Original Art Stories: Marvel Masterworks Non-Original Artists

When is a reprint not a reprint? There appears to be a very easy answer to that - when the reprint is produced by Marvel Comics. For a very long time now Marvel has been producing what they've titled Marvel Masterworks. The Masterworks line has been mooted as being the best quality reprints around - none better. These are the be all and end all of the reprint lines and the material contained within are often clear and pristine. More often than not they source the original material, if not then they opt for high quality stats or the best quality published books, retouched to make them as good as possible.

Or so we've been led to believe. There's another truth to this - you're not buying what you've been told you're buying. Not even close. In some cases you're buying all new material recreated by artists who probably weren't even alive when the original comic books came out. You're being duped.

This cover looks damn good doesn't it? Imagine having this hanging on the wall. Now if I were to tell you that this cover wasn't even touched by Gene Colan, let alone drawn by him, yet it was being passed off as being signed and drawn by him then you'd be outraged and rightly so. There's been several discussions about the ethics and moralities of artists producing line-for-line copies of classic covers, the general consensus is that it's wrong. Adapt the covers, introduce new elements, do it in your own style, these are all things that good artists do. Anyone with a lightbox can produce a line-for-ling recreation of another artists work. You can bet that if someone put this up for sale on somewhere such as eBay then it's more than likely Marvel would step in to end the auction, and rightly so. However this recreation was not only sanctioned by Marvel, it was commissioned by them for inclusion in the Iron Man Vol 4 Marvel Masterworks. Yep, if you own a copy of that book then the bulk of the art contained within was not drawn by Gene Colan even though he gets the credit and the covers and splash pages bear his signature. It was drawn by an artist named Michael Kelleher.

Michael has not only been drawing covers for Marvel, he's been very busy pumping out interior pages. This information is taken from the site that represents Michael's artwork.

...features original art by artist Michael Kelleher that has been authorized, commissioned, approved by Marvel Comics, and published in their Silver Age Marvel Masterworks anthologies. These are exact recreations of the original works created by legendary artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, John Buscema and many others.

Each drawing measures 14 x 17 inches and was painstakingly reproduced to mimic line-weights and styles of the original artists and inkers.

These are not simple recreations made for fans and collectors. Marvel Comics has gone to great lengths over the past few years to give fans EXACT reproductions of the Silver Age stories that made Marvel famous. Often times the film that was used in the original printing process was either lost, damaged, or altered, so a new version must be created. This is an incredible opportunity to own original artwork of some of the greatest comics ever published!

Feeling cheated yet? Now check that information against the blurb that Marvel provide for the above book, the Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Vol 1.

Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus Vol. 1

Reprints: Amazing Fantasy #15, Amazing Spider-Man #1-38, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1-2, Strange Tales Annual #2


Stan Lee introductions to Amazing Spider-Man Masterworks Vol. 1-4
Essays by Arlen Schumer, Jon B. Cooke and Blake Bell
Amazing Spider-Man #10, unused cover
Amazing Spider-Man #11, original version
Amazing Spider-Man #35, original version from Italian reprint
Bullpen photo spread from Marvel Tales Annual #1
Reprint covers from Marvel Tales Annual #1-2 and Marvel Tales #3-28
House ad for Strange Tales Annual #2
House ad from Marvel Tales Annual #1
House ad from Fantastic Four Annual #1
Creator bios

That doesn't tell the full story now does it? To take this a step further, reprint editor, Jeff Youngquist, was recently asked about a particular title and if Marvel still possessed the original film to effect a suitable Masterworks reprint. Here's the reply; "Those Golden Age Masterworks are a challenge....first of all trying to find the film. Even if we don't have the film, we can still produce the book by reconstructing the pages from an actual copy of the comic. But as you can imagine with the Golden Age comics, even those are difficult to track down, so it's a real challenge gathering all those materials. Red Raven is something we haven't really explored yet, so I couldn't tell you offhand the status of the materials, but it's certainly something we could consider for the future."

He then further expands on his answer; "We'd probably be able to locate those films or digital files depending on how the book was produced, but not having that reprint in front of me, I can't speak to the quality of it. Sometimes these books have been reprinted in the past, but the quality isn't up to the standards we try to stick to now. They might not have recolored it to match the original. The line art may not have been reconstructed well."

Clearly in this case 'reconstructed' simply means getting in an otherwise unknown artist to trace the original stories off for inclusion into the books. Not an entirely ethical practice, especially when you consider that the company then promotes the highly expensive reprints as being taken from the original titles. In the case of the Spider-Man Omnibus you can be assured that the bulk of the material is recreated art. For that volume, according to the artist rep's site, the following pages and covers were commissions and recreated:
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1: Page 1
Amazing Spider-Man #29: entire 20 page story
Fantastic Four Annual #1: pages 48 to 53 inclusive
Strange Tales Annual #2: pages 1, 2 13 & 14

And that's what we know of, because that's what's on sale. What else was recreated? For all we know the entire volume is one big recreation, yet it all bears the signature of one Steve Ditko.

