Comic-book collectors like their numbers. They know that the first issue of X-Men, which introduced Marvel’s mutant superheroes, was published in 1963 and had a cover price of 12 cents. They also know that today a copy of that issue, in near mint condition, is worth $16,500. (Parents, take note.)
And while the market for back issues is well established, more and more collectors are turning their attention to the hand-drawn covers and interior pages that make up a comic book. This original art has become the focus of auctions with sale prices in the five and six figures. It’s a surprising turn of events for work that in the early days of the industry was considered so unimportant that it was used to sop up ink or spilled coffee, given away to fans or even destroyed outright.
The art eventually stopped being discarded, and in the 1970s it generally became policy to return the covers and pages to the artists, many of whom began selling it to fans and collectors, who are hungry for it.
Last month the cover of Weird Science No. 16, from 1952, drawn by Wally Wood, sold for $200,000. In February, an inside black-and-white page from the 1963 X-Men No. 1, by the influential Jack Kirby, sold for $33,460. Late last year, two color paintings by Alex Ross, used as covers for a recent Justice League story, were sold by his art dealer for $45,000 and $50,000.
In 2005, an auction for the black-and-white cover of Batman No. 11, from 1942, by Fred Ray and Jerry Robinson, closed at $195,500.
The sales reflect the range of what entices collectors: from the wide-ranging work of Kirby, the “King of Comics,” to rarities like the early Batman cover to lavishly painted depictions of classic superheroes by the critically acclaimed Ross.
“From the ’60s and the ’70s, when these markets were just beginning, it’s been shocking,” said Jerry Weist, 58, author of “The Comic Art Price Guide.” “And to the old-timers, we can hardly believe it. We felt vindicated when we started to see covers sell for five, six or seven thousand dollars in the ’70s. Now it’s gone beyond that. I’m pretty much priced out of the field.”
Collectors of original comic-book art sound like a subculture within a subculture, and that’s fine with many aficionados. “There was a thrill in finding something nerdier than collecting comics,” said David Mandel, 37, an executive producer of the HBO series “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” who first bought original art during a visit to the San Diego Comic-Con in 1995.
Mandel has pieces that would make many fans drool, like the cover, by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum, of Giant-Size X-Men from 1975, which trumpeted Wolverine, Storm and others as the new incarnation of the mutant team, and the 1982 cover of Daredevil No. 181, by Frank Miller, depicting the death of Elektra, the title hero’s girlfriend. His collection also includes the last four pages from “The Killing Joke,” a seminal 1988 story that helped usher in a new level of maturity for comic books.
That Batman tale chronicles a possible origin for the hero’s nemesis, and was written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Brian Bolland. In November, the last page of the story became available at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas. Mandel landed it for more than $31,000.
“The story ends with them laughing, taking a moment in their relationship to laugh,” Mandel said. “As a reader and as a comedy writer, it resonated.”
More so than with comic books – where multiple copies of even the most sought-after issue exist – the original art they are produced from satisfies a collector’s desire for the exclusive.
“If I have the original hand-drawn cover to, say, an issue of X-Men, that’s the only hand-drawn cover to that issue of X-Men,” Mandel said. “It’s one of a kind. Anyone who has a collecting gene can respond to that.”
The value of any original comic-book art begins with its creator.
“If it is Superman drawn by Curt Swan, it’s worth a lot more than Superman drawn by Joe Schmo,” said Joe Mannarino, who owns Comic Art Appraisal and All Star Auctions in Ridgewood, New Jersey, with his wife, Nadia.
Swan, who died in 1996, drew Superman regularly from the 1950s through the 1980s. The value of a page of his art is also contingent on what is depicted (Superman in action or supporting characters talking?) and whether the issue is significant. (First appearances and important stories are more valuable than routine adventures.)
An attempt to recapture the collector’s childhood comes into play, too.
“An awful amount of the money being spent is certainly connected to the baby-boom generation and their sense of nostalgia,” said Weist, the price-guide author.
Nostalgia is certainly something Ross, 38, is familiar with. His first major comic-book project was in 1994, for Marvel, and it retold the early days of the Marvel universe of heroes through the eyes of a photojournalist.
His reputation for photorealistic renderings of superheroes was cemented two years later by Kingdom Come, a lavishly painted comic that envisioned a future DC universe where irresponsible superheroes run rampant. The project pushed prices for his original art from hundreds to thousands of dollars a page.
“Images of DC and Marvel characters are the best sellers, bar none,” said Ross, who sells many pieces at alexrossart.com. “It’s also what I enjoy to illustrate the most. It’s what the buyers of similar backgrounds as myself want. They want the thing they grew up with.” (Reprinted from the International Herald Tribune)