Comics market still healthy after a year of Covid

The market for original comic book art continues to attract interest from fans, collectors and speculators despite the nearly year-long mess of conventions, gallery exhibits and in-person auctions. Last month, ‘The Blue Lotus’, an original painting by Belgian artist Hergé of his beloved detective character Tintin, sold at auction for almost $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 art agent Sal Abbinanti, who represents two of the industry’s top talents, Alex Ross and Bill Sienkiewicz. Both straddle the line between 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 world with the fully painted series. wonders in the early 1990s. Sienkiewicz is the avant-garde expressionist of comics. His energetic work on mixed media 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 comic books, which were generally considered disposable production art in the process of creating comics in print, began to reach a wider audience. “Europeans had a much better appreciation for original art than we did,” he explained, “so once they got access to American pieces through eBay and online auctions, prices started to go up. increase.”

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

“At conventions, art dealers would sell pages of Tupperware containers, on card tables, with prices written on the back in pencil,” Abbinanti recalls. To send a different message, he designed sleek branding for Ross’ work, including a custom logo, a towering white-carpeted booth designed to simulate a gallery environment on the floor of comic book conventions, and staff dressed in sharp suits, unlike the usual convention attire of t-shirts and cargo shorts.

The booth maximized Ross’s exposure to both the mainstream fan market and the deep-pocketed collector, including Hollywood celebrities who roam the San Diego Comic-Con show floor and respond to the allure and appeal. upscale atmosphere. Noting the strong sales of high-end lithograph reproductions at collectibles outlets such as WB and Disney stores, Abbinanti encouraged Ross to branch out in terms of subject matter, applying his commercial style to icons of the pop culture of the world of cinema and music. besides superheroes.

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

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

As key comic and pop culture works by artists like Hergé, Robert Crumb and Frank Frazetta began to achieve seven figures at auction, other categories of buyers began to pay attention to the land and more money poured in, driving prices up. “There are different types of buyers,” says Abbinanti. “Some buy to invest. They take the coin and put it in a safe, because it’s a safer bet than the stock market. [Blue chip comic art pieces] are like Basquiats or Picassos now. They do not lose value.

Other types of buyers love the characters and are at a time in their lives where they have disposable income. Some love the look of the job and buy on the spot.

Abbinanti says the absence of conventions and gallery exhibitions over the past year due to the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced these impulse purchases that take place face-to-face, but is offset by savings in cost and hassle. Even though Abbinanti was more selective about the conventions where he exhibited with his artists, he generally had several major exhibitions in Europe, compounding customs and regulatory issues with travel and exhibition costs.

“We did well,” he said. “We haven’t earned as much, but we haven’t spent as much, and we have good connections, which is 99% of that business.”

The forced time off the road has given Abbinanti, who is an artist himself, a chance to realize a personal project that has taken more than ten years to come to fruition. 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 faced by 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.

Relying on its own network of professionals and collectors, Abbinanti is self-publishing the work via a Kickstarter campaign which has already funded more than 150% with several weeks to go. He says this channel is better for non-traditional work that comic book stores might be hesitant to put on the shelves.

As for the outlook for the future, Abbinanti sees no letting up in rising prices, with more money coming in from around the world. “Frankly, a lot of people who have a lot of money sometimes have to invest it in private investments like art, which hold their value but don’t go overdrawn,” he says. “This past year we have missed some of our European and Asian buyers, but they will come back.”

And their money too.

Daniel K. Denny