Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Where the art went

So, a related matter to the previous post that I also always wanted to explore some more is brought up in that same post I linked to about the Archie Comics exhibit not crediting the artists (though apparently the museum has, at some point, added some artist identification to the works.  But probably still claims John Goldwater created the characters):

the rather "interesting" fact that the company has retained all, or most, of its original art.

Is that really the case, that Archie Comics owns most of the originals, not having returned them to the artists?  Clearly they don't own all of them, since there is stuff out there on the open market, but a quick check shows that what's out there seems to be pretty small compared to what was actually produced in the 60+ years the company has been publishing, and obviously anyone familiar with the original art market knows how some work can be "liberated" over the years (I think that's the word they use because "stolen" sounds so vulgar.  And actionable).  In fact, it seems a rather large percentage of the Archie original art on the open market is strictly from the comic strip version, dating from the 1940s to the 1990s, and those probably went through different hands than the comic book art.

Anyway, starting from that point, did Archie keep the originals after it became standard (but not universal) for comic book publishers to return originals?

And expanding on that to the whole market.  First, I'll point out that my interest in this is mostly theoretical.  I don't collect much original art, the handful of pieces I have were either bought from or given to me by the original artists, and if I was interested in (and financially capable of) getting more I think, given the market, I'd only deal with work I can get from the original artists or their direct agents.  I do like looking at originals, though, so I'm glad decent scans of a lot of them show up on-line and in various books and magazines.

Obviously given the comics market, the most interest is in work from Marvel and DC, and those histories are pretty well known.  In the mid-1970s returning the art to the artists became standard at those companies (though not always without glitches in the system, including some notable losses and thefts, including pages from what may be the best single issues of SWAMP THING and SANDMAN.  So at least the thieves have good taste...). A lot of the artwork done prior to that isn't accounted for, some of it is known to have been destroyed, a lot of it was "liberated", there are some stories about artists who were in the offices taking back their own art in a more casual arrangement before returns became policy (which I'd happily call liberated without the quotes of sarcasm, as long as it was only their own artwork, or if any other artwork they took found its way back to the artist).

I haven't heard about any major issues regarding DC returning what art they still had in their possession to the original artists, although I don't know how quickly they did it or how much actual art was still around to return, especially among the most valuable work.  Quite a lot of 1960s stuff is on the open market, not a lot of it signed by the original artist (which it presumably would more likely be if it had been returned to the artist and subsequently sold, but not really evidence one way or another).  There's some work out there by artists not known to have sold many originals (Joe Kubert until recently, Steve Ditko), so I guess a good chance that was "liberated".

Marvel's history with that stuff was uglier, of course.  They still held a lot of earlier originals well into the 1980s, and then asked artists to sign a short condition-filled release to get their work back as a "gift" from the company.  And asked one particular artist, Jack Kirby, to sign a much longer and more detailed release to get back a small fraction of his artwork, in an apparent attempt to definitively establish ownership over the characters he created, since the actual paperwork on such matters from the 1960s was either inadequate or non-existent.  That rightly created some controversy in the comics world, and eventually it was worked out, but from all reports what he got back was less than a quarter of the work he did for Marvel from 1958 to 1970, and by far the less valuable share (certainly no FANTASTIC FOUR #1, not a lot of the more famous covers), even if some of that artwork was in Marvel's warehouse inventory a few years prior.  A lot of rumours about who, when, where and how some of that work vanished.  Quite a bit of it is sold openly these days, and reportedly a lot more of it gets offered on less above-ground places.

Other artists got work back as well, but it's a fair guess that they didn't get all of it, and they didn't get the best stuff.  Steve Ditko has written that he got back "the story/art pages from 3 Spider-Man issues: 2 complete issues (inside pages) and a 3rd which had three pages missing" and no covers from his 41 issues of Spider-Man (including the Annuals, which he writes he didn't get back, and AMAZING FANTASY #15, which obviously he didn't get back, as it sits in the Library of Congress now*).  So around 60 pages of  nearly 1000 pages of what would be the most valuable work.  Oddly he did get most (but not all) of his Doctor Strange pages back.  But no Hulk pages.  Lots of the short 5-pagers, but again, not all, you can find a lot of them openly for sale.

