The Rising Market of Comic Art

By MIKE BARON  |  October 19, 2009

Barry Smith, the young pioneering artist who originated Marvel's Conan the Barbarian, thereby precipitating a revolution in sword and sorcery material, was present with a table full of limited edition prints and posters. He was frankly flabbergasted at the popularity of his material (it sold out in two days). Like many professionals, Smith is unaware of the extent to which speculators have priced certain items out of the realm of comics.

Most fascinating about comics is that a really good one, where the artist is in control of his material and knocks himself out for every page, can be bought for a quarter. That's bringing fine art down to a popular level. But it also enables speculators to scarf up hundreds of likely issues and horde them for years, in the fully justified expectation that prices will skyrocket. Early issues of Conan are selling for seven dollars, and Conan is only four years old!

Only in the past five years or so has speculation become rampant. This is partly a result of the young pros' producing material worth collecting, and it's partly a reaction to the increasing stiffness of other speculative markets, like those in silver and china. Now comics have attracted their own circle of legendary collectors, such as the man who flew in from Texas to buy three old comics for a total of $1200. In this particular case the three titles, Boy Explorers no.3, All Wonder no.3, and Stuntman no.3, had been rendered rare by a wartime paper shortage. These third issues were mailed flat to subscribers only; they never reached the newsstands and subsequently were never listed in the official comic book listings and price guides.

As a result of such speculation, certain young pros like Smith and Jeff Jones have turned to limited edition productions with the idea of making money from the professional collectors. Such an attitude does not sit well with the notion of comics as a mass medium printed on tissue paper and distributed like condoms in the slaves' quarters, but their present condition is part of their charm. Comics just wouldn't be comics if they were printed on heavy art stock and available at fancy bookstores only.

Unfortunately, the only way comics can remain comics, i.e. available at a quarter or less in print runs of several hundred thousand, is if the publishers continue to aim their stuff at kids and keep it bland, bland, bland. Simultaneously, the young writers and artists want to aim at an adult audience. Little by little, certain comics are attracting a more mature audience; there is a creeping movement towards creativity.

This movement was reflected at this year's Con in the film program and in the discussions of such artists as Vaughn Bode, whose work appears regularly in National Lampoon. The films, aside from the usual Planet of the Apes, contained a series of exciting Superman cartoons done by the protean animator, Max Fleischer, in the '40s. These rare cartoons feature technicolor and full animation, and are as good as anything Disney has produced. Also shown were Windsor McCay's delightful "Gertie the Dinosaur" and the famous Little Nemo episode, wherein McCay agrees to draw a 10,000-panel cartoon strip for his publishers in return for dinner. Artists today say rates aren't much better.

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  Topics: Flashbacks , Jeff Jones, Marvel, Conan the Barbarian
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