About Marvel Comics Original Artwork in the 1960s

As many people know, I was in charge of the Marvel art warehouse (actually, a moderately large locked room in an industrial building) in the mid-1970s. I did an exhaustive inventory of all Marvel Comics original art. The details of that inventory were published in The Comics Journal years ago. I no longer have any records of my inventory. I don’t recall asking anyone at Marvel such as Stan Lee or Sol Brodsky (then vice president of production) why any particular issues were missing.

Below is the text of what I recently posted on Facebook about my knowledge of Marvel Comics’ policy regarding giving original artwork to fans in the 1960s or early 1970s–back when original comic book artwork had virtually no retail value:

“As I said many years ago, Stan (or Stan through Sol Brodsky) did from time to time ask me to provide original artwork from the warehouse to give to business contacts. These did not amount to many pages, but the inference was that this was something Stan did now and then to promote business with Marvel. I also found a record of a limited number of pages that had been lent to a comic art show before I got to Marvel in 1974, and there may have been a few other such instances. But I believe most if not all of those lent pages had been returned. I never heard of any non-pro being given Marvel artwork, nor do I recall any rumors of such when I was a fan, or recall seeing any such pages back in the 1960s when we fans would share our collections of comics and related items.”

Why am I posting this? Because comics fans keep asking, and there is a lot of sub rosa gossip about people who might in fact have obtained artwork stolen from Marvel Comics. Or given to them by someone at Marvel Comics who probably did not have official authority to dispense it. But this whole line of thought is pointless, because in the 1960s, Marvel Comics did not value the original art once the comic book had been printed.

Marvel didn’t even value it for reprint use. As Marie Severin recently reminded me, Nancy Murphy, who was the entire subscription department for many years, was told repeatedly that she was wasting her time and valuable office space by archiving the film and black lines that came from the printer. Her file cabinet containing negative photostats of covers was the only cover archive in the office. The only one, and she got flack for having an archive at all. When I did my warehouse art inventory, I found only a handful of original covers and no other media with the cover art. It is totally thanks to Nancy Murphy that Marvel Comics was ever able to reprint anything from earlier than the mid-1970s, when Marvel started to pay attention to what it owned.

That’s why to me, a former Marvel Comics staffer who saw how the company basically disregarded and disrespected its history, the idea that it might also disregard and disrespect the original artwork that created its history is not news. It’s just another sad reality in the history of a wonderful art form.

Copyright © 2014 by Irene Vartanoff

 

 

 

 

 

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Published in: on April 18, 2014 at 9:45 AM  Comments (65)  

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  1. And obviously the artists themselves didn’t value it either, or else they’d have sought its return. The fact that they didn’t until after it developed an ancillary value over the years proves that, at the time, they didn’t view the non-return of art as much of an issue, it seems to me.

    • In a work-for-hire environment, the artist does not have the right of return. Depending on the era, many originals were forfeit and never seen again. Warner Brothers never saw the benefit of keeping cells. The Animation department had to wash off the old cells and reuse them. Only in the past few decades have collectors shown the market for original artwork, printers negatives or plates, cells, etc.

      • I wasn’t suggesting (in the period we’re discussing) that the artists had ‘the right of return’, only that they’d probably have sought its return if they’d wanted it and the publisher didn’t. The fact that the publishers gave it away to fans (or threw it away) and the artists apparently didn’t lose any sleep over it tends to suggest that, generally speaking (there were a few exceptions, as Dan and the WWE pointed out), nobody really wanted it. Until, that is, it developed an ancillary monetary value it once didn’t possess.

    • Return of original art was a huge issue in the comics business that coincided with the growth of fandom and comic book convention circuit. When I was in Will Eisner’s class at SVA in 1975, he was adamant about it (because Will was syndicated, he had all or almost all of his Spirit artwork – returning originals was a common practice in that part of comics) and even hosted a free dinner at a Chinese restaurant for his SVA students and others, where Neal Adams – who was one of the leading advocates for the return of original art – urged us to accept nothing less. It would not have happened if Neal Adams and other cartoonists had not pushed for it for years.

    • Mike Eldholm’s specific reply to my comment appeared to suggest that he thought I may have been unaware of how things operated under the work for hire system. I therefore took the opportunity to point out that I understood the set-up back then, and reiterate my original comment in that context.

      I was also alluding to the fact that, in a situation where neither artist or publisher appeared to value or want the original art, the non-return of it wasn’t necessarily down to the publishers trying to cheat the artist in any way. It’s just a shame that, by resorting to insults because you didn’t grasp my intent, you lower the tone of an otherwise polite discussion.

      • Kid, while I agree that Mike’s insult was gratuitous, there is a point in there. You either don’t know the history of the struggle over the return of original art, or you are ignoring it. Some publishers did not return original art because they were afraid of being cheated – that artwork they paid for might be reused to make knockoffs. More commonly, they viewed the artwork as theirs because they paid for it.

        If comics fandom had not emerged and created a lucrative market for that artwork, who knows what would have happened to the originals? We know that Gaines saved almost everything he published, and while he spilt the profits with the artists when he sold it off, many wanted to get paid with their “share” of their work, rather than money.

        I worked for business affairs at DC Comics from late ’86 to mid ’87. With offices in midtown, space was at a premium, and they were looking for ways to get rid of their library and film storage, which was used for reprints and foreign rights. They were considering putting it all on cibachrome microfiche so that the entire library would fit into a file cabinet, and that shipping of films of the line art to foreign users would be cut to a fraction. It didn’t happen, in part because the Library of Congress was not willing to commit to using cibachrome, they claimed the color stability for archival purposes had not been established to their satisfaction.

