Revel in the Detail
CGC and PGX : Comic Book Heroes (For Hire)
Few items of entertainment have managed to endure the fluctuations of social norms, family values, and cultural identities quite as well as the modern comic book. Its ability to transcend generational differences and retain relevancy for nearly a century is nothing short of phenomenal, given that society in general has undergone such an extraordinary and fundamental transformation since its inception.
There are numerous reasons why this could be, but to speculate on them all here would exceed the scope of this article. What can be said, though, is that the historical and cultural significance of the comic book extends beyond simply its versatility and universal appeal.
Many of the stories in today’s comic books are the continuation of those initial plots that began decades ago; therefore each issue is significant insofar as it establishes context for all subsequent events in the canon. This is what distinguishes comic books from most other relics of Americana, and it’s why many comic enthusiasts go to such great lengths to acquire copies of out-of-print issues. They act as both collectors and distributors, maintaining the cycle of supply and demand while also enabling others to enjoy a story in its original form. These people are crucial to the continuation of the subculture, and surely it would not exist to the extent that it does without their contributions.
In order to do this, however, requires not only that efforts be taken to preserve the integrity of the book’s condition; it also requires preserving the integrity of the transaction between the different parties. Both of these requirements were lacking for much of comic book history, and in the absence of a reliable method of achieving this, access to the culture was stifled and progress was delayed. It’s only been within the last 15 years or so that the problem of bias in comic grading was amended , and it took the form of commercial grading.
Since then, there’s been a renewed interest in comic books –and the resale market in particular — by people who had avoided participating due to the lack of a professional presence and authority.
If you have a collection of comics from years past that you’ve made it a point to save—whether for profit or posterity—I encourage you to have them graded by a professional company. For investors and anyone else driven exclusively by profit, using their services can help you decide which books are worth investing in when you factor in the costs involved. However, as commercial grading has largely become the norm nowadays, the likelihood of selling an ungraded comic for the fair market value is minimal, while a graded one will almost always sell at or above that price. Furthermore, if you plan to make this an ongoing thing, you’ll want to establish a reputation in the community as being trustworthy. And for an investor, because they’re considered to be opportunists and not very comic-savvy by most in the industry, this isn’t easily accomplished. Every sale will be a tough one without having the authenticity of your product validated and its condition assessed by a reliable and impartial third-party.
A comic book’s age, scarcity, and condition are the three main factors that determine its fair market value. There are others, but these are the most common. While the first two factors are factual in nature and therefore not really debatable, , the condition will always be a matter of opinion (or perspective).; and inevitably this is where buyers and sellers will run into problems. This is because even the slightest discrepancy in a grade can affect the fair market value significantly. True, the seller ultimately has the final say in what he chooses to sell his comic for. But the fair market value listed in price guides can provide buyers with a general idea of the price they can expect to pay elsewhere. This self-regulation is ultimately what allows the market to survive at its most basic level; however, in a niche market such as this, both buyer and seller are left with something to be desired. In short, there was a need to have anarbiter involved in facilitating transactions and that’s what led to the creation of commercial graders.
There are many unwritten rules that govern the approach to grading and what standard to use, and for the most part, this is sufficient. However, commercial graders have dedicated themselves to reaching as close to an ideal as is possible, in an attempt to purge subjectivity from grading completely, such that each imperfection is quantifiable and therefore can be calculated objectively. Still, it is not an exact science and discrepancies among companies, graders, and customers are inevitable. What matters though is that neither the buyer nor the seller can be said to influence the price of a book by manipulating the grade.
How It Works
The process of determining the grade of a book is pretty straightforward, yet it is far from simple. It may vary slightly in each company, but essentially, the way it works is similar to the way judges grade a performance or competition. First, grading experts carefully and meticulously evaluate your book from cover to cover, scrutinizing every inch and assessing the damage. Then it is assigned a grade, which will be used to identify its fair market value. The grade assigned to your book will be a number between 0.5 and 10 — 0.5 being the threshold that distinguishes a ‘gradable’ comic from one that is ineligible for grading, usually because the damage is just too extensive. Although the original system developed by Bob Overstreet uses a range of 0 – 100, the 10-point system is favored because each increment on the scale can be substantiated more definitively by the extent of the damage.
