Alan Kupperberg’s Stolen Dagwood, Or, “Thank You For Calling Me Back Thirty Odd Years Later And Telling Me I’ve Been Victimized Again On The Same Job”
It began simply enough. I’d spent the weekend updating and revising Alan Kupperberg’s web-site when I received an email asking me about a Dagwood illustration that Alan had done. Not knowing anything about it I forwarded the email onto Alan, knowing that he’d be able to look into his workbook and identify the art, who it was for and when it was drawn, virtually down to the day. Generous to a fault and as honest as they come, Alan replied, giving the history of the piece. Alan’s said, “I believe what you have are parts of a color illustration that I did in November 1976 for a publication called "You Magazine." The article was titled, "Crazy Boss." According to my account book, they stiffed me for $300. I was never paid for it. As I remember it, they printed my color rough rather than the finished piece.” The reply was sent and Alan decided to keep me in the loop for further replies. What happened next surprised us both.
You can see the printed Dagwood illustration to the right of this article. It’s a typical Kupperberg, solid, odd and quirky all at once. If you owned it you’d be happy to have it. You might not frame it, but then again you just might. It’s not a bad piece of art. I asked Alan about not being paid, did this happen often, especially in the mid to late 1970s when artists rights were in full force due to the intervention of luminaries such as Neal Adams. “That assignment was my FIRST slick color magazine illustration, ever,“ Alan said. “That stuff is the Holy Grail for comic book guys. My comics rate might’ve been $85.00 a page back then, so $300.00 was a big deal. I did comics work for Charlton, Gold Key, National (DC), Marvel Comics, Atlas/Seaboard, Warren, Archie Comics, Defiant, Sick, Cracked, National Lampoon and others. And NONE of them ever screwed me on money.” The current ‘owner’ of the art then followed up his email with a series of almost illiterate emails, beginning with this one, which frankly confused both Alan and myself. “Thank you for that info,” it read. “I got it a lot "sale" of unpaid for wharehouses (sic). What to do with it?” Frankly I couldn’t work out what the guy meant – had he picked it up in an auction? Was it part of a job lot of artwork from a bankrupt publisher? My bet is on the latter. As for “what to do with it,” well, Alan was upfront. “Since you asked, I'll give you my opinion. Since my artwork was taken and used by "You Magazine" without payment; I believe it was stolen from me. If I were in possession of stolen property, I would return it to its proper owner. Since you asked.” No malice, no demands, just some friendly advice.
Now I’ll depart for a second and state some facts for those who are reading this. I own a lot of original art. Heaps of it. Virtually all of it is on public display via Bill Cox’s excellent site, ComicArtFans. It’s there for all to see. I own pieces by Norm Breyfogle, loads of that stuff in fact as Norm is a close friend of mine and I like his art a lot. I’d say that about 85% (if not more) of my Breyfogle art has come directly from Norm himself. Each time I buy a new piece I alert him to where it came from and ask his opinion. I’ve yet to have Norm tell me that a piece of art might be stolen, or that he was never paid for it. None of my Breyfogle art is under a cloud. I have heaps of Jim Mooney art, again the bulk of it came from Mooney himself. I like buying from the artist. I know who Alan Kupperberg sold the majority of his art to and I buy from that person, so yes I own Kupperberg art. And so on. Never has any artist contacted me and said, “You know, I like that piece I did, but I never got it back from the publisher and I was never paid for it.” If that happened I know what I’d do – I’d immediately offer to return it, gratis. If it’s stolen then it’s not my art, it belongs to someone else. Norm once told me that if it happened he’d just allow me to keep it, I’m not entirely sure I’d feel comfortable with that, but he’d get the benefit of reclaiming that artwork. Same with Jim Mooney, Alan Kupperberg or anyone else whose art I own. I know I’m not the only person who collects art who thinks this way, but I also know that I’m in the minority. I’m no angel, I’ve done wrong in the past, but in this case you can indeed call me holier than thou because I’m as pure as can be.
Back to our story. It didn’t take long for Alan to receive this reply. “It was not stolen as you gave it to them to use. Fact that you did not get paid is unfortunate,” the author stated. “Why did you not persue (sic) You Magazine? I on the other hand Paid for it at a legal auction and have good title. I have been stolen from many times. Just recently almost $80,000. from a "Friend" no recourse there for me. So I know and am a reasonable person. Keep in touch.” I couldn’t help but laugh at the last part. As I told Alan, “Here, allow me to smash you in the face and piss on your cat, but hey, stay in touch, man.” I’m not sure if the writer was being sarcastic or just being ignorant, either way Alan decided further communication would be unproductive. “What could I say?” asked Alan. “My main thought was, ”thank you for calling me back thirty odd years later and telling me I’ve been victimized again on the same job.” And that’s a cold truth – Alan was ripped off back in 1976 and now it’s being smashed into his face.
With this in mind I phoned Alan and we spoke about it. I decided to ask the obvious questions, such as why didn’t he file a police report at the time if the art was stolen? “I was young,” Alan replied, “and we didn’t do those things back then, we didn’t know how to do that or even if we could. In the end, this is a civil case, not a criminal case, after all.” Did he go after You Magazine? After all they’re the ones who stole the art in the first place. “Of course,” he said, “I kept calling them and going up there, but they wouldn’t deal with me. Again, what could I do? But yes, I did pursue them. But after a while you just give up.” Did Alan give the artwork to You Magazine to use? "No, I was hired to draw it and never paid. I never 'gave' it to them in the way this guy thinks." We both agreed that the person who now owns the art is anything but a reasonable person, despite his protestations to the contrary. His excuse, that he’d recently been ripped off, was just that, an excuse. It smacks of, “Well everyone else is doing it, it happened to me, so that means I can do it to you.” Well, no it doesn’t. Try using that excuse in a court of law. “I’m sorry You Honour, but other people climb into bell towers and shoot people at random so I should be allowed to as well.” Do it and then tell me what the response is.