        • To augment my post above, I want to be clear, DC’s films were not stored at the editorial offices. I think it was kept at a warehouse (in Queens?) and came into DC’s offices to correct flaws before shipping. I brought all this up to make the point that the original artwork was not needed. If memory serves, DC comics agreed to return Kirby’s art when he signed on with them in late1970. But it took three more years before it started doing it for all their artists and Marvel didn’t start doing it until the 1980s. But it was a “cause” in the business for a very long time.

          • Mitchell, Marvel Comics started returning original art with 1974 titles. I was the first staff person tasked with that job.

            • I should have been more clear, Marvel did not start returning its pre-74 work until the 1980s.

        • I wasn’t implying that Mike had insulted me – his response to my first comment was perfectly polite. However, another response to my second comment, which appropriated my name and attached it to an insult, has now been deleted, which inadvertently gives the impression that I’m referring to Mike’s comment.

          And I’m well-aware of the ‘struggle’ over the return of original art. However, as I was referring to a period when, in the main, with a few exceptions, no one really wanted the art, it wasn’t really relevant. I’m also aware that some publishers regarded the art as theirs since they had paid for it, but others were a bit cavalier in giving or throwing it away at the time I’m referring to. ( I’m mainly talking about the ’50s and ’60s.)

          • The facts are, that when their artwork was offered, cartoonists generally took it. When it wasn’t offered or requests were refused, they might not have fought for it during lean times. But once their bargaining power returned, it was one of the first things they demanded. I think you’ve applied a logic that if the artists valued their work they would have fought for its return much earlier. But values are usually relative. Was fighting for the return of your artwork worth losing your job, maybe even being blackballed from the industry altogether? In the shrinking business in the early 50s to the early 60s, the answer was no. But that did not mean that comic book artists did not value their work.

            • Mitchell, my response to your last comment seems to be out of sequence (at least at my end). It’s further up the page.

            • There is one particular instance of a great Marvel artist who did receive their original artwork back. Anyone recall the early 1960s Hulk pages that reappeared a few years ago? Apparently Lee wasn’t satisfied with something in them (maybe it was those strange ‘flying Hulk’ pictures that Kirby did for a while)…so Kirby was allowed to leave their discussion with the artwork as Lee/Marvel didn’t want them.

              Did Kirby say “Well, at least I get to keep my artwork. This stuff will be worth a fortune in another ten years or so.”?

              Nope. He tore them in half and threw them in a bin before leaving the office. They were rescued for posterity by Larry Lieber.

              It was a different time and many people thought differently to now. Artwork that would be valued in years to come simply wasn’t valued then…even by some of the artists who drew them.

              • When an artist destroys his or her work, it’s not because of doubts about their commercial value. It’s often about reputation. The fact that Kirby destroyed the Hulk pages in front of Lee, was probably a demonstration about what he thought of Lee and their disagreement. Even if there was a collector’s market at the time, it’s doubtful that Kirby would have sold artwork that was deemed inferior or unpublishable. The complex reasons why he tore the pages up are lost to the ages, but monetary considerations were probably at the bottom, if they existed at all. Near the end of his life Michelangelo destroyed many of his preliminary sketches and drawings, even though he could have sold them. No one knows for certain why Michelangelo did it either, but no one would seriously argue that he didn’t value his “cartoons.”

                http://www.michelangelomodels.com/m-models/gigli-gallery/vasari_destroyed.html

                • If no one knows for certain why Michelangelo destroyed some sketches and drawings, it’s a bit dogmatic to say that it doesn’t mean he didn’t value it – it may well have been exactly that. As for Kirby not selling artwork that was inferior or unpublishable, some of his later art, whether it was for comics or commissions for fans, was markedly inferior compared to his earlier, better work (although he was old and ill, which no doubt explains it), so your assertion seems at odds with the facts.

  2. To be fair a few artists did value the art and asked for it’s return. I think that, on the whole, they were used to not getting the art back, especially the artists who worked in the Golden Age when art returns weren’t ever going to happen.

  3. True, most of the older artists didn’t request art returns but some did. Williamson and Frazetta were requesting art returns in the 1950s. At Marvel, Kirby and Steranko are among the artists that were ahead of the curve and were trying to get art returns at least, as early as 1968. Wallace Wood would have loved his art back but left Marvel early, because because of a different issue. Stan was receiving all the writing pay on stories he and other artist were co-writing under the “Marvel Method.” Wood went to Tower comics where he got paid to write and Ditko followed him soon after. Kirby finally left for similar reasons a few years later.

  4. […] here’s one-time comics letter-writing legend and later Marvel editor Irene Vartanoff on the mysterious fate of lots of original Silver Age artwork. Much like the BBC destroying old Dr. Who episodes, Marvel […]

  5. It’s nice to hear a familiar name after so many years, Irene Vartanoff, and thanks for writing this brief recap. I hadn’t heard that Marvel ever gave away art to fans, although as early as the mid-70s (and probably earlier), I heard that fans who visited the DC offices were occasionally given original art. (Given that that is now a 40-year-old memory, I’m not sure I could trace back the original to the fanzines or letters where the subject was raised.) It is bittersweet that some artists now are getting far more for selling pages of their original art than some artists in the Golden and Silver Ages received for ALL their work during their career, even adjusting for inflation. We, the fans, valued the work; why is it that Marvel did not? (And I confess, I sometimes wonder what happened to fan art that was sent to Marvel. I got some nice letters from Flo S. whenever I sent anything in, but I doubt that fan art was treated any better than the pro art that was bought and paid for.)

