Books, Comics

An Apocalypse of Cockatoos

Please do this for me. Don’t let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons

Orson Welles, to film director Henry Jaglom, 1989

Recolored comics have been all the rage in the last decade. Both Marvel and DC routinely release their collected editions with new colors, especially the classic comics from the 40s to the 80s, when comics were printed with a limited palette on cheap paper. With few exceptions, most of these coloring jobs look like crap, but that is a subjective opinion coming from someone who grew up with the pre-Image era acetate overlay-based coloring, with benday dots and all. There was a period of transition during the 80s, when the paper quality visibly changed, and some titles began to sport more garish tones than others. By the time Image released their books, and companies like Olyoptics and Digital Chameleon introduced lens flares and motion blur with their colors, thereby ensuring these maverick titles looked completely different from the regular superhero fare, the future of the industry was sealed.

At the same time, there began the trend of indie black-and-white comics getting reissued in color. Early examples were hit-and-miss, like Barry Blair’s Elflord, or First Comics releasing airbrushed deluxe editions of Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Better results came about when creators took it on themselves to oversee the coloring. Jeff Smith’s Bone, and later, Rasl, were best-sellers in their color editions. Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim has found a new generation of enthusiasts once full-color editions came out. Even manga, the final frontier where two-color holds sway, has seen classics like Dragonball, OnePiece and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure embracing digital coloring.

But when I received the news of From Hell: The Master Edition, I felt a disturbance in the Force. For one, the scratchy black-and-white artwork felt like the perfect style for a book that was set in the soot and fog of Victorian London. This was one of the rare works where the artist worked in tandem with the writer to create something so iconic, that any thought of a remaster felt like it was interfering with perfection. The plan, according to publishers IDW/Top Shelf Comics, was to have the seminal black-and-white comic recolored by Campbell himself. And that is part of what allayed my fears and made for less trepidation. The person approaching IDW with the idea was Eddie, and it looked like he knew the kind of changes he wanted to make. There was precedent — Brian Bolland did it with deluxe edition of The Killing Joke, because he felt John Higgins’ psychedelic palette was not what he had envisaged. I really loved the original colors on the Killing Joke, but I also liked Bolland’s version. So maybe it wouldn’t be that bad after all.

A short preview of the recolored pages showed promise, but there was still the nervousness that the color would ruin some of the mood of the minimalist, dream-like nature of some of the panels. That the splash of red in a gore-dripped sequence would detract from the strength of the scratchy black and white line-work.

By the time I was on the tenth chapter (volume 7 of the re-release, which compresses 14 chapters into 10 volumes), all my fears had vanished. This particular chapter is a creative high point between Campbell and Moore’s collaboration, occurring in one room in London’s East End, featuring Sir William Gull’s final act of cruelty against the last of the five women. It also jumps through time, both forwards and backwards, in the course of its 34 pages. Gull imagines himself in the presence of his long-dead friend James Hinton, who we last saw in chapter 2, and then in his capacity as surgeon, displaying his sanguinary skills to a shadowy array of onlookers.

The final hallucination is the one that jumps forward in time, where Gull finds himself transported in the middle of an office-space of cubicles and computers, in the twentieth century. This is the moment that sends shivers up my spine, and Moore’s words drip acid and venom at the state of the world.

It would seem we would suffer an apocalypse of cockatoos…Morose, barbaric children joylessly playing with their unfathomable toys. Where comes this dullness in your eyes? How has your century numbed you so? Shall man be given marvels only when he is beyond all wonder?

Alan Moore – From Hell

The attention to detail is spectacular. A pink-haired girl, the blue in the fluorescent lighting on the ceiling, the design pattern on a shirt sleeve peeking from a jacket. The dry-brush effects in the panels are intact. The subtle way in which the blood splatter effects are just the right shade of muted red, while the backgrounds remain a flat grey. That final panel in the page below is both grotesque and hypnotic. This feels like a reclaiming of Campbell’s artistic vision, brought to life by a virtuoso meld of technology and ambition.

I would love to talk about this series, in detail, once the final volume is out. I have tried to speak of it in the past, but not only were my words not sufficient, but I feel like a superficial essay does not do From Hell justice.

