Holy plastic slab!

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Times Staff Writer

REMEMBER when comic books were considered too juvenile to be read? Now it appears that they have become too valuable to be touched.

A company in Sarasota, Fla., has created a sensation among collectors by taking their comic books, both rare vintage issues and brand-new ones, and encasing them in plastic slabs that make them both unreadable and instantly more valuable.

The Captain Marvel and Donald Duck comic books that arrive at the offices of the Certified Guaranty Co. are treated like archival treasures of the highest order -- armed sentries guard the lobby, technicians and appraisers wear latex gloves as they carefully examine each page and a sophisticated sonic device is used to seal the books up in the sturdy plastic containers that some collectors call “coffins.”


Depending on the age and pedigree of the book being appraised and “slabbed,” CGC charges from $12 to $1,000 for its services and, in upcoming months, the 7-year-old company will slab its 1 millionth comic book. That book may be a 60-year-old issue of Detective Comics that costs as much as a Porsche but it could also be the latest $3 issue of World War Hulk -- about half of the books that come to CGC now are fresh from the printer and probably 80% of them have never been read.

All of this seems like heresy to many old-line comic book purists.

“It’s changed the nature of the hobby, it’s turned comic books into a medium of exchange instead of a medium of entertainment,” groaned James Friel, who works at Comic Relief, the longtime landmark store in Berkeley. To Friel, who has been collecting comics since 1958, “it makes these books a sealed-up commodity. You can’t read them. It makes me sad. Some of these books will be sealed up forever.”

Frank Miller, arguably the most important comic book artist of the last two decades, has seen plenty of fans lock up his books in the slabs in recent years and he shakes his head at the whole concept.

“I think it’s all pretty silly,” said Miller, whose graphic novels “300” and “Sin City” have led to major Hollywood success stories. “But I’m of a generation that love the feel and smell of these ephemeral old leaflets. . . . Maybe it will get to the point where I can put out comics that have blank pages inside -- just covers -- and no one will notice.”

The slabs are made with two sheets of thick, stiff plastic, and the books inside are encased in a thin, heat-sealed interior sleeve as well. A label inside the archival slab has a CGC hologram, a unique bar code and a description of its condition with a numeric grade. The overall package is as sturdy as a plastic clipboard and lands with a clatter if you drop it on the floor.

The CGC success story is not based on just the plastic “coffins” -- it’s also the company’s introduction of a 25-point scale for grading the condition of comics. That new standard has brought a precision to the once-subjective hobby that has inspired a wave of investments by non-collectors. In other words, lots of people who don’t know the difference between Green Lantern and Green Arrow are now buying slabbed comics and putting them in safe-deposit boxes.


“With our grading, it’s much easier for novices to come and buy valuable comic books and know what they are getting,” said Steven Borock, the president and primary grader at CGC. “In essence, what we offer is the cheapest insurance in the world. If you’re buying a $5,000 comic book, why wouldn’t you send us the book to be sure it’s what you think it is? There is a long, long history of people getting ripped off.”

And Borock should know: The reason he has his job now is that once upon a time he was the naive collector getting ripped off.

It’s a sad day when a starry-eyed fanboy finds out that, in real life, truth and justice are not always the American way. For Borock, that heartbreak moment came in the mid-1980s after he decided to sell vintage issues of the Amazing Spider-Man and the Brave & the Bold that he had been buying at comic-book conventions through the years. That’s when the Brooklyn native discovered that many of his most prized issues had been doctored with acrylic paint, glue and paper patches to disguise their flaws.

The surreptitious surgery made Borock’s books into kryptonite on the collector’s market. “They were worth about $16,000 less than I paid,” Borock recalled with a groan. “If I wasn’t such a die-hard fanatic the whole experience would have chased me out of the hobby.”

Instead, much like Batman, Borock sought vengeance for his youthful trauma. He didn’t don a cape, but did become an outspoken merchant and a detective of sorts, learning all he could from his father (who owned the Letter Guild, a prominent Manhattan print shop) about paper stocks and printing nuances. He also learned all the tricks of “fixing” comic books -- how a light dusting of Pam cooking spray could give a cover a false sheen (and, eventually, eat away at it) or how a ragged-looking cover could be given a nice clean edge with a careful razor cut. A rolled-up piece of white Wonder Bread, he noted, is an effective way to erase blemishes on old comic books without leaving streaks.