*[funny story there, since I do that Ditko weblog thing, I got some interesting e-mails around the time the anonymous donation of the AF15 art was made, from people confident they knew who the anonymous donor was.  It would have been more helpful if they didn't give three different names.  And oddly none of them gave the right name. Irving J. Forbush]

So it doesn't look like either DC or Marvel were careful custodians of the work while it was in their possession, but they did eventually, if not always easily, return what they managed not to lose, or destroy, or allow to be stolen.

But that's all well documented, if shadowy.  What I get curious about is all the other artwork that's out there.

For example, from an interview with Bernie Wrightson I gather that Warren actually began returning originals of new work a few years before DC and Marvel (presumably the pressure from publishers like Warren acting first moved DC and Marvel to make the change).  On the other hand, regarding the earlier 1960s work, I recall once hearing a story about how that work was still on-hand in the 1980s, and one of the editors started to return it to the original artists and was stopped.  Not sure if that was really the case, but there does seem to be quite a bit of it on the open market, again including work from Ditko which probably wouldn't be the case if it was returned to him.

And the EC case is kind of interesting.  I can't find any reference to it on-line, but I recall some mention in those pre-internet days that Gaines did keep virtually all of the artwork for the EC books for a long time (along with high quality file copies of the actual comics and quality stats for reprinting the work), but eventually he (or his estate, I'm not sure when this happened, but I think it was before he passed away) decided to sell off the originals instead of returning it to the artists. Can anyone verify if that was the case, or anywhere where it might have been reported? And I know I heard somewhere that at least as of a few years ago MAD MAGAZINE still kept the original art (but paid really well), is that still the case?

Hm, what else is out there... quite a bit of work from Charlton shows up on the market, including Ditko stuff.  Not sure how it got out there.  Charlton mostly got out of the business of new comics around the time art returns were becoming common.  Interestingly, there's evidence that at least some pages of Charlton art from as early as 1958 managed to find its way back home to Ditko somehow.  Well, at least one battle-scarred page...

And Disney being Disney, as always makes its own rules.  Do any Disney comic book artists ever get their originals back, no matter which publisher is actually licensing the characters? I'm pretty sure Don Rosa didn't, even working for the European publishers, and certainly it seems that the few Rosa pieces you see on the market are preliminary or unused pages, not the final art.  And there are only a few Carl Barks pieces on the market, I wonder if all of the work from that era were destroyed or are sitting in a warehouse or a private collection somewhere?

Well, obviously it's a vast and complicated subject, something a lot of people involved in don't like to talk about openly, as it involves acts that range from morally questionable to major felonies.


  1. Damn good article - and yes, the art from Marvel and DC wasn't 'liberated', it was bloody well stolen. Time to call a spade a shovel. I say.

    With the issues of Swamp Thing. I know an artist who lifted those pages and handed them back to the original artist at a function. He took the pages because they were about to be destroyed, but upon handing them over he was roundly berated for 'stealing' the pages (although he handed them over a few days later) by the original artist in question, so he never did it again. Thus some of the art was destroyed. Can't save people from themselves.

    With Archie, I know that some artists have gotten their work back recently.

  2. Yeah, apparently there are changes afoot at Archie, as the latest Goldwater in charge just announced that there would be credits in the digest reprints from now on, apparently only finding out recently that they didn't include credits before. So the art return thing might be a recent development as well.

  3. Oh, and the Swamp Thing art theft I referred to was in the 1980s, and the work is still missing. The story you're thinking of would be back in the 1970s, the Wrightson series.

  4. That clears that one up then.


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