“Action Comics” No. 1 is tops. “Detective Comics” No. 27, introducing Batman, is second. “Superman” No. 1 flies in third. Couto bought an original copy two months ago from a collector in Toronto.
How did he know it was for sale? The other collector had started selling off his most valuable comic books, like first issues of Batman and Captain America. Couto noticed this curious activity through his collecting connections on social media and auction houses.
Surely, he concluded, this other collector was raising the cash to buy an “Action Comics” No. 1. That takes around US$150,000.
“‘Action Comics’ No. 1 was always a pipe dream,” Couto said. “It’s a pipe dream for most collectors.”
After years of waiting for the right moment, Couto shot into speeding-bullet action. Couto wanted the other collector’s copy of “Superman” No. 1, which had been obtained for US$25,000 at auction four years ago.
The collectors connected. A deal was struck.
To raise the cash, Couto sold off a dozen or so of his rarest comic books to other collectors, including the first appearance of Spider-Man.
This was his moment of truth, justice and the American way. He had purchased all those other comics so they could be sold for this higher purpose. The culmination of years of collecting was at hand.
“Superman” No. 1, now valued at US$65,000 US, became his.
“It’s beat up. It’s well-loved,” he said. “I like the character it has. It’s unique. Someone read this. Someone enjoyed it.”
All the back-issue wheeling and dealing is worth it, right? His girlfriend shakes her head at the prices. Couto, a hockey card collector as a child who recently went all-elbows-in to buy a Gordie Howe rookie card, tries to explain his comic-book compulsion.
“I have a connection to them,” he said.
“I love them. Whenever I get a new book, if it’s not encased already, I flip through it. I smell it. I have a nostalgia with them. It’s something I did as a kid. I takes me back to a simpler time.”
Things were simpler when Couto was an eight-year-old grade schooler in Galt — and tougher too. His family had just moved there from Portugal. Like Superman, he felt like a stranger from a faraway land. Then, his Central Public elementary school had a yard sale. His mom, Lucia, gave him $1 to buy a comic book at one of the tables.
That’s where he found it — a 1950 issue of “Strange Adventures,” with a menacing red robot tossing full-size airplanes about.
The boy from Sao Miguel bought his first comic book. He still has it. He’ll never sell it. It’s too dear to him. It was his entry ticket into the wondrous world of comic books.
“Coming here, not knowing how to speak English, it was the only thing that caught my attention because of the pictures,” said Couto, whose collarbone tattoo “amor e paixão” means “love and passion” in Portuguese. “That’s how it started. It just became kind of an obsession.”
It’s an obsession he shared with his brother Nelson, older by seven years and now owner of a Toronto construction company. The brothers both became collectors from a family of collectors. His mom has her room stuffed with cherished antiques. The boys have their comics.
“We bonded over comic books,” he said.
And Superman was the sibling adhesive for a pair of business-savvy comic book geeks. His immigrant-from-another-world backstory and Clark Kent alter ego resonated with them.
“He was not from here,” Couto said. “Should he be like everyone else around here? Should he not? As an immigrant, you feel that way genuinely as well. You miss home. You feel when you come somewhere else, you have to change who you are, your identity.”
That’s all inside his eight-decade-old original copy of “Superman” No. 1.
Since June 26, it’s been his to admire through archival plastic. He keeps it and all his most precious comics in this sky-high Kryptonian crypt at the top of a tall building that an alien visitor in blue tights might leap in a single bound.
An unblinking camera quietly watches for intruders.
His vintage video games and a 1939 wood-composite Superman action figure — a collector in Philadelphia found it in a garage sale for $100 and sold it to Couto for “thousands” — are well guarded.
This is where he reflects, amid crank-up robots and Pokemon trinkets and other artifacts of a ’90s youth, on the Saturday afternoons he once spent hopping between the long-lost bookshops — Casablanca and Now Then — of downtown Kitchener.
He can mount “Superman” No. 1 on the wall among his most valuable comic books featuring shield-clutching, flame-shooting heroes of yesteryear. He can slide it between the half dozen Action Comics originals that he owns, the oldest being issue No. 15.
He can even hold it and pose for a super-selfie with his brother Nelson. Of course, Nelson can clutch his 1938 “Action Comics” No. 1.
One brother holds the Holy Grail. The other clutches a Stone Tablet.
“He had to sell his entire collection to get it,” Rui said. “But it’s worth it.”
One day, Rui will follow Nelson’s path. He too will sell his prized comics, maybe even “Superman” No. 1, to get that ultimate Action Comics issue.
“It’s the end game for any major collector,” he said.
“That’s what is tearing my brother apart now that he has one,” Rui said. “What does he do now?”