How To Collect Comic Art Like a Pro
The reign of comics-infused and comics-generated forms of entertainment not only continues, it’s also growing. A visit to your local movie theater will confirm this fact. So far this year, the three top moneymakers at the boxoffice are: “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Deadpool 2.” All are based on comic-book heroes.
Similar events are happening in the auction universe as well, as original comic art continues to create excitement with bidders around the world. One of the peripheral benefits is that fans are becoming more familiar with the artists and writers who’ve developed comic-book culture for more than seven decades. Of course, for those who’ve been enamored with comic books and comic art for a long time, there’s a bit of, “What took you so long,” and also, “We told you so.”
To help gain a better understanding aspects of collecting original comic art we turned to Comic Art Specialist Sean Rutan with Hake’s Americana & Collectibles. In the discussion that follows, you’ll learn at least five things you should know about collecting comic art.
Tip 1: Become familiar with the work of various comic artists. Many of them produced vast volumes of work appearing in the evolution of comic books.
Who are a couple of artists from the Golden, Silver, and Bronze eras that are most sought after by collectors today?
The big names in the early days of the collecting hobby were the comic-strip masters and/or the creators who bridged the gap from strips to comic format. (George) Herriman, (Hal) Foster, (Alex) Raymond, (Winsor) McKay, (Milton) Caniff, and (Walt) Kelly, among others, were the big names in early strip art. From there, the bridge moved into comics with the contributions of (Will) Eisner, (Mac) Raboy, (Jack) Cole, (Alex) Schomburg, (Dick) Sprang, and a slew of others. All of these names are giants in the medium, and their art (when you can find it) is valued accordingly. The unfortunate reality is that most of the Golden Age art seems to have been lost to history, with a large percentage of it destroyed by the publishing houses who valued the copy value but not the originals themselves.
In between the transition from the superhero-dominated Golden Age and the similarly-themed Silver Age, many of the great horror-comic artists (especially “Pre-Code”) made an impact that is still coveted by collectors to this day. So, too, did the crew over at Mad Magazine. The team at Mad included artists (Jack) Davis, (Reed) Crandall, and (Graham) Ingels, among others.
Several artists who earned their stripes in the Golden Age continued their greatness into the Silver Age. Jack Kirby was the creative dynamo behind much of Marvel’s “House of Ideas” era, and his art from the ‘60s is definitely in the emerging “fine-art” level seen in today’s market. Carmine Infantino’s cover layout skills defined the look of DCs books for a decade as well, while Curt Swan was the artist who defined the face of Superman for a generation. Original artworks by both Steve Ditko and Wallace Wood are coveted for both their unique style and relative scarcity, especially in the superhero genre. The latter part of the era saw the emergence of John Romita Sr, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko. Their Silver Age art commands top dollar whenever it hits the market.
The Bronze Age market is arguably the current “hot era” in original art collecting, largely due to the fans of this era being at the perfect point in life where they’re still actively building their collections (versus the liquidation you see from older collectors) while also being right in their prime earning years. Big names from this era include Frank Miller, Bernie Wrightson, John Byrne, Jim Starlin, and many others who were in the forefront as the Bronze Age turned to the Copper Age and then into the Modern Era.
The reality is that there are so many great comic artists and creators from these past eras that it would require an entire book to give them the due they deserve. In my response alone I’ve missed two of the highest-priced recorded sales in the entire hobby with Frank Frazetta and Todd McFarlane, whose cover art has sold in the seven-digit and six-digit range respectively. There are too many greats to list and too many pieces of art that have sold for substantial dollar amounts.
Tip 2: Know why you collect and always be observant and willing to learn.
What are five essential tips you would give anyone buying original comic art?
1. Find a mentor who is already a successful collector and knows the game.
2. Know your “why.” Take some time to understand WHY you collect so you can identify the art that fits your real goals.
3. Observe and learn before leaping into the hobby, but also learn to recognize when to strike if a great deal presents itself.
4. Join the support structure that already exists, with things like ComicArtFans.com and the various Facebook groups and Internet forums.
5. Buy what you love.
Tip #3: Keep an eye on work by emerging artists as well.
What are a couple of contemporary comic artists whose work appear to be poised for popularity in the collectible market?
This is the area of speculation that drives the modern wing of the hobby. I’m not personally great at this end of the spectrum, as I’m more of a “nostalgic” collector and similarly a bigger fan of history in general. That said, I really like the work of Chris Samnee, Jenny Frison, Rafael Albuquerque, Andrew Robinson, and many others. I really enjoy Lee Bermejo’s work, too, though he already poised himself into popularity a few years ago
Tip #4: Keep in mind that various factors drive value.
When looking at the difference in the value of cover and interior-page art, what factors impact that difference?
This is a very nuanced question with a bunch of layers, so it’ll be tough to give a great answer in a short format like this. Historically speaking, covers have generated the highest prices on the market. Value-wise, the covers are then followed by splash pages (often the title page but can also be full-page, single-panel drawings), and then the interior sequential art.
There are caveats to this, such as an instance where the title splash is weak or dull, or a story as a whole is so highly regarded and coveted that the supply-and-demand factor throws some of these “rules” out the window, etc. You can also expect to pay much more for an interior page by a legendary creator than you would for a lesser-known cover. And keep in mind that certain inkers or penciler/inker teams will always command a premium.
In other words, the factors involved are the type of art (cover, splash, interior, prelim, etc.), the importance of the story from a historical standpoint, the artist(s) involved, the availability of comparable art, and the quality or visual appeal of the art itself.
Tip #5: The comic book auction market is creating a new level of interest and excitement. Which leads to opportunity.
How would you describe the auction market for comic books today?
In a word: aggressive. At literally every show or convention, I find myself having an “I can’t believe the prices. It can’t keep climbing. There has to be a top end!” conversation, and yet, the end hasn’t shown itself. I did get the feeling that the top end of the comic book market was possibly plateauing for a bit (Detective Comics #27 and Action Comics #1 sold for high-dollar amounts but were still below quite a few early estimates that I’d seen in collector groups, for example) but when we’re talking about funny books being sold for more than half-a-million dollars it starts to feel like splitting hairs. Many collectors have speculated that once a piece of comic art surpasses the million-dollar mark, we would see a whole new level of interest and an influx of new, serious buyers flood the market. I guess now we shall see!
The aggressiveness of the current market is also one of the main reasons behind Hake’s approach to auctioning original comic art. We put a cap on the amount of art that we’ll list for each event so our consignors’ pieces stand out and don’t get buried in an avalanche of competing sellers. It is a somewhat slow and methodical approach, but our sellers appreciate it, as each and every piece gets maximum effort and marketing exposure. Beyond that, many of our bidders are aggressive collectors in OTHER genres and don’t normally follow comic art auctions, but they WILL bid on an interesting piece of comic art in our auctions if it somehow draws their interest. This cross-bidding is becoming more and more prevalent as comic art expands into higher levels of recognition. I’ve attached a few links to some pieces that I believe directly benefited from our unique approach.