Mint Condition

10.14.14 3:39 AM ET

The Holy Grail of Comic Books Hid in Plain Site at New York Comic Con

The $3.2 million copy of ‘Action Comics No. 1’—the book that ushered in the golden age of superheroes in tights—sat almost unnoticed last weekend. What’s the world of fanboys coming to?

Stealing a $3.2 million comic is easy on paper. Distract the security guard, dodge the snipers, knock out the guy in the blue suit, smash the glass case, grab the book, put on a Batman costume, and disappear into a crowd of identical Batmen.

Unfortunately, real life isn’t much like comic books.

“We have undercover security,” says Vincent Zurzolo, the suave man in the blue suit in booth 2630 of New York Comic Con. The co-owner of Metropolis Collectables, Vincent has Wolverine mutton chops, a Tony Stark goatee, and Lex Luthor swagger. It makes sense: he owns copy of Action Comics No.1, purchased on eBay for $3,207,852.

Action Comics No.1 is the book that ushered in the golden age of superheroes in tights. You’ve seen the iconic cover before: a new character named Superman hoists a green car above his head. In 1938, two hundred copies of the man of steel’s debut were printed and sold on newsstands for only 10 cents. Today, only 100 remain. Two are in mint condition.

Vincent’s mint issue—graded 9 out of 10—had been stored for years in a cedar chest in a high-altitude spot in West Virginia. Cool, dry, dark, and a lack of air flow made for ideal storage conditions. In only seven hours, Vincent will leave the Javits Convention Center with the comic. In the morning he’ll take it to a bank vault in one of the five boroughs. (He can’t disclose any more information about the whereabouts.)

Behind Vincent is a wall of decades-old, iconic comic books. It smells like an old dusty bin of comics, not because of his pristine issues, but because of the piles and piles and piles of old issues sold by neighboring dealers a few feet away.

But here at Metropolis, the men wear suits. There’s a man with thick glasses and long sideburns and another with a beard and skinny tie. There’s also a man with hair like Conan O’Brien and a Hawaiian shirt peeking out from under his blazer. And sitting down is a bald man who looks like Hank from Breaking Bad. With Vincent, the gang looks like a really hip, comic book version of History Channel’s Pawn Stars.

The men preside over three display cases, each with three shelves, seven comic books per shelf. The center case holds books like Fun Comics, Green Lantern, Thun’da, and The Vault of Horror. On the top shelf, sandwiched between Detective Comics No.27 and Superman No.1, are three issues of Actions Comics No.1.

The books are identical: sixty-eight 7.5” x 10.25” pages held together by two staples on the spine, resting in a protective plastic case. There’s one crucial difference though. The comic in the middle has a 9.0 sticker on the top left corner and a note that says “WHITE pages.”

Behold, the $3.2 million Action Comics No.1.

“There’s somebody disguised as a display case,” Vincent says. His New York accent slices through the incessant hum of voices.

If you were to have undercover security, Comic Con is the perfect site. Vincent’s covert agent may be the girl in a tight miniskirt with the word “POLICE” on the back of her shirt. Or she may be the girl in the tight blue leather with the words “POLICE BOX” on her midsection. Or it could be anyone, really.

Only a few hours into Comic Con, Vincent says he has spent $100,000. An intense comic book fiend, it was Spider-Man and Amazing Fantasy #15 that got him hooked on comic books as a child. (He confesses that if time permits, he wants to see the Ralph Macchio panel on the 30th anniversary of Karate Kid.)

I ask if there will be a procession when the comic leaves in a few hours and he looks at me like he’s David Copperfield. No one will even see me walk out. This is unintentionally funny, though, because no one seems to have seen him walk in. Unlike the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, there is no grand display, no long lines, no hands in the air straining to snap photographs of the Holy Grail of comic books. This may be the most sought after piece of geekery in the galaxy, but at booth 2630 there isn’t even a sign to signify its existence.

As I watch the comic for a few hours, a river of Starlords and Banes and Tina Belchers and regular folk flows by, oblivious to this piece of art. An unmasked Batman lingers above the display case, a wide grin on his face as he struggles to get the right angle to fit both cape and comic in a selfie. When it’s busy, there are only a dozen people hanging around Metropolis. That’s less than the My Little Pony booth.

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“If I don’t see it, then I’m not tempted,” jokes a small-time comic book seller who notices me loitering.

There is, of course, the occasional hardcore fan that can’t contain their excitement.

“There it is, right there!”

“Where’s the moneymaker? Where’s the moneymaker?”

“Oh. My. God.”

“Action Comics No.1 IF YOU WANT TO SEE IT,” a boy yells to his mother.

Actually, Metropolis is strange for Comic Con: Here is a stretch of red carpet that isn’t packed. There’s no need to wade through the crowd, dodging backpacks and rubber weaponry, empanadas and body odor. Instead, it’s a prime location for photo ops: Darth Maul puts his arm around Wolverine; Zombie Peter Pan and Tinker Bell make eyes at Rafael and Spider-Man; Captain America, The Joker, and something that looks like a toilet strike a pose.

It’s tempting to denounce today’s comic book fanboys and fangirls for being posers, blind to the history right in front of them. Do these people even read Wizard magazine? What kind of self-described geek can’t name more than 11 Batman villains? Why is it suddenly so cool to label yourself a nerd?

Really though, the only insightful things to be said are that there are far too many penises bursting through ill-fitting spandex and that cosplay girls love doing skinny arm, too.

“This is fucking cool as shit,” says one gawker, anxiously waiting to see Action Comics No.1 for the second time while Vincent does an interview on camera. He looks at the man to my right. “He’s ready to wreck you at any second.”

The security guard wears a black suit and black V-neck that hardly contain his bulging muscles. The fluorescent lights reflect off his shaved head. He probably has the ability to crush thieves at a moment’s notice, but right now he looks bored.

I ask him if he’s the muscle. He nods and his eyes shoot back to the comic book he’s guarding. Vincent unlocks the glass case and pulls out his $3.2 million prized possession. In his other hand is a Guinness World Record plaque. He hams it up for the camera, once again.

The man with the skinny tie tells me that the comic book is transported in a manila envelope.

“You know, you ask a lot of questions,” says the security guard in a booming voice. “There’s a man with a rifle up there.” He laughs.

“In case you’re not quick enough,” skinny tie says.

“Are there actually undercover agents here?” I ask.

“Undercover?” skinny tie says, dumbfounded.

“Yeah, Vincent warned me.”

“Oh. I can’t comment on that.”

Vincent poses for the camera.

“I don’t like Superman,” the security guard confesses after a few moments. “It just doesn’t make sense. You come here, and you work a job? You have all those powers and you work a job?” He mumbles something about world domination.

While there may not be a real threat here, it isn’t far-fetched for an expensive comic book to be stolen. In fact, in 2000 a 9.0-rated Action Comics No.1 owned by Nicolas Cage was stolen from his house. Skinny tie tells me that it was found in a storage locker in 2011 and auctioned for $2.1 million. It was identified because of a speck of ink on the cover.

“You steal that,” the security guard says, nodding at Vincent’s Action Comics No.1. “What are you going to do with it? You can’t do anything with it. They’ll chase you to the ends of the earth for that one. It doesn’t make sense.”