  6. DC was giving away art in the 1960s to fans who wrote the best letters of comment to titles such as, Mystery In Space and The Flash. Check these letter pages for evidence. The original art at DC was destroyed in many cases, so, giving it away to fans at the very least helped to preserve some of it. There is also the story of how Marv Wolfman and Len Wein were tasked with shredding art but instead cut it between the panels and salvaged a lot of it.

    Most comics publishers considered the art as theirs to dispose of after publication of the stories and they also didn’t want anyone to be able to publish, unauthorized and not licensed from the originals, reprints.

    It was only after the fan market developed that artists wanted their originals back for sale to fans and additional income. There were a few artists who wanted their originals back before there was a fan market. The most famous being Frank Frazetta. When Frazetta was doing work for EC, it was a point of contention with Bill Gaines who wanted to retain all the art for the stories he published. Frazetta stated. it was one of the reasons he didn’t do more work for EC. While work on one of the final Picto-Fiction titles for EC was in progress, Gaines decided to stop publishing and gave the artists who were working on the art a choice of either finishing the stories and turning in the art for payment [even though he wasn't going to publish them] or retaining the artwork and receiving no payment. Frazetta chose to keep the artwork and forego payment. I believe he was the only artist who chose that option.

    Neal Adams has stated that he was surprised when he did not receive his originals back on first doing work for DC, as that was the norm for advertising and comic strip professionals.

    • I think the “norm” for newspaper comic strips was a 50% return of originals in a lot of cases. Comic strips were slightly different as creators were in fact the sole creators in most cases who brought their work to the syndicate, but the syndicate retained the copyright. One benefit to relinquishing the (c) was the syndicate became responsible for protecting it, saving cartoonists all the legal hassles. Comic strips by the 50’s and 60’s were already collectible and were used by sales departments as gifts and promotions. Images were also cut out from originals for advertising and licensing, saving the syndicate from paying an artist or having to pay the creator to create specialty pieces.

  7. Golden Age artist Norman Maurer told me that his wife used art boards to line shelves, and drawers.

  8. Thanks for your post Irene. The lionshare of pre-1965 Marvel original cover art still remains missing today. Do you think these were discarded or is there a chance few/some/most still exist somewhere? If Marvel staffer Nancy Murphy became the only cover archive source by collecting the film + black lines coming back from the printer then as a rule the covers themselves must not have been kept in any systematic way. Were most even returned from the printer? Your comments are appreciated.

  9. Hi Irene,

    Fascinating article. I’m interested as to why you were asked to the inventory – I presume this was prior to the start of artwork being returned. Do you know who dealt with that?

    My reason for asking is that I’m working on a book on the history of the Marvel in Britain, a major part of which concerns the UK division itself – instigated in 1972, and sold on to Panini post 1999 in the aftermath of Marvel’s escape from Chapter 11 protection.

    When artwork from the UK books was given back, it seems it was sometimes given to the wrong artists! Because stories where often divided into several parts they required additional recap pages. These would not have credits for the artis involved with that page, but instead would include full credits for the artists etc. involved on the story being reprinted on subsequent pages. The confusion would have been understandable, except that most pages were stamped with a box that was generally filled in with the names of the artists responsible – whether for a new cover, poster or recap page – either above the artwork, or ocasionally on the reverse.

    With regards to the lack of forethought for archive – it’s been sadly endemic in the entertainment world until very recently, and from the BBC right down to Marvel’s UK division who also threw artwork and other material into the skip with every move after the mid-1980s… although a few smart folk did rescue some things before it was too late.

    There is one other avenue for Marvel archive (and DC, Charlton etc), but I fear this would have long been destroyed. Transworld Feature Syndicate Inc. – run by Albert Landau (later also Marvel President from 73-75) was responsible for sending out prints of Marvel strips to any publisher in the world that wanted to license their archive from approx. 1951-1988. They must have been receiving prints and storing them, or had film to run-off prints to order. I wonder what happened to that when the company shut up shop? Never mind their press photo library.

    • Rob,

      Regarding the Transworld Feature Syndicate holdings, Nancy Murphy emphasized to me that Marvel routinely sent the original film out worldwide for reprint, not dupes, and no one was in charge of getting it back. Sometimes it did come back, in pieces. Other times, not. Eventually, while I was working at Marvel, management was persuaded that there was a demand for the film for reprint sufficient to buy a dedicated camera and hire people to duplicate the film, and to oversee sending out the duplicates worldwide. But that did not happen before probably as late as 1978. Somewhere in the world, there might be the original film for Marvel’s iconic early titles. And then again, maybe not.

      • Irene,

        Lovely to talk you – I remember your name from Marvel mags of the time :)

        That makes the story even sadder then. I would imagine that when Transworld in New York did fold it’s archive went with it.

        And if they were as efficient as the London office – by 1971 a separate business, run as a partner to Transworld in NY, called Transworld (UK) Ltd., who also handled features and material for the national press and magazines – and I’ve no reason to believe otherwise having spoken at length to Ray Wergan who ran the London office, then everything would have been kept.

        After all, this material was not only being reprinted in the UK, but across Europe and in Australiasia too, and there were a lot of Australian and NZ comics using US material too.

        When Ray closed his UK business in 1988 all his photo archive was purchased by Scope Features who still use it and advertise where it originated from. I fear the worst the holdings of the US business whose demise, as yet, remains a mystery as to when and why they shut when they did.

        I’d like to incorporate some of this within the book, if I may, which already addresses the deficiences in the UK archive at one point.

        Even though I realise there was a different attitude towards archiving back then, it still amazes me that it took people that long to see what they had.

        Thanks for illuminating things further.