The Overstreet system, by contrast, is prone to arbitrary grading because with such a wide range there is really no qualitative distinction that can be made between any two consecutive numbers, which is key to accurately (and objectively) defining a book’s condition. Therefore, it would be impractical for grading companies to use the Overstreet system when objectivity and impartiality is the overarching theme of their business model.
The modern grading system was employed when commercial graders realized the fallibility of the older system when it came to devising a sound method of objective grading. After all, it would need to be applicable to a wide array of comics and on a consistent basis among different experts within the company. What developed was the 10-point numeric system. It ranges from 0.5 to 10, and breaks down incrementally with each unit corresponding to the industry’s previously established grading scale consisting of nominal values that succinctly described the overall condition. Grading begins at 0.5 because a grade of 0 is defined as “No Grade.” In most cases, this means that the book is ineligible for grading because it’s missing pages or otherwise incomplete. The highest grade any book can receive is a 10, which is labeled “Gem Mint,” or simply “Mint.” A grade of 10 implies that the book is flawless in every way. As you might imagine, vintage books of this caliber are exceptionally rare.
This grade, for all intents and purposes, is accurate and non-negotiable. To keep the grade from fluctuating over time, the book is sealed — or “slabbed,” as it’s called — using state of the art material that protects the contents from damage. The company’s logo is also incorporated into the holder and functions as the company’s stamp of approval and a guarantee of the book’s authenticity while sealed in its holder. With the number of reprints and replicas out there, just knowing this much can be worth the cost of grading.
Why It Works
By taking this first step, you’re assuring the buyer peace of mind and facilitating a smooth transaction. Comic books that haven’t been authenticated by a reputable company won’t appeal to buyers willing to pay top dollar for a genuine copy. It’s not unusual to see a professionally graded comic sell for three to four times the price of its ungraded counterpart. This is the power of the grading system, and it shows just how influential a reliable grading company can be when it comes to the salability of your product. It’s really a no-brainer. Now all you have to decide is which company gives you the most bang for your buck.
The Major Players
Whenever possible, use an established company that has earned a reputation for professionalism and reliability in the industry. The two most notable ones right now are Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) and Professional Grading eXperts (PGX).
These two companies singlehandedly changed the way the comic resale market operates. Buying and selling a comic book nowadays is vastly different than it was just 20 short years ago. With the online arena now a primary hub of commerce and technology being what it is today, comic enthusiasts rely heavily on commercial graders to prevent the proliferation of counterfeits and misrepresentations. Having these companies as safeguards against fraud instills confidence in buyers and allows the market to thrive.
Just to give you an idea of their significance, consider this: In the 50+ years prior to commercial grading, the most amount ever paid for a comic book was somewhere around $200,000 or so. Now compare that to the most expensive comics sold in just the last decade and you’ll notice that that price doesn’t even make the top ten list. This doesn’t necessarily prove anything, but it does indicate a momentous change in public interest.
Regardless, whether coincidence or connection, the fact is that CGC and PGX are providing a service that is embraced by the majority of hobbyists. This has had a direct effect in expanding the market and boosting consumer confidence by providing buyers with a level of transparency and assurance that hadn’t existed before. Perhaps this is why some people are willing to spend $1 million for a comic book even in today’s unpredictable economy. In any case, there is reason to believe that commercial grading was the impetus that the industry needed in order to stimulate the market, streamline the process, and preserve the integrity of the sale.
Weighing the Options
By having two separate companies operating independently and balancingeach other out, the industry is protected from monopolies and price gouging. As such, both companies are essential to the continued success of the industry. To say one is better than the other is moot and not conducive to establishing a productive and stable market.
The decision on which company to give your business to should really be made on a case by case basis, as each comic has a different value, appeals to a different buyer, and requires a different turnaround time. Therefore, a one size fits all approach isn’t in your best interest. Instead, take advantage of the different options and services that are available to you. You’re leaving valuable profit on the table if you don’t.
