In December 2020 a first edition Charizard auctioned for $369,000 (US). The Pokémon trading card was exceptional. Purchased for $700 in 2009, it was near perfect in condition. Another sold for more than $200,000 just a few months before. Routinely Charizard Pokémon cards sell for hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Why?
Making Sense of the Charizard Phenomenon
Every person who seeks out a Charizard is looking for something. What is that something? For many, the reasons seem obvious. At first. There is, however, more to these cashed-up collectors’ decisions than initially meets the eye. Before we get to this, some basic facts.
As a wildly popular anime cartoon and blockbuster video game series, Pokémon has been an inescapable mainstay of popular culture for the last 20 years. While a matter of taste for older generations it is firmly embedded in Generation Z‘s collective cultural experience. Few born after 1997 have been able to escape it.
Those who were children at the height of the first wave of Pokémania are now entering their mid-20s and early 30s. This is an age bracket where interest in pop culture collectibles typically begins to surge. Many have settled into comfortable jobs and home lives. They have money to fulfil their childhood dreams. In short, they can now buy the things they once owned or wanted to as kids. The prices many are willing to pay to achieve these dreams are astronomical.
The Charizard Card Craze is Celebrity Driven
Many people when making a purchasing decision believe it is entirely their own idea. Often subtle suggestions have been made to them elsewhere several dozen times. And, as any advertising expert will advise you, people follow leaders.
In 2020 one Charizard card made headlines after rapper Logic acquired it for $226,000. World-famous YouTube personality Logan Paul likewise caught public attention after purchasing a Charizard card of his own for $150,000 (cash) in October 2020. Livestreamed unboxings have become frequent spectacles on YouTube and Twitch. Even Justin Beiber owns a first edition Charizard.
This upsurge in high profile personalities acquiring cards has had a profound impact on the now-booming Pokémon card market. And it only seems to be feeding off of itself. Recent figures reveal listings of Pokémon cards on eBay jumped 60% in 2020.
Why Charizard is so Popular
The reason Charizard is the most widely coveted of all Pokémon cards? One of the most immediate factors in the character’s eminent role within the Pokémon franchise itself. Charizard’s magnetic visuals were no fluke. The dragon Pokémon’s potential for popularity was something its designers were fully aware of.
The idea for Charizard was conceived by Japanese graphic artist Atsuko Nishida. Commissioned by video game developer Game Freak to design characters during the early ’90s, Nishida provided several of the series most well-known characters. Nishida herself divides these Pokémon into the categories of “cute” and “strong”. On the cute side are her designs for Pikachu, Vulpex, and Evee as well as their associated evolutions. On the strong? Charizard.
Charizard was Designed to Appeal to Boys
Atsuko Nishida envisioned Charizard as a fire type Pokémon. It was to be the third evolution of Charmander, a cute reptilian best known for its role as one of a trainer’s first choice of companion in the Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue Gameboy games. It was Charizard, not Charmander she designed first.
“I created the designs for Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle by working backward from their final forms,” she shared in one interview with Pokémon.com. “I wanted people to be surprised when it evolved into Charizard, so I designed the original Charmander in such a way that Charizard would be unimaginable.
“It looked so cool drawn in dots,” she has also reflected. “[Charizard] is filled with the kind of coolness that boys would adore.” Stop here for a moment. Consider those final words. Nishida boils it down to the fundamental. Charizard was designed to possess the kind of coolness boys adore. Little could Nishida have anticipated the chaos she would later unleash.
Charmander poses for Pokémon Red promotional image.
Charizard has appeared in several different forms throughout the Pokémon trading card game’s many expansions. The most famous version of the card, however, arrived in the Pokémon card game’s 1999 Base Set. The set arrived at the height of Pokémon’s first wave of popularity.
Charizard appeared in Base Set as card number four. It was a rare grade holographic. In-game the dragon Pokémon lived up to its bestial reputation. Charizard had 120 hit points, the highest in the Base Set. What is more, the card’s ‘Fire Spin’ ability dealt over 100 damage. At the time of the card’s release this was more than enough to demolish many competitors in an instant. For a long period, it remained one of the best cards in the game.
Charizard’s Artwork Rocked
What is often underappreciated in retrospective discussions of the Charizard card is the striking artwork. The Base Set Charizard posses one of the most dynamic images in the series. In the now-iconic image, Charizard belches flames, mid-action. The illustration was not the handiwork of original designer Atsuko Nishida but another Japanese artist, Mitushiro Artita.
Modestly, Arita notes that the continued popularity of Charizard alongside Pikachu is surprising. “I always thought,“ he has shared, “that I’d probably never be able to draw cards that people liked as much as those two. But I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback on a recent Mewtwo, so maybe there’s a chance!”
Charizard’s In-Game Fame
This original Charizard card was not just a powerful strategic asset, it was also a collector’s item. Even in 1998, this card was valuable. Some stores in the US were opening entire boxes of booster packs just to acquire Charizard cards for separate sale. Some are said to have been selling the card for a staggering, at the time, $150.
