One Fan's Opinion: Issue #70

Fri, January 12th, 2007 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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The first page of original art that I ever sold was a page of Vanguard from the first book I ever worked on called "Megaton."

I sold it for a whopping $5.

And I felt really bad afterward. Yeah, the guy that bought it was ecstatic to have it, but I felt dirty somehow. Vanguard was a character I had co-created with writer Gary Carlson and as such he was a part of me and selling that page was like selling a part of myself. It felt weird. It felt wrong. And it was the last time I ever sold a page of Vanguard.

I went on and did other books, bouncing from one company to the next. Sometimes art was sent back to me - sometimes it wasn't. I did sell pages from other titles - books on which I was just a hired hand - and I had no problem with that. I had no emotional investment in the "Doom Patrol" or "the Punisher" or "Spider-Man" so letting those pages go was not the gut-wrenching experience that it was to sell that Vanguard page, years earlier. Pages from these books brought me a little more than the $5 that I got for the Vanguard page and that was nice.

I sold pages all the time I was working at AC Comics and Eclipse and DC and Marvel. It wasn't as though I didn't care about the books I was working on, but they weren't my books - they were somebody else's books.

I also did sketches at cons and sold those. I did sketches for years and as much as folks may have liked having me draw them, it really took the fun out of conventions. Sure, it was nice to get a couple bucks to buy back issues with, but it made the shows a grueling experience. Cons were work and I'd leave them with a swimming head and numb fingers.

I stopped doing sketches at shows after a fan had brought the drawing I'd done for him the previous year, nicely matted and framed.

It was hideous.

It was an awful drawing. Distorted, ugly, poorly composed and horrific. The thought of this beastly monstrosity gracing somebody's wall made me stop cold turkey. I didn't do sketches at cons for years.

I started buying art. Nothing major, mind you, it was just few pages here and there. A friend had given me a gorgeous Frank Robbins "Shadow" cover. I wasn't a huge Frank Robbins fan prior to acquiring that piece of art, but I became one soon after.

Years ago, as a kid, a friend of mine had a Gil Kane "Ghost Rider" page and I was envious as all get out. I can remember admiring it whenever I visited him. Years later I bought a huge pile of Gil Kane layouts from the "Star Hawks" newspaper strip and a "Jungle Action" cover featuring the Black Panther and a few other scattered pages.

I bought a few George Prez pages as well. There was a "Fantastic Four" page with a gigantic close up of the Thing that closed a particular issue and I always loved that. I snapped it up and I bought some "Teen Titans" pages. I had the one where Terry Long popped the question to Donna Troy, lovingly inked by Romeo Tanghal. As a kid I was a big Prez fan.

And there were others. A pretty dull page from the first "Superman/Spider-Man" crossover, but what the hell - it was from the first Superman/Spider-Man crossover - what did I care? I bought for its historical significance alone.

Oh, and some Jos Luis Garcia-Lopez "Titans" pages. I loved Jos Luis Garcia-Lopez and a more worthy successor to George Prez on that title was inconceivable. Jos Luis Garcia-Lopez was on the top of his game on that one - his figure work was pure dynamite.

And of course I had a ton of my own stuff. Scattered pages from every title I'd worked on. Some beautifully inked - some butchered.

And then my house burned down.

All of it was gone. Everything. And everything I'd drawn as a child as well. All the crappy Dragon comics I'd drawn as a kid and all the other Vanguard pages that I'd saved and everything else - gone.

That sucked.

I had to call up my editor at the time, Danny Fingeroth, and tell him I'd be a bit late on my next issue of "Spider-Man" because I no longer had my plot or any paper or any reference or any pens or a room to draw in. He was understanding and helped round up stuff to send me. A few editors over at Marvel put together a care package for me of various comics and it was much appreciated.

Bummer about all that art though.

My insurance company was great. I was reimbursed for everything - above and beyond my policy limit, actually.

Shortly thereafter I was drawing "Savage Dragon" and I decided early on not to sell any of the original art.

It took me a few years to start buying art again. But I did.

I'd never owned any Kirby art. I can be thankful none of that was destroyed.

I saw a beautiful Kirby spread from the "Silver Surfer" trade, but it was really expensive (or so I thought) and I mulled it over and mulled it over and ultimately passed on it.

And I kicked myself for a year.

The following San Diego con I saw the same spread - and the price had gone up an additional $500. But I had to have it - and I bargained the guy down, drawing a pinup shot of She-Dragon to pay off what inflation had added to its previous purchase price.

And I've bought a mess of other pages - stuff from Kirby, from Kane, from Trimpe, from Byrne and a host of others.

It's great stuff. It really inspires the hell out of me to look at it.

The troubling thing about some art on the market, however, is that it was not necessarily obtained ethically.

Much of it was stolen.

Art from the early days at Marvel, in particular, was routinely purloined. Years after the work was done, art that had been stored and saved was swiped and often sold by the people that worked in the Marvel offices (and people that visited the Marvel offices).