  10. I think another factor that should be taken into account is the nature of the media itself–does a comic page become a comic page until it’s reproduced? Do you see what I mean? Whilst I value my (highly amateur!) pages, in my eyes it doesn’t become a comic until it’s reproduced and maybe that’s the same for other artists, too.
    Just my tuppence’worth, there. Some great, thoughtful replies in this thread.

  11. Back in fandom’s early days there was a story circulating that is still heard from time to time, about Steve Ditko using Spider-Man original pages as a base to cut fresh paper to draw new comics.

  12. The facts? When was it ever offered in the time period I’m talking about? I repeat, with a few exceptions, most artists didn’t even think about the art once it was off their desks. It took up space, they had nowhere to store it, and as far as they knew, it was of no value to anyone other than the publishers, who often saw no value in it themselves. (Yes, there were exceptions, as I said.) A few artists might have wanted it back, a few more might have liked it back, but most knew that the deal at that time was the publishers bought and owned the art, lock, stock and barrel, copyright and all. Only when, over time, the art had developed an ancillary monetary value in its own right as collectors’ pieces, did artists in general seek and demand its return.

    • All but the most mercenary hack cares about the artwork they do. In advertising and strip work artwork was routinely returned and their were plenty of comic book artists who worked in both. From the 1930s through the early 2000s, advertising, newspaper syndicates, magazine publishing and the comic book business were concentrated in New York City. An artist looking for work had lots of venues and lots of opportunities to make connections and to learn the rules of the game of each of them.

      I think if you went down the list of the top cartoonists you’d find that at one point or another, they at least asked about the return of their art. Harvey Kurtzman told me that one more than one occasion he had to tear the artwork out of Wally Wood’s hands, with Wood begging for just a little bit more time to perfect a drawing. Other artists working at EC especially those working with Kurtzman had to have a similar professional commitment if not an out-and-out love for the medium. I doubt there’s not a one of them who wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to get their artwork back. You can probably add Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, John Severin, Joe Kubert – just to name a very few of those whose work in comics was a labor of love. They did not forget about their work as soon as it left their drawing tables. Some of them stayed in the business long enough to start getting their artwork back. As far as I know they all took advantage, and many if not most kept some of their pieces, which argues against the proposition they did not value their own work.

      • Perhaps we’re not talking about the same thing when we use the word ‘valued’. I doubt that anybody would dispute that most artists cared about producing a good job, or that they were proud of the work they did, but, as at least a couple of people have mentioned, their main concern was fulfilling their part in the process of creating a finished product – a comicbook. I’ve read interviews with quite a number of Golden Age artists over the last 30 years or so, wherein they claimed that, although they took a pride in their work, once it was off the drawing board, they were too busy working on the next job to give much thought to the last one. At that time it had no financial value beyond the wage it brought in, the artists had nowhere to store it, and – with a few exceptions – they weren’t much interested in having it. All this I’ve already said, as have others, so I apologise for repeating myself. I’m afraid, however, that there’s just too much use of the words ‘possibly’ and ‘probably’ in your comments for your conjectures to be regarded as anything more than just another interesting (but far from definitive) point of view. I don’t doubt that there were times when some artists enquired about the possibility of having the odd page returned, but it doesn’t necessarily signify that they were trying to instigate a change in policy as regards the return of original art.

        One thing’s for sure ‘though – once there was an ancillary market for it, just about everybody wanted their art returned – and many then bitched about not having it returned from the start of their careers. Money talks, my friend – and it talks loudest when someone thinks it should belong to them.

        • In the rough and tumble early days of the comic book business – let’s say from 1938 until the end of WWII, there certainly were a significant number artists who saw it only as a way to pay the rent. They didn’t even want to admit they had anything to do with it, and to a significant extent the work that was published showed it. After Superman, the comic book business took on the aspects of a gold rush, especially among the publishers, with almost everyone prospecting for the next character that would become a phenomenon.

          But amongst those opportunists elbowing their way into the infant industry, there were also many like Siegel and Shuster, young (mostly) men who grew up on the glorious American newspaper comics of the 1930s. Most of us here have probably had the experience of seeing full-page, “Sundays” of “Flash Gordon,” “Prince Valiant,” “Terry and the Pirates,” “Gasoline Alley,” “Alley Oop” or “Krazy Kat,” and dozens of other great, entertaining, beautifully drawn and colored comics from that era. As Siegel and Shuster learned as they tried to peddle Superman as a comic strip, newspaper comic syndication was a tough nut to crack, while the new outlet comic books was wide open.

          In the publication game, of the 1930s the return of original artwork was the rule not the exception in advertising, illustration (especially covers) and for newspaper syndicated comics. So why were comic books different? You argue that while there were some exceptions, few artists were even interested in having there work returned. But that doesn’t explain why it became an industry-wide practice. And you also argue that cartoonists didn’t have the space to store the art, how much more true would that be for publishers who would have required significantly more space to store the artwork for an entire line of comics. But, we know that many publishers didn’t solve the storage problem by destroying the artwork, even though it cost money, they kept it.

          Maybe it was because comic books began as reprint medium and they saw value in holding on to the originals. But I think the answer can be found in New York’s dominant industry at the time – clothing design and manufacture. “By 1931, the Garment District [in NYC] had the largest concentration of clothing manufacturers in the world.” http://www.gothamcenter.org/garment/ Stealing designs was a common practice in the business. A look at early golden age comics makes it clear that publishers were making Superman knock-offs as fast as the artists could draw them. In the days before copying machines, keeping original artwork made it harder for competitors to steal from each other by getting peaks from artists toting around their originals. Admittedly it’s just a theory, but you had to be in the NYC area to know just how strongly the “Rag Trade” pervaded the local culture and its business practices throughout most of the 20th century.