Comic Art, Comics

Comic Art Update

For most of the later part of 2011, I had stayed away from Comicartfans, that great big time-sink of a site. Last year was fairly decent for my art habit. I streamlined my addiction quite a bit, paring down the collection to minimize the chaff. Yes, that means I sold and traded a bunch of pages that would have never really gone up on the wall, but which I bought just because it seemed like a good idea at that time. This has had the fortunate effect of making me feel contented about the pages that I own right now, being on a plateau of sorts, where I can just relax and not worry about art-related expenses. Pages come and go, and nothing really grabs my attention unless it’s really cheap or truly one-of-a-kind. The former makes me wonder if I really need one more portfolio-warmer, the latter inevitably makes my bank account whimper.

This may sound zen, but the art-habit seems to have settled down from a burning “I-want-this-page-now” feeling to a gentle simmer of a “Do-you-really-belong-in-my-collection?” question.

High points:

A Kelley Jones Sandman page and a Dave McKean Sandman commission. ‘Season of Mists’ is one of my favorite Sandman arcs, as I have mentioned before, and I already have a Dringenberg page from it that fills my heart with joy every time I look at it. A bulk of the art from the run though was by Kelley Jones, who does not sell most of his originals. Whatever’s available in the market comes from Jones’ inkers, Malcolm Jones III and John Beatty. This page came up for sale on Scott Eder’s gallery at a mind-numbing high price during Wondercon last year. It did not sell. He put it up on eBay a few weeks later, and I emailed to ask if he would accept time payments. Long story short, I bid on it, won it for a little less than my final bid, and much less than the original asking price.

The Dave McKean commission was bought at San Diego, thanks to my friend Joe’s contacts with McKean’s agent Allen Spiegel. McKean himself did not make it to the con, thereby putting my plans of asking for a personalized commission on hold, but he had sent a few pre-done pieces to Allen’s booth, and I got a chance to select and pick one of them up. This conveys just the right amount of grandeur and melancholy associated with the Lord of Dreams. Also, it did not involve me paying $25000, which is the price that one of McKean’s covers usually go for.


Kelley Jones - Sandman 22, page 6 and Dave McKean - Sandman

Two Batman pages by Kelley Jones again. One of them was the promotional poster image from a Batman and Dracula crossover, which is one of the most recognizable images of Batman from the nineties, if you were buying comics back then. Jones, in my opinion, is one of the top 5 artists that have worked on Batman, his neo-Gothic, somewhat-surreal style meshing perfectly with the tone of the character. The other one is a cover pencilled and inked by him, and knowing what I just mentioned about him not selling his art, I have no idea how this came into the open market. I saw both of them on a dealer’s page a few days before San Diego Comicon, and jumped on it without hesitation. They were priced well below-market, and also, I fucking love Kelley Jones’ art, man.


Click on each image to enlarge

Three Preacher pages. I owned a Preacher page before which was a self-proclaimed placeholder – quite cheap, but not really something I would put on the wall. It got traded away this year. One of these came from eBay, from the collection of Albert Moy, dealer extraordinaire. It encapsulates the story of Preacher so far in a single-panel spread that caught my eye. The one with the bar scene from a collector who was, in his own words, cutting himself to the bone to get money for a Bolland Killing Joke page. And the third from a close friend. The three of them represents three different art styles through the series, as Dillon drastically stripped down his line-work as the issues chugged by, sort of evolving as an artist and also increasing his output to meet his deadlines.

The third also has an interesting history – it came up on eBay one fine day a few years ago at a ridiculously low Buy-It-Now price, so ridiculous that most of the usual Preacher-maniacs were wary of pulling the trigger. That ensured that my friend saw it and bid on it, and was deluged with higher offers over the years from the ones that missed it. I had asked him to let me know if he was selling it any time, and he made up his mind recently. Needless to say, I pounced on it.