It's pretty safe to say that every page of Steve Ditko art on the market was stolen. Ditko doesn't sell his art. And as far as I know - he doesn't give it away. He just keeps it in heaps in his studio. There's a well-circulated tale of a certain comic book inker and historian who visited Ditko and was alarmed to find that he was using old pages as a cutting board!

I got into a fairly heated debate recently with some folks because a somewhat-celebrated writer had let it be known that he's purchased a couple of "Incredible Hulk" pages that Ditko had drawn back in the early '60s at an auction.

I had informed said-writer that the pages had, in all-likelihood, been stolen and he retorted by saying that, "This wasn't obtained at a convention from a dealer named Shifty who had it stashed under his table. It was part of a major art auction that was held at Sotheby's (or Christie's; one of those big auction houses.) I couldn't have bought it under more public circumstances."

To which I replied that, "So...you're saying it's perfectly legal and ethical to knowingly buy stolen goods as long as there are enough people witnessing the transaction?"

I'm pretty sure that's not how the law works.

I went on to say that, "If I stole your car and sold it in front of a huge crowd of people, I'm pretty sure it would be within your rights to have me arrested. I'm pretty sure it would be within your rights to get your car back. Just because Sotheby's (or Christie's) neglected to check and see that the artwork in question was purchased from its rightful owner in the first place doesn't make the transaction legal or fair."

And that's the thing - you see, although this fine fellow may feel just swell about purchasing and possessing stolen goods and it may be that he thinks that the ends justify the means, having been a guy that has had art stolen (or simply never returned) I don't think that what he did was something laudable - or anything to crow about.

You may feel otherwise.

And it gets confusing and somewhat morally muddled. I mean, Ditko clearly does not value the work - it's likely that much of it has been destroyed by his hands - but does that really make stealing and selling it legal, ethical or right?

I'm thinking it doesn't - as much as I love his work and as much as it pains me to think of it being destroyed.

It's not as though Ditko said to anybody, "Here, take my art and sell it and keep the money."

He may not give a rat's ass about it, but the work in question rightfully belongs to him. It's not as though he tossed it out or gave it away and maybe he uses it to wipe the mud off his shoes, but it's his to do with as he sees fit.

I have some art at home that I've drawn that I don't particularly care for - it was returned to me years after it should have been and it was perpetrated at a time when I really had no business being paid to draw anything, much less comic books. It's anything but pretty. Do I want it? Not really, no. But I also don't really want it out there either. I don't want people owning stuff of mine that I think is crappy (which is why that lousy framed con sketch irks me so much).

It may be that Ditko feels likewise about his older work. He might hate it. He might not want others treasuring it or hanging it on their walls.

And it really should be his choice as to what is done with his stuff.

I've heard stories of artists destroying their own art - burning it in huge piles. I've also heard of them selling it off in bulk for pennies a page. But that's their choice.

You can do what you want with your own belongings. You can buy a car for a million dollars (if you have a million dollars) and run it into a pole if you want to - it's your car. This is a similar situation.

It's not right for me to steal your car just because you're determined to crash it into a pole - it's your car - not mine.

You may think it's unreasonable - you may think it's a damned shame - but it's the law.

Legally, the art belongs to Steve Ditko.

Now, I doubt that Ditko is going to prosecute. I doubt that he's going to go after anybody. But I also doubt that he approves of his work being stolen and sold.

DC routinely destroyed original art.

DC would cut pages in half or give them away to visitors.

The art had no perceived value. Nobody thought to save it or collect it or frame it and hang it on their walls. It stacked up like cordwood and took up space. DC did what they thought was the thing to do - they hung onto the art for a period of three months and then they destroyed it.

Nobody particularly wanted it back.

Neal Adams wanted his back.

He saw a value in it and in the '70s Adams fought for artists to get their original art returned to them and both DC and Marvel eventually gave in.

Marvel didn't destroy art. Marvel didn't throw out art. Marvel stored it and often "fans" (employees, for the most part) rummaged through the stacks and pilfered choice pages (or complete issues) and kept it for themselves or sold it off.

But most people that buy art don't consider where the art came from. When Marvel eventually returned pages, many artists were given only a fraction of the art due to them. Huge piles of original art had vanished over the years.

In the case of Steve Ditko, I would assume any page that wasn't inked by another inker was stolen. Many early Kirby, Heck and Ayers pages out on the market were stolen as well.

Fans tend to live in a world where it's all "okay" simply because they want it and whatever it is they want is made available. They'll buy pirated movies or TV shows (and those selling such items often openly display them at major comic book conventions) and they'll download comics and music without thinking twice about it.

...and all the while they'll read stories of heroes "doing the right thing" because "that's what heroes do."

There's a certain irony there.

You may say, "What's the harm? Clearly Ditko doesn't value the stuff. Who cares if some of it gets bought and sold by his fans?"

You may not value a stack of old magazines in the corner of your room either, but I imagine you might care if it vanished and the person who took it from you sold them on eBay for tens of thousands of dollars.

Just because somebody leaves their bike on the sidewalk it doesn't mean it's okay to take it, after all. Just because you don't take care of something it doesn't mean it's up for grabs.

