Inside The Secret Business of Signed Comic Books

Jim McLauchlin
From June 19, 2014
Credit: Jim McLauchlin

Comic books has long been a friendly sort of business. It’s still friendly, but there’s more business in it these days.

One place the “business” aspect increasingly shines through is in creator signatures. Just a few scant years ago, most all creators would sign any number of comic books, de nada. The driving force in charging for signatures, as he was for so many things in comics, was Stan Lee.

"I knew that if I was signing autographs for free at a show, there would be a line around the block, and I couldn’t satisfy everybody," Lee said before he passed away in 2018. "So I just started charging $5, really more to push people away. In the early days, not many people wanted to pay that."

And sure enough, even in the early 2000s, Lee would charge $5 per autograph, just to thin out the lines. But as soon as people got used to paying, $5 was no longer a hurdle. By 2004, he was at $15, which quickly jumped to $30, then $40, then $55. By the end of his appearances, Lee’s scale shifted a tad based on the venue, but he was usually at about $100 per signature. Curiously, as late as 2010, Lee was still signing items that were sent unsolicited to his office… for free.

Credit: Comic Book Certification Service

But the collector market has heated up. Today, many creators charge right from the jump, while others might give you one or two for free, and start charging after that.

Stephanie Gladden
Stephanie Gladden
Credit: Markus Wissmann / Shutterstock.com

"I usually give folks the first autograph for free," says Chaos! Comics founder and current Coffin Comics principal Brian Pulido. "If people come at me with an Evil Ernie #1 of a Lady Death #1 and they want it graded, for sure I’m charging."

But Pulido is also an old-school fanboy himself, and sometimes lets the business face slip.

"I’ve been lax!" he admits. "I was at [2018’s] Dragon Con, and I forgot to bring my sign for what I was charging, and it just so happened I got hit with what feels like every book in Atlanta that weekend, so I just signed everything for free."

Pulido says that sussing out people who want something for their own collection versus those looking to turn a buck is key.

"Largely, it felt like those people were authentic fans," he says of the recent Dragon Con crowd. "I don’t know if those people will keep the books forever, but it felt like it kinda of made their day and it made my day. So as long as people aren’t looking to monetize it, I can be pretty chill about signing."

For collectors who aren’t as chill, grading services such as Certified Guaranty Company (CGC) and their Signature Series provide proof of authentic, witnessed signatures starting at $30.

"We do things only on request," says Sam Peterson, CGC’s Signature Series director. "At a convention, someone might come to our booth and say, ‘I have these three books I want to get signed by Donny Cates and submitted for Signature Series.’ We’d send a witness from the booth, follow them over, see the signatures happen, and bring them back to our booth immediately to retain chain of custody, and take those books in."

Ron Garney & Mark Bagley
Ron Garney & Mark Bagley
Credit: Sam Aronov / Shutterstock.com

The collector gets their books back, graded and encapsulated by CGC with a special label noting the date of the witnessed signature. Most creators charge a fee for witnessed books, their thought being that 'The grading company and the witness are getting paid, so why not me?' A few, however, don’t want to go down that path at all.

"There are some old-school guys who don’t believe in the concept of slabbing at all, and they don’t want to sign for any grading services," Peterson says. "There’s not much you can do there except respect their wishes and do your best to work with them in the future. But there’s no friction for the majority of artists and writers. We have a good working relationship with most people, and do private signings with guys like Jim Lee, Robert Kirkman, J. Scott Campbell, all the time."

Sean Murphy
Sean Murphy
Credit: Sam Aronov / Shutterstock.com

CGC is the established player in grading and authentication, and in 2014, was joined in the marketplace by a competitor, Comic Book Certification Service (CBCS). CBCS brought an interesting wrinkle: Authentic Signature service for new autographs the company actually witnesses, and Verified Signature service, for autographs the company has not witnessed. CBCS uses five authentication experts in their Verified program, including Patrick Conway.

"We all come from an autograph/memorabilia business. So we’ve been getting autographs, buying and selling autographs, for years," Conway says. "In my case, 20 years, it’s been every day of my life."

In a year and a half working with CBCS, Conway has already verified thousands of autographs he was not there to witness, but he uses tools of his own witnessing. Conway always has three 4-terabyte hard drives with pictures of autographs he’s obtained in person, dating back decades.

"I’ve seen so much, and with so much repetition on high-volume guys - J. Scott Campbell, Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jim Lee - it’s almost automatic," he says. "But I have the luxury of going to my visual files as well. I will double-check, go against those files, wherever needed."

CBCS obtains copies of signatures from creators across different timeframes and looks for consistencies when verifying older autographs. They have verified books signed by creators before grading and slabbing ever began, such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.

Sam Peterson says that CGC is sticking to live and witnessed in person only - at least for now.

"I think the strength of our label right now is that you know. It’s a real, guaranteed signature," Peterson says. "But it’s hard to say. It might be on the table in the future. But currently, it’s not something I’m not thinking about."

The volume, however, is there. According to CGCData.com and CGC’s own public census, of the four million-plus books CGC has graded, 670,432 have Signature Series labels (as of this writing).

And Conway agrees with Peterson in that creator friction is minimal.

"There’s not much blowback," Conway says. "People see that we’re making money, but we’re also protecting the interests of the market. We can send a witness so that buyers will know it’s authentic, and creators can sell authentic signatures. We don’t really get blowback now."

But there are certain things certain people won’t sign. Most creators won’t sign books they did not work on. Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons will not sign spinoffs Before Watchmen and Doomsday Clock. It’s less a stand of principle and more one of practicality.

"It’s simple," Gibbons says. "I don’t sign items that don’t have my work in them."

David Finch
David Finch
Credit: Sam Aronov / Shutterstock.com

Brian Pulido may have created the Chaos! Comics characters, but many of those are now published by Dynamite Entertainment, and Pulido declines to sign those. Dan Jurgens gives a little more leeway.

Credit: Certified Guaranty Company

"As for things I didn’t draw or write directly, it happens with ‘Death of Superman’ stuff," Jurgens says. "I might not have written or drawn a particular issue that Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove did, but we were something of a band and all in the room when we put the story together so I’ll usually sign. It’s a bit weird, but I usually do it."

Jurgens is also careful not to engage in crazy personalizations. It may not seem like a big deal, but hey - there’s the Brett Favre/Cameo fiasco, in which Favre gave a shout-out to white supremacists using anti-Semitic language.

"People have come up and said, 'This is for by buddy Matt. Can you make it out to the biggest douchebag in the world, Matt?’" Jurgens says. "I’m usually like, ‘Let’s not go there.’ I don’t sign anything that way, but I seem to get stuff like that once at every con."

Credit: Comic Book Certification Service

And it’s more than just creators signing. As comic book movies have started to rule the roost and actors have found out there’s gold in the comic con hills, actors have become comic signing targets as well… to a certain degree.

"Celebrities don’t move the needle for us as much as artists and writers do," CGC’s Peterson says. "People will get their photos with them or Chris Hemsworth on a Thor hammer or Chris Evans on a Cap shield. Props get signed a lot by celebrities. But we do a few books signed by them as well."

And at the end of the day, that’s what blows Peterson’s hair back.

"There was an autographed Incredible Hulk #181 in 9.8 that I had to crack out to add a signature once," he says. "It had already been signed by Len Wein and Herb Trimpe, and I was doing it after they had both passed away. So…it was an unusual situation, but someone wanted to get it signed by Stan Lee as well. It was the only time I had ever been nervous cracking out a book. But it came back fine! 9.8 after it all as well."

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