A cornerstone of comic book collecting is the grade that a book is assigned by the CGC, or Certified Guaranty Company. Despite the CGC’s importance to modern collectors, many still don’t understand what it means for a comic book to be graded. By understanding CGC’s process, aspiring collectors will better understand why this grading process is so important.
But First, What Is the CGC?
Based in Sarasota, Florida, the CGC was founded in 2000 and quickly became a global standard for determining a comic book’s physical condition. Prior to CGC, the standard was the Overstreet Guide’s 10 Point Grading Scale, which ranged from a 0.5 (Poor) to 10 (Gem Mint). CGC built upon Overstreet’s grading by developing a more standardized process, and incorporated new elements.
How Do You Know if Your Comic Is Worth Sending In for Grading?
Though you may be tempted to submit every comic book you purchase for CGC Grading, this process must be paid for. The grading fee varies depending on the age and value of the comic, ranging from $22 to $120 for most books. Comics with a fair market value above $3,000 however, are charged on a sliding scale of 3% of the book’s value (minimum $150).
Given these costs as well as the costs of shipping, you should only seriously consider submitting a comic book for grading if you already know it’s valuable or if you believe that it will become valuable in the future. A general rule of thumb that many collectors follow is that a book’s expected value needs to be worth about $200 before it makes sense to have the book graded from a financial perspective.
Also note that the grading process often takes some time. CGC states that grading can take 106 to 133 days. A fee of $75 can reduce this time to 44 days, and an express fee of $120 can reduce this time to 17 days. Books over $3,000 in value are turned around in an expected 10 days.
What Are the Benefits of Sending Your Comic In for Grading?
A graded comic book often has significantly more value than a non-graded version, since a graded comic book has been authenticated by an industry respected organization. Additionally, collectors are much more willing to pay top dollar for high conditioned books, if that condition has been verified and quantified by CGC. Finally, with a CGC certification number, a graded comic has a provenance—meaning that this book’s ownership history will now be documented for future owners to appreciate.
Another benefit of grading is that your comic will be encapsulated in a crystal clear holder. In addition to the item being better preserved by this shell, the holder helps to guard against counterfeiting and tampering.
Beyond preservation, the CGC slabs themselves have a positive aesthetic quality that fans and collectors have come to appreciate. These containers make it easier to handle the collectibles and to display them. Instead of keeping a comic book hidden in a box, they can be showcased like the works of art they are. One drawback is that encapsulated books can’t be read.
What Are the CGC Labels?
Each comic book receives a numerical grade of 0.5 to 10 as well as a designation related to the page quality of the comic. It’s worth noting that for many books (save for the most modern) the highest grade in existence is often a 9.8, with 9.9s and 10s for older books exceedingly rare. In addition to the number grade and page quality designation, each submission will have a color-coded label. There are 12 colors, and out of these, there are 5 major colors: Universal Label (Blue), CGC Signature Series Label (Yellow), Qualified Label (Green), Restored Label (Purple), and Pedigree Label (Gold).
The universal blue label is given to comic books that are graded as marked with no qualifiers. It has no autographs, no evidence of restoration, nor anything massively missing.
The yellow signature series is for a submission that has a significant person’s autograph, which has been authenticated. While one might assume that signed books are more valuable (and while this is often the case), in certain cases, especially with older comics, unsigned books can sometimes command a higher price.
The qualified green label is for any collectible that has a significant defect. The green label communicates that something is substantially wrong with the book despite being graded. This could be a missing page or an un-authenticated signature or missing staples. According to Midtown Comics, the green label allows a damaged book to be graded on a curve; “For example, a book missing staples may receive a blue label grade of 0.5 (POOR grade) but would receive a grade of 6.8 or 7 through the qualified green label.”
The purple restored label is for any comic book that has been repaired. In general, restoration significantly harms the value of a comic and some have dubbed this CGC designation as PLOD or “the purple label of death.”
The pedigree gold label is applied to any item that is part of a collection CGC recognizes as being of exceptional quality. A pedigree label not only verifies the quality of a book, but highlights the quality of the collection it comes from. As GoCollect.com writes, “a pedigree is an exceptional collection that they are willing to recognize with unique labeling.”
To date, there are only 61 pedigree gold collections recognized by CGC. Not only do their pedigree statuses signify quality, this label also increases the value of a book. A pedigree will increase a comic book’s value as a collectible because it adds to the story the item. After all, it is not some random book found in an attic. Instead, it was part of a collection that was preserved for future generations.
As ComicBookPedigree.com explains, when it comes to pedigree collections, “all of the owners had one thing in common; they were conscientious about the condition of their comic books. By luck or design, each of the collections featured here survived many tests of time; paper drives, puberty, and especially Mom, who never understood why her child would save such things.”
How Are Comics Graded by the CGC?
While one might think that this grading process would be a company secret, CGC is completely transparent about how a comic book’s quality is determined.
In 2020, Matt Nelson – the then primary grader for CGC and current CGC President – was featured in a video explaining how graders inspect submissions. This inspection follows a checklist:
(1) First impressions
A first impression is typically reserved for finding large problems; such as stains or holes on the cover as well as missing pieces and creases.
(2) Identify variants or pedigree
A submission’s pedigree is determined by the collection it comes from. While different organizations have various criteria for pedigree, there are three near-universal standards:
A)The quality of an overall collection — does it already have high value items?
B)The collection’s origin — were they collected by the same person/people and stored in a similar space at the same time? This is of value because it signifies that all the items will be in a similar condition; and
C)The completeness of the collection — is it just a collection of random books or does it contain completed series?
