Friday, January 22, 2010

Original Art Stories: Grailpages (Oh Dear...)

128 page Trade Paperback - By Steven Alan Payne
The blurb:
“Grailpages brings to light the burgeoning hobby of collecting the original, hand-drawn art that was used to create comic books! Beginning more as a novelty, the hobby of collecting original comic art has expanded to a point where some of the seminal pages commonly run more than $10,000 each! Author Steven Alan Payne allows you to meet collectors from around the globe and hear their passion in their own words, as they detail collections ranging from a few key pages, to broad, encompassing collections of literally hundreds of pages of original comic art by such artists as Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., and others! Balancing out the narratives are incisive interviews with industry pros, including writers Gerry Conway, Steve Englehart, and Roy Thomas, and exclusive perspectives from Silver Age artists Dick Giordano, Bob McLeod, Ernie Chan, Tony DeZuniga, and the unparalleled great, Gene Colan! Completing the book is a diverse sampling of breathtakingly beautiful original comic art, some lavishly presented in full-page spreads, including pages not seen publicly for decades! Fans of comic art, comic books, and pop culture will find in 'Grailpages' an appreciation for a uniquely American form of art!”

Or is it? I’ve been asked, more than once, for my thoughts on the book, ‘Grailpages’, seeing how I also collect original art. My first impression is that it’s a good book to own, and a great concept. I’ve recommended it to a few people, mainly those who don’t collect original art and know absolutely nothing about the hobby. I’ve also told people who do collect original art to avoid the book as it’ll only frustrate them – after all, unless you collect John Romita, Gene Colan or John Buscema art, you’ll be disappointed. And savagely so.

The word is that the author, whom I’ve never heard of and know little about, is either a dealer, or a former dealer, and that the collectors featured in the book consist mainly of either former customers or people he actually knows, which, if it is the truth, would go a long way to explaining some very odd patterns in the book. After all, if I were to write such a book, I guess the emphasis would be heavy on artists I like. And that’s the issue a lot of art collectors have with this book, again, unless you collect those three artists mentioned you’re in for an angry time. And if the ‘world’ to you means America and a few places in Europe then you’ll be happy.

The book claims to cover major collectors and collections. I’m not sure what a ‘major’ collection consists of, or what the criteria really is. I don’t rate myself as a major collector; I focus on a few artists and get a few nice little bits from other artists as they pop up. Anyone who knows me knows that I own arguably the largest private, non dealer, collection of Norm Breyfogle artwork in the world – indeed Norm himself has stated, more than once, that he expects that only he owns more than I do. In that collection are several choice pieces of art, including a few pieces that could be considered to be ‘grails’, to me the Metaphysique cover painting is a definite grail, and I own all six of them. However I wasn’t asked to contribute to this volume and the book is probably better for it. Sadly, though, Norm isn’t featured anywhere in the book, despite creating some of the more iconic Batman images during his run on that title, and Detective Comics. But don’t be too upset, after all, in a book which claims to be a ‘diverse sampling of breathtakingly beautiful original comic art’, there’s only one example of a Neal Adams Batman page, and no covers. This, also, is despite Neal creating some of the most iconic, and enduring, Batman images of the latter part of the 20th century. That’s right; no representation of that classic image of Batman running along the beach, but then there’s no Marshall Rogers art either – period. No Rogers/Austin Batman or Doctor Strange, nothing. Marshall, along with Norm, Todd McFarlane, Jim Aparo, Ross Andru, Jim Starlin and a plethora of artists just aren’t represented, and this omission exposes the major flaw with this project.

I can live with some artists not being represented; after all with the massive amount of artists and art out there you can’t expect to cover them all, surely? That’s what I thought, until I sat down and broke the contents of the book down. Here’s the quick summary.

The book contains 172 separate images of original comic book art, again, claiming to represent ‘a diverse sampling’. Looking at the artists, both pencilers and inkers, we get these numbers:
John Romita: 28 pages of original art (16% of the total)
John Buscema: 26 pages of original art (15% of the total)
Gene Colan: 18 pages of original art (10% of the total)
Tom Palmer: 16 pages of original art, 13 of which are his inks over Gene Colan (9% of the total)
Jack Kirby: 15 pages of original art (8.5% of the total)
John Byrne: 10 pages of original art (6% of the total)
Sal Buscema: 10 pages of original art, including 4 pages from a single issue of The Defenders (6% of the total)
George Perez: 7 pages of original art (4% of the total)

Sitting on six pages of original art are Gil Kane (four with John Romita), Joe Sinnott, Terry Austin and Vinnie Colletta (all six with Jack Kirby). On five pages are Frank Giacoia (including one page with a shared credit with Mike Esposito), Jim Mooney and Pablo Marcos.

