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Cody James

10 days ago

Edited

By the numbers: Posing an existential crisis to 1966 Topps Batman in the context of Pokemon

Non-Sports

batman

superhero

vintage

vintage non-sports

There's a lot to say about the legendary 1966 Topps Batman sets, so I'll try to keep this post focused on a comparison of the three primary sets and how they are valued. I'll start with a quick overview of the sets and then dive into the pop reports, market talk, and draw comparisons with other sets.

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The 1966 Topps Batman sets were the first ever Batman trading cards, and with a lack of compelling DC trading card sets anytime after, still remain the most sought after by Batman collectors. There are three sets that each contain unique art (there are two more sets with images from the Adam West TV series that I will not discuss). They are illustrated by hobby and pulp legend Norm Saunders, famous for illustrating the highly controversial 1962 Mars Attacks set a few years prior.

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The sets are distinguished by the color of the Bat logo containing the title of the card:

1) Black Bat (also simply as 1966 Topps Batman or Orange Backs)

2) Red Bat (also referred to as Series A after the numbering scheme on the back of the card, e.g. 1A)

3) Blue Bat (also referred to as Series B after the numbering scheme on the back of the card, e.g. 1B)

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The Blue Bat series actually had two distinct design variations for the back of the card:

3a) Puzzle Back (the title and story are adjacent to an image that can be tiled with other cards in the set to form a larger image, similar format as Series A but with the title included)

3b) Blue Bat Back (the title and story contained within a large blue bat logo)

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Pictured here are PSA 10 examples from each of the three sets:

Black Bat #14 Nightly Patrol (Pop 2)

Red Bat/Series A #31A Flying Foes (Pop 2)

Blue Bat/Series B (Blue Bat Back) #12B Renegade Roulette (Pop 1)

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The Black Bat set is usually considered the most grounded art work, while the Red and Blue Bat sets saw Norm indulge into more camp and absurdity. The Black Bat set is by far the most heavily collected, and still fetch the highest prices today, usually about 2-3x the price of a Red or Blue Bat in an equivalent grade. This is likely due to it being the first release and containing what collectors have agreed upon as "rookie cards" of the heroes and villains, e.g. card #1 "The Batman" agreed upon as the Batman rookie, or card #9 "Face of the Joker" being agreed upon as the Joker rookie.

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However, as a collector obsessed with rarity, I had to take a deeper dive into the numbers. The PSA population reports (at the time of publishing this article) point me in a different direction for building my collection...

Black Bat Total Cards Graded: 16,731

Black Bat Total PSA 10s: 71

Black Bat Total PSA 9s: 736

Black Bat Gem Rate: 0.4%

Black Bat 9 Rate: 4.4%

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Red Bat Total Cards Graded: 5,905

Red Bat Total PSA 10s: 53

Red Bat Total PSA 9s: 464

Red Bat Gem Rate: 0.9%

Red Bat 9 Rate: 7.9%

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Blue Bat (Combined) Total Cards Graded: 3,336

Blue Bat (Combined) Total PSA 10s: 19

Blue Bat (Combined) Total PSA 9s: 183

Blue Bat (Combined) Gem Rate: 0.6%

Blue Bat (Combined) 9 Rate: 5.5%

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There appears to be a drastic discrepancy in rarity between the three sets - and cut these numbers about in half for Blue Bats to account for the two variations. While some of this discrepancy is likely explained by collectors submitting more Black Bats for grading given their higher value, this is not the whole story. Blue Bats consistently sell for more than Red Bats, but even when combining both back variations, there are 2-3x fewer total graded and mint cards than the Red Bats, and 4-5x fewer than Black Bats. This is true even with slightly stricter gem and 9 rates for Black Bats (seems the Pop Police are indeed out).

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This follows a trend common to many non-sports sets with multiple releases, where the later releases have shorter print runs as novelty and consumer spending wore off. I will look to a couple of analogs in Pokemon, where the collector base tends to be younger.

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First, lets look to the early Pokemon TCG sets, where like '66 Batman, the print runs were massive, and scarcity and value are only found in high grade examples. 1999 Base Set in Pokemon had an ungodly print run and has wildly large populations and very low gem rates in all three print variations it came in - 1st Edition, Shadowless, and Unlimited (all have the same art, but very slightly different card format). And like the Black Bat set, Base Set card designs are the most iconic and nostalgic. The sets that followed later that same year, Jungle and Fossil, also had large print runs (though about 4x less than base when accounting for all print variations) and have low gem rates.

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We can look at Raichu as a case study to normalize for Pokemon popularity, as Raichu is a rare case that has cards both in Base and Fossil sets.

Raichu Base Unlimited Total Graded: 10,530

Raichu Base Unlimited PSA 10s: 243

Raichu Base Unlimited PSA 10 APR: $766

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Raichu Fossil Unlimited Total Graded: 4,381

Raichu Fossil Unlimited PSA 10s: 46

Raichu Fossil Unlimited PSA 10 APR: $630

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Raichu Base 1st Edition Total Graded: 2,242

Raichu Base 1st Edition PSA 10s: 88

Raichu Base 1st Edition PSA 10 APR: $6,975

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Raichu Fossil 1st Edition Total Graded: 3,396

Raichu Fossil 1st Edition PSA 10s: 162

Raichu Fossil 1st Edition PSA 10 APR: $1,063.00

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A couple of observations can be seen here that I think extend to the sets as a whole:

- Base set price exceeds that of Fossil whether we look at Unlimited, where the Base pops are much higher than Fossil, or 1st Edition, where the Fossil pops are much higher than 1st Edition - though the multiple is much higher in 1st Edition.

