Undervalued Spotlight #448

Action Comics #12, DC, May 1939.

I’d like to thank guest Undervalued Spotlight writer Stephen for sending in another fantastic submission. Steven’s argument is sound and full of the passion and confidence that had me asking him if he had a copy for sale! I know he picked a tough book but let’s get behind the philosophy here, it’s a strong strong pick. Let’s turn things over to Steven:

Today I am submitting a very very expensive and hard to find book as my pick for Undervalued Spotlight. Although this isn’t a dollar bin find or even a $10,000 bin find, I felt that there was an injustice here. Any definitive work on under-appreciated books cannot be complete without what is, in my opinion, the single most undervalued comic book ever; Action Comics number 12.

Recently I met a collector who had a specific theme he was working on. He was buying up anything that had Superman breaking chains. He had amassed a surprisingly large amount of comics, action figures, lunchboxes, even iron-on patches from the ’40s. He had just purchased a beautiful copy of Superman 11 with the trademark yellow background and a full-length Superman breaking chains across his chest. The collector was very proud to tell me he had finally added the masterpiece of his collection; the first ever Superman chain break cover.

He was a rather eccentric man and the interaction stuck with me a while. About a month later I was flipping through my Golden Age DC collection and came across a copy of Action Comics 16. It was part of a time before Superman was on every cover of Action. I personally think those early non-Superman covers are amazing so I stopped to admire it. While doing so I noticed that Superman was indeed on the cover and actually breaking chains across his chest in a small circle in the upper left. Oh no. This book clearly had been published before Superman 11 but before I broke the collector’s heart into pieces like so many innocent chains had been before, I had to do some research. 

I started an internet search hoping it would lead me to a conclusive article stating chronologically when and where Superman perpetrated violence against chains. No such luck. I did, however, find an article about Superman 11. The author too claimed that this book was the first ever cover that had Superman breaking chains. I decided to reach out to the author as he clearly had a passion for the subject matter. When I asked him about Action 16 his reply was pretty dismissive. “Superman’s first chain break cover is Superman 11. Superman isn’t on the cover of Action 16.” Before I started my reply with ‘well technically…’ I had to finish my research. 

The first image of Superman breaking through chains was of course drawn by Joe Shuster and was to become the back cover pin-up for Superman number 1 published June 18th, 1939. Action Comics 16 went on sale July, 24 1939. Missed it by a month. But wait, why hadn’t I checked earlier Action Comics for the same circle? A quick search and there it was, Action Comics number 12. This book went on sale March 24, 1939, almost three full months before Superman 1. Although the image was likely already drawn by Shuster for the use of the pin-up for Superman 1, it appeared earlier on the Action title as a way to hint at a Superman story inside even though he was absent from the cover. This is the first time the world sees Superman breaking chains, and it was technically on the cover.

But being the first ever published imagine of Superman breaking chains alone wouldn’t make Action Comics 12 the most undervalued book of all time. As I do not own a copy of the book, I starting looking to see if someone might be sitting on a low grade one for sale. I found a shop that had one for sale in Arizona with multiple pictures on the listing. It had, of course, a picture of the cover and clearly present was the circle with Superman breaking chains. But as I scrolled through the several images of the interior I came across this:

Now I don’t know if this is common knowledge or not but I certainly never heard of an image of Batman being published before Detective Comics 27. ‘Tec 27 hit the shelves March 30, 1939. Meaning the world had seen Batman’s face one full week before his iconic first appearance. I’m clearly not a Golden Age guru but this seems to me like even a common collector with a passion for the history should know about this. Sure I’ve seen label indicators stating “full page ad for…” but this is different, more significant. Action 12 is the first-ever glimpse of arguably the most internationally recognized superhero of all time. 

Good or bad, we are in an age where preview fanzines are getting credit (and dollars) over in-canon first appearances. Dollar books are getting bumped way up because Eddie Brock’s forearm in a single panel can be (very, very loosely) called Venom’s first appearance. If the collector/spectator market is now digging deeper and deeper to pinpoint the first hint of beloved characters, then you must consider Action Comics number 12 to be the king of them all. 

Current Overstreet splits are 2600/5200/7800 for 2.0/4.0/6.0.

You can’t touch a CGC copy in any grade for less than 10k so if you see prices anywhere near these numbers do whatever you can to grab it. This book has real solid long-term legs. 

Strengths that make this comic a good long-term investment:

  • First ever published image of Batman
  • First ever published image of Superman breaking chains
Walter Durajlija
Walter Durajlija

Walter Durajlija is an Overstreet Advisor and Shuster Award winner. He owns Big B Comics in Hamilton Ontario.

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4 years ago

Excellent article, and a fun read with great research and insight. Golden Age DC comics are always fun to see and collect, but finding additional reasons to select a particular copy is always a bonus. I am going to be in Scottsdale for the next several weeks and now I need to find 1) the shop in Arizona with the low grade copy; and 2) permission to spend the money for the issue. Item #2 will be much more difficult

Matt Ames
Matt Ames
4 years ago

Wow. That is a home run. What a discovery!

Chris Meli
4 years ago

This reminds me of a situation at work years ago. An associate – who later was my boss – decided to give morning seminars to junior employees on various topics. For one of these he invited in another associate to give a guest presentation, into which clearly went far more preparation, and was delivered beautifully. Afterwards I approached the presenter, and within earshot of the organizer I gushed about how how superior the presentation had been. Awkward.