          While just a theory, I think it better explains why only a handful of comic book artists in the golden age got their originals returned. Even if an artist didn’t think much of most of their comic book work there were other practical reasons why they would have real need of at least some originals – for their portfolios (remember, in those days most of the work ran uncredited or was under “house” names) and if nothing else, for their swipe/reference files (it bears repeating there was no cheap way to make copies back then). But for those artists who did value their work, there was an industry-wide practice of publishers keeping the original art. And I guess that’s why I have a problem with your conjecture. You seem to put the failure to get their originals back all on the artists – they didn’t think much of their work, or wouldn’t rent a few extra square feet to store it – without saying anything about why the publishers – as a group – kept it, in some cases destroyed it, or gave it away to others rather than return it to the artists. I think it is incumbent upon you to come up with an explanation as to why they did so, that goes beyond lack of artist interest. There was something more at work.

          • “But that doesn’t explain why it became an industry-wide practice.” Indeed it does. The clue is in the word “became”. Forgetting what may have been the practice in the world of advertising or syndicated strips for the moment, the fact is, it wasn’t in the comicbook business (with exceptions, remember) – for all sorts of various reasons that I’ve already explained.It doesn’t really matter WHY – the fact is, it simply WAS. That is, until it took on an ancillary (there’s that word again) value in the collectors’ market. That’s the genesis of why and when it (eventually),became an industry-wide practice – when artists realized the work could supply an extra source of income beyond its original page rate and started asking, then demanding, its return. That’s how it happened, and no amount of conjecture, speculation or theorizing is going to change history, so there’s no reason for going around in circles on this.

            As for return of artwork being standard practice in advertising and newspaper strips, I’ll have to take your word on that, although even there, there appears to have been exceptions. I recently read (I forget where) of a well-known newspaper strip cartoonist (forget who) who sometimes responded to requests from readers for the original art for one of his strips (forget which) because they’d liked it so much. (A lot of ‘forgets’ there, but someone’s bound to know to whom I refer and remind me. It may have been on Daniel Best’s excellent blog.) He would then request that his editor forward the particular strip directly to the reader, if I remember correctly. On one occasion, the editor couldn’t comply as some strips had been disposed of in order to clear space. This meant that when the missing strips were later reprinted in a collected edition, the artist had to redraw them. I think it was only from that point on that the artist requested either the return of his art, or that it be regarded as being worth storing in a more secure and permanent way.

            As for it being incumbent on me to come up with an explanation to your last point – I already have, several times in fact. The simple truth is that, as you concede, there was an industry-wide practice in the comicbook business of the publishers keeping the original art. They did so because they were of the view that they had bought and paid for it and could dispose of it any way they wished, whether by giving it away to readers, destroying it, or using it to soak up spills in the warehouse. They no doubt even occasionally returned the odd page to an artist on request. The fact remains, however (despite your problems with it), that most comicbook artists didn’t seek the return of their original art – for a variety of reasons, as I believe was implicit in my earlier responses. It wasn’t perceived at the time as having any monetary value beyond its page rate, they had nowhere to store it, they knew the publishers regarded it as their property and would be unwilling to return it, they simply weren’t interested in having it (with a few exceptions, remember), or they quite simply never even considered the matter. It could have been any one of those reasons, or a combination of them. It seems to me an undeniable fact ‘though, that artists as a group, with one aim in mind, regardless of their earlier views on the matter, didn’t seek an industry-wide change in publishers retaining original art until it had acquired a potentially lucrative secondary market amongst collectors. Fact, not theory.

            As for portfolios, artists, I’m sure, would have had ‘stock’ samples of their art at its best for showing to potential new employers, or even published issues of comicbooks for that purpose. I doubt that Jack Kirby, once he was established in the business, would have had need of a portfolio as his reputation would surely have preceded him. “I’m the artist on Captain America!” is all he’s have had to say to get more work than he could handle.

            • Oops – “he’d have had to say”, not “he’s”.

            • Kid, I guess we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. You see the return of original art as a predominantly monetary issue. And I will concede that for some it was the primary if not the sole motivating factor. As comics developed the ratio of hacks to artists veered towards the artists. Once you accept that even in the early days there were artists working in the field, mere desire for money doesn’t explain why an artists wants his or her originals back. That desire was frustrated by the early comics publishers, and I humbly submit that my theory about why garment industry practices were adopted in the comics business, because it best explains why publishers kept the artwork.

              Comics were different from other illustrative arts. Norman Rockwell and other “cover artists” couldn’t take their works to other publishers for obvious reasons. Neither could advertising or magazine illustrators because their works were so closely identified with their products or publishers. Comic strip artists clearly had no other market either. But in the world of comic books, where the artists were largely anonymous, it was different. As entrants into an industry where theft was the rule, comics publishers did what they could to prevent being stolen from. Holding on to the originals was the frontline of that defense.

              Admittedly, much of this comes from my own experience with cartoonists over the last 35+ years. Will Eisner kept virtually every Spirit page he ever drew, others like Tom Gill (who cut his teeth in the golden age) one of the founders of the School of Visual Arts (then the Cartoonists and Illustrators School) took what originals he could get and proudly showed them to me decades later. I was with Robert Crumb when he was trying to get one of his “Mr. Natural” originals back from the Village Voice. It was “lost” or “in the mail” until he threatened to stop doing the strip, after which, it soon appeared. I simply have never known a comics artist who did not prize their originals, or regret their loss, even when they were sold for a good price. Maybe I have just encountered nothing but the exceptions?

              (In answer to your concerns about the return of original art used in newspaper syndication, I know collectors of comic strip art who bought originals directly from the artists or their families making purchases as far back as the 1950s.)

