Dr. Jeff Singh considers himself an art collector, but he doesn’t own Rembrandt, Van Gogh or Monet paintings. Rather, the walls of his spacious Mississauga home are adorned with works by the likes of Milton Caniff, Joe Kubert and Bill Sienkiewicz.
His basement resembles a pop art gallery — three rooms connected by hallways, all lined with about 200 framed pages of original comic book drawings. Like their fine art counterparts, many are worth serious money.
Among Singh’s prized possessions is the cover of “Elektra Saga #4,” a pair of black-and-white images of a woman dressed in ninja garb, brandishing bladed weapons. He estimates the page, drawn by comics legend Frank Miller, is worth about $50,000 (U.S.).
The same goes for a tiny framed illustration of Tin Tin by Belgian artist Georges Remi, also known as Hergé. Singh, an emergency physician in Toronto, says several of his pieces — he has an additional 3,800 or so in storage — could fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
It’s not surprising, given that comic-book-inspired movies such as “Avengers: Endgame” and “Joker” are continuing to dominate the box office. Interest in original art is exploding as a result, turning what was once a niche hobby into a full-blown industry. Valuations are going through the roof.
“Comic art has certainly gone up in value as a lot of people have converted from collecting comic books to the art itself,” Singh says. “There’s a much bigger buying pool than there used to be.”
The market is indeed on the rise, according to Heritage Auctions, the biggest North American auction house specializing in comics and comic art. For 2019, the Dallas-based company is expecting a 20-per-cent increase in sales over last year, when it posted a record $58 million.
Last month, Heritage sold the cover to “Batman #251” — a 1973 drawing by Neal Adams depicting the Caped Crusader on a playing card brandished by the Joker — for a whopping $600,000, more than double its preauction estimate.
It was a big sale to be sure, but it paled compared to the $5.4 million world record for comic art the auction house set in May with the “Egyptian Queen,” a fantasy painting of a woman leaning against a column that served as the cover for “Eerie #23” in 1969.
The eye-popping values suggest the market is only just getting started.
“I have to think that comic art is still way undervalued,” says James Halperin, Heritage founder and co-chairman. “I don’t think we’re really near the bubble [bursting] yet.”
Comic industry watchers attribute the boom to several factors, particularly the current pop culture domination by superheroes such as Captain America, Deadpool and Wonder Woman. By regularly topping a billion dollars at the box office, the films have elevated comic books into the mainstream. Both lapsed fans and new ones are being drawn into the fold.
“In the ’70s and ’80s we saw (comic pages) as industrial by-product,” says Mark Askwith, former manager of the Silver Snail comics shop in Toronto. “Comics have since become well-respected in popular culture. People who loved them now have disposable income.”
Singh, a lifelong fan of the medium, says the internet has also raised awareness of comic art’s availability. When he started collecting in the 1990s, few people were aware that pages could be bought. Transactions usually took place directly between artists and collectors at comic book conventions.
But eBay and auction houses that enable online sales, such as Heritage, have lowered the barriers for new buyers — and middlemen — to easily enter the market. That has translated into more fans becoming buyers, but it has also attracted professional speculators and investors who are driving prices up.
“That’s just like fine art,” Singh says. “It has driven a lot of people to start dabbling.”
Comic books enjoyed a similar valuation boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when speculators piled in to buy special copies of titles such as number-one issues or first appearances by certain characters. That market ended up fizzling as the glut of product ultimately devalued much of everything.
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Original pages, however, may have an advantage by virtue of truly being one-of-a-kind.
“With a page of original art, no one else can own it,” says Kevin Boyd, comic relations co-ordinator for the annual Fan Expo convention in Toronto. “There’s one-upmanship and bragging rights to it.”
Collectors and the artists who are producing pages are both benefiting from the boom, Boyd adds. He estimates there are about 40 serious collectors in the Greater Toronto Area, perhaps double that if dabblers are counted, and up to a hundred creators — many more if indie artists are included.