The First Step
Knowledge and preparation are your two greatest allies in any transaction, particularly when you have no experience to lean on. Taking the time to personally assess the condition of your comics and making accurate predictions about their fair market value will dictate where and how you should allocate your resources. It will also give you an idea of which outlet to use by helping to identify your target customer and then finding the venue that best caters to that demographic.
When submitting a comic for grading, you will be asked to estimate its fair market value. This is for insurance and liability purposes only, and you shouldn’t lose sleep over it if you are unsure. But while it’s not a factor in determining your final grade, it is a precaution that should not be overlooked. After all, should something ever happen to your book after it’s been mailed, you will be compensated according to the value originally specified when you mailed it, not the value determined by the company. Therefore, it doesn’t hurt to err on the high side, just in case. While we’re on the subject, don’t forget to request a return receipt when you mail it, just for an additional level of protection.
Certified Guaranty Company
This is the company that pioneered the idea of a commercial grading service right around the turn of the millennium. Since then, they’ve become the grader of choice among investors who know that most wealthy buyers want to see a CGC logo before they even consider the bid. In a sense, the logo on the holder is just as important as the comic inside. It should come as no surprise then that the only comics to ever sell for $1 million or more all bear the CGC label.
And now you can get one too!
CGC offers three different options for getting your comics graded (four if you count their on-site grading at events.) These include: purchasing an annual membership, submitting through an Authorized Member Dealer, or submitting through one of their “internet partners.”
Let’s discuss this last option first though because it seems to confuse a lot of people on what it entails. To clarify, an “online partner” is just a source that non-members can use to access CGC’s restricted submission form. There’s no actual middle man involved. You fill out the forms, you print them, and you mail them directly to CGC with your books and payment. All correspondence with CGC is conducted directly through you. It’s a fairly easy and painless option; however, it does have a few drawbacks. For instance, some sites require you sign up for a membership with them instead; others require you to email them and specifically ask for the instructions on how to go about it; and then there are some that hardly kept up with and the site and so basically it’s like a ghost town where weeks or months can go by before you receive a response, if ever. There might be one or two sites that make it easy and will guide you to a link that you simply click on. But even then, don’t be surprised if the site charges you an access fee each time. Nonetheless, it’s still an option and it has the potential to save you a few bucks with the 10% discount. Just make sure you vet the online partner you decide to use because not all are created equal.
If you plan on selling comics regularly and they are of notable quality and value, then you’ll probably want to get a CGC membership and enjoy the discounts and perks. As they say, membership has its privileges. Currently, the three paid annual memberships are Associate, Premium, and Elite and purchasing one every year allows you to submit your comics directly to CGC without jumping through hoops.
The Associate is the cheapest and gets you in the door for around $39 per year. As an Associate member, you get access to the same things that you can get with a free membership — census reports, the CGC registry, articles, newsletters, and certification verification — but you also get unlimited direct submission privileges, submission tracking, and a 10% discount when you use their online submission form.
For a Premium membership, the price jumps up to $125 per year. For the additional $86, you get all the same things as the Associate plus a coupon good for four free Standard-tier submissions, valued at $60 apiece. The coupon expires after one year, and you have to submit all four comics at the same time, but this shouldn’t be a problem for you if you’re considering membership. I should tell you though that this coupon is part of a “promotional offer” and as such, it could potentially be removed, edited, or exchanged at any time. However, these types of vouchers are standard practice by other grading sources including PSA which slabs trading cards.
And last, but certainly not least expensive, Elite is CGC’s most comprehensive membership that will run you $275 per year. As an Elite member, you get all the same benefits mentioned above, but the discount for online submissions increases to 15% off. In addition, you also receive a 20% discount on grading notes, which specify the location of flaws and the extent of the damage. These can come in handy when you’re trying to figure out why a book that you considered a 9 was given a 7.5. Or maybe you’re just curious to see what they said about Nicolas Cage’s $2.1 million Action Comic Yes, they have notes on it. And they are for sale to the public, just as yours will be. Grading notes are available for purchase to anyone with a debit or credit card and an email address, including non-members. All that’s needed is the CGC certification number printed above the barcode at the top of the holder. Keep in mind that not every comic graded will have grading notes available. In fact, it’s probably safe to assume that most of the 2+ million comics graded by CGC do not have notes available. However, if you know you will want the notes on your comic grade, they can be requested ahead of time by making the appropriate notation on your submission form. With the 20% discount, Elite members will save either $1, $2, or $3 on the cost of notes, depending on the tier that the comic was submitted under. For all notes ordered off the website, they will be delivered via email following payment and should arrive in your inbox within an hour, according to the site.
