Sunday, July 22, 2007

More Original Art Stories: Detective Comics #627

This one wasn't from the on-line pen of the Former DC Staffer, rather it's a little mystery that I uncovered all on my own.

The painting you're looking at is the original painting, painted by Norm Breyfogle, that ended up as the cover for the landmark issue of Detective Comics #627. It was a landmark in that it celebrated the 600th appearance of Batman in that title. The idea at the time, as hatched by editor Denny O'Neil, was to update both the cover and the first ever Batman story. This idea wasn't a new one as Julius Schwartz had already done just that in 1969 when the 30th Anniversary of Batman had come round. The first story was written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane (or at least that's what we're led to believe, although the consensus is that Kane probably did indeed draw this one on his own). In 1969 Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown and Joe Giella took a pass at it, and for this issue the then creative teams of Batman's Marv Wolfman, Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo and Detective Comics Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle and Steve Mitchell both interpreted the story in their own styles. It's an interesting artifact, if only to see how four different creative teams saw the one story. But that's not our mystery.

Recently I interviewed inker Steve Mitchell for a project that I'm working on and we got to talking about Batman and his run on Detective over Norm Breyfogle's pencils. We'd almost finished the conversation when Steve suddenly said that he had one more interesting story about that particular run, if I wanted to hear it. I replied, "Of course," and Steve said, "I inked that entire issue on vellum over Xeroxes. Somewhere along the line those pencils got stolen. And it was my worst nightmare because I said I never wanted to ink an entire issue on vellum, and here it is, probably the most significant Detective issue that I'd ink and I had to ink it on vellum. All I know is that I begged Pat Bastienne to look, look and look for those pencils. I was not looking forward to the idea of inking those pages on vellum because it’s a different surface, also vellum has the tendency sometimes to buckle. But they never found those pencils. I sometimes wonder if Norm eventually got them back because as far as I know they have never surfaced, not in all the years that I’ve been in comics. I have a couple of friends who are art dealers, so you would think that that stuff would surface at one time or another.

"DC has moved since that job was done, but if anybody took them they haven’t seen the light of day since they were taken. They may have gotten lost during one of the moves and somebody brought them home. Of all the Batman jobs that I inked, that was the one that got lost, and frankly from a dollars and cents standpoint, that hurt me because part of the job and part of what the way I made my living was by resale and that was a pretty significant job with a lot of really good pages in it. It’s still a mystery all these years later. My recollection is that I still did a pretty good job." I went back and had a read of the issue in question and Steve is right, he did do a pretty good job. You'd never have known that he inked the entire issue over photocopies.

The next thing I did was contact Norm Breyfogle to see what he remembered. He replied almost immediately, "Steve had to ink all those pencils on overlays over photocopies. DC paid me for the loss of the original pencils, and they were never recovered. Which means that my un-inked pencils on that landmark anniversary issue probably exist somewhere, because I assume they were stolen. Those are the only un-inked, published Norm Breyfogle Batman pencils in existence (assuming they do indeed exist). " I thought that was a strong statement to make, so I asked for clarification, did Norm believe the pencils were lost or stolen? "Probably stolen," replied Norm, "after all, I'm not absolutely certain. Hard to believe otherwise. The only two other logical alternatives is that someone destroyed them (whether by accident or on purpose) or someone lost them and doesn't want to take responsibility." Could there be another explanation? "Not really," replied Norm, "I mean, unless we're to invoke far-out theories of miniature black holes or whatnot, or blame it on ravenous termites with a taste for ink. 'The Ink-seeking Wormhole Termites vs. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!'"

So where does that leave us? Somewhere, out there, there may exist twenty pages of original Breyfogle Batman pencils, the only ones in Norm's own opinion, that are stolen. Norm would like them back. If I see any pages from that issue while I'm in America then I won't be buying them - I'll be taking them from the dealer and handing them right back to Norm. The dealer can call the cops as far as I'm concerned. And just to clarify, it's the original penciled interior pages that went missing, not the cover painting (Norm sold that himself a few years back) or Steve's inked pages. I doubt that Norm will ever see those pages though as the general thought on such events is that comic art is rarely stolen, it's 'liberated' from companies and ends up in the hands of dealers, who then either store the stuff until an artist is dead, or no longer able to care, or they sell it and be damned about the artist. Art is only considered to be stolen when it's taken from the dealers themselves. I've always said that people should approach dealers and 'liberate' some select pieces of art from them and then hand them back to the artists, or their families. That doesn't go down too well. However if I do see those pages for sale anywhere then I'll be asking for them back, and I suggest that everyone else does the same. Personally I think it's past time that some thieves in the art community are exposed and made to be accountable for their actions.

I know this isn't by Norm, or Steve for that matter, but hey, I like throwing the odd piece of Hembeck art out there for people to see.

I remember seeing an email from a comic book professional who is held in high regard by all and sundry, who is considered to be one of the few true comic book legends for all his work in the industry, who recounted a story about a well known high profile art dealer. According to the professional the dealer has yet to pay for original art he took on consignment over twenty years ago and the art has long since been sold. The dealer had a business that he ran with a partner and when he was asked as to where the art had gone, or, more importantly, where was the money, the reply was that the dealer had split with his partner and that his partner had taken all of the art and said dealer was unable, or didn't want, to help the professional retrieve the art. The professional stated that the (verbal) deal had been made with the art dealer, not the partner, and that he wanted the art or the money. No reply. The art dealer is now well established and I wonder how much of his reputation for acquiring good, high profile and rare art was done on such deals. Another email later it came to light that the dealer had done something very similar to a major Golden Age comic book artist - art taken, no money paid and no art returned when asked. I expect that once the artist died the dealer might have felt that any remaining art in his possession was now rightfully his to sell as he saw fit, and indeed he did. The professional I spoke to said that why he doesn't say the dealer set out to outright steal from him, he certainly wound up with valuable art and the professional never saw a cent in return. You can image how the professional now feels as he walks past the dealer at various conventions, especially when the dealer prides himself on having such an honest reputation in art collecting circles and is known for his public displays of moral outrage.

And people wonder why I mainly buy my art directly from the artists themselves.

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