              The alternative, to accept that “It doesn’t really matter WHY – the fact is, it simply WAS.” is anti-historical. Why is this so important? If the return of art had been the rule, rather than the exception, much more of it would have survived. Who knows what we could learn about this medium, that we all love so well, if we had those originals to examine. And if we knew why it was done, maybe that would help explain why publishers continued to keep originals long after it stopped making sense. And at a time when comics were being recognized as a legitimate art form. I peg that date as being no later than the publication of Jules Feiffer’s “The Great Comic Book Heroes” in 1965, while many would go further back to the early fanzines.

              • I think the fairest conclusion we can come to, Mitchell, is that both viewpoints are true – the question is on what side of the scales does the balance tip. We’re both basing our viewpoints on our own individual experiences (whether first or second-hand) and, in my case, over the last 40-odd years or more, whenever I’ve read various artists’ accounts of their early careers, the return of artwork didn’t appear to be a big issue for them (or any kind of issue at all, in fact).

                it seems, certainly in the case of some artists, that it wasn’t until they’d acquired a degree of ‘celebrity’ status amongst the fans that they became interested in the return of their art, and it’s unlikely to be entirely unconnected to the corresponding demand from fans who were willing to page for a page of their idol’s art. In Jack Kirby’s case, it wasn’t until Marvel adopted a return policy (long after he’d left their ranks) that he made any kind of a noise about it – and then only because he apparently thought he was being asked to sign different agreement to what other artists had to sign.

                When I freelanced for IPC 30 years ago, they were in the process of transferring what they considered the best art in their vaults onto microfiche and dumping the originals. Presumably they wouldn’t have been averse to returning it to surviving artists, but there just didn’t seem to be any interest from artists with a view to reclaiming it. One artist I spoke to a few years later (a well-respected one in the field of British cartooning), said that it was just a job and that he’d never been interested in reprint fees or the return of his pages. Once he’s finished one job, it was onto the next without a backward glance. In contrast, one of his contemporaries held the opposite view – but he appears to have been an exception (at that time anyway).

                So, there seems to be evidence to support both viewpoints, but from what I’ve read or experienced over the years, I feel the odds are in my favour. You, of course, will think the opposite and that’s no crime. So, as you suggest, we’ll agree to disagree. with no hard feelings on either side.

                Incidentally, when I said that it didn’t really matter why comic publishers once didn’t return art, I merely meant that the reason made no difference to the result from the artists’ point of view. That’s to say, whatever the reason – good, bad or indifferent – the artists didn’t get their work back. In effect, saying that we must look at the matter in the contect of its time, not saying that it doesn’t matter now as far as understanding why things once operated as they did all those years ago.

                • Oops, apologies again – ‘context’, not ‘contect’.

  13. In my opinion, in the 40s and 50s, comic books were considered a ghetto by those working in the medium. The objective was to get a syndicted strip and get out or move on to advertising where an artist could make decent money.

    As to artists wanting their art back during this period, I don’t think many expressed this opinion to their employers. I don’t think it was because they were afraid of losing their employment or they felt they had no claim to it. It was more possible they felt there was no value to a job completed and to which they had received payment. Most of them had no room to store the art if it had been returned to them and no reason to save it. More important was a clip file for reference in doing the next art job to come their way.
    I have heard that Mac Raboy made stats of poses of Captain Marvel Jr. and cut & pasted them onto new pages to speed up his output. If that is true, then it proves two things. He had access to his completed pages from Fawcett and the only value he attached to them was as a shortcut for production of new pages.

    How many artists, when companies started returning artwork, held on to it? I would think that the majority of them sold most of the artwork that was returned to them to collectors. In their point of view, it was like being paid twice for the same job. I don’t begrudge them for this. Most were paid so little for their contributions to the industry that anything extra they could glean from selling the pages to collectors, they were entitled to.

    • The fact that Mac Raboy might have used stats of his art does not in any way lead to a conclusion that he didn’t value his art (except for it’s use as stats).

      • I’m not saying Raboy and other artists didn’t take satisfaction in a job well done, just that the ultimate objective was the finished product, the actual printed comic, selling well on the stands. The artwork they produced was a part of the process and its value was as a part of the whole. The artists knew that without sales there would be no jobs and to that end an entertaining story was just as or possibly more important than the artwork. I don’t think that they attached any more value to the art than its value as a means to telling a story.

  14. If no one knows for certain why Michelangelo destroyed some sketches and drawings, it’s a bit dogmatic to say that it doesn’t mean he didn’t value it – it may well have been exactly that. As for Kirby not selling artwork that was inferior or unpublishable, some of his later art, whether it was for comics or commissions for fans, was markedly inferior compared to his earlier, better work (although he was old and ill, which no doubt explains it), so your assertion seems at odds with the facts.

    • I included a link to an article about a nearly completed sculpture that Michelangelo did intentionally destroy. It was not an isolated incident. As for the sketches and drawings Michelangelo destroyed as he neared death, many were works he kept for years, if not decades. He showed that he valued them by keeping them, (maybe his version of a swipe file?) and when I said no one knows for certain why he destroyed his work, that’s because there are two competing schools of thought. Some claim that he did not want to make it easy for others to copy him, while others argue that he did not want people to see how hard he worked in his sketches to get his works to a satisfactory level. In any event, with some exceptions, his reputation rests on his finished work.

      As for Jack Kirby’s later work? Age may have dimmed its vitality, quality and cohesiveness, but what is an artists to do, stop creating altogether? That’s a tough standard to impose, and one that few if any of us could live up to. I cut him a break on that. I don’t think he ever gave less than he was capable. He was, sadly, capable of less.