Professional Grading eXperts
While CGC gets a lot of attention—becoming synonymous with comic book grading in much the same way that Xerox is synonymous with photocopying—PGX has managed to hold its own over the years despite operating in the shadow of its counterpart. Established in 2003, the company is the second-longest running grading service in the industry and currently CGC’s biggest competitor. Indeed, PGX may be the only competitor with enough seniority and influence to stay in business. Many other companies have tried to enter the market only to be stonewalled by their target customers, which is why PGX’s success is so intriguing. You have to admit, it’s quite an impressive accomplishment when you consider the obstacles—and even sabotage—that the company had to overcome just to put its name on the map. And this is without corporate backing there to help soften up the crowd.
Unlike CGC, which began its legacy by establishing partnerships behind closed doors with the biggest names in the industry—Wizard World, Diamond Comics, Harley Yee, Metropolis Comix, to name a few—PGX took a more modest approach, opting to simply provide an alternative grading service rather than revolutionize the industry at large. The fact that PGX does have a hand in that, however, is an added perk to an already attractive storyline.
We are now in the second decade since commercial comic grading made its debut, and PGX continues to embrace its humble beginnings and underdog status in several ways. One way it does this is by actively engaging with the public and listening to feedback from customers. This is evident in the company’s presence at national comic conventions, on online forums, and appearances at local comic shops. It’s apparent that fostering customer relations is the company’s top priority. Over the years, this has become a defining quality of PGX and a refreshing reminder of what made commercial grading so appealing to hobbyists in the first place; and that is transparency. This is a major reason why I believe the company has been able to maintain a loyal following and succeed. They offer no-gimmick services that are intended for the common hobbyist, plain and simple.
And yet, the company is far from complacent. With each passing year, PGX continues to expand its services, enhance its public image, and keep up with the Joneses, so-to-speak. While no one’s telling, it’s possible that PGX is the only other company that CGC has on its radar and views as a genuine threat to their bottom line. And with CGC’s history of raising tier prices every couple of years, adding arbitrary fees, and increasing turnaround time—sometimes 3 times longer than originally estimated—the threat could be real. After all, PGX offers flat-rate prices that are substantially lower than CGC, with turnaround times typically no longer than a month. Compare this to CGC where it is not unheard of for people to wait the better part of a year before receiving their comics back. Furthermore, PGX does not require membership nor do they ask you to submit your comics in a roundabout way (such as via an “online partner”). Instead, you simply go to the website, download the form, fill it out, and mail it with your books. As far as payment goes, PGX accepts checks, money orders, all major credit and debit cards, and even PayPal. It is truly a cut-and-dry procedure that requires minimal effort on the part of the customer. For affordable flat-rate prices, quick turnaround times, and a straightforward submission process, PGX
Going back to the membership requirement, it should be noted that CGC doesn’t require membership either. However, you’d be surprised just how few people might actually arrive at this conclusion after visiting the company website and attempting to submit comics. There could be a variety of reasons why this is, but because of how common the misinterpretation is, I’m reluctant to blame the customer. In any case, the wording on the website is in my opinion a tad misleading. At the very least, CGC’s submission process is complex, if not complicated.
