Since starting Comictrend a year ago and my By the Numbers column for comicbookdaily.com, I’ve received a few emails from new collectors asking for a “collecting 101” guide. With thousands of titles spanning over 70+ years, the hobby can be a bit overwhelming to newcomers.

There’s no black and white blueprint to follow. Each collector has to figure out what works for them, keeping in mind their budget and the time they have available to devote to the hobby.  At the end of the day, the best collection isn’t the biggest or most valuable; it’s the one you’ve assembled with care, consideration, and joy. This is going to be different for each person.

Right off the bat, one should throw out any notion of getting rich. Don’t buy a comic just because you think it will go up in value. The reality is that there are way more examples of hot comics crashing and burning than making anyone rich. In fact, if you think about all the comics that have ever been produced, the reality is that the vast majority of them are near worthless. Think about comics as a hobby first and investment alternative second. The #1 goal is to have fun. If your collection grows in value after 20 years of collecting then that’s icing on the cake. But if you really want to make money over the long run then you’re better off contributing to a solid investment portfolio.

1) Find your passion.

Why are you even interested in comic books? Do you enjoy the artwork? Did you grow up watching Saturday morning X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons? Perhaps when you were younger you were drawn to the classical heroic archetypes from the Golden Age… or maybe the grittier Batman, Wolverine, and Punisher books of the Bronze and Copper Ages.

Find the source of your passion. This should be the cornerstone of your collection, your launching point.  If you start collecting for any other reason (e.g., buying what’s hot at the moment, classic titles that others have said you need to own), your collection will be devoid of any meaning. After all, with unlimited funds all the great historical books could be bought in an afternoon with a few clicks of a mouse. The real fun and enjoyment comes from building a collection of books that means something to you.

This is what’s unique to comics: behind each cover are characters and stories that have a far and wide cultural reach. There are also the story lines, heroes and villains that speak to you on a very personal level. Having a collection means owning a piece of history. What part of this history speaks to you?

2) But don’t get stuck.

I got stuck early on. Like many, I’m huge fan of Claremont’s X-Men run. So naturally I gravitated to Claremont’s classic X-Men stories such as Days of Future Past and Claremont co-created characters such as Sabretooth, Rogue, Psylocke, and Emma Frost.

There were two problems with my myopic fixation on Claremont X-Men. First, most of these titles were launched in the Bronze and Copper Ages (1970 – 1985 and 1985 – 1991, respectively). So my collection became heavily tilted to a specific Age. Second, my enthusiasm for collecting waned after I explored Claremont’s run to its fullest. At the time, I didn’t care about Silver Age X-Men stories or keep up with the latest X-Men books. My comic book world was very narrow.

To coin a phrase, I had “collector’s block.” So I really had to re-think my approach to collecting: was I a fan of Claremont or the X-Men? Bronze Age X-Men or the Bronze Age in general? Why didn’t the Silver Age appeal to me? Was I just ignorant?

I opened up my eyes and did some more research on the Bronze Age era and the Silver Age X-Men that came before Claremont’s run. Like water through a broken damn, my collecting universe exploded. I slowly began to appreciate—and fall in love with—other books from other eras just as much Claremont’s work.

Doesn’t this conflict with rule #1: Find your passion? No, not at all. It’s about finding a core passion and spring-boarding off of it so that the hobby remains fresh and exciting. And it’s not about expanding your collection just for the sake of collecting. It’s about re-discovering the feeling you had when you first started collecting.

3) Go the CGC route.

Yup, love it or hate it,  “slabbing” is here to stay. There are three main reasons I recommend buying CGC graded books:

1) You can focus on collecting instead of worrying whether or not that “near mint” book you bought is actually “very good” because it has a rough corner you didn’t notice at purchase.

2) The graded market is much more transparent. CGC tracks the number of books slabbed at each grade making it easy to see the supply and demand picture. Sites like GPA and Comictrend track auction results and market values so you can easily see what the going rate is for the book you want to buy. If you want to buy a 9.6 Amazing Spider-Man #300, within minutes you can figure out what it has been trading for recently.

3) Graded books can be bought and sold much easier. There are now many auction sites that list thousands of CGC graded books. If you have to sell a title in a pinch, there are many eager collectors ready to take your graded book off your hands. Selling a collection of raw books can be tough, especially online.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with buying ungraded books. A collection of ungraded books is not inferior in any way to a collection of books wrapped in rock hard plastic. It’s about convenience and peace of mind. Going the slabbed route takes away much of the stuff that makes new collectors (and even veteran collectors) nervous: figuring out grades, market values, supply and demand, etc.

4) Think core and periphery.

Once you’ve established what story lines, characters, artists, writers, etc., that are going to form the core of your collection, develop a list of key historical titles—first appearances, first issues, character defining storylines, etc. These are likely the books you’re passionate about, anyway. These key titles will form the core of your collection. Around this core collection you can build a collection of lesser known titles, Modern Age variant covers, Signature Series books, and complete runs. The bulk of the value of your collection will come from the core (key) titles while the peripheral books will round out your collection and allow you to explore the off-the-beaten path titles.

Here’s the harsh reality: beyond a list of a couple hundred or so key books, most comic books don’t have any real value. Again, follow your passion. But keep in mind that as you stray from the keys, values drop exponentially and the market becomes very thin.

5) Consult price guides and data aggregators.

There are two, distinct resources for comic book values: guides and transaction-driven online databases. Guides are perhaps the most common as they have been around the longest and are seen as the rational, thoughtful source for values that aren’t influenced by fads or market values. This is where the iconic Overstreet Price Guide (around since 1970) fits in.

As auctions moved online, a newer type (relative to the 40 year old Overstreet guide!) of price guide emerged. These guides download data from the major auction sites (eBay, Comiclink, Heritage, etc.) and aggregate the data. The most well-known site by far is GPA. Here you won’t find the relatively static values seen in Overstreet. There aren’t any industry veterans sitting around debating values. These sites generate their ‘values’ strictly from transaction data alone. For example, for each book GPA provides average values for 2010, 2011, the last 12 months, and the last 90 days. At Comictrend we define the value of a comic book as the median price of the last 8 transactions.

I suggest collectors use both, keeping in mind each approach’s strengths and weaknesses. Price guides are the calm voice during speculative runs. Overstreet advisors have dozens of years of experience and have seen it all. There is much thought and considering behind each value in the book. On the other hand, these guides can seem a bit stale in today’s fast moving environment. Often people just want to know what is the book trading for right now? This is where the data aggregators will help you.

6) Discuss and keep ahead.

Hit the web. Lurk or join forums. Visit the top collecting sites and read what the most experienced collectors are saying.

What would your collective advice be to a newcomer?