The same applies for the aforementioned Marvel Masterworks Vol 4. From that volume the following pages were commissioned and recreated by Marvel:
Iron Man #1: pages 18, 19 & 20
Tales of Suspense #88: page 9
Tales of Suspense #94: page 1 and pages 4 to 9 inclusive
Tales of Suspense #96: pages 1 to 12 inclusive
Tales of Suspense #98: pages 1 to 11 inclusive

Now Marvel might well argue that the original art is missing, can't be located and as such needs to be recreated. Certainly Marvel aren't seeking out the original artists to recreate their own work. When Marvel undertook 'restoration' work on the Iron Man volume they chose to engage the services of a cheaper artist instead of the original artist, Gene Colan. Same with Fantastic Four volumes - Joe Sinnott and Dick Ayers are still around and doing high quality work. Instead Marvel elect for the more economical route and farm out work to artists that they'd not normally hire to draw books for them in any other capacity. Indeed reprint editor, Cory Sedlmeier has publicly stated, "I couldn't give a direct percentage across the Masterworks. It's something that varies widely. The Golden Age books are all fully reconstructed from copies of the original books because none of that material exists in Marvel's archives any longer. Back in the '40s no one could have guessed that almost 70 years later people would be pining for these stories!

"Meanwhile back at the ranch, the Atlas Era has proven to be either completely hit, or completely miss so far. These issues have either been intact in the film library and in great shape, or completely missing. For instance, Marvel Boy #1 and #2 were found and in sparkling condition (the earliest finds from our film warehouse yet, which is not to say there isn't earlier material, we just haven't gotten around to reprinting it yet); however, Astonishing #3 and #4 were completely missing.

"For the Marvel Age, it varies. Some volumes require no full reconstruction. Others require two or three pages, and others, say where a complete story is missing, 20 plus pages. Earlier material tends to be in poorer condition. Most likely because it was duplicated over and over again throughout the '60s, '70s, and '80s for various reprint comics. I've heard word that the first generation photostats were sent out West for use in the 1960s Marvel Super Heroes cartoons.

"Conversely, the version of Amazing Fantasy #15 the film warehouse located for the ASM Omnibus is bar-none the absolute best version ever. I put my word on that—you can see the pencil line from where the captions were sketched out on these proofs! Jean, Ryan, and their crew at Jerron deserve huge kudos for their hard work searching the tens of thousands of photostat reams. The reproduction quality of every Masterworks starts with these guys and girls.

"Before I close this out one thing I'd like to clarify here is that the folks that do this work are reconstructing the artwork from an original printed copy with utter faithfulness to the originals. There have been hullaboos about how reconstruction is a disservice to the original talents, and I hate to say it, but I take offense to that.

"Folks like Mike Kelleher, Wil Glass, Dale Crain, Matt Moring, All Thumbs Creative, Pacific Rim Graphics, and Secret Agent Pond Scum put an intense effort and an enormous amount of time into every page, and its all to honor the original artists. There are no bigger fans than these people. They've made this their life's work, and for the record, they rock. I'm spinning plates, and figuring out plans, and chasing schedules, but these are the people that really deserve your thanks and respect. They make it happen."

This is being very deceptive. A lot of this art does exist, and a lot of high quality stats also do exist. However it's cheaper for Marvel to hire an artist to trace the images for inclusion and then sign the art with a forgery of the original artists signature. What would be a far more honest practice would be for Marvel to include a disclaimer in each and every volume stating that the volumes you're buying contain material that was no produced by the original artists and then identify which stories, covers and pages that have been recreated at a later date. That'd be fair.

Closing this out I'd like to leave the last work to Bob McLeod, a man who knows more about this stuff than any of us probably will. In a public post to the ComicArt list recently Bob had this to say, amongst other comments, "I think this is troubling. It's my understanding that Marvel just purchases the printing rights to artwork (even that created under work-for-hire), but the copyright to the original art (the right for that art to not be copied and sold) remains with the artist. Otherwise, Marvel would have to pay taxes on all that original art they "own". That's supposedly why they return original art to the artists.

"So it's reasonable that Marvel could have art recreated for printing purposes, but it should then be destroyed. To sell the recreated art, regardless of who gets the profit, seems to me to violate the artist's copyright."

To be fair to Marvel all the profits from the sale of the art is channeled into the Hero Intitive, but again Bob has an answer for that, "The Hero Initiative is a worthy cause, but how about giving the profit from a recreation of Gene Colan's work to Gene himself?" Very good question. And it raises another - do Marvel pay royalities on these books to the original artists? The answer is, thankfully, yes, but it'd be a nicer touch to feature the original art. Also, what would Marvel do to me if I then approached an artist to recreate and entire story, line-for-line and attempted to sell it? I think we all know the answer to that.