PGX, on the other hand, appears to have made every effort to simplify and streamline its own procedure, making it very easy to submit comic books hassle- and worry-free so that you can get on with your day. For starters, there are only two tiers to submit under, and the deciding factor is the year in which the book was originally published; 1978 and after, you would submit under “Modern,” which costs $13 per book. All others (i.e. 1977 and prior) would be submitted under “Standard,” and costs $20 per. The normal turnaround time is the same for both—averaging less than 3 weeks—and there are no hidden fees, exclusions, or discretionary charges that you need to account for or factor into the total cost. Whereas CGC’s system can sometimes lead to clients being blindsided with additional charges when their opinion of the FMV differs from yours, PGX only uses the figure for shipping insurance purposes and not for pricing. The only thing that might affect the price is when your order exceeds 30 books and they are all requested to be returned together. In that situation, you will need to pay for the cost of shipping however many additional boxes are needed to get your order back to you (each box has a maximum holding capacity of 30 graded books). This is simply due to size and weight restrictions of the postal service and not a restriction on the number of books you can send in for grading.
For a modest upcharge of $5 per comic, you can have the grading process expedited and cut the turnaround time in half. Need it quicker than that? PGX understands and can accommodate your needs for just a few bucks more by giving your order first priority to make sure it’s graded, slabbed, and back in your hands by the end of the workweek. For example, for $40 you can get your comic book—any comic book—graded and shipped back to you the day after it’s received. Just choose Next-Day service when you order. If you’re a resident of Oregon (or even just visiting) and aren’t too far from Eugene, there is a $50 “drop off” option that allows you to drop off your order at a local comic book shop and pick it up the next day. Just call or email the company and coordinate the specifics with them a day or two before you order. Another option available to Oregonites is Same-Day service, and accommodates those of you who have no patience for patience and thrive on instant-gratification. For $75, this option allows you to drop your book off in the morning, get it graded, authorized, certified, encapsulated and have it ready to sell that same evening. Or, if you prefer, they can come to you regardless of where you’re located within the city of Eugene. Just let them know.
The inherent simplicity in the submission process gives PGX a user-friendly appeal that consumers seem to appreciate and value more and more these days. The company has also recently expanded its services to include signature authentication (touted as being the first of its kind) and comic book pressing. Signature authentication is where PGX confirms or rebukes the authenticity of an artists’ or celebrity’s signature if you have a comic that someone famous in the industry has signed. The cost is $15 per signature and your book will be encapsulated in a holder displaying the appropriate label (assuming the signatures are in fact genuine). Pressing is where they use special techniques to improve the overall appearance of the book without actually going so far as to restore it. Typically, the process will include applying heat and pressure to iron-out wrinkles or make otherwise superficial enhancements. The process is somewhat controversial, as many consider it tantamount to misrepresentation. However, for the most part, both buyers and sellers view it as a harmless method of preparing a comic for sale; and actually, many even feel that having a book pressed is mutually beneficial. But of course, it all comes down to preferences.
In its 80-year history, the modern comic book has seen its fair share of real life heroes (and villains). There are a number of writers, artist, and business men who we owe a debt of gratitude for their contributions to the culture. However, without downplaying the importance of the others, are a few individuals who I believe have been particularly vital to the fate of the industry. Among them are Max Gaines, Jerry Sielig, Julius Schwartz, and Phil Seuling. These are people who have either created a market, created an icon, or saved the industry itself from slipping into oblivion. And while it may be too early to say for sure what impact they will have on the industry in the grand scheme of things, I think the founders of CGC and PGX are off to a good start and are deserving of such recognition until further notice.
As I mentioned before, both CGC and PGX have their strengths and their weaknesses, which is why you should utilize each company’s services according to your needs. You may already be inclined to use one over the other because of things you’ve heard, read, experienced, etc.; however, it is in your best interest not to get swept up in the hype that is perpetuated in online forums and other niche media concerning the use of one company’s service over the other. Click on the links below to view their respective websites and use your own judgment to decide which one fits your current need. It may change with each order, or it might stay the same. But come to that conclusion after you have a few submissions under your belt. In any case, don’t think that the most popular and most expensive brand is always the best choice; but also don’t use price as the only determining factor in your decision. If you’re ever unsure about something, you can always contact the company for clarification before submitting your books. Just remember, both companies are simply offering to act as an impartial grader that will provide you with their expert opinion and then seal it in a holder to protect your comic book from the elements and further deterioration. That is all. Neither one makes any inference that you will increase your profits by using their service. I, however, do. So get to grading!
This article was written exclusively for ComicsWatcher.com by Micah Palmer.