  15. Irene (if I may be so familiar), the replies I’m leaving in response to specific comments don’t seem to be appearing in sequence, even ‘though I’m pressing the ‘reply’ option directly below the particular comment. What’s the best way of having a reply appear under the comment I’m responding to? I must be doing something wrong.

    • Kid, I have no idea why the comments are appearing out of sequence. They appear in chronological order on my dashboard and include the time posted, but not here. I have the opportunity to take a short online course in WordPress next month. Maybe a good idea.

  16. It’s always good to hear from someone who was actually at Marvel at the time, and who can offer a first-hand account, than it is to read speculation based on fourth-hand accounts. Thanks for taking the time to share your memories of your time working at Marvel.

    Obviously if anyone had even the slightest clue that all of these now-contentious issues (Who created what? Who drew what? Who really had legal ownership? Where did the original art go? etc etc) would be asked fifty years on, and involve tremendous amounts of money, both Marvel and the creators working for the company would have kept much better, detailed records. But who could have guessed?

    • That’s so true Ben, and while I’ve been researching the history of Marvel in the UK its made me realise that – in whatever field – its vital that we seek out and interview those people who were involved in those events at the time to supplement how much, or little contemporary reporting is out there tucked away in aging and assorted publications. Sometimes I feel that I should be wearing a deerstalker, too :)

      • Just a brief historical observation. I was at DC when Shooter was fired. There were so many Marvel exiles at DC by then that a spontaneous celebration broke out.

  17. 1.) Many companies kept originals to prevent other publishers from printing from them.
    2.) There was also an aspect of the publisher/client having paid for the job. They didn’t want a doctored version being used by their competitor (White out those “S’s” put in “P’s” and Superman becomes Powerman)
    3.) In comic strips many artists negotiated return of originals only after they had the fame and power to do so. Many negotiated a 50% return, and many artists who didn’t “own” the strip received no originals as they were doing actual work for hire.
    4.) Copyrights were owned by the syndicates in most cases and it was their legal hassle and expense to deal with copyright infringement. Keeping the copyright protected was another reason used (in strips) to retain originals. This helps explain why companies kept the art they didn’t value as art. They valued it as protection of their ongoing income.

    5.) I think it’s bad thinking to claim artists didn’t keep their originals because they didn’t value them, then claim it doesn’t matter why it was industry wide practice to keep the originals. Artists had to be very good and also be willing to walk away from a job (and possibly be blacklisted), to have the power to demand originals be returned. Working anonymously prevented artists from gaining that power…until they became celebrities similar to the cartoon strip artists of earlier years. That celebrity is one benefit Stan Lee’s method. And also Mad, which also highlighted the artists as unique creators.

    • Jerry D, please tells us more about #2, the fear that the art would be reused by competing companies. Do you know of actual instances in which doctored originals that had already been published were republished by a competitor? And was the initial perpetrator an artist or a publisher? I’m sure it was a rough-and-tumble business back then, but I’ve never heard of this.

      • Irene, I believe that was certainly in the minds of UK publishers at least until the the end of the 1970s – they would rather destroy the artwork than let it out of their sight. A lot of material did get skipped – although a few hardy souls did rescue a few pieces thankfully. It doesn’t make sense, and can’t have been thought through, because a lot of artwork – say Thunderbirds – wouldn’t easily lend itself to being doctored anyway.

      • For whatever it’s worth Will Eisner talked about this when I took his class at SVA in the early 70s. He was there at the beginning, so I figure he knew.

        • Although not an instance where the original art was used to publish unauthorized or unlicensed comics, Israel Waldman set up a company in the late 50s that lasted into the 60s. He called his company IW also known as Super Comics. He obtained printing plates that had been used to print comics of many different companies and used them to print his unauthorized reprints sometimes mixing different publishers in one comic. The list of titles he published can be found on the GCD at:

          http://www.comics.org/publisher/278/

          These comics were not generally available on news stands or through the regular distributors but were packaged in groups of three and were on sale in clearance stores.

          • How did those plates survive metal reclamation/rationing during WWII?

            • I don’t know how the plates survived, but the story is that he found the plates in the trash.

      • Hi Irene- The example of Superman to Powerman was entirely made up to illustrate, simply, how the situation could arise.
        And I wasn’t referring to a publisher being devious, but rather the creator being “lazy,” and reusing art with “corrections” and offering it to a second publisher. I learned the reality of this through conversations with art directors in advertising, and with Jack Howard & Sid Goldberg for comics. The conversations covered things happening in 1940’s – 1960’s. They were prompted by my discovering art, that was obviously redone, hidden in company files.
        But my point was it was a fear of the publishers, even when it wasn’t a reality.

    • I’m bound to say, Jerry D, that, considering the amount of reasoned thought that went into forming my opinion (based on artists’ accounts and my own experience in the industry), there was no ‘bad thinking’ involved – only hard historical fact. Facts, of course, are open to interpretation, but that’s another discussion.

      • my apologies kid. i misspoke and meant to say ‘limited thinking’ not ‘bad thinking.’
        you obviously put a lot of thought into that.

        • No bother. However, while I certainly wouldn’t claim ‘UNlimited’ thinking, every comment on the page would fall under the description of ‘limited’, I’d say. Simply because nobody knows everything.

  18. There was considerable demand for original art even in the ’60s. The prices were low by today’s standards, but in some cases the original art was worth as much or more than the page rate the artists were paid for producing it.
    Kirby was keeping certain pages in the ’60s because his wife Roz convinced him they had more value as art than the page rate Kirby would be paid for them.
    The value of original art in the ’60s is also evidenced by the fact Don Wallace of Marvelmania was paying his employees in original art.