In short, two of the same comic books in similar conditions can be worth different amounts if one comes from a trusted and vetted collection.
(3) Count pages
Self explanatory — each page of a book is counted to make sure a submission isn’t missing any.
(4) Determine page condition
When it comes to specific condition, graders will look for tears, stains, and creases.
One major issue in page quality is “foxing.” Foxing is typically a degradation of paper that comes from within the paper as it ages. Foxing is typically found in books that have not been properly protected from the environment.
Another source of damage can come from the book’s staples. Staples rust if exposed to moist air and that rust can expand into paper. Staples might also cause tears.
In addition to keeping comic books away from moisture and humidity, it’s also important to keep them away from direct sunlight. Sunlight can bleach an image and tone down the vibrancy of a cover’s colors.
Finally, with so many comic books including posters or other features that encourage readers to cut them out, graders will determine if these extra materials are still present.
Examples of such materials include advertisements encouraging readers to cut out stamps and coupons to be sent in, or posters to be taken out and put on display. One of the many reasons X-Men #1 sold so many copies was due to variant covers, one of these variants being a cover that functioned as a pull out poster. Similar to Playboy, dozens of different titles were published with centerfold posters in a comic book that were designed to be removed from the book and hung up on walls—doing so would unfortunately significantly harm the value of the specific issue.
To make sure that pages or covers weren’t swapped out, graders will also examine a book’s staples to make sure they weren’t opened and closed again.
A surprising source of a comic book’s imperfections is the poly bag and board that it might be sealed in. For instance, a back cover might stick to the board it is sealed with. This means that a back cover could be damaged due to ink transferring to the board or the page itself becoming damaged from parts of it becoming permanently stuck to the board. Poly bags for comic books are incredibly common because they are affordable. However, they offer less protection than mylar bags. And while mylar bags are more expensive, they offer superior protection from moisture and humidity, insects, mold, and other chemicals.
(5) Check for restorations
To salvage/improve the appearance of a comic book, some collectors will try to restore it. CGC currently identifies 11 types of restorations that can be done on comic books: color touch, piece fill, tear seals, spine split seals, reinforcement, piece reattachment, cleaning, staple replacement or cleaning, re-glossing, glue, and trimming.
Because of the complexities surrounding restorations, CGC has a seperate scale to grade restored books. And while it is tempting to want someone to restore books to mint condition in the hopes that their new value will be dramatically higher, restorers can often do more damage than good to a book’s value depending on the specific situation .
Two restoration details to keep in mind are the slight differences between restoration and conservation. For instance, CGC defines restoration as “the act of adding foreign material to a comic book through certain techniques to return its appearance to an ideal or original state.” In contrast, “the goal of conservation is to preserve the structural integrity of the comic while removing all things that are detrimental to its longevity.”
Once a grader has documented and considered all of a book’s imperfections, they will determine a grade. Similar defects do not always have a similar impact on a book’s final grade. For instance, a crease being severe enough that it breaks the color will have a greater negative impact than a crease that doesn’t break a page’s colors.
(6) Assess all defects and determine a final grade.
To make sure the quality of a book is properly assessed, grading is done by a team and multiple CGC professionals examine every item as a means to guarantee consistency and accuracy. This process of multiple graders concludes once a consensus for a final grade is reached.
How Are Comic Books Authenticated by the CGC?
Before the intensive work of grading is done, the book is authenticated. With some comic books valued so highly, there are many attempts to pass off fakes as the real things. Stephen Fishler, the CEO and cofounder of Metropolis Collectibles and ComicConnect.com, discusses some of these attempts in Fraud Magazine:
“We’ve seen two notable attempts to counterfeit modern, or Bronze Age, comic books: Cerebus No. 1 (1977) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles No. 1 (1984). Why did counterfeiters pick them? Both were printed with unusual black-and-white interiors, which the fraudsters assumed would be easier to replicate. After all, 99% of the comics produced in the last 80 years feature full-color interiors,” Fishler said.
“Regardless, industry professionals quickly spotted the counterfeits,” Fishler continued, “and no one ever profited from them. Case closed.”
Alternatives to CGC: CBCS and PGX
While CGC is undoubtedly the gold standard in the comic grading industry, there are other players in the space, most notably CBCS which is owned by Beckett Media. CBCS is generally considered a reputable player in the space and some collectors choose to use the company because of its slightly lower fees and often much faster turnaround times. The grading scales used by CBCS are nearly identical to those of CGC; however, it’s worth noting that CGC comics of the same grade generally fetch a slight premium to those graded by CBCS on the resale market.
PGX is another comic grading company out there; however, many collectors claim that their grading quality is suspect and stay away from either having their books graded by them or buying PGX graded books. For this reason, until something changes reputation wise, you might want to steer clear of PGX grading as an option.
With the comic book collector’s market increasing every year, the importance of grading will only grow. And this importance is not a hyperbolic statement. Grading has become so common that CGC and similar companies have needed to hire more people. As Jim McLauchlin wrote for GamesRadar.com, “Collectibles markets are surging, and as old comics get more expensive, collectors and dealers turn to third-party services to ensure authenticity and grade. The phenomenon has led to an odd crimp in the labor market – grading services and high-end auction houses are desperate to hire graders, even paying cash bonuses to get people in the door.”
As it becomes more common for comic books to get graded, it is important for collectors, fans, and others interested in comic books to understand what it means to purchase a CGC (or CBCS) graded collectible.