So. Let me just put it this way: great piece! There is a lot here: super cool cover (regardless of whether it is undervalued), crazy collecting strain, historical sleuthing, Zatara! I think just as important as Superman’s first breaking chains is Superman in the first place – just like that “first Joker cover” where you can barely make him out (no Covered 365 for that one), even a tiny Superman on an early Action is going to make a huge difference in price. Also the Cole-like background and the rocket reminiscent of Superman’s origin are all good. To be fair CGC does note “1 panel ad for Detective Comics #27”, but this doesn’t make clear that it is in fact an image of Batman’s head.

I have to give lip service to my usual complaint that calling a book that basically doesn’t exist “undervalued” goes against the spirit of the topic. In this case I can give a little bit more because it is almost an “undervalued at any price” argument. I can feel this in spirit but practically we need to think about price and possible appreciation.

I think the pros are:
– very early Action
– super scarce because it’s very early Action
– Superman cover
– first Superman breaking chains (put this on the wall with Superman #233!)
– generally great cover
– ad for Detective #27
– first Batman image? first Batman image in published comic? first Batman image in Action (probably), so real stretch to say first Superman/Batman crossover

– Only technically a “Superman cover”
– Will never see the Batman reference if slabbed
– Will possible fall out of favor when the anti-stage magician purge takes hold (have to prepare for every eventuality)

I don’t think we need a scale to see which way this one is going. But what we need is a good comp. This is hard. This is such an early and important book that little comes to mind – I would appreciate suggestions. I was tempted to go with Detective #32 (first non-Batman cover with Batman image), but there are a number of reasons this isn’t good. Instead how about Action #10 and Action #13 just looking at percentage appreciation, as these are “true” Superman covers and so worth a lot more.

If you want to have a good cry, look at the GPA sales on these. Action #10 4.0 sold for $5k in 2002 and $75k in 2015. Action #12 in 7.5 sold for $7.2k in 2005, in 3.0 sold for $12k in 2018. Action #13 1.0 sold for $1.1k in 2004, for $22.5k in 2017. The sales are few and so it is hard to get a handle on this, so I will just throw out a few multiples:

A10 6.0 SP 15k 2011, 30k 2018 (2x from 2011 to 2018)
A10 4.0 5k 2002, 75k 2015 (15x from 2002 to 2015)
A10 3.5 107k 2018 (implies something like 2x 2015 to 2018)
A10 3.0 20k 2011, 24k 2015 (1.2x from 2011 to 2015, so in line with above trend)
A10 0.5 23k 2019 (again infer something like 2x 2015 to 2018)
A13 8.0 67k 2011, 102k 2015 (1.5x 2011 to 2015)
A13 1.5 8.6k 2012, 27k 2017 (3x 2012 to 2017, which could maybe be about current levels)
A13 1.0 10k 2014, 23k 2017 (about 2x, so crudely in line)

I am going to crudely interpret these as saying: 10x from 2002 to 2011, 1.2x from 2011 to 2015, 2x from 2015 to 2018.

Unfortunately there are very few sales for A12. I don’t like to think about “trimmed’ or “married”, but for the one “married” (6.5) we get less appreciation 2012 to 2018 (1.5x versus the estimated 2.4x for A10/A13). A similar result for the 2.5 Billy Wright. Also, for 1.0, far worse in the 2002 to 2011 period, maybe 2.5x versus the 10x for above. I think some of this is apples to oranges as “Superman cover” took hold, but again, A12 _is_ a Superman cover (with first iconic chain breaking to boot).

This is all very sketchy, but I think it supports the “undervalued” assertion. While this book should be worth a fraction of A10 and A13, that shouldn’t be a small fraction. So for example, A12 3.0 recently sold for 12k, while A13 would go for about 30k based on a recent 2.5 sale. I think with all of the above taken into account, this should be at least a 15k book.

So with lots and lots of hand waving, I am buying the “undervalued” call. Where I am out of my depth is the very low grade copies, which make up a significant portion of the population for this issue. I really find it difficult to think about anything below 1.5, which gets into the realm of “back cover only”, and other collecting that I simply can’t grasp. So my conclusion is more like “undervalued in available grades 2.0 and above”. I don’t think you can say anything about the 8.5 and the 7.5 as these are unique objects with no observable value.

Enough. Again, great piece, and if I ever find $20k lying around I might look into a 3.0.

Bud Plant
Bud Plant
4 years ago

Great article. Very well done. Fascinating to see the Batman panel. I love Guardineer’s early Action covers in any case, but I agree with you guys, having Superman on the cover, even if only in a circle, is a huge plus.

Wish I could afford these; #18 up seem much easier books to find, and affordable in lesser condition.

Alex Sorensen
Alex Sorensen
4 years ago

I completely agree. The early Actions are rare as it is, but this is incredibly rare at any grade.
The highest price paid that I found was $7,088 in 2017 for a good plus 2.5.
There is an Edgar Church copy that sold in 1984 as part of a group with issues 2 to 13 as described in Overstreet. Apportioning, the Church copy would be worth about $1,000 back then.
I concur with Chris that the cover, upon first glance, looks like a rocket ship with baby Kal-El in it.
The sci-fi cover featuring Saturns and other celestial bodies. Take Zatanna off this and add Krypton, and this would be amazing.

Gerald Eddy
Gerald Eddy
4 years ago

I agree this was very interesting. Unfortunately as much as I would love a copy in my collection it won’t happen…but I can dream can’t I?

Darren Graham
Darren Graham
4 years ago

Supes breaking chains is right up there with Wonder Woman deflecting bullets or Batman perching on a gargoyle… it’s iconography that sums up the character. It’s got me wondering what other specific character imagery could lead to this sort of cherry picking?

My jaw dropped when I saw that Detective panel. This one… 3x guide premium at least! I think preview “appearances” are a sound investment if you get them at guide, and before OPG qualifies their real value. Talk about a spotlight! Great pick guys!