    • Patrick, I believe the situation changed very rapidly in the 1960s. At the very first comic book convention I attended, Dave Kaler’s con in July 1966 at the Sheraton City Squire, Jack Kirby was a speaker and he very obviously was humbly surprised by our admiration for his work. Or maybe he was used to insolent teenagers and was shocked to meet reverent ones.

      The first couple of cons had happened prior to that event, and I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what was for sale or at what prices. By July 1966 there was artwork for sale in the dealer’s room for a few dollars a page if by an unpopular artist and for more if by a popular one. (I think that’s when I first heard about the astronomical prices Carl Barks commanded.) How much more and what was available I don’t remember, because $5 a page for an obscure artist was a lot to me.

      Marvelmania was a later phenomenon, after the cons had grown exponentially from fewer than 50 people attending to 1,000 or more under Phil Seuling. Only a few years made a huge difference in the prices of everything, and no doubt in the attitudes of some artists.

      Yet DC Comics continued its weekly tours, and continued its practice of handing out souvenir pieces of original art–pages chopped in thirds–after those first early cons. I could not tell you when DC stopped, but in the move to 909 Third Avenue, DC’s official position, as everybody knows, was that the artwork was trash–and that’s where it all went. One of the great tragedies of comic book original art history.

      • I met Kirby in 1975 at his home. He told me. “I’ll bet you’re disappointed. You were probably expecting a big guy like the Hulk”
        So I told him, “You are big. It’s the comics which got small.”
        As you say. Five bucks a page in 1966 was no small thing. If pages by Kirby and other popular creators were bringing ten or fifteen that would have not been a whole lot less than the freelance page rate. We know John Romita says he was told $24 a page for pencils and inks was Marvel’s top rate in 1964.

    • I suspect that Don Wallace paying employees in original art proves more just how much he wanted to hold on to his cash than it does the value of original art.

  19. My father was avid about getting and owning his art and his rights. Stan was pushing the comics code and my father Vaughn was trying to break it down so artists could do what ever they wanted and not get censored. Jim Warren had a BULLSHIT stamp he would stamp on original art he didn’t approve of i think Wrightson and others witnessed this horror. My father would show his work to Warren from across the desk and never let him touch the originals. Times have changed.

  20. I was a major comic collector and routinely wrote to syndicated cartoonists prior to 1973 and often received original art in response (one piece being a Prince Val Sunday from Hal Foster from the 50s). Then, it became a collectors marketplace, albeit still minimal returns by today’s standards ($25 for this strip, maybe $50 for a comic page…somehow the price of originals hovered around what artists were actually paid for their work). Syndicates did return a percentage of work to their cartoonists. The main reason many comic book companies didn’t return the art was probably that they didn’t want to ship it back. It would go into storage or whatever. If an artist visited the publisher and wanted art, they probably could get it. Then later it went offsite, or was thrown out in any of the many moves.

    Another story is that when we discovered Golden Age artist Chet Kozlak living in Minnesota, he dragged out some 75 pages of golden age comic book art. Nothing at all by him, but pages of the different characters he worked on by the respective artists which were given to him to use as illustration guides when he drew Green Lantern, Hawkman, Flash, All-Star etc.

    I also member seeing the dumpsters when Brown & Bigelow closed in St. Paul, full of art boards in a news story. Some pin-up enthusiasts managed to beat a few garbage haulers to these future treasures.

    Same was said for the animation industry.

    Once something was published, was there a need for the original? Was there a need for the publisher to keep it? Was there a need for the artist to have it back? Or was the published version all that was truly necessary for one’s file and to move forth in the industry.

    Even when I was working for The Minneapolis Star/Tribune in the early 80s and the papers combined, the amount of illustrative work that was laying around was just trashed, full page section covers, illustrations for assorted articles, even Guindon panels. Somehow political cartoonists managed to keep their originals.

    Pre-1970, there wasn’t a lot of worth, and even the thought of reprinting this stuff, comic books for sure, was next to nill. And stats or negatives would be much easier to keep in files. Considering that in most all cases, syndicated and comic books, the originals never really left the offices, they became a storage problem, which can also be the case with an artist. As an artist, you have a work space, but your biggest hassles are often finding a place to stash the work that you have done as well as the supplies you need to create new stuff (when you can buy 100 canvases at a discount, fine, but they take up a lot of space).
    Part of the need to find out what originals were around was inventoring what Marvel had in the way of reproducable images, which quickly became moot when Theakstoninzing became the norm. Consider that ALL comic book companies except DC were hard-pressed, it seemed, to even have published versions of their historic comic books available intact in a library of sorts.. And at one point DC was even searching out missing items.

    And, yes, DC gave our art to letter writers in the early sixties (often chapters from books), and a visit to the DC offices often resulted in a page that was laying about. I wrote DC comic artists and often got a letter with an original from the DC offices, basically “so-and-so asked that we send you a page from Aquaman” or “Star-Spangled War Stories.”

    One more story. Minnesota was where the Catholetic Guild published Treasure Chest comics. Remember going over to the warehouse when that was purchased by a publisher because they had unearthed envelopes of complete issues of the comics (art, puzzles, text). We looked thru mounds of this stuff. Then they said we have another pallet, only to discover that they didn’t. It got trashed, somehow, in the cleansing of the space. Amazing how stuff materializes when you least expect it.

    But the old days was probably a simple issue of economics…paying to return art vs, paying to store it. Comic books, especially, was the lowliest form of publication and no one ever thought they would be treasured or reprinted. That as much survived is a miracle!

  21. […] Irene Vartanoff writes about Marvel Comics original artwork in the 1960s. And she would know. […]


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