The book is noteworthy in some way and one that I would want to both share with friends and preserve it’s value as a highlight in my collection.

The perfect example of my 1st condition is a copy of Green Lantern 87, the 1st appearance of John Stuart. I purchased the book at my shop for $100 even though it was in a mid grade condition. I assumed the book was no lower than a 4.5 VG condition, which would still place it’s value at what I paid for it. I submitted the book and it came back at a 5.5 which still doubled the value I paid for it.

Modern books must graded at exceptional value, 9.6 or higher to be worth anything at all. I obtained a copy Ultimate Fallout 4, the 1st appearance of Miles Morales still sealed in it’s bag. Knowing that nobody had ever touched the book and I could not perceive any kind of stress marks on the spine or wear on the corners I submitted it and it came back at a 9.8. Both of these books are milestone appearances of important characters that I would want to look at from time to time and show to friends who might have an appreciation of the character.

Once I’ve decided to submit a book, I always get them clean and pressed using CCS’s services. This is a process that can greatly increase the grade of a book without altering it. It costs a little more per book and definitely adds time to the turn around but is worth it. I can’t help but wonder what grades I would have gotten on those first two batches of submissions I made.

After coming to these conclusions, my submissions have become much more successful. I was discussing it with a friend recently and they mentioned that they thought the more you submitted your books to CGC, the more lenient they got with your grades. I believe the opposite, over time as you see your money go to waste on comics you blindly value, you naturally become more selective and aware of what you are submitting.

The bible on how to grade comics is available for everyone and recommended.

Comic grading will always be subjective and we as a community do our best to make it objective by building consensus on what makes a book’s condition either excellent or terrible. The lower on the scale, the harder it gets. A book could look fantastic but upon closer inspection, the back cover could have water damage and lower it’s value. It still displays well though. How do you assign a number to it then? I love that there is a group of professional graders who do this for a living. They have graded so many books every day that I trust their assessment. They follow a strict set of guidelines that everyone has access to and you can access the notes on your book’s grade. It’s not perfect I can’t see a better way of doing it. At the end of the day if you are looking to buy a book that has a high value, you want to be assured that you are getting what you pay for. Professional grading, or slabbing, is the best way to feel confident in the purchases you are making. One day if I decide to sell parts of my collection, it will be much easier to do so with the books I have had graded.

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