Comic strip market still healthy after one year of Covid

The original comic book market continues to garner interest from fans, collectors and speculators despite the nearly year-long plan of conventions, gallery shows and in-person auctions. Last month, “The Blue Lotus”, an original painting by Belgian artist Hergé depicting his beloved detective character, Tintin, was auctioned off for nearly $ 4 million, and leading artists in Europe and North America are experiencing high demand for their work.

To get a current read on the market, I spoke to Chicago-based arts agent Sal Abbinanti, who represents two of the top talent in the industry, Alex Ross and Bill Sienkiewicz. Both straddle fine art and pop culture illustration. Ross is best known for his brilliant photorealistic paintings of iconic DC and Marvel heroes, and has recently branched out into other licensed images like David Bowie and The Beatles. He’s been a big name in comics ever since he rocked the comic book world with the fully painted series. wonders in the early 1990s. Sienkiewicz is the avant-garde expressionist of comics. His energetic mixed media work changed the look of comics in the 1980s with New mutants and Elektra: Assassin. Both remain extremely popular with fans and collectors.

Abbinanti says that today’s comic book art market took shape in the early days of the internet, when the niche hobby of collecting the original hand-drawn pages of comics, which were generally considered a disposable production art in the process of creating printed comics, which began to reach a wider audience. “Europeans valued original art a lot more than we did,” he explained, “so once they got access to American pieces through eBay and online auctions, the prices started to rise. “

Ross and Abbinanti saw an opportunity to improve the prestige and perception of comics, making it more acceptable to mainstream art collectors and non-comic book enthusiasts by reducing barriers to entry, including by haggling with disinterested island merchants.

“At conventions, art dealers sold pages in Tupperware containers, on card tables, with prices written on the back in pencil,” Abbinanti recalls. To send a different message, he designed an elegant branding for Ross’s work, including a custom logo, a towering booth with a white carpet designed to simulate a gallery environment on the floor of comedic conventions, and staff dressed in pointy suits, unlike the usual convention outfit of t-shirts and cargo shorts.

The booth maximized Ross’s exposure to both the mainstream fan market and the collector with deep pockets, including Hollywood celebrities who roam the San Diego Comic-Con show and respond to the allure and vibe. top of the line. Noting the strong sales of high-end lithograph reproductions at collectibles stores like WB and Disney stores, Abbinanti encouraged Ross to branch out in terms of subject matter, applying his business style to pop culture icons of the worlds of cinema and music in addition to superheroes.

When Sienkiewicz became a client, his work required a different approach and a stand designed separately to fit his own brand and aesthetic. “Alex is like Elvis [a superstar with broad mainstream appeal], explains Abbinanti. “Bill is like Bob Dylan [an idiosyncratic talent with devoted fans and elite prestige]. You don’t want to lump them together for all kinds of reasons.

Artist Bill Sienkiewicz discusses his work and career during a panel at the San Diego Comic Fest, March 2020, in conversation with Rob Salkowitz.

As key comic book and pop culture works by artists like Hergé, Robert Crumb, and Frank Frazetta started to achieve seven figures at auction, other categories of buyers began to pay attention to the pitch and more. money poured in, driving up prices. “There are different types of buyers,” Abbinanti explains. “Some people buy to invest. They take the coin and put it in a safe, because it is a safer bet than the purse. [Blue chip comic art pieces] are like Basquiat or Picassos now. They don’t lose value.

Other types of buyers love characters and are at a point in their life when they have disposable income. Some love the look of the work and buy locally.

Abbinanti says the lack of conventions and galleries over the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced impulse shopping that takes place face-to-face, but is offset by cost savings and hassle. Even though Abbinanti has been more selective about the conventions where he exhibits with his artists, he has generally done several large exhibitions in Europe, compounding the problems of customs and regulatory costs with travel and exhibition costs.

“We did well,” he says. “We didn’t earn that much, but we didn’t spend that much and we have a good relationship, which is 99% of this business. “

The forced leave gave Abbinanti, who is an artist himself, a chance to complete a personal project that has lasted for over ten years. His original graphic novel Hostage is based on his experiences traveling to Brazil in his early twenties, where he witnessed the intense and violent conditions facing street children in the favellas of Rio de Jenario. Abbinanti’s artistic style is dense and elaborate, reminiscent of the multimedia expressionism of his client Sienkiewicz.

Drawing on his own network of professionals and collectors, Abbinanti himself publishes the work via a Kickstarter campaign which has already funded more than 150% with several weeks to go. He says this chain is better for non-traditional work that comic book stores might be reluctant to put on the shelves.

As for the outlook for the future, Abbinanti sees no slowdown in the price hike, with more money coming in from around the world. “Frankly, a lot of people who have a lot of money sometimes have to invest in private investments like art, which retain their value but are not disclosed,” he says. “Last year we missed some of our European and Asian buyers, but they will be back. ”

And their money too.

Daniel K. Denny