Hollywood executives have never been more interested in comic books than they are right now. Why? Fans. They're spending more on comics, sci-fi, and fantasy than they have in years.
Look at "Iron Man 3," which has thus far brought Walt Disney (DIS) more than $1.1 billion in worldwide box office grosses. More than 81,000 people weighing in at reviews site Rotten Tomatoes say they want to see the Superman reboot "Man of Steel" when the curtain rises next week. Time Warner (TWX) hopes the character's 75th anniversary in comics will fuel a record-setting theater run.
Movies aren't the only outlet for fans. Tens of thousands are attending conventions, where dealers sell sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia, and back issues of comic books. More than 48,000 attended Denver Comic-Con last weekend, up 20,000 from last year's inaugural show.
DCC, which raises funds for the children's literacy program Comic Book Classroom, is one of a growing number of fan-fests around the country. None so thoroughly represent the pop-culture zeitgeist as San Diego Comic Con, which kicks off next month.
Big Bucks in Little Books
It's an important time for collectors and investors. Each year, Hollywood executives attend SDCC to introduce new comics-themed movies and TV series, dramatically altering the price action on comic books that may have been attainable in years past.
In 2010, AMC Networks (AMCX) had a booth promoting its new show based on the comic book series "The Walking Dead." Three years and several ratings records later, you can't buy a copy of the first issue of that series for less than $1,000.
3 Rules for Building a Better Portfolio
Fortunately, the rules for investing well in comics aren't so different from the rules of investing well in stocks. Before getting into my picks -- made with help from Jay Katz, founder of InvestComics -- here are three general rules for creating a profitable comic book portfolio.
Buy quality. On rare occasions, you'll find a screaming deal in a bargain box or at a garage sale. More often, the best bets are made on high-quality comics that are valuable because they're tied to something in the broader culture (e.g., "The Walking Dead") or because they introduce a new character or signify some other major change.
Buy rarity. Sometimes, special events are so well-advertised that everyone buys the same comic book. I can think of no better example than "Superman" #75 from 1992, in which the titular character dies. A special bagged edition is guide-valued at $20, but you'll find plenty of copies on eBay selling for far less. Why? Millions are still available. By contrast, when "The Walking Dead" first hit comic book shops in October 2003, you had to be one of the lucky 7,000 to buy a copy.
Don't be afraid to sell. Comics get hot just like stocks. Assess whether the spike is due to an unsubstantiated rumor (e.g., someone's cousin showed this comic to a studio executive!) or a new character or major event that's suddenly taken on wider meaning. Hold only the comics likely to maintain or grow their value, and harvest the rest to raise cash for new buys.
How can you tell when a comic book has intrinsic value? Take "Iron Man" #55 as an example, which introduces the cosmic villain Thanos. The 1973 comic sells for $1,000 now that Marvel has established Thanos as a big-screen adversary who could next appear in 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy."
Which new series are most likely to bring enterprising investors these sorts of riches? Here are five worth checking out.
Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers owns shares of Walt Disney and Time Warner. Connect with him on Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. The Motley Fool recommends AMC Networks, eBay, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of eBay and Walt Disney.