2011–A big year for comics and original comic book art

With the barrage of comic book movies re-emerging into the mainstream, starting with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man in 2008, and continuing through this summer with Thor, X-Men, Green Lantern and Captain America, comic books as an overlooked niche may be having it’s own renaissance.  With the focus of DC Comics in returning to its roots by recharging its universe starting Wednesday, August 31, comic books are making national news as a popular medium again.

No greater indication of comic books coming of age this year occured at a Heritage Auctions sale a few weeks ago.  In its New York Signature Vintage Comics and Comic Art Auction #7033, fifteen bidders duked it out to determine the single most expensive piece of American original comic art to sell at auction.

So which artist, what book, what publisher scored the biggest single page hit ever?

In part, the record breaking sale came as a surprise.  This was no golden age book from the 1940s.  Neither was it an early rarity at the dawn of comic strips, like the Katzenjammer Kids, Keystone Cops or the Yellow Kid.  It also wasn’t a piece of cover art–in original comic art collecting it is the cover that typically fetches a far higher price than interior work.  Neither was it a classic science fiction comic, a Charles Schulz Peanuts page, or a Superman page.  But it did come from DC Comics.  Something to remember: only in recent years has comic book art been actively collected.  Many early pages were thrown away or lost.  Ask old time artists about their original pages at conventions and they will shake their head and tell you stories about their long gone pages.  Unlike rare comic books, there is only one original art page in existence, so these works are true rarities.

The object of the highest hammer price probably should come as no surprise.  It is from one of the most talked about comic book series in the past 30 years.  From a book that has been studied by economists and even used as a required text book at state universities.

The book of course is the ground-breaking Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, pencils by Frank Miller with Klaus Janson inks.  It is a splash page from issue #3, page 10.  And it sold for $448,125 including the auction house buyer’s premium.

Don’t you wish you had one of the several dozen remaining pages from the four book Batman: The Dark Knight Returns series right now?

The cover of the book featuring the record breaking page:

The last public sale record was set only last year, for the comic book cover of EC title Weird Science-Fantasy #29 by the great Frank Frazetta.  It sold for $380,000.

Frank Miller is now known not only as a controversial but popular comic book writer and artist, he is also the man behind major motion pictures, including 300, Sin City, and The Spirit.  Inker Klaus Janson is the German expatriot who has worked with countless major pencillers and set the standard all inkers aspire to, and he wrote the book on inking, The DC Comics Guide to Inking Comics


as well as The DC Comics Guide to Pencilling Comics.  (I am a big fan of the entire DC Comics Guide series and every beginning comic artists aspiring to make a ground breaking page like Miller’s and Janson’s should check these out).

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns has been re-printed numerous times since its release as four prestige format comics in 1986.  The page itself features of course Batman, but also his controversial new sidekick introduced in the 1986 mini-series: a female Robin and considered the fourth Robin in the history of the caped crusader.  The page is a full spread or “splash page” showing the dynamic duo swinging across the skyline of Gotham City.  The Dark Knight Returns is a dystopian tale of Bruce Wayne, who emerges after retiring from the hero business and spending his days as a more stereotypical billionaire, including enjoying the fun of race car driving.  In the book he looks just like Paul Newman, as Newman looked in the 1980s.  The edge that we then saw in 1989’s summer blockbuster Batman starring Michael Keaton derives directly from this series, as does the darkness and grittiness behind every comic book series since.  Frank Miller and Company also revisited the Dark Knight story in the far less popular sequel Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

When Miller was asked about the imminent sale of the record-winning piece, he commented, “I’ve always loved that drawing…Danced around my studio like a fool when I drew it.  I hope it finds a good home.”

As several Batman series begin again this week, which series will become the next The Dark Knight Returns?

C.J. Bunce



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