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Three Preacher Pages (Click to Enlarge)

And finally, something that came in a few days ago. An Adam Hughes painting of Jean Grey as the Black Queen from the Hellfire Club. Now I could give you a manic foaming-at-the-mouth rave about how Adam Hughes’ work combines early 20th century pinup-girl aesthetics with a distinctive art-deco-influenced style and how it is so gosh-darned beautiful and so on and so forth. But I’ll just let you go take a look at his site to decide for yourself. If you collect comic art, getting an Adam Hughes page is a trial in itself. But getting your hands on a good Adam Hughes pinup without breaking the bank? Forget it. He used to do special sketches for fans at conventions – with rates at 200-400$, the pinups would fetch 10 times the amount on eBay when collectors went around to selling them. Due to some “fans” selling their pages a day after a convention was over, Hughes stopped those sketches, causing prices to jump even more.

So I do not exaggerate when I say that this piece fills a very important hole in my collection, and does so in style. It’s 26 inches by 19 inches, and drawn using a combination of crayons, colored dyes and markers. Adam did it as a commission for a collector, and made it extra-large because he made the guy a long time. The collector went on to sell it to someone I know because he was getting married and he needed to raise money quickly, and I bought it from the latter recently. Not cheap, but not that expensive either. And it makes me really, really happy.

Click to Enlarge

Adam Hughes - Black Queen

So yes, happy happy.

Comic Art

A Good Art Year

2010  has been a good year for art.

I refer to ‘comic art’ by the way, not art as in music or drama or art art, if you know what I mean. To be even more specific, I refer to my small collection of comic art,  something which has taken up quite a bit of my daily life. Hello, I am a Comic Art Addict and proud of it.

At the beginning of last year, I was fairly convinced that there was one great piece that I would buy. It was a page that I saw when I was in LA towards the end of 2009, in a friend’s collection. I was at his place, and he had just finished showing me the pieces on his wall, and then remembered a bunch of stuff that had just been framed but were not up on the wall yet. It was a page from one of my favorite comics, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

A brief word on the art of Sandman – in course of its 75 issues, the series had a tremendous line-up of artists, some extraordinary. most of them good, a few pretty middling. In most cases, the bad printing process on the series – remember that this was the late 80s/early 90s, where comics were just beginning to get used to computer coloring, and the quality of the paper, while not the cheap newsprint quality ‘mondo’ format from the 60s and 70s, was still far from the glossy format you young punks are familiar with today. So some of the printed art came out muddy and ugly, which ruined some of the artwork. Especially the work of Mike Dringenberg. Dringenberg was co-creator of the Gaiman run on Sandman, he inked Sam Kieth’s work in the early issues, and when Kieth moved on by the end of the first arc, Dringenberg took over the pencilling duties, along with inker Malcolm Jones III. Because of the aforementioned quality issues, I never really appreciated Dringenberg’s work all that much – and was glad when Kelley Jones, who was to become one of the all-time great Batman artists by the early 90s, took over the acclaimed Season of Mists arc. Dringenberg pencilled the first and last issues of Season of Mists, and that’s it. He moved on from comics work, apparently, going on to illustrate children’s books and album covers.

The first chapter of Season of Mists, issue 21, was the first in which six of the seven Endless make their appearance. So far, readers had seen Dream and his sister Death, and there were hints dropped by the writer about the fact that those two might have other siblings. The introductory sequence in that chapter had an interlude of sorts, where Gaiman wrote brief essays about the six Endless, choosing to omit the Prodigal (we are to find out later that it’s Destruction, who abdicates his position). Desire and Despair on one page, then Destiny and Delirium, and finally Dream and Death.

This last ‘interlude’ page was the one my friend owned.

I had to sit down. Because the art was so brilliant, so delicate and otherworldly that it made my knees weak. The expression on Death’s face, the bubbly water-color shadow that Dream cast behind him (later, when I held the page in my hands, free from the framing glass, I saw that Dringenberg had used glossier paper pasted on the bristol board – probably to enhance the watercolor effect), and the overall  My friend had asked me a few weeks ago about which page from his collection I liked the most, and I had, without hesitation, mentioned one that had struck my fancy. At the moment I saw the Sandman #21 page, I changed my mind, and I told him so. He smiled, and said that if he was ever going to sell this page, I could buy it from him at the price he had originally bought it for. Which was a lot, obviously. But yup, if there was ever a gotta-get-this-or-I-shall-regret-this-forever moment for me, it was when I saw this page. So I agreed.

