It’s been about a week since the close of the May Heritage Comics Art Auction and the dust is settling on another set of controversial results. The topic has been talked out on various list and message boards and collectors have moved on to the next spectacle. The rest of the comics world remains largely oblivious to these very insular and obsessive goings on. I present the following news brief as a kind of time capsule and, as with many such things, perhaps it will be looked upon with mirth and a sense of irony in years to come.
Two covers in particular set tongues wagging at this auction. The first was the cover art to Miracleman #15 which sold for $53,775 (with commission).
There are some readers who see Miracleman as one of Alan Moore’s most distinguished works, a crowning achievement in that landscape of brutality which Moore has since largely renounced. Others might conceivably see it as an unreadable exercise in verbosity and reptilian instincts. The art, as we all know, is from the highly regarded hand of John Totleben. His work on non-Moore titles sell for a fraction of these prices. This pertains to the well know synergism between writer, artist and history. The series as a whole is linked to that bright shining moment of hope and inevitable collapse that occurred during the 80s; a period which created a fanbase which is getting older and more affluent even as I write these words.
The theories and opinions surrounding the unexpectedly high price can be viewed at length on this message board discussion and they can be narrowed down to two broad groups. Firstly, a genuine and, presumably, highly motivated bidder and, secondly, a purchase by the auction house (or connected parties). The latter theory has been proposed by the collector Felix Lu (known for his forthright opinions) but disputed by Hari Naidu, a prominent collector of Miracleman art.
The second possibility relates to the suggestion that the high price was met in order to fulfill a price guarantee by the auction house (a common practice during the explosion of contemporary art prices seen over the last decade or so). The cover was part of a large consignment of Miracleman pages all of which were auctioned without reserve save for this cover. It has been theorized that the other pages were sold as such because of a prior guarantee that the cover would meet its high reserve.
Notably, no one is arguing about the actual quality of the Miracleman cover which is an excellent example of Totleben’s meticulous style which in this instance takes on the quality of an engraving. It sits right at the edge of good taste and has none of the camp posturing that makes a Jack Davis EC decapitation cover so much more acceptable.
This is in stark contrast to the arguments directed at the other cover of this tale, Frank Miller’s art for Daredevil #188 which sold for $101, 575.
One can see how Miller’s art here might be viewed as an evolutionary step towards the blocky, high contrast chiaroscuro of Sin City, a style of art which can be seen in the work of some twentieth century comics masters (see below). The hero is somewhat flatly drawn compared to the work of Miller’s progenitor’s; the anatomy imperfect, perhaps purposefully so as the artist searches for that element of exaggeration which will soon find fruition in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns. There are a number of people who find this to be among Miller’s finest Daredevil covers. One such person is the noted comics inker and original art collector, Scott Williams, who states:
“I think this cover is TERRIFIC. I mean, a superb cover from such an influential and important run of Daredevil, and I would LOVE to add this to my collection. I think it went for well over what I would have guessed (75k), but THIS type of art is exactly the type of art that I am not surprised by when it goes for an aggressive number. I think a lot of art is WAY overpriced, but this old time collector sees the logic in overpaying for THIS cover a lot more than a lot of other stuff I see for sale.”
Williams is the owner of a Miller Daredevil cover and has been collecting Miller art for decades. His opinion on this subject does carry weight but I beg to differ nonetheless. There’s nothing especially distinctive about this cover if one takes in the entire history of the form and genre. By no stretch of the imagination is this an iconic cover, nor is it among the most important Daredevil images ever created. The subject matter is tolerable but connected to forgettable material. Even so, the final dollar amount is certainly not beyond comprehension particularly when the price difference between a copy of Action #1 with a CGC grade of 8.0 and another graded 8.5 is half a million dollars. This kind of madness is infectious.
In fact all such aesthetic considerations are of secondary importance when it comes down to the final price achieved at such auctions. Much more important are the elements of availability (many of the key Daredevil Elektra covers are in the hands of well-heeled collectors), greed and nostalgia. It is impossible to quantify the latter aspect for it is as inexplicable and irresistible as sexual attraction. If Miller was the god of your youth and Daredevil #188 one of the first comics you ever read during the thwarted superhero renaissance of the 80s, then the final bill could be met with equanimity.
Here are a few other views for the time capsule. Firstly, I solicited painter and HU columnist, Domingos, for his views on the Daredevil cover (I asked him to disregard content in his comments):
“Frank Miller isn’t a great visual artist by any standard. His domain of anatomy is far from perfect; his use of dramatic shading (as we could unfortunately see in his awful Spirit film adaptation) just turns his drawings into something like photo negatives to me. If you want to see the same effect well done go look at the true masters: Noel Sickles, Milton Caniff, Alex Toth, Alberto Breccia. Plus: he may be responsible for the worst inking ever: the slashed school (I invented the name just now). I say this because we can see a little “slashing” on DD’s arm and leg. This effect was first used in Ronin methinks and “perfected” by all those Image guys (Liefeld especially). “Slashing,” dramatic shading: it’s all part of the same glorification of violence. You asked me to forget content and I did, but as you can see form and content can’t be separated.”
A prominent art collector who goes under the moniker Comix4fun had this to say about the sale (reprinted with his permission):
“Compare the GORGEOUS Frazetta Warrior with Ball and Chain piece that DIDN’T Sell [since sold] at $150k…people ran it down, mocked it, and made fun of the “extra abs” as what stopped it from selling and made it a lesser piece. “Aesthetically” and from a design perspective that Frazetta is a gorgeous piece without a doubt, but it didn’t sell, so people sought a reason why and grabbed on to that reason as lynch pin and/or catalyst.
Now we have a DD cover that DID sell for 101k, and the flaws, problems, issues, and deficiencies don’t matter at all. It’s the aesthetics and design that win out. I just wonder, if the DD failed to sell at auction, would we’d all be talking about DD’s hands as well as (and more blatantly) Widow’s atrophied left hand as the reason the cover was subpar instead of being wonderfully designed?”
Long time comic art collector, Ruben Espinosa, is known to weigh in during such moments of irrational exuberance and does so once again with his Cassandra-like predictions about the Daredevil cover sale and the future of the hobby:
“That’s just downright retarded. I’m sure all the OA Market bulls will dismiss my comment but how about a reality check here? When I see auction results like this I see speculation, manipulation and business. That is not the kind of hobby I want to be a part of. I’ve seen it happen gradually over the last 7 or 8 years. For me, this is like watching a big slab fall off of my idea of a hobby that I’ve been watching crumble for some time.”
And, of course, no one will listen because this future is inescapable if not completely desirable to many collectors who imagine their Jim Lee covers fetching similar amounts once they’ve been allowed to age like fine wines. One can dream…
This future is irrelevant to those who value original art in a way which is distinct from their childhood reading habits. Those who realize that an appreciation of comics is not limited to issues surrounding draftsmanship, historical importance and vanity but also factors like content, narrative and form have less to “worry” about in such times. These values are of secondary importance in the premium market place and there will always be original art which engages and inspires at a fraction of the prices listed above.
In other news…probably the alternative comics art-related posting of the month (?year) on Comic Art Fans (CAF). This one belongs to Todd Hignite (of Comics Art and The Art of Jaime Hernandez). He really needs to spill the beans on how he managed to get his paws on this one: