Superhero fans have grown up and have money to spend on collectable comics. Chris Carter reports
Once the preserve of torch-wielding teenagers beneath the bed covers, American comic books today are seen in a whole new light. They can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction (the market is still mainly confined to the US). As a result, Texas-based Heritage Auctions (HA) enjoyed a bumper 2018. Sales in its comic-book department soared to a record $58,544,323 – a 32% increase on the year before. “Our results in 2018 exceeded our loftiest expectations,” says Jim Halperin, co-founder of the auction house that specialises in sport and popular culture memorabilia.
The one sale that really blew everybody away, however, took place with HA in Chicago in May. That month, Death Dealer 6 (pictured), by the legendary comic-book artist, Frank Frazetta, sold for a staggering $1,792,500 – almost three times the previous record paid at auction for a work of American-published comic book art. The artwork, painted in 1990, had been used for the front cover of the Death Dealer #2 comic book, published by Verotik in 1996.
Born in Brooklyn in 1928, Frazetta was drawing comic book covers early on in his career, including those for the “Famous Funnies” title, depicting Buck Rogers. Then came the fantasy depictions for which he is best known, of “strikingly fierce, hard-bodied heroes and bosomy, callipygian damsels in distress”, as The New York Times put it in his obituary (Frazetta died in 2010).
Frazetta drew the long-haired muscle-bound hero Conan and illustrated books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, such as Tarzan and the Ant Men. He also later added heavy-metal album covers and posters to his portfolio of works. As far as collectors are concerned, that makes Frazetta “something of a special case”, says Rob Salkowitz in Forbes.
Whereas most comic-book artists tended to work solely in pen and ink, Frank Frazetta also worked with oil and paints on canvas, as he did when he painted Death Dealer 6 in 1990. Oil paint is “a medium with long-standing appeal to art collectors”, says Salkowitz. And while “prices for his work have been in the high six or low seven figures for some time… this sale, while impressive… is typical of the trend in prices for this artist”.
We shouldn’t get carried away with the results from one sale. That said, the comic-book art market does appear to be rising in value. Earlier in the year, original artwork for The Amazing Spider-Man #100 (1971) exceeded its pre-auction estimate by a fifth when it sold for $478,000 with HA in February. The cover work had been created by John Romita Snr and Frank Giacoia, two celebrated artists of the comic-book genre.
It set a new auction record for Marvel comics from that era, despite being widely regarded as unexceptional in execution. But that makes it no less iconic for die-hard fans. And those same teenagers with the torches, reading under the bed sheets, are now well into their middle years. Many of them now have more than just a little pocket money to spend on their heroes.
A brief history of the superhero
American comics tend to be grouped into “ages” by collectors, beginning with the Victorian and Platinum ages. But it wasn’t until the dawn of the Golden Age, roughly 1938 to the period just after World War II, that the first American comic books were first published.
This is the era of the caped-crusader, battling evil, while real-life American soldiers trooped off to Europe to do the same. Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel (initially called Shazam), Captain America and Wonder Woman all made their debuts.
Faced with accusations that comic books were glorifying violence, publishers focused more on justice from 1956 onwards. During this Silver Age, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men made their appearance. During the Bronze Age, from the early 1970s to the mid-80s, writers began to weave in more socially serious storylines, leading to the current Modern Age, characterised by greater diversity and the rise of graphic novels, such as Watchmen (1986).
Comic collecting as a hobby arose during the 1960s. In 1970, the first edition of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide was published in America. The guide, named after its founder, Robert M Overstreet, became the go-to resource for collectors looking up prices. This month, an electronic version became available through Heritage Auctions (Comics.HA.com).
The Formula One car in which British racing champion Nigel Mansell won five Grand Prix races in 1992 is to be sold at the Goodwood Festival of Speed on 5 July. That year Mansell steered his Williams-Renault FW14B (pictured), known as “Red Five” after his race number, to championship victory. In the process, he broke Brazilian legend Ayrton Senna’s (see right) record of eight Grand Prix wins in a single season that year. The car with chassis “08” was also driven by Mansell’s teammate, Italian Riccardo Patrese, during which time it was known as “White Six”. It is reportedly expected to fetch up to £3m with Bonhams.
A yellow McLaren Rheos helmet worn by motor-racing champion Ayrton Senna in 1990 broke the record for the most expensive motorsport helmet sold at auction earlier this month, when it fetched €162,000 with RM Sotheby’s in Paris. In 1990, Senna won the drivers’ championship, but was killed four years later in an accident at the San Marino Grand Prix. Elsewhere in Paris, a racing suit worn by Senna in 1984 also went up for sale this month. The Toleman team suit sold for €97,500, five times its estimate, at the Rétromobile sale held by auction house Artcurial.