Personally I'll be boycotting these books until such a time that Marvel include the disclaimer that you're buying books that feature art NOT drawn by the artists listed in the credit pages. Hopefully they insist that all the sold pages carry some form of stamp or hallmark stating that it is not the original art by the listed artist, or I can see some major problems arising down the track when someone pages a few thousand for a page, or a cover, and then is told, "Well, that's not done by Jack Kirby, although it bears his signature, that was drawn by Johnny Bananas for the Fantastic Four Ominbus Vol 1."

In the above interview Cory states, "There have been hullaboos about how reconstruction is a disservice to the original talents, and I hate to say it, but I take offense to that." Personally Cory I take offense at being mislead by paying good money for stories that have been drawn by some unknown artist somewhere and not by the original talents. I take offence at being mislead by seeing a signature on art and not knowing it was forged by some unknown artist. After all if I want the stories I'll just buy the original comic books. Come to think of it, I might just keep doing that instead of handing over hundreds to Marvel for some un-named artists rendition of a classic Steve Ditko story.

Marvel, come clean and include the disclaimer and give the rightful credits. For once at least. Because those names on the front and insides of the books do not accurately reflect what you're offering. Perhaps the words, "Based On Stories Drawn By..." would closer to the truth because these books are not reprints - they're recreations at best.


Nate said…
As to the selling of these "originals" I agree... the original artists deserve a percentage, just as they would for any other repro sold.
That said, I can't say I have any issue with reproducing pages by hand when an original isn't more readily available. I fail to see how a line-for-line repro is, at the end of the process, any different from a stat. Moreover, if you've seen the earlier materworks which were often shot from what appear to be old comics, the line-work was totally lost anyway. That said, a true archival edition would include restoration notes.
As far as paying someone to trace their old work, that just seems like an unecessary waste of time and talent. As to renumeration for the original artists, so long as they get a percentage of the sales on the Masterworks then it seems fair.
Anonymous said…
I must admit to a sense of "much ado about nothing" where this issue is concerned -- surely this is better than past efforts, where pages were poorly redrawn and retouched by anonymous members of Marvel's Production Department.

But more than anything else, I wonder -- why go to the trouble of having the work redrawn at all? Digital restoration of linework from printed pages has proven to be more than adequate, particularly as the process has advanced over the last several years. Why does Marvel feel it's necessary to have this work traced and recreated?
Anonymous said…
"As to renumeration for the original artists, so long as they get a percentage of the sales on the Masterworks then it seems fair."

I'm not entirely certain that they do -- DC pays a token royalty payment even where not contractually obligated, but everything I've heard from reliable sources says that Marvel does not pay royalties on the MASTERWORKS (and other reprints) unless there is an agreement in place that mandates it.
None said…
I had no idea this problem was so wide spread among Marvel's reprints. I once had the occassion to compare Marvel's reprint of Human Torch #2 (really #1) with an actual comic. I wrote about it in my Simon & Kirby Blog. I do not know how much of it was re-created art (or as I termed it re-inked). Certainly the Joe Simon story was. Whether due to being re-created or just poor restoration techniques all the stories from HT #2 suffered. What a shame.

As a comic art historian I would much prefer reprints to be done from the original printed comics even if they are often pretty poor. Re-creating art inevitably creates a distorted picture. I am afraid that is true even when the re-creation is by the original artist years later.

That said, I am not sure there is any true legal basis for the concept of copyrighting the original art. I know some have made that claim but I do not think it has ever been upheld in a court case.
Daniel Best said…
The main issue is this - Masterworks and the Omnibus series are being promoted as being 'reprints'. In most cases they are, but clearly in some cases they're not. They're all new re-created art. That's no longer a reprint and to promote a volume as being a reprint when it features another artists intepretation of the original images is just plain deceipt. Nothing more, nothing less.
gbhecht said…
In the interests of fairness, some alternative views on this subject:


Anonymous said…
I take no issue with the practice. The stories and characters are Marvel's property. Kelleher and company are, in essence, human photocopiers.

The sale of the original art is a tad suspect, but the production of the books? Doesn't bother me as long as the recreations are as perfect as can be.
Mike DeLisa said…
Selling the books with re-created pages might constitute a "false advertising" claim under the Lanham act -

* The defendant must have made a false or misleading statement of fact in advertising.
* That statement must have actually deceived or had the capacity to deceive a substantial segment of the audience.
* The deception must have been material, in that it was likely to influence the purchasing decision.
* The defendant must have caused its goods to enter interstate commerce.
* The plaintiff must have been or is likely to be injured as a result.
The Gambler said…
Interesting article. Do you happen to know if the "Essentials" reprints are based on the same restorations used for Masterworks (color aside)?

More specifically, which route would you suggest for the Ditko original Dr. Strange run? Masterworks 23/49 or the Essential? Color is not a issue to me.

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