Gaming website Dicebreaker describes the Charizard card as The Holy Grail of every childhood Pokémon card collector. “The original shiny Charizard granted many children bragging rights back in the ‘90s,” the site notes. “The original card was a rarity to find but meant as much to people as a Rainbow Rare or a GX does today. Thanks to nostalgia playing a huge factor, the holographic Charizard card is still in demand, making this card one of the most popular of all time.”
It’s Not About the Charizard Card Itself but The Experience
This ties into another powerful aspect of the card’s allure. Base Set Charizard cards evoke a powerful sense of childhood nostalgia. Charizard was, as one seller put it, “the key to the set and coveted by children worldwide as the craze took over in 1999“. The previous owner of the record-breaking $369,000 Charizard card had paid $700 purely to satisfy their nostalgia. To them, and many others, the card is a wistful symbol of youth. Children saved their allowances to get this card. Others, begged, borrowed or stole. Many traded. Some missed out.
After purchasing his own Charizard card in 2020 rapper Logic provided his own take on why owning the card was so important. “When I was a kid I absolutely loved Pokémon,” he shared on Instagram, after paying a hefty price for his very first Charizard, “but couldn’t afford the cards. I remember even trying to trade food stamps for theirs and now as an adult who has saved every penny he has made being able to enjoy something that I’ve loved since childhood now as a grown man is like buying back a piece of something I could never have, it’s not about the material it’s about the experience.”
Charizard belches flame in Pokémon Red promotional image.
Charizard as a Status Symbol
The nostalgic pull of Charizard is formidable. It would be misleading though to state this was the sole cause for the card’s unprecedented popularity. There are other factors at play. Another is this. The Charizard card confers bragging rights. It commands attention.
As the ancient philosopher Plutarch noted, wealth is as much about display as it is possession. People want to show off their wealth. And, in turn, to be admired. When it comes to expensive items like Charizard cards, an owner’s pleasure is drawn not from owning the thing itself but knowing that others want it.
Is a Charizard Card a Good Investment?
Charizard cards are also drawing the attention of investors. The card is now a proven commodity, one which will not only hold but increase in value. Taking this into consideration investment firms are beginning to cast an eye to the card. This is not unusual. Fine art and music memorabilia such as The Beatles autographs can make a fitting addition to a varied investment portfolio.
With the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 economies have been thrown into chaos. An odd consequence of this has been a boom in art and music memorabilia. With millions across the world self-isolation in an effort to combat the virus, auction registrations and bids have risen dramatically. Items like artist signed albums and basketball cards are proving more attractive for some investors than stocks in oil and other commodities.
“People are looking for a reason to be happy and excited and get out of the routine of being locked up in their homes,” Darren Julien, founder of U.S.-based auction house Julien’s Auctions, informed new service Reuters in 2020. “We noticed when the stock market crashed in 2008 we had a record years in 2008 and 2009. And that was because people with wealth were looking for ways to diversify.”
A Charizard Gameboy avatar.
Pricing Charizard Cards
As far as trading cards go there is no Pokémon as widely sought after as Charizard. Forbes values the more readily available second “shadowless” printing of the card at $2032 (US). A mint Base Set Charizard holo will fetch $15 to $30k. This is more than double the $9,000 price tag such cards were commanding in 2016.
The devil however is in the detail. It is only the pristine condition cards that fetch top dollar. Forbes notes a first edition print moves the price into the $25 to $150k range.
A card needs to be in mint or better condition to reach the jaw-dropping prices often discussed in the media. (A “PSA 10” or “BGS 9.5” by two popular authentication systems.) In their appraisal of the card, the collector’s authority PSA shares that of the 2,200 plus first edition holo Charizards they have examined, only 120 qualified as being in mint condition. PSA further estimates there are only 45 currently known Charizard Pokemon trading cards that meet their highest “gem mint 10” grading standard.
Charizard Took Center Stage in Childhood Fantasies
Yet as the old saying goes, let the buyer beware. In 1999 the parents of two nine-year-old children sued Nintendo. The reason? The Pokémon card game had caused their two children to develop gambling problems.
The parents of these unfortunate children likened the trading card craze to an illegal lottery. With celebrity interest in Pokémon cards feeding a wave of speculation, history may again be repeating itself. Indeed, some commentators have suggested Charizard’s sky-high prices may only have been temporarily inflated.
A less cynical view is that one only has to look into the world of baseball collectibles to see the long term value this card could hold. In fact one auction house, Golden Auction draws an unlikely but sound comparison between the Charizard card and another sought after collectible, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle Rookie Card. They note that, like Charizard, this legendary New York Yankee hitter’s $2,880,000 card holds a special status. This value is based on something more than the card’s rarity. Golden Auction notes that Charizard, like the real-life baseballer, is a larger-than-life figure. One who has taken centre stage in collectors’ childhood fantasies.
