If you're planning on putting yourself through college based on the strength of your comic book collection, you've got a little rethinking to do. Comics just aren't a great monetary investment; for the average book you pick up, its resale value drops to somewhere between a dollar and a nickel if you want to unload it on the next guy. Their value, of course, lies in their stories; you buy comics because they're awesome to read, not because they'll make you rich.
But, of course, there are exceptions. Some comics—old, important ones especially—are like their own little money fountain. We've compiled a list of the five most valuable comics out there, as well as the highest prices they've sold for. Why the difference? Well, because as with anything else, values are somewhat theoretical, based on what people are actually willing to pay for something when it goes up for sale—and a lot of these old guys don't go on sale very often. Furthermore, when it comes to collecting comics, condition is important, and a lot of the classic books don't pop up in anything close to mint condition, although a leading online price guide from which we've obtained these values pretends that somewhere out there 9.4-condition copies of all these books (on a 10.0 scale) exist.
1. Action Comics #1 (released June 1938; price guide value: $4.3 mil for a 9.4; highest sale on record: $2.16 mil for a 9.0 copy)
For anyone who follows comics, this is no surprise. Action Comics #1 is the granddaddy of them all—the first superhero comic, the first American comic of all-original material (up to that point comics had been mostly reprints of Sunday funnies), the introductions of Superman, perennial love interest Lois Lane, and also DC Comics magician Zatara… this is big stuff. No wonder people pay millions for it. Collectors beware: LOTS of less-valuable (though not necessarily worthless) reprints of this book exist, so if you think you've got an Action #1 on your hands, CHECK ITS AUTHENTICITY.
2. Detective Comics #27 (released May 1939; price guide value: $4.23 mil for a 9.4; highest sale on record: 1.07 mil for a 8.0 copy)
Right on Superman's heels is Detective Comics #27, the debut of the Caped Crusader, Batman, as well as his crime-fighting ally Commissioner Gordon. It seems that Superman and Batman are not just the yin and yang of the DC Universe, but of comic book value as well.
3. Superman #1 (released summer 1939; price guide value: $747k for a 9.4; highest sale on record: $250k for a 7.5 copy)
This is a little confusing, right? Even though Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in June 1938, he didn't get a book with his name on it until a year later. By then the comic-reading public was smitten with Superman, and every publisher wanted their own version of the hero, but DC's (at the time called National) was still selling the most popular one. Still, this book is pretty clearly just a cash-grab; it reprints the Superman stories from Action Comics #1-4 with only a few pages of new material to spice it up.
4. Marvel Comics #1 (released October 1939; price guide value: $557k for a 9.4; highest sale on record: $367k, condition unverified)
For all you DC haters, it must be nice to see the OTHER major company on this list, right? This book marks the first appearance of the Human Torch (not the one on the Fantastic Four, but an earlier android version of the character) and also kicks off the Marvel Universe, though at the time the company that published it was called Timely. Characters like Namor and Captain America would soon follow, and eventually DC/National would have a big-time competitor.
5. Batman #1 (released spring 1940; price guide value: $501k for a 9.4; highest sale on record: $315k for a 9.0 copy)
Much as it took Superman a year to get a comic all to himself, Batman did the same. However, unlike Superman, Batman's first solo issue was mostly original material, and includes the first appearances of the Joker, Hugo Strange, and Catwoman (then called "The Cat"). Of all these comics, Batman #1 probably reads as the most modern (and technically it is, though it's still 62 years old); in fact, Christopher Nolan lifted part of its Joker plot for his 2008 film The Dark Knight.