Certainly Marvel made only token effort to protect the art and, as far as I'm aware, nobody was punished or prosecuted for stealing it (although I did hear a story of one fellow being stopped before he ran off with some pages because they "hadn't published that one yet"), but that doesn't mean that what was going on was approved of or appropriate.

The guys that took the art knew that what they were doing was wrong - just as stealing office supplies is wrong. It wasn't as though the pages were being given out. It wasn't as though they weren't being stored away. It wasn't as though everybody in the office was aware that they were being taken and that Marvel itself was fine with that. Why store it at all if it's okay to take it?

If I had bought the afore-mentioned Ditko art, and I suddenly found out that there was a good chance that it had been stolen, I would make every effort to contact Ditko, tell him what happened and ask him what he'd advise. It might very well be that he wouldn't care. If it turned out he did care - at least I'd know where he stood and I could better decide what to do about it.

But it's a real dilemma and one I'm glad I'm not faced with. Returning it to the auction house (or attempting to) wouldn't get Ditko his art back. They'd likely sell it again. Returning it to Ditko would mean eating the money paid for it and the pages getting neglected or abused (in all likelihood).

But something's not right. Somewhere, somehow a thief got rewarded for stealing and that doesn't sit well - not with me anyway.

In any case, as the argument wound itself down, the Ditko art owner ceased responding and one vocal fan said that he was going to stop purchasing comics written by this individual until he did right by Ditko.

And that, I thought, was a bit much.

One of the unfortunate fallouts of the web and its message boards is that readers get access to too much information. What should really influence a reader's decision to purchase a comic book is how much they enjoy it, not whether they like somebody or not.

Thanks to the Internet, we now have all kinds of reasons to pick apart creators' integrity and boycott their work for reasons other than what's on the printed page and that's unfortunate.

The fact that this individual bought some original art at an auction really should not affect how much a reader enjoys his work on the books he works on. The two are mutually exclusive, really - or they should be.

But I guess it's the nature of the beast.

How many people will boycott the next Mel Gibson movie because they no longer want to support him? What chance does Michael Richards have at this point? Careers have been destroyed because fans turn on them - not because of the work they do, but because of things they inadvertently said or did that have nothing to do with the work that they do.

In this case, a writer bought some art by an artist whose work he liked from a book that meant something to him.

That's all.

Having been apprised of the possibility that the art may have been obtained in an illegal manner, he's presented with something of a moral dilemma and it's unclear what his next move will be. If I were in his shoes, I'd have to think long and hard about it.

But honestly, how many people that have bought art know with absolute certainty that it was legitimately purchased from its owner?

At this point I own quite a few pages that I know were purchased from their owner, but there are a couple that I can't be sure of - not 100% (I don't own any Ditko art or art from artists that I know don't sell their work, however - at least not art that wasn't given to me directly by the artists).

Are we all expected to do research on pages we buy at conventions and at auctions? How could anybody even begin to track down this stuff? Is there some master list of what was returned and what was stolen available? Is there some data bank we can all tap into?

This situation puts this gentleman in an awkward spot and I'd imagine that he might wish that he never opened his mouth about the art in question.

It's up to him what he does, of course, but regardless I think it's a bit much for fans to stop buying a book of his that they enjoy - or even threaten to - because of it. That seems harsh. If a reader enjoys his work - by all means - they should buy his books. The fact that he purchased some art really shouldn't influence their decision.

And I think it's pretty silly to stop buying a book that you enjoy just because a guy hasn't posted a satisfactory response on a message board as well. You can, of course, do as you please with your money.

Who knew that buying art could snowball into some kind of morality test?

But I've digressed…

I was really going elsewhere with this.

The point is - or was - that it's really great to be able to own a piece of a comic book that you enjoyed. A short time ago I acquired the original art to the first comic book I ever bought with my own money and I treasure it. I'll pull this stuff out to examine it and try to figure out how it was done - what tools were used.

Sometimes pages are caked in whiteout - sometimes they're as clean as a whistle. Sometimes there are pages with art corrections or rewritten dialogue or liner notes or drawings scrawled on the other side. I'll study the stuff and try to absorb the knowledge I glean from them as best I can.

And I started doing sketches again.

I started doing quick head sketches for free.

I don't do them all the time and I don't do them if I'm tired or burned out, but since I don't sell "Savage Dragon" pages I thought it would be nice to give those that support me something and because they're free I don't mind so much if they suck. At least I didn't take anybody's money.

There was a flurry of folks selling my sketches on eBay and I felt a bit betrayed by that. I'd overheard a fan talking about hoping to "make back the money" he'd spent to go to the show - as if the rest of us were somehow being paid to be away from our friends and family and were getting our airfares and hotel rooms paid for. That bugged me.

But after much thought I came back to the same thing I said earlier in regard to Ditko and his work:

It really should be their choice as to what is done with their stuff.

And once I've given it away, it's their stuff, not mine. They're under no moral or ethical obligation to do what I'd like them to do with something that belongs to them.

If you get a sketch from me, do with it what you please. Sell it on eBay if you want to or give it away or put it in a stack and forget about it or get it framed and hang it in your living room. All I ask is one thing: if you do get it framed - for god's sake - don't show it to me.

I don't think I could take it.

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