A lot of collectors do not like artwork that has been personalized to other people. This page has both Gaiman and Dringenberg addressing someone named ‘Jordan’. Gaiman has the words ‘First you dream, then you die’ scrawled before his signature, while the artist just let his art do the talking, and says ‘For Jordan’. I do not mind. Jordan, whoever you are, thank you for keeping this page in  your collection and selling it to the right person who sold it to another right person.

Because 12 months later, I am the owner of the page.

It took some careful budget management, and much brain-ache. In the meantime, I prepared myself mentally – I know it sounds pompous saying it aloud ( hah! Like the rest of the post doesn’t) but really, wrapping my head around the idea of owning it needed a bit of …self-conditioning. Reread Sandman again, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Read Hy Bender’s Sandman Companion, which gave me much deeper insight into the series, as I discovered things about it that I had not realized, or aspects of the story that I had overlooked. (I heartily recommend that you read The Sandman Companion, if you are a fan) And yes, I felt really bad for Mike Dringenberg, because his artwork, even in the Sandman Absolute Edition had taken a beating thanks to the limitations of printing technology. Or probably because the printer was high – the printed page made the blacks of the original pink – PINK! – because the text had to be given prominence.

Obviously that was not the only page I got this year. I mean, I do have self-control and all, but  the best-laid plans of mice and men….

But that, as they say, is another story altogether.


Two Important Comic Art Events

One was the sale of Hergé’s original cover to Tintin in America in a recent auction for 650,000 EU ( technically, I should write the amount as 650.000 EU. Europeans apparently use decimal points where we use commas, and vice versa). Along with the auction premium price, the total came to 780 000 EU. At the prevailing dollar-EU exchange rate, this makes it the first piece of comic art to cross the one million dollar mark.

There was a lot of discussion among the American collectors about whether any US comic art would ever make it to that level. Quite a few of them were of the opinion that if the cover to Action Comics #1 ( the issue that marked the debut of Superman, way back in 1937), or Amazing Fantasy# 15 ( the first appearance of Spider-man ) ever came into the open market, they could easily bring a million dollars, both being cornerstones of American historical memorabilia and twentieth century popular culture. Until the Tintin cover sold, the most expensive comic art pieces were John Romita Sr Spider-man covers, one of which made 100,000$ a few years ago, and Peanuts Sunday pages which are currently at an alarming high because Charles Schultz’s estate is buying off almost every Schultz page that comes into the market. Of course, the comic art community is notorious for its secretive under-the-radar deals, so one can only hypothesise based on public information available through auction data.

My take on this, which I posted to a message board I frequent:

It’s not hard to imagine why (this Tintin cover) would command so high a price. Just as an example:
1) If John Romita Sr drew only 23 Spider-man comics in his lifetime, including covers and interiors,

2) if ALL of the art were locked up by the artist’s estate.

3) these were the only Spider-man comics to be published by Marvel

4) Romita Sr’s Spider-man was the kind of comicbook that parents would recommend to their kids and grandchildren for decades, thereby making those 23 comics a part of generations of readers and fans, spanning all ages.

With all these in mind, isn’t it natural that prices would skyrocket beyond belief if a single cover came out into the market?

There are only this number( 23) of Tintin covers, after all, and add to it the fact that they are Essential Comics, known and loved for 70+ years, and with translations in over fifty languages, one can hardly be bemused at the kind of hysteria an original Tintin cover would elicit from collectors.

You cannot extend this logic to other highly influential American creators – Kirby, Charles Schultz ( whose work I think is slowly approaching that level, because of the scarcity in the market introduced by the mass-buyout), and even Frank Frazetta because their volume of work is huge compared to Herge’s. It cannot even be extended to historic items like the cover of Superman #1, well, yes, that’s a historic cover, but there are other options for the discerning Superman collector – a landmark Curt Swan cover, or a Murphy Anderson splash, or even a Byrne cover. In case of Tintin, these 23 covers are ALL that there is, this might very well be the only chance a collector has, in his lifetime, to pick up an original Tintin cover, drawn by the only artist associated with the character. I know I would go all the way if I had the money. :-)

And the baseline is – the words ‘Tintin’ and ‘Herge’ elicit much more response in the non-comic-book reading masses ( outside the US, that is) than ‘Romita’ or ‘Schultz’ would – even though Spider-man and Peanuts are equally well-known and loved characters as the boy reporter.