“But you have to take the crust off first,” he quickly added.

This curious education paid off big for Borock when a new era began in comic books: the age of EBay. The on-line auction house created a major surge in the sale of comics, baseball cards and other collectibles. The problem was that crooks and rubes often came together in the bidding rooms. To be fair, even among honest dealers, there were wildly different definitions of what qualified as “mint condition.”


“It was the Wild West,” Borock said. “You could buy a book from someone who said it was in mint condition and when it arrived, it was beat-up or missing pages. And what could you do? The person that sold it could say it wasn’t like that when they mailed it or they could say you had switched it with another book.”

A company called Certified Collectibles Group, a mainstay in the appraisal of coins, took notice of the slippery comics marketplace and decided that a third-party appraiser -- especially one that (literally) sealed the deal with a plastic-protected book -- could make big money. Then they tapped Borock, a genial 44-year-old Grateful Dead fan with a ponytail who had become a figure of integrity to other merchants, to lead its start-up comic book division.

“And everybody instantly hated me,” Borock said. “Like 90% of the dealers. They hated what we were doing. People said bad things about me. . . I lost sleep over it.”

The naysayers accused CGC of everything from biased appraisals to manipulating the market. Borock defended himself and his staff but the mistrust still clearly pains him. “My word is everything to me. Everything.” (Borock said he no longer actively collects vintage comic books, a nod to the delicate ethics of his post.) The accusations faded through the years and now there are many merchants and fans that will not deal in high-value books unless they are slabbed.

But there is still plenty of grumbling.

“Things will never be the same again,” says Robert Beerbohm, a nationally known dealer who opened his first store in 1972. He was initially a sour critic of slabbing, but now he sells them. “They changed the hobby, whether you love it or hate it.”

Last month, at the International Comic-Con in San Diego, Beerbohm and other comic book dealers from around the country set up booths for 38th year. CGC had a table as well and collectors lined up to submit comics for appraisal and slabbing. Borock worked the room, stopping to hug old friends.


“I grew up at conventions, I’ve known a lot of these people for 20 or 25 years,” Borock said. “This is where I’m from. And I’m proud we’ve been able to help the hobby. There are people here today that would have bought books that would have ripped them off.”

Now, “doctored” books get a purple label in their CGC slabs, the funny-book equivalent to a scarlet letter to a significant number of collectors.

There is considerable heat in the marketplace now and many attribute it to the advent of CGC as well as the ongoing Hollywood interest in comic book characters. Either way, values have surged in the CGC era; on EBay a slabbed book often sells for twice as much as a naked copy.

How does Borock feel about the notion that his company has made comic books into something to be sold, not read? He points out that many key issues of the famous old comic book titles have been reprinted countless times. More important, Borock said, the slabs are not forever: “They can be opened.” True, but when you do, the slab corners splinter and the CGC appraisal is made moot. Many fans also worry about damaging the books.

Mark Haspel, the No. 2 executive at CGC, conceded that slabs are often the final resting place for a comic. “Do people open up them up and read them? I would hope it happens a lot, but the reality is it doesn’t.”

The slabbing culture has intensified the mania to acquire comic books without flaws. Even Haspel was a bit incredulous as he offered an example: There’s a 1974 comic book that features the first adventure of Wolverine. If you had that book and it got a CGC of 9.6 it would be worth about $3,500, Haspel said. If it got a 9.8, the price jumps to $20,000. “And you know what the difference between the two is?” Haspel paused, picked up a catalog and pushed his fingernail into the spine, creating a tiny crease. “That’s the difference.”


The craze for pristine books has gotten a bit nutty, according to Borock. “People ask if they can get a book that’s a 10.1 or an 11. It doesn’t go to 11. This is not like ‘Spinal Tap.’ ”

So are Borock and his company the heroes who brought their hobby to new heights or the villains holding it hostage? One merchant whose Comic-Con table was piled up with rare old copies of comics was Richard Muchin, owner of Tomorrow’s Treasures in Commack, N.Y. He rolled his eyes at the mention of CGC.

“They’re creating this impression that there is a science to all this, but if there is, it’s a false science,” he said. “If I buy a slabbed book, I break it out. These books should be held and read. And why do you need a third party to tell you what it’s worth? I don’t. But I’ll tell you what: There are fewer and fewer guys like me.”