The stakes were high for comic book publishers in the 1940s when they were launching new titles. Ashcan comics were produced to establish copyright ownership for publishers to claim newly conceived titles without having to produce a complete comic book. Recently, we sat down with Gary Colabuono the CPG ashcan expert/advisor and discussed these ultra rare items and the amazing history behind them.
What is an ashcan?
In the 1930’s and 40’s, ashcans were created by comic-book publishers to secure the trademarks for titles they were planning to publish. They would send the ashcan to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office for registration.
The production department would create the new logo, attach it (usually) to a random piece of artwork and then print the new cover. The new cover was then (usually) hand-stapled to a coverless comic book. Usually 3 or 4 ashcans were made.
So before there was an Action Comics # 1 on the newsstand – there was an Action Comics ashcan.
Before there was a Superman Comics # 1 on the newsstand – there was a Superman Comics ashcan.
They even made ashcans for titles that were never published! DC never published Superwoman or Supergirl in the early 1940’s, but they wanted to protect those titles from competitors who may have been thinking about capitalizing on Superman’s popularity by publishing their own super-females.
What companies created these books?
DC and Fawcett produced the most ashcans during the Golden Age. There are examples from Quality and a few other smaller publishers. The titles range from the most important in history to some of the most obscure. No Timely ashcans have ever surfaced.
How rare are ashcan comics? How many exist?
There is no exact count on the total number of ashcan titles in existence, but it’s fair to say that the number is in the 50-70 range. Many ashcans are unique, and only a few titles are known to have more than 5 copies extant. I’m not aware of any ashcan having double-digit copies.
How did you begin collecting these rarities?
In the fall of 1985 my friend, Joe Desris was interviewing Sol Harrison, the retired president of DC Comics for an article he was researching. During the interview Sol asked Joe if he would sell some items for him that he had kept from his long years at DC. Joe approached me at a Chicago Mini-con and asked if I was interested in looking at some very rare and very important old comics. Seeing the Superman and Wonder Woman ashcans for the first time was almost a religious experience! We agreed on a price and I took them home.
Did you ever discover any other ashcans besides the examples you purchased from the Sol Harrison?
I advertised for years in the annual Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide that I was buying original, authentic Golden Age ashcans. During the late 80s and early 90s I was fortunate to find ashcans of Cyclone Comics, OK Comics and Champ Comics. All were purchased from the relatives of the original publisher. I also found the All-American Men of War and Star-Spangled War Stories at Sparkle City’s booth at the 1988 San Diego Comic Con. That was cool!
What’s the record price paid for an ashcan comic?
One of the three Superman Comics ashcans, the highest graded at 9.0, sold for $90,000 in 2007. It had previously sold for $37,000 in 2005. This is just the beginning for this book. If this book were to hit the market today with all the action (pun intended) that the Action 1’s are causing, it wouldn’t surprise me if the book sold for $150,000-200,000. If you think about it, it’s the first edition of Superman. Literally the first edition. The other title with huge upside potential is the Action Comics ashcan. I don’t think I need to explain why…
What’s the background regarding modern comic ashcans and how did they come about?
Well, it’s my fault that the hobby was inundated with hundreds of these small promotional booklets during the early 90s. I was friends with the Image Comics creators and when they heard about my ashcan collection, being the great marketers they are, they latched on to the concept the modern-day ashcan was born.