Yesterday, there was the news that an anonymous collector had donated all 24 pages of Amazing Fantasy 15 to the Library of Congress, putting paid to all rumours of whether the art would ever surface and how much its value would be. The collector apparently refused to submit the pages for an official valuation( he doesn’t even get a tax benefit this way, and probably he does not even need it! ), and before the donation, even contacted the artist Steve Ditko to find out if he wanted them back. Ditko, a reclusive creator who refuses to be photographed, interviewed or bothered in any way whatsoever by fans, has a history of subjecting his own artwork to mutilation and it’s probably to everybody’s benefit that he did not claim any rights to the pages. It’s official – the first appearance of Spider-man now belongs to the American people. Half the collectors are now swooning over the fact that they can actually SEE the pages for themselves, the rest just crossed off the item from their wish-list.

This is particularly significant because nobody really knows where most of the art from that period is, and how much of it actually exists. Comic art was seen as disposable items once the print negatives were created, and were thrown in the trash, shredded or given away. It wasn’t until the seventies that artists like Neal Adams started the trend of the publisher having to return the art to the original artists. And once the comic art collectors’ market took off in earnest, there was a lot of art stolen from Marvel’s warehouses. To this day, the majority of Jack Kirby’s pages remain locked up in private collections, the owners fearing lawsuits and finger-pointing if they display the art to the world.


Ars Gratia Artis

I just made an important Art Deal. The offer was to buy two key panel pages from a brilliant series, featuring the first appearances of the primary protagonists. The seller and I had been negotiating the terms since the beginning of the week. I had initially enquired about two other pages, but these two had attracted me when I saw them a couple of months ago so I went ahead and asked him if there was any chance he would lower prices. He came down to an amount that was about midway between what I had quoted and what the initial offer price was. On top of that, he would give me the two other pages I wanted, the ones that led to this enquiry in the first place, for free. He gave me until Wednesday to decide.

I made the Art Deal. I refused the offer and ultimately agreed to buy just the two cheaper pages.

This, I think, taught me two important lesson. One, to not overcommit myself, out of blind lust for something that has just come out into the market. This was a problem that had plagued me all of last year. 2007 was a good, no, an AMAZING art year for me, but it also meant that all of last year, I was committing my money to pages that caught my fancy without giving myself a clear set of Collecting Goals. I promised myself that this year would be different, that my money would go into clearing just ONE time payment and that’s that. There was one weak moment, the cover to Hitman #50 – it came on eBay last month and made me sweat until the last minute. I bid an amount that I was pretty sure was the fair market price for that cover, but it went for a 100$ more. Which only means that my Hitman covers right now are worth about triple of what I paid for them – not a bad thing. I knew my limit, I made my call, and I was breathing easy after the auction ended – which is a darned good feeling, let me tell you.

And that’s one thing I would like to tell aspiring comic art collectors who look at this post – hahahaha, I nearly crapped myself while writing this last line – patience is a virue ( the missing ‘t’ in ‘virtue’ is an art collectors’ in-joke, if you get it, consider yourself part of the club. ) Pieces come out on dealers’ sites and CAF members sites with alarming regularity, and it requires a herculean amount of self-restraint to know which piece is the right one for you and which can be passed over. Yes, every piece of comic art is unique, and most likely when they are sold, they will stay locked in some collector’s portfolio for a very, very long time. But while an art piece can be unique, a first appearance can be unique, an artist’s ouevre, thankfully, is not confined to a single good piece or a single pathbreaking series. Which is to say, unless said artist is dead, there will always be more artwork being produced, hopefully better than the one you briefly lusted after and were beaten to. Live with the defeat, and keep your eyes open for the next good piece that comes your way. Fire-sales are not uncommon in the field, when a collector needs some quick money and is willing to offload part of his prized pieces. And one of those prized pieces could be the one that got away the last time.