With four pages of original art each we find Bob McLeod (all four pages from a single issue of The Defenders, inked over Sal Buscema), Dick Giordano and Don Heck.

With three pages of original art each we have Dan Adkins, Jim Lee, John Tartaglione, Luis Dominguez, Neal Adams, Scott Williams (all with Jim Lee), Steve Ditko and Tony DeZungia.

With two pages of original art each we find Alfredo Alcala, Bernie Wrightson, Bill Everett, Chic Stone, Curt Swan, Dick Ayers, Ernie Chan, George Klein, George Russos, Graham Ingles, Herb Trimpe, Jamie Herandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Jim Steranko, Joe Maneely, John Verpoorten, Marie Severin, Mike Esposito (including a page with a shared credit with Frank Giacoia) and Steve Dillon.

With one page of original art each we find Billy Graham, Bob Layton, Brian Bolland, Dan Green, Dave Cockrum, Dave Sim, Dick Dillin, Frank McLaughlin, Frank Miller, Frank Springer, Gary Gianna, George Tuska, Joe Gonzalez, Joe Rubenstein, Joe Simon, John Totloben, Keith Giffen, Klaus Janson, Lou Fine, Mike DeCarlo, Murphy Anderson, Nick Cardy, Steve Bissette, Steve Epting, Syd Shores and, in a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ image, Wally Wood, who’s name gets a mention on the rear of the book, about the only single image guy to get such a mention.

Back to all of this in a second. While we’re on a roll, let’s look at the breakdown of publishers represented and what kind of art is in the book. Publishers first.

As you might expect Marvel leads the way. With such high representation from the likes of Gene Colan, John Romita and John Buscema, how could it be any different? Out of the 172 images Marvel accounts for an amazing 135, or 78%. DC are the poor sister, with a mere 21 images, EC have three, Fantagraphics, thanks to the Hernandez brothers, have four images, six images are either sketches or commissions and Quality, Dark Horse and Aardvark account for one image each. Out of the 172 images 72 of them are covers, 88 are interior pages and the remaining 12 are sketches, preliminary art or commissions.

Is the sampling ‘diverse’? That all depends on what you consider to be ‘diverse’. Certainly there are enough collectors and collections out there with a wide range of art, and there are a few collectors who collect a certain genre, time period, company or artist. Dr. Michael Vasallo collects Golden Age art, with a focus on Timely (Marvel) Comics, yet only two Joe Maneely images make the final cut – and for that I guess we should be grateful. It could have been far worse. One look at the Comic Art fans web-site will show that there’s quite a large collection of collectors and art out there, but that art isn’t represented here. This project had enormous potential, but the narrow scope of the author has prevented it from reaching anywhere near its full potential.

According to the Comic Art Fans site, their most popular artists are, in order of pages represented: John Byrne, George Perez, Gene Colan, Norm Breyfogle, John Buscema, Jack Kirby, Dick Giordano, Adam Hughes, Sal Buscema and Bob Layton. If we look at the order of most viewed pages by artist we find: Adam Hughes, John Byrne, Bruce Timm, Jim Lee, Jack Kirby, Bill Ward, Terry Dodson, Simon Bisley, John Buscema and Ed Benes. Out of the most represented Norm Breyfogle and Adam Hughes are completely missing from this book and the only Bob Layton credit is an inking credit over John Byrne pencils. Out of the most viewed pages Hughes, Simon Bisley, Bill Ward, Bruce Timm, Ed Benes and Terry Dodson are also missing from the book. Make of that what you will.

Now for the flaws. Bob McLeod, despite a stellar career inking and pencilling, and working on such titles as the X-Men, New Mutants and many others, is represented by an interview and four pages of fairly ordinary Defenders pages, pencilled by Sal Buscema. It’s hardly worth the effort really, and considering the sheer amount of work that Bob has done, and that he’s kept photocopies of a lot of that work, along with original art, it’s almost criminal that the best that could be found are four ordinary pages. If I were to do such a book I’d be chasing the owner of the splash page to Uncanny X-Men #94, which would showcase both Bob and Dave Cockrum, who’s also criminally unrepresented. Dave, despite his work on the X-Men and legion of Super-Heroes, has one X-Men cover in this volume. It makes you want to weep. Seriously, I could do this all day. One page each from Wally Wood, Frank Miller, Dave Sim and Brian Bolland, yet TEN pages, including the four previously mentioned Defenders pages, from Sal Buscema. I can’t work that one out. Does this mean that Sal is ten times more desirable, or notable, as an artist than those other men? Frankly the four Defenders pages wouldn’t get you anywhere near a Bolland page or cover, or a Miller cover or Dark Knight page, or a Wood cover, or a Sim cover, or a Wrightson Swamp Thing page, yet there they are, in all their glory. Hardly a ‘grail’ in my book, but then Norm Breyfogle’s painted covers to Batman: Dreamland and Batman: Birth of The Demon are probably not grails in the eyes of the author of this book, nor the Sal Buscema collector, and possibly rightly so. But does that mean that Sal is more desirable than Neal Adams?