Charizard’s Hidden Meaning
There is, however, a symbolism here that sits deeper within our collective unconscious. Along with dozens of other Pokémon, Charizard intentionally invoked European myth. “Legendary Pokémon are quite classically popular in North America,” chief Pokémon illustrator Tsunekazu Ishihara notes in one interview. “The type of Pokémon that seems to be strong from the appearance like Charizard is preferred.”
Mythologist Joseph Campbell describes the dragon as a composite of the eagle and serpent. Two mythical animals readily at odds “The serpent bound to earth, the eagle in spiritual flight,” Campbell writes, “isn’t that the conflict we all experience?” When the two are combined the dragon results.
“A serpent with wings,” Campbell continues. “All over the world people recognize these images… they are speaking to the deep mystery of yourself.” Charizard embodies human contradiction and some of our deepest desires. It is yet another reinvention of a mythic image handed down from generation to generation.
The Symbolism of Charizard
The dragon is a symbol that recurs across hundreds of cultures and traditions. Some view it as a symbol of primordial power. It is closely associated with the element of fire, one of humankind’s oldest tools. Dragons are potent and powerful. They are often associated with change, transformation, wisdom, beauty, majesty, good luck, courage, vitality, authority, inspiration, passion, longevity, leadership, mastery and protection.
Whether it is the Colchian Dragon from whom Jason won the Golden Fleece or Smaug the Golden who crossed wits with Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, Dragons are often guardians of treasure. While this treasure is often associated with material things it may also represent the inner self. The dragon may not be an ally but a symbol of the struggles and fears one must overcome to discover their true self.
Charizard promotional image.
Charizard Speaks to the Deep Mystery of the Self
Rich or poor, we all go through the same life journey. The innocence of childhood, the rebellious teen years and then a transition from childhood dependency to adult responsibility. In the popular Pokémon cartoon, Charizard too traced this journey. He is rescued by trainer Ash Ketchum as a helpless Charmander abandoned by a previous master. Under Ash’s guidance, Charmander learns to trust in his own abilities. After becoming one of Ash’s most capable Pokémon he then evolves into Charmeleon.
Initially excited at one of his first Pokémon evolutions, Ash is dismayed to discover the unruly Charmeleon chooses not to obey him. The pair grow distant, with the powerful Charmeleon becoming only a last resort. This is only compounded when Charmeleon evolves once more, into Charizard.
Charizard Represents The Challenges of Adulthood
The majestic dragon is by far Ash’s most powerful Pokémon. And one he cannot use. Charizard does what it wants and its refusal to fight costs Ash his place in the Pokémon League tournament.
Over the series, Charizard grows to maturity. He makes amends with Ash before leaving Ash to become the protector of his own community of Pokémon. This is an archetype, male fans only too readily identify with as they grow into this role within their own lives. With many now entering into middle age is it any wonder Charizard cards are selling for record prices?
Charizard in the Pokémon anime.
Pikachu, I Don’t Choose You
Charizard is a celebrity Pokémon. As Mickey Mouse grew to embody the Disney franchise so too has Charizard come to embody Pokémon. This may seem odd to longtime fans who recall Pikachu as being central to the anime series and early Pokémon marketing campaigns. Indeed, Pikachu’s massive popularity and cultural phenomenon in itself cannot be discounted.
Nonetheless, a by-the-numbers analysis shows that, at least in the card world, Charizard comes out on top. The card embodies the Pokémon collectible card game. And while not every child could afford a Gameboy (or take one to school for that matter) millions knew the cards.
Some Closing Thoughts
As a consequence of Charizard has become embedded in the popular psyche. It creates a powerful emotional reaction. This is a feeling collectors are willing to put a sizeable chunk of their savings on the line to acquire.
Charizard has also soared the realm of personality. It is time to stop thinking of Charizard as one of the first 150 Pokémon or fourth of the 102 cards of the Pokémon card game’s Base Set. In the world of collectibles, Charizard has taken on a life of its own. It is a cultural icon, comparable to Mickey Mouse, The Beatles and even baseball stars like Mickey Mantle.
Running deeper than this is the role of Charizard in the popular imagination. It is more than a rare card. Charizard is a symbol. It throws back to the carfree free days of childhood when the only problem, and also the most impotent thing in the entire world, was getting that one shiny card. To a generation of collectors flushed with cash but shackled to work and stable home life, it is not hard to put two and two together: Charizard means freedom.
Pokémon Charizard poses for Super Smash Brothers promotional image.
Charizard Points the Way to the Truth
This draconic Pokémon points collectors to the truth within themselves. It holds the key to their own freedom. A Charizard does not wait on others to give it what it needs. The Charizard has power, it takes responsibly for itself. It has strength, majesty and a heart of gold. Kingly, ferocious and yet good-natured.
The person who buys a Charizard has a need that has not been met. This may not lay in the card itself. Purchasing one, after all, is more likely to distract than satisfy the deeper yearnings within. Embracing the feelings Charizard invokes? Swings open the door to freedom and a better life.
A good condition Charizard card can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. To have what it has truly come to represent? That may take a little work.
Riley Fitzgerald is Managing Editor and Creative Director of The Glitter & Gold.