- 1st Edition prices exceed Unlimited prices, even when the gem pops are much lower in Unlimited (true for both Jungle and Fossil).

- It is also true that 1st Edition Base gem prices greatly exceed Shadowless Base despite much lower Shadowless gem populations, again confirming collectors value the first print run over the scarcer variation.

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These trends tend to align with what we see in the Batman market. The earlier, more nostalgic set is valued higher than scarcer sets from later that year.

But one thing to note is that you could likely complete a PSA 10 Base or Jungle Set within a few days if you have the funds to spend. That is not the case with Batman, where overall numbers are much lower than these Pokemon sets.

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That brings us to another comparison - 2000 Topps Chrome Pokemon - which seems to show the opposite trend. Topps Chrome Pokemon had two releases, both the same year - Series 1 contains Pokemon 1-78, and Series 2 contains Pokemon 79-151. Series 2 is estimated to have a print run about 2-3x smaller than Series 1. The total number of graded cards from both of these sets is 34,533, still just over the 2x Batman Black Bat number but much less than the 772,327 Pokemon Base set pop. While the gem rate is quite high in Topps Chrome Pokemon (38%), this set contains very rare insert variations with total populations close to those of PSA 9 and 10 Batman pops - often single digits. Many collectors will pay up for these inserts in any grade, valuing the absolute rarity of the card rather than just the relative scarcity of a high grade.

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The interesting contrast to the 1999 TCG market is that with a few exceptions, Series 2 prices are consistently much higher than Series 1 prices, usually around 2-3x, and this continues to separate over time. While some of this may be due to Series 2 containing more popular pokemon than Series 1, the trend seems to hold true even for less popular Series 2 pokemon and more popular Series 1 pokemon. Collectors have taken note of the rarity discrepancy and valued the sets accordingly.

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Unlike the TCG, it is not very feasible to complete a PSA 10 set of the Topps Chrome Pokemon inserts. Instead, collectors tend to view these rare inserts with more of a "trophy card mentality," where any gem copy is a centerpiece of a collection. Specific character collectors often target just their favorite pokemon in the rarest Sparkle and Tekno variations. This is a very different collecting style than set collecting, which often drives TCG collectors and the current Batman collector demographic.

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One last comparison - this time to the iconic 1986 Fleer Basketball set. While the enormous prices for Michael Jordan seem justified, a 10x higher price for Jeff Malone over Julius Erving is clearly driven only by population discrepancy. Set collectors racing to complete their PSA 10 sets totally dominate the gem market and values correspond more or less directly to populations. This is also seen in the early Pokemon TCG sets, where a PSA 10 1st Edition Base Chansey is about 4x the price of a comparable 1st Edition Base Clefable that can only be explained by the gem population discrepancy. While it is not feasible to complete any PSA 10 Batman set, collectors do compete for the highest rated sets on the registry.

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So if you reached this point, you may ask why I am even talking about market outlook for a 60 year old set? The Batman sets have been around a lot longer than Pokemon and still maintain the hierarchy of iconic Black Bat > rarer Blue Bat - isn't the jury in? I'm not so sure.

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If you attend trade shows, you may notice that most of the collectors pursuing vintage non-sports sets did not subscribe to grading for the better part of the 60 years they have been around, so that component and the data that comes with it is still relatively new. We also have yet to see a younger base of collectors move into vintage non-sports that likely have a different value system than the old guard who grew up ripping '66 Batman wax and sticking them in their bicycle spokes. While most sectors of the card market have exploded (and some fallen back to or below Earth) in the past few years, it is remarkable that high grade '66 Batman card prices are nearly identical to prices 10-20 years ago. While modern and 1990s Marvel has journeyed to the moon and back through the course of the pandemic, almost anything before that is still relatively untouched.

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Newer collectors often start with sets they grew up with or that are in the current mainstream. For this generation of collectors, that is mostly 1990s and 2000s, where Marvel dominated the superhero trading card scene. But as we see with the growing market for vintage sports, collectors expand their reach back in time as they learn more about these classic sets. I predict the same will hold true for non-sports, especially with IPs that are still just as present in pop culture as when they were created, and I would say superheroes are in the mainstream more now than ever with the success of the MCU and The Dark Knight Trilogy (holding off on including the DCU and Matt Reeves' The Batman universe for now...).

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While I think the 1986 Fleer Jordan, the 1st Edition Charizard, and "The Batman #1" will always reign supreme in their sets, I do wonder if the paradigm will shift for the other cards in the sets. With the above comparisons in mind and a closer look at the numbers, I pose a few existential questions to Batman collectors old and new to ponder:

- Does it matter that one set came first, or is it sufficient that they are all from the same year?

- Will collectors start to value cards more in line with their relative populations, and if so, will this be regardless of set?

- Will new collectors still be primarily competing for the best sets, or shift towards targeting a few 9s and 10s as grails for their collection?

- If the mentality shifts towards trophy mentality over set mentality, will the ~10x lower pop Blue Bat 9s and 10s start to exceed the value of the higher pop Black Bats? e.g. Will a pop 20 Black Bat PSA 9 always be more desirable than a pop 2 Blue Bat PSA 9?

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I would be more than happy to remain the primary Blue Bat collector scooping up every 9 and 10. But an important and fun part of collecting to me is reassessing the norms in a space to determine for myself what the most valuable or important pieces are (at least to myself), and sharing those insights with others. I've found the best way to do this is to utilize tools like pop reports and price trends and draw comparisons to other spaces. I hope to provide a snapshot of how I approach things here, and as new collectors discover classic, timeless sets, they don't take for granted what people, or even the market, tell them they should value. Determine that for yourself!

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