Neal Adams. Now if there’s one man that’s sought after by almost anyone who collects original art then it’s Neal. Even his sketches can fetch several hundred dollars and his vintage covers go for the tens of thousands. Steve Ditko, another sought after artist, is also woefully under-represented, and there is not a single page of Ditko Spider-Man art, let alone a cover (and we know they’re out there) in this book. Sorry guys, but an Adams Batman or Detective Comics cover, or a Steve Ditko Spider-Man cover or splash page, are far more desirable, and worth of being called a true grail, than almost anything by Sal Buscema, Curt Swan, Dick Ayers, Dick Dillin, Gary Gianna and pretty much everyone else in this book. And that’s not a slight on those guys, either as artists or people. I’ve spoken to both Sal Buscema and Dick Ayers and they’re bloody good people. I own art by both men and am happy to have it. But I’d trade it all for a Ditko Spider-Man or a Neal Adams Batman and I’d think anyone to be insane who’d think otherwise, and I doubt I’d be alone in that. And if you think I’m joking, offer me a Frank Miller or Todd McFarlane page and you can have all the Sal Buscema art I own, including the DC story he inked over Norm Breyfogle.

So, would I recommend this book? Both yes and no. As I’ve previously stated, if you don’t collect original art and have no knowledge of it, then sure, absolutely. You’ll find the book entertaining and a breeze to read. The interviews, with Gene Colan, Bob McLeod and others are insightful and interesting. The stories of the collectors are also fun to read, well some of them anyway. Some are dry and will make no sense at all to someone without a bit of insider knowledge, but that’s fine, you can skip those parts. If you have a vast knowledge of original art, or collect, then fine, buy a copy of this book, but don’t expect too much. Again, it’s worth having for the stories and interviews alone. The art, well, if you own any number of books about Gene Colan, John Buscema or John Romita, then the odds are better than average that you’ve either already seen the art here, or better, and as those three account for roughly 42% of the total art in this book, well you’re not going to be missing much.

Certainly the focus of the book would more than warrant a series of volumes and in those volumes more and more collectors should be focused and their collections showcased. Perhaps each volume could contain somewhere between 150 to 200 pages of art, with no more than five pages from any one artist. To have twenty eight pages from one artist, no matter how good that artist is, is wildly misrepresentative of the original art collecting hobby as a whole. And before anyone wades in with an argument about how prolific John Romita (another lovely man) really was, and he was, Jim Aparo, who is not represented here, was more than likely as prolific, if not more than Romita. Jack Kirby the same, but then he does have a healthy representation here, however Jim Mooney was steadily drawing comic book art from 1940 through to 2000 and commissions until he passed away. That’s a pile of art right there.

As with any such project, it’s easy to point out the flaws, and in this case the flaws are massive. Todd McFarlane, if you like him or not, is considered to be one of the most influential artists of the ‘90s and beyond, yet not one example of his art is shown here, no Spider-man, no Spawn, not a sign of the Hulk #340 cover. Ross Andru is another giant who’s missing. Jim Starlin, Frank Brunner and Alan Weiss all produced some of the most sought after art of the 1970s, yet none of that is in this book. That Brian Bolland is represented by a single page of Killing Joke is, well, to use the obvious pun, a joke. Dave Gibbons and Watchmen. Mike Mignola and Hellboy. Walter Simonson. Mike Zeck. Don Perlin. Don Newton. Howard Chaykin. Alex Toth. Sal Velluto. Joe Quesada. Al Williamson. Jack Davis. Michael Golden. Trevor Von Eeden. Russ Heath. Frank Robbins. Michael Kaluta. Bill Sienkiewicz. Tim Sale. Gray Morrow. The list of missing artists goes on and on.

