Whoever says paper assets are poor investments hasn’t considered comic books. Once regarded as disposable literature to keep kids busy, comics are now serious investments for millions of collectors.

One such collector is actor Nicolas Cage. He bought Action Comics #1, the first issue that flighted Superman, in 1997 for $150,000. It was stolen in 2000. Cage got it back when it resurfaced 11 years later in a storage locker, and auctioned it in 2011 for a record $2.16 million.

Read: Superstars for sale: Buying memorabilia

Along with the potential for large gains, another benefit of comic investing is that performance doesn’t correlate with traditional asset classes, says Joe Taylor, a writer at auction house news service Paul Fraser Collectibles.

Hassle factor

  • Can be easily damaged by flood, fire and owner carelessness
  • The slightest mark, tear or thumbprint can knock down the price
  • Best stored in a cool, dry and dark deposit box
  • Place comics on acid-free backing boards and within plastic or Mylar slipcases. Inspect comics every five to seven years for yellowing
  • Prices rise and fall with popularity of new film releases based on comics
  • Lack of liquidity
  • Usually not covered under a homeowner insurance policy; must buy separate insurance

Source: Scambusters.org

“Between 1994 and 2004, the top 30 blue-chip comic books performed better than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, with a total return of 276.6% and a compound annual growth rate of 13.8%,” he says. “In the same period, the Dow Jones saw a 241.76% total return and a 13.07% compound annual growth rate.”

The blue-chip superheroes are Superman, Batman and Spider-Man.

The increased interest caused by less-steady equity market returns hasn’t gone unnoticed by the world’s leading auction houses. Sotheby’s held its inaugural comic book art sale in 2012. That’s given the market credibility and bolstered investor confidence, says Taylor.

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ComicConnect is a U.S.-based auction house that sold the first million-dollar comic in 2010: 1938’s Action Comics #1, graded an 8 out of 10 by Comic Guaranty LLC.

Vincent Zurzolo, that firm’s co-founder, says it has sold the three most expensive comics ever: Amazing Fantasy #15, the edition that launched Spider-Man, fetched $1.1 million; another copy of Action Comics #1 that sold for $1.5 million; and his firm also handled the sale of Cage’s Action Comics #1 that netted $2.16 million.

But this game’s not only for millionaires. “You can spend as little as $10,” says Zurzolo.

People usually have childhood connections to comics, but Zurzolo has dealt with investors who’ve never read one. And that’s fine so long as every purchase is preceded by extensive research.

“You need to talk to experts [and] follow auctions to find trends like which characters will be showcased in a new movie,” he says.

“Your budget, how many comics you want to buy, and how long you are willing to invest are other factors.” When choosing investable copies, look for “key issues”—books in the series that introduce a new character or a vital plot development.

“There are also periods within comic book history that are particularly valued,” Taylor says. American comic books are generally divided into four ages: the Golden Age (late 1930s to early 1950s), Silver Age (1956 to 1970), Bronze Age (1970 to 1985) and Modern Age (mid-1980s to present).

Key issues from the Golden and early Silver Ages are generally more valuable as they introduced the most important characters. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in 1939.

Comic investing is a buy-and-hold venture. In 2000, an Amazing Fantasy #15 sold for $85,000. In 2002, it sold for $125,000; in 2006 for $175,000; in 2010 for $325,000; and now, Zurzolo estimates, would be worth $400,000.

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But holding those delicate pages requires care. Damaging a comic is perhaps the greatest risk when it comes to a decline in value. “Store your comic books in a cool, dark place in a deposit box or a safe,” says Zurzolo. “Third-party grading, where an impartial company checks a book for restoration (which diminishes value) and encapsulates it in a tamper-proof holder, keeps you from getting ripped off.”

Other risks include sudden discoveries of similar copies, which can render formerly rare ones less valuable. Fortunately, there is detailed information on every existing copy so the risk of sudden discoveries is low. The CGC Census is a comprehensive report of all comics certified by the CGC, listing total number of books in each grade and for every issue.

Read: Not an investment for flippers

Another reason rare comics are a good pick: it’s not unusual for obsessed collectors to refuse to part with copies.

“People get too attached to their possessions,” says Zurzolo. “I’ve seen some investors living in subpar conditions, but they have a comic portfolio worth hundreds of thousands.”

Facts courtesy: ComicConnect, Associated Press, CNBC.com, www.wikipedia.org, Paul Fraser Collectibles, www.wikicollecting.org

Vikram Barhat is a Toronto-based financial writer.