Collecting rare graphic novel art

The scarcity and cachet of artwork from comic books’ cooler sibling are attracting an ever-wider circle of collectors, says Mark C O’Flaherty

It’s a Small Universe (1976) by Moebius (Jean Giraud), sold for $19,120 at Heritage Auctions
It’s a Small Universe (1976) by Moebius (Jean Giraud), sold for $19,120 at Heritage Auctions

The comic book universe has long had its obsessive collectors of both £2.4m early editions and original artwork, but the more subtle collecting world of graphic novels – a form pioneered by the likes of Art Spiegelman and Charles Burns in the 1980s – is relatively new. Some argue that Hergé forged the way in the late 1920s with his Tintin series, but aficionados tend to agree that the first true graphic novel was Will Eisner’s 1978 A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. It is a paradigm of the medium – a story with the gravitas of literary fiction told through illustration and supplementary text. 

The scarcity of original artwork from cult graphic novels makes it much sought after. Dave Gibbons’ cover art for the highly coveted first edition of British writer Alan Moore’s 1986 classic Watchmen last came to market five years ago, selling for $155,350, after changing hands as part of the full set of 12 covers in 1993, when it sold for around $26,000 at Sotheby’s. And although Frank Miller is considered one of the masters of the form, credited with rebooting superheroes such as Daredevil and Dark Knight’s protagonist Batman in a slicker way, it has been five years since one of his Dark Knight covers came up for sale at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions – the de facto auction house for almost all significant original graphic novel art. It sold for $478,000, says Todd Hignite, senior consulting specialist.

Watchmen first edition cover art (1986) by Dave Gibbons, sold for $155,350 at Heritage Auctions
Watchmen first edition cover art (1986) by Dave Gibbons, sold for $155,350 at Heritage Auctions

If Miller is a top illustrator of characters with capes, Robert Crumb is a more alternative artist whose work commands similarly high prices. “He has really paced the non-superhero market,” says Hignite. “We recently sold two works for $717,000 and $525,800.” In 2010, art gallerists got in on the act when New York’s David Zwirner offered the 207 works that went into Crumb’s 2009 Book of Genesis graphic novel as a single entity for an undisclosed price that would be prohibitive for all but the most serious collectors. (But it’s worth noting that a page of Crumb’s 1993 Kafka for Beginners sold for a more modest $4,541 through Heritage Auctions last year.)

In terms of specialist galleries, a key name in the US is Scott Eder in Jersey City, which has shown work by Will Eisner and José Muñoz, who created the Alack Sinner series. Online US resources include Peter Koch’s Koch Comic Art and Cool Lines Artwork. In the UK, one of the key dealers is Joseph Melchior of Brit Comics Art. Melchior began representing Dave Gibbons 10 years ago, then Brian Bolland, who illustrated Alan Moore’s 1988 Batman: The Killing Joke. “My focus is work from the 1980s onwards,” says Melchior. “I’ve sold some pieces for six-figure sums, though at entry level you can still pick up a page by a reasonably well-known artist for $300-$400.”

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Chris Killackey is a Chicago-based collector who works in private equity and regularly buys from Melchior. He owns 350 pieces, having started collecting in 1988, when he was paying about $100 for a piece of work. “My first acquisitions were a Kelley Jones Sandman page and a Dave Sim Cerebus the Aardvark page,” he says. “I miss the days of those page prices.” He went on to collect original artwork from his favourite graphic novels of that decade, including pieces from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta and Watchmen. Last year, a page of David Lloyd’s artwork from the first appearance of what would become the V for Vendetta novel – in comics anthology Warrior in 1982 – sold for $20,315 at Heritage.

For European artists, Galerie 9E in Paris has a strong inventory and also deals in work by Crumb and Eisner. “Franquin, Edgar P Jacobs, Hugo Pratt and Bilal are popular,” says gallery owner Bernard Mahé. He recently held a retrospective of Gilles Chaillet, the artist behind graphic novels Lefranc, Roma and Vasco. “Non-English language art tends to sell better to European collectors,” says Mahé. “But there are exceptions – Moebius is a global name.” Work by the artist Jean Giraud, who created graphic novels under the Moebius pseudonym, sells for up to $40,000 a panel.

Daredevil vs Elektra by Frank Quitely for Marvel Comics, from Brit Comics Art
Daredevil vs Elektra by Frank Quitely for Marvel Comics, from Brit Comics Art

But the truth remains that although big names like Frank Miller, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes do have selling shows,“a lot of work will never be sold off byits creator,” says Paul Gravett, an expert on comic book and graphic novel art. “Original pages from canonical graphic novels like Spiegelman’s Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Craig Thompson’s Blankets may never come to market.” Of the big contemporary names, no one has more stature than Charles Burns – and while he has gallery shows, some pieces are impossible to buy. Burns’ figurative line, reminiscent of woodcut imagery, is instantly recognisable, and his narratives make for ultra-hip, unsettling reading. Instalments of Black Hole – his twisted story of love and disease – first appeared in 1995, and the series was released in 2005. His portrait work for arts journal The Believer sells for upwards of $900 at Scott Eder. New York gallerist Adam Baumgold also deals in Burns, and points out how his work presents a conundrum for collectors: “The cover drawings of individual issues of Black Hole would sell for over $75,000,” he says, “but it would be difficult to find them as they are not for sale!” The original artwork for the book remains under lock and key.

Despite mass dissemination of much of this genre’s imagery, there is just one original version. Sometimes that is unobtainable, no matter what price it might fetch. And that makes it all the more covetable…

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