So what can Alan do? Nothing. That’s right, nothing at all. He can’t go after the guy who now owns the art and who clearly believes that he has clear title (I can’t help but wonder what else was in that lot, what other artists who’s work resides in a collection, art that doesn’t rightly belong to the new ‘owner’). It’d be a waste of time, money and resources to do so and the reward wouldn’t justify the expense. He’s lost that piece of artwork, someone has clearly profited from it and if the current owner decides to sell it then he’ll profit from it as well. In fact the only person who hasn’t profited from the art is the artist. Alan hasn’t made a cent on his effort. Going from the attitude of the current owner, Alan doesn’t deserve to profit from it, after all he gave the art away to be published. The fact that he was commissioned to create the art, which he did, and was never paid is incidental to the story. More fool Alan for believing a publisher of a reputable magazine would do the right thing and honour a contract.
Is there much stolen art out there? Of course. Was any of Alan’s art stolen, other than this piece? None that he’s aware of, although he did not keep strict accounts on that score. Alan got back all of his art from the Big Two comic book companies, Marvel and DC. He sold a lot of that art a few years back to a well known art dealer. The same dealer has sold off piece after piece since then, some of which I’ve bought. The ownership of those pieces are clear, the title is clean. However in the area of the Dagwood the title is very muddy.
So what’s to gain? Clearly there’s no great financial gain to be had in this case, so why get so worked up over it? Principal is the answer. In this regard I share Alan’s stance – it’s the principal of the entire thing, that someone can contact an artist, ask about a piece, discover it’s stolen and then wave it off with a huge ‘fuck you.’ And then ask that the artist “keep in touch.” Incredible. I’m not sure what the owner of the art was trying to achieve, as all he managed to do was both confound and upset Alan.
Back to another point, how much art out there is stolen? More than you could possibly imagine. In my time dealing with artists I’ve heard some right horror stories about art theft and the nature of publishers and employees. I’ve heard stories of artists helping themselves to art at both Marvel and DC (and, to a lesser extent, smaller companies such as Dell and Charlton). I’ve heard of senior editors who routinely took art home and never returned it. I’ve heard of very senior officials who lifted piles of art. There exist a few famous legends, one of an artist who stole enough art by the likes of Buscema, Kirby and Romita to fully pay off their house, another of a very famous artist who was in such debt that he’d take art as it was being photostatted and prepared to be shot for use in the actual comics, and would then run down the road and eagerly sell it to a dealer. There’s the world famous editor who’d have artists at the company where he worked make ‘corrections’ on vellum. He’d then take the original art home, keep it and submit the vellum for use. Oddly enough the same editor was vocal during the Jack Kirby art saga, despite the fact that he had more of Kirby’s art at his house and made more money off Kirby artwork than probably Kirby himself did. He likes to tell people these days how every now and then a famous artist would gift him with a piece of art, and how humble it made him feel. Good on him, for every gifted page he got he probably stole a book in return. All the art was sold, very quietly and very much under the table. I’ve heard of art dealers who’ve taken page after page of original art and not paid the artists for it, including one story where the dealer merely avoided an artist until the artist passed away. Then the dealer denied all knowledge of selling the artist’s work. You hang around people long enough and the floodgates open and all the nasty stories that you don’t read about in the pages of magazines such as Alter Ego, The Jack Kirby Collector and Back Issue come spewing out. Stories of editors, publishers, writers and artists who stole art. The same people who are lauded in those magazines, but you won’t read about the wrong they did, and if you dare confront anyone then watch out – you’ll be shouted down. The original art hobby can be a very insular one and there's a lot of people who protect their own interests and the interests of others as they seek their own personal 'Holy Grails'. As with any hobby there's good and bad, not everyone is a villain. However there can be a lot of shame in collecting original art, in particular vintage art. The shame is that art was stolen all those years ago. The larger shame is that same art now resides in collections, both public and private, and is used to send children through college and buy houses. The shame is that people buy and sell stolen art while claiming to celebrate the lives and works of the same artists that they steal from. The shame is that they cover their tracks with meaningless comments such as “If it was stolen then why wasn’t a police report filed?” There’s an easy answer to that – by the time a lot of artists discovered that their art was stolen it was far too late. Failure to file a police report doesn’t absolve art criminals from blame or liability. The shame is that terms such as ‘liberated’ are used to justify making a living off stolen goods, while some artists themselves often live day to day. There’s a lot of shame, the largest shame is reserved for those who feel no shame, no guilt, no responsibility. If art is stolen from them they scream the loudest.
You buy or sell stolen art then you’re no better than the thieves that stole it in the first place. Even worse, if you knowingly own stolen art, such as the Kupperberg Dagwood, and rejoice in it then you’re a thief. Plain and simple. Justify it all you want, the truth is you’re not all that much better than a ground level criminal. You just wear better clothes.
So, to the person who owns that Dagwood illustration, just give it back. It’s not yours, it belongs to Alan Kupperberg. If it were a Warhol then you’d be forced to give it back. The name might be different but the principle remains. Stolen art is just that, stolen. Make the effort, take a stand.
Hand it back.