The concept of slabbing collectibles (coins, trading cards, comics, toys, video games) has had its share of (common) problems and controversies over the years. If you are starting or have pondered starting to collect slabbed / third-party graded comics, do be aware of the three concerns below and make a considered decision before slabbing your comics or purchasing slabbed ones.
1) You Can't Read the Book Anymore!
This is the one thing that amuses me the most when I discuss slabbed comics. Let’s first be clear on what I mean—I really mean that if you remove the book from the (not-unbreakable) slab, you are essentially undoing the grade given by the grading company. That is why people do not remove the book from the slab. Of course, the flipside of this is that you lose one very key reason why the book was to enjoyed and owned in the first place—to be able to read the wonderful story and see the art in the book!
Conceptually, keeping the item in a slab works better for some collectibles e.g. trading cards, coins, notes i.e. essentially things that allow you to enjoy the collectible in full despite being in a slab. For comic books, not so good. Well, at least you can enjoy the cover (which to be fair, is an important aspect of the book). I’m still ashamed of the good old days in the 1990s when we were debating whether to burst our comics out of those darned sealed polybags.
2) Ever-Present Inconsistencies in Grading
Comics grading aspires to be a science. In reality, it’s an art and often requires many a judgment call (and no one, especially grading companies, hides this fact). There is also no universally-accepted set of grading guidelines. While most would probably accept the Overstreet system of grading as being the grandfa-ther system from which all grading systems evolved, people follow different systems today from the old-school hardcore Overstreet followers to people who assess / claim what grade CGC would give for the book. Some claim general adjustments to these existing systems (e.g. a seller could claim to grade stricter compared to say, CGC), while others are more specific. For example, they could make specific adjustments to certain
flaws (e.g. original date stamps do not affect the grade, or non-obtrusive ink marks are ok) or comic eras (e.g. looser grading for older books, stricter grading for modern books), or it could be a mishmash.
All in all, what it means is that if you are particular about grading as YOU interpret it, the issue of third-party grading through slabbed comics may bother you. They key is to find a system or seller that you like, and hope that the grading remains con-sistent enough. In reality, that’s a tall order especially if you are looking for high-end graded books. The internet is littered with examples of people not understanding why they got a Near Mint 9.4, but something that appears worse got a Near Mint 9.6. But that’s the reality of the system (and it’s not going to change). There have even been cases where people have resubmitted books in hope of getting a better grade, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Grading is always subjective. And this is not to mention mistakes in grading like undetected restoration but grading companies are (hopefully) trying their best.
Another issue that bothers me are claims that grading compa-nies may have a conflict of interest. Some companies dispute claims of conflict of interest in several ways e.g. preventing their employees from buying and selling comics on a commer-cial basis. But not all measures are full-proof. The nature of the transaction already potentially involves a conflict of interest.
People hire grading companies to grade their books whether for future sale or for their personal collection. It’s these people that put money directly in the hands of the grading company. This means that grading companies have an incentive to man-age their relationship with these customers through their grad-ing. To this end, it is unsurprising to hear claims on the internet that grading companies generally favour people that submit numerous books by grade-inflating. The fact that most buyers do not open their slabs eventually only supports these claims. Unfortunately, the conflict of interest works the other way round too. Even if it is the buyer who asks a grading company to grade / slab a raw book before he commits to buying it from another seller, there is still the moti-vation to grade-inflate in order to se-cure future business. So long as they don’t overdo it (or get caught) or lose overall credibility as some companies have over the years, what’s stopping them from doing so?
3) Grade Chasing vs. Book Chasing
To be fair, the two earlier concerns are not the most major ones to me. While you can’t read the book anymore, there are always reprints. Or some would say, I have a copy to slab and keep, and I have a copy to read. As for grading inconsistencies, unless we have developed robots that can assess objectively and a common grading standard that everyone agrees on, it’s an unsolvable problem. Third-party grading / slabbing is not perfect but it certainly is more helpful having it than not. Anyway, by and large, I think that most grades don’t fall beyond one level of the expectation i.e. if you were expecting a Very Fine book, I think it would be rare to get any-thing worse than Fine unless there was a serious grading error or a serious lack of grading knowledge and / or experience.
My greatest discomfort with slabbing is that like it or not, it has transformed a certain portion of collectors into grade chasers. When it reaches the compulsive high-grade level, then it becomes a little worrying. These are the people always looking for the better grade. Now, I will put up my hand to state that I’m the kind of guy who buys Very Good / Fine back issues so condition and grades are not the most important aspect of the book to me. But I think that after a certain point (on both ends of the grading scale), the difference in grade becomes near miniscule. The difference between Near Mint 9.8 and Near Mint 9.9? Hon-estly, I don’t know. I know even less the reason for the premi-um some would pay for the Near Mint 9.9.
One possibility is that the hobby is developing stronger exclusivity. Whether this is for better or worse is up for debate. Comics aren’t one-of-kind paintings in the Louvre. They are mass produced goods. Hence, you may have a copy of New Mutants (1986) #98 but so technically do a few thousand other people. How do you make your comic collection even more special especially in this sometimes too-self-absorbed-selfie-me-world? Well, having a higher grade certainly helps. Remember the $3.2m Action Comics #1 CGC-graded 9.0 that sold recently? One interesting comment that struck me was people mention-ing that this issue was better than the other Action Comics #1 CGC-graded 9.0 that was in existence because this one had white pages in the description (Side rant: Even if the other one had only cream to off-white pages, doesn’t that just mean that this issue has some other more significant flaws compared to other one since they both graded 9.0 and we assume that CGC is consistent?).
How about a simple thought experiment? Say someone was selling you a copy of New Mutants (1986) #98 slabbed and graded at Near Mint 9.8 at a price far below the market rate but much higher than if the book was say, in Fair condition. Also assume that a similar condition issue in Fair condition is readily available in the market. The price of this Near Mint 9.8
slab is well within your budget. On closer inspection of the slab, you realise that the front cover of the book is actually carefully cut from the book. In reality, it would only grade Fair at best. This was clearly a mistake on the part of the grading company, and the slab has not been tampered in any way after the slabbing process. Put aside that you could potentially resell the slab for profit, and assume that your only objective is to look for a New Mutants (1986) #98 in a decent condition for your collection. Would you buy the book? If you said “yes”, I hope you have a clear rea-son why because I can’t think of one. I certainly hope it’s not be-cause you said it’s a 9.8.
Now, I am not saying that chasing a higher grade is all bad. It is certainly a nice feeling knowing that your book is in a great condition (though I must also point out that in my lim-ited experience in touching them, all slabs feel the same to me). But when you lose clarity on why a 9.8 means so much to you (or trivially defend why a 9.8 means so much to you), then it becomes a little silly. Is that extra decimal point that im-portant? Could you have taken that money you paid for that Near Mint 9.8, and bought five 8.0s, or ten 6.0s, or I don’t know, 50 raw books that you could have read? If you are buying to invest (and that means with a clear objective to sell later at a profit), then yes, you should do what makes most economical sense. But if you are collecting and / or see yourself primarily as a reader, I shudder at the thought of chasing the extra decimal point, especially as a form of one-upmanship. I feel that you can really do more chasing other books that can give you as much, if not more, joy.