Nostalgia makes comic art a serious business

Samanth Subramanian

The pages of a comic book drawn in a particular era become valuable when its original readers grow up and start making enough money to buy them, says Satyajit Chetri

Hyderabad: In any economy, but particularly in this one, it’s tempting to hand your money over to a man who confidently says: “Give me $3,000 (Rs1.29 lakh) today, and I can give you $4,000 by next month.”
It’s just as tempting, though, to snatch the money right back when Satyajit Chetri, a 28-year-old software engineer, reveals that he’ll probably invest it in a couple of scribbled-over sketches for a Punisher comic book.

One-time investment? Satyajit Chetri, a collector of original comic-book art, at his apartment in Begumpet, Hyderabad (Photo by: P Anil Kumar/Mint)

But Chetri, who claims to be India’s sole collector of original comic-book art, knows what he’s talking about. Trawling auction websites and comic-book forums for affordable art for years, he’s seen the market inflate to alarming proportions.
The boom reached its quivering peak in March, when an original Hergé sketch for the cover of Tintin in America sold for $1.22 million. A month later, one dealer said to The New York Observer: “People who bought this stuff in the 1970s got a better return than anything else on the market, with the exception of something like Microsoft.”
“Right now, I’d say this market is booming even more than the market for traditional art, relatively speaking,” Chetri says. “European collectors are buying heavily because of their favourable exchange rate with the dollar. But nobody knows whether it is a bubble or not. Either the bust will really come, or it will never come.”
A comic book’s original sketch work, after it’s been scanned for reproduction, is returned to its artist; companies such as Marvel and DC Comics only own the rights of reproduction, not the originals themselves. “So, the artists then hire representatives, who sell this art for them,” says Chetri. The comic art market is usually a cyclical one, driven furiously by the engine of nostalgia. “The pages of a comic book drawn in a particular era become valuable when its original readers grow up and start making enough money to buy them,” Chetri says.
But in recent times, that cycle has been broken. “Some modern artists, like Jim Lee, are commanding current prices that are equivalent to the prices of works like the greats Hal Foster and Jack Kirby,” says Pablo Portillo, a collector and dealer of comic-book art in Spain. “Now, we know that Kirby’s art after 30 years has risen steadily. But nobody knows if these kind of prices for modern art can be sustained 30 years down the line.”
No two pieces of art are similar, of course, but Portillo offers a comparison. “A page that would have sold for $100-150 three years ago is now offered for $300 and nearly always immediately picked up,” he says. “This in turn is leading to higher resale prices. The expensive art from the great books of the 1980s—V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Dark Knight—is seeing increases of 200%.” Browsing through the sale archives of Heritage Auctions’ comic-art gallery is revealing. A panel page from the 1966 Fantastic Four No. 55, sketched by Kirby, sold for $38,837 towards the end of May 2008. Before May 2006, though, no Kirby Fantastic Four panel page had sold for any five-figure sum at all. It isn’t always easy to determine which art is valuable. “There are many factors moving this market, and the main one is personal sentiment and nostalgia,” says Portillo. Some collectors set out to obsessively amass a particular artist’s work, and in such cases, pay prices seemingly outrageous.
Suresh Seetharaman, founder-president of Virgin Comics, offers some rules of thumb. “If a comic book is set to become a big movie, like say Frank Miller’s 300, that increases the value of its art,” he says. “If an artist changes style, or if he switches from drawing one character to another, then his old work becomes more valuable.” Some artists, such as Miller or Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, rarely sell their work, so that ramps up their prices. European comic art is often more treasured—not only because “the Europeans revere their comic artists,” as Chetri says, but also because those artists work to a less certain schedule, often turning out only 48 pages per year in comparison to an American artist’s regimented 22 pages per month.
“But you have to remember, the transactions that happen online or in public are only the tip of the iceberg,” Chetri says. “There are all sorts of private deals, and the prices there may be much, much higher.”
Chetri has collected comic books from a very young age, but he found himself drawn to comic-book art only in his 20s. “I was struck by the idea of possessing a treasure, a one-of-its-kind work of art,” he says. On Christmas day in 2005, he bought his first two pieces off eBay—Swamp Thing panels by Phil Hester. “Today, I won’t specify how much of my income I spend on this stuff. Let’s just say it’s a lot.”
Chetri’s own collection, running to around 90 individual pieces, is as illustrative as it is illustrated. Comic art comes on oversized sheets of hard paper, usually in black and white. (“Very, very few are coloured.”) They could be sketches for the cover, for a regular multi-panelled page, or for a “splash” page with a single, giant panel.
When they were drawn, these panels were clearly works-in-progress. There are eraser marks and shiny spots of correction fluid all over the place, and the margins bristle with comments. On the title splash of X-Men 30, from the 1960s, is an admonition: “Both eyes open, but not so wide.”
The pride of Chetri’s collection is a pin-up of a series called Lone Wolf and Cub. “I bought it at a comic convention in California last year, when I’d gone there on some work,” he says. It cost him $1,800, by far the most expensive piece he’s purchased. “Since then, I’ve seen more Lone Wolf and Cub art selling, from the same guy, for around $2,700 per piece.”

It is eminently possible, says Seetharaman, that mainstream investors will look to comic- book art for returns, just as they have looked to traditional art. “The demand is growing, and the number of collectors and artists is increasing,” he says. “Let’s not forget that it is great art—greater even than traditional art, in my opinion. When the market matures, people will see it for its premium.” So, if he were given $50,000, what one piece of art would Chetri buy, to maximize his returns? There’s a pause in the conversation as he wrestles internally with that gleeful scenario. Then comes the solemn verdict: “A Kirby Fantastic Four cover. He sketched 102 of them, and he’s dead now.” Another pause, and then: “Oh, but maybe also a Sunday strip of Peanuts, because Charles Schulz’s estate is buying everything up right now.”
Chetri’s eyes deglaze, and he says: “Three years down,these would sell for over $100,000 apiece. There’s no doubt about it.”

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