The second thing I learnt is the importance of discussion. All throughout the last two days, I talked about this deal with my friends, the ones who have some amount of opinion about my art collecting – opinions other than derision and skepticism, that is. I heard a great deal of different opinions, a fair amount of them encouraging, and all of them lucid, tangible arguments that helped me come to my own decision. To all those who helped me out, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I am glad I have you guys to fall back upon in times of need.

A few more words about why 2007 was such a good art year. If you have been following my various art update posts, you would have seen quite a lot of new pages that I got.

Some more that I haven’t talked about, at least on this blog:

John Totleben – Vermillion page. What is Vermillion? A mind-bending scifi story written by Lucius Shepherd, published by the Helix imprint of DC comics. Helix was extremely short-lived, with its only successful offering ( in terms of length ) being Warren Ellis’s epic Transmetropolitan, which moved to Vertigo once the former folded. I never really got into Vermillion, but the high point of the series was the two issues drawn by John Totleben who, if you will remember, is one of my favourite artists. The page I bought is, in my opinion, a mindblowing piece of work. Look at the design of the lower panel – but you will be able to do that if you can tear your eyes away from the central figure, a face inked with such loving detail that the face seems three-dimensional.

Another John Totleben page, a Tarzan cover prelim. Normally the idea of a preliminary work is to provide the artist with some idea of how the final piece should look like. Most prelim pages you will see are sparsely pencilled works, with stick figures and quick strokes that vaguely allude to the finesse of the final page. But this is Totleben we are talking about, and his concept of a prelim is a detailed inked piece that is a scaled-down version of the final painted piece, that you can see here. Compare the two. I like to think that the painting is a lightboxed version of the ink piece, which makes my cover prelim the original original art. *grin*

A double-page spread from Shade the Changing Man, by Chris Bachalo. I don’t think this eminently frameable piece needs words to accompany it.

Another 100 Bullets page by Eduardo Risso. Muhwahahahaha.

A Dan Brereton page from The Black Terror, his earliest work. When I received this page in the mail and opened it the first time, I got a little weak-kneed and had to sit down for a bit. Brereton’s watercolors are beautiful – much, much more detailed on the actual page than you would ever see in a scan.

And, the Highpoint of the Year, and currently the glory of my small collection – an original watercolor painting of Daigoro from Lone Wolf and Cub by Goseki Kojima, the co-creator of LW&C. I attribute this acquisition to just one thing – Plain Dumb Luck. When at Super-con, I was hanging around the comicbook and toy stalls, occasionally asking about Studio Ghibli figurines to sellers who had some amount of anime-related merchandise on display. One of the sellers said he didn’t have them right now, but I could get in touch with him later, and gave me his card. The name on it looked familiar, and I realised it was a comic collector, one I had bid against for the Transmetropolitan piece in my collection, and he had also left a comment on the page in my gallery. Introductions and an enthusiastic conversation followed, and after we looked through each other’s portfolios, he pointed out that I would probably like to meet another CAF member who had tastes similar to mine. And that’s how I met Felix.

Felix’s portfolio had one great piece after another. A full-page splash from The Boys, a James Jean print, a a couple of Supreme Power pages, and then, finally, two Kojima pieces.

I collapsed.

Some quick negotiations ( “Please please sell this to me.” “Ok.” “How much?” “<high four-figure amount>” “Excellent, I will pay.” ) and I owned the page, at least in spirit. It took another six months to complete the time payment and yay, I had something that I had only dreamt about. Believe me, getting a Kojima piece at this stage of my collecting career is like a major threshhold – I can actually feel pride in my collection right now, and think I am going about art collecting the right way. As Felix himself says, it’s near-impossible to get manga artists’ works. He travelled to Japan multiple times looking for Kojima pages, and finally hit the paydirt through a friend. He found a couple of pieces done on plain paper, and a couple done on 14″ by 16″ art boards. Mine is one of the latter. You can check out Felix’s piece on his own gallery, it’s a much better work than mine but that does not mean I am any less proud of the one I have.

Another page I bought from Felix was a Supreme Power page, a splendid face-off page pencilled by Gary Frank and inked by Jon Sibal.

There were other pieces that came in last year, but I am holding them close to my chest. For a number of reasons.