There’s a claim on the back of this book that states, ‘some of the seminal pages commonly run more than $10,000 each’. That’s nothing. A single Ditko Mr A page recently went for $38,000 and there are stories of Byrne X-Men covers, Perez Avengers covers and Neal Adams Batman covers fetching between $50 to $100,000 each. There is a Byrne X-Men cover in here, and a couple of Perez covers, but where’s the Adams? I’d hate to think of what a Simonson Thor cover would fetch, along with a Mike Zeck Spider-man cover. There is art out there that can sell for thousands, if not tens and hundreds of thousands, yet none of it is here.

And why? Because the collectors showcased clearly don’t own any of it. Instead of calling the book ‘Grailpages’, perhaps a more accurate title would be ‘Collecting Original Comic Book Art Vol 1: The Marvel Giants’ and then you could show off all the Colan, Buscema and Romita art, and the collectors, that your little heart desires. Then showcase DC. Then EC. Dark Horse. And so on and on until it’s all well represented. Until then the claims that the art in this book are ‘diverse’ might be correct, but it’s hardly ‘broad’ or ‘encompassing’ of the hobby as a whole.

‘Grailpages’, a good idea, but sadly lacking in both execution and overall scope. I’d try again.


Norm Breyfogle said...

Excellent speaking of truth to the power of a thoroughly slanted, misrepresentative book. You ASSASSINATED the ridiculous claims in the advertising blurb. Bravo.

Everyone should see your article.

George said...

Finally Danny, you wrote a proper review of this book. It’s been sorely needed. I ordered this book as soon as it came out from the publisher and I was disappointed from the moment I read it. Don’t get me wrong, the idea to create such a book is great, but the execution of the idea is what is lacking.

Similar to you, I have a handful of artists I collect. We agree on Breyfogle, but I also enjoy collecting art by Val Semeiks, Bo Hampton, Ernie Chan and Thomas Yeates. Regardless of my personal tastes however, I know grail pages. Believe me, there are plenty of other artists I’d love to collect, but due to limited funds, cannot.

Bernie Wrightson - Swamp Thing
Walter Simonson - Thor
Frank Miller/Klaus Janson - Daredevil
Todd McFarlane - Hulk & Spider-Man
Mike Zeck - Punisher, GI Joe, Captain America
Paul Chadwick - Concrete
Mark Schultz - Xenozoic Tales
Barry Windsor-Smith – Conan

That’s just a short list for me. I’d take anything by these artists, but the titles I have highlighted for each are their seminal works. Collectively, the book showcases a grand total of four pages by these artists, according to your breakdown (two by Wrightson and one by Miller and Jason).

This book was written not as a broad encompassing work. It had a specific focus on sixties and seventies Marvel creations, and that’s why the book loses me.

If a true Comic Art Collecting book was written, there’s another aspect of collecting that would need to be addressed as well. The fact that pieces can still be purchased at reasonable prices is often overlooked. Pages can be acquired for $10 or less. Perhaps a preliminary layout, or an unused page, or even a published page without any main characters in costume could all be had for reasonable prices.

Comic art collecting can be for everyone. It’s a fun hobby. Each page is absolutely unique. No one owns the pages I own, plain and simple. The fun is not only in the hunt, but in the bragging and showing off of your acquisitions.

Grailpages did do one thing for me. It made me realize what needs to be included in a true Comic Art Collecting book. Maybe someday it’ll come around.

alxjhnsn said...

I bought it and was very disappointed. It's focus was much, much too narrow.

I agree if it had been positioned as the first of a series with this one focused on Marvel, it would have been much less disappointing to me.

Nice review.

Anonymous said...

I bought it and wish I hadn't. It seems that the publisher is just pumping out a pile of sub-standard material while charging top dollar. Most of your interviews contain more material than their 'Modern Masters' series, yet you don't charge $15 to read them.

Gailpages wasn't very good at all. Maybe the author should have interviwed a wider range of collectors instead of talking to his friends.

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

Glad that you finally decided to tackle this book. I picked it up last year at San Diego and was so... um, stunned by the book that i didn't quite know how to review it. You pretty much said what I would have said. I was mystified by the art selection, by the narrowness of scope of the thing, by the lack of call for really great Grail Pages out there (as one of the more significant Starlin collectors, I have a page or two that fit that description, but since i've never dealt with the author, I'm obviously not on his radar).

The complete lack of Neal Adams is the most glaring omission in the book, especially Adams Batman. But then, the list is long already. And it doesn't have to be any of my favorites for it to bother me. yes, there are good stories out there, plenty of them, but the author only gets a few, and misrepresents much of the collecting that happens.

perhaps there needs to be a real collectors book there...