The artists themselves generally aren’t seeing paydays in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, often because they sold their pages years ago when they weren’t worth as much. But some are benefiting through increased demand for newer work.
Ken Lashley, a Burlington-based artist who has drawn Spider-Man and X-Men comics for Marvel, says established creators can earn $60,000 to $100,000 per year by selling original art to dealers and collectors. He sells his newly drawn pages through an online dealer, typically for between $300 and $600 each.
“You can sell a page for 10 times what you got paid to draw it,” he says. “You’re probably giving up a good portion of yearly income if you’re not doing it.”
Some less-established creators, however, are deciding against trying to tap into the market, at least for now. Marcus To, a Toronto-based artist currently drawing the “Excalibur” title for Marvel, says he has brought original pages to comic book conventions with the intention of selling them, only to be lowballed by potential buyers.
“Maybe you sell one for $60,” he says. “It wasn’t worth the hassle.”
To works exclusively digitally, which he says speeds up his production process, although he may reconsider in the future if his profile increases. “We’ll see what happens,” he adds.
Despite the boom and the growing mainstream acceptance of comic books, some collectors feel the industry — and the comics medium in general — still have a long way to go.
Singh, for one, admits that his wife barely tolerates his hobby and restricts his collection to the basement of their home.
“It’s still looked at as lowbrow production art,” he says. “It’s an important art movement and eventually people will realize it, but for now it doesn’t get a lot of respect.”
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The opening of local photographer Jennifer Irving’s Uptown art gallery, Paris Crew, is another step in a lifelong entrepreneurial journey.
“I feel like it was something I’ve had since I was young, starting little businesses,” said Irving. “I’ve had a buckwheat pillow business, I’ve had a falafel business with my brother in the City Market, I had a nail polish business when I was 12. I just always loved business for some reason.”
She pursued the idea of operating a bricks-and-mortar gallery after she held a pop-up once at the Moonlight Bazaar two years ago.
“I was just so energized about talking to people about my work. Instead of doing an online interaction, I was able to talk to people and tell them about the photos,” she explained. “That launched me into a whole idea of working with galleries or starting my own so I could showcase my work.”
After a tip from her framer, she purchased 62 Water Street, the former souvenir shop Distant Waters and a historic property built in 1885 in the wake of the Saint John fire.
Paris Crew, named after the Saint John area rowers who won the World Rowing Championship in Paris in 1867, showcases the work of artists like Cliff Turner, Timothy “Bjorn” Jones, Melanie Koteff, Shannon Gates, Leigh Donovan, as well as Irving’s own photography.
COVID-19 threw a wrench into Paris Crew’s plans to benefit from the summer cruise ship and tourist season, as well as causing renovation delays, but Irving believes the gallery will help further develop the increasingly busy Water Street.
“It’s always boggled my mind that our waterfront isn’t more developed,” she said. “I’ve fallen in love with this little block, this little area which felt a little bit empty just a few years ago. It’s coming alive and I’m happy to be a part of that.”
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Irving wants the Paris Crew to be another gallery and creative space for Saint John artists. It’s going to be a multi-functional venue where visual and musical artists could hold concerts and pop-ups, even though the pandemic has changed the shape of those original plans.
Livestreamed events and bubble concerts are some examples of potential events.
“We’re so excited to explore new ideas and different ways of doing things,” she said.
“We want to bring the arts community together, whether it’s people interested in photography, painting, or music. I’d like to see the community come together [here] and be able to celebrate the art scene here in Saint John.”
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Thanks to a very generous donation from an art gallery in Montreal, Grace Village is giving out thousands of dollars-worth of art this week as a way of saying thank you to its staff members for their hard work over the last six months.
“They are dedicated, committed, and have really sacrificed a lot,” said Andrea Eastman, the home’s interim executive director, explaining that the donation was arranged through a board member following a discussion about how the community could recognize the work of the staff during the pandemic. “The board had been trying to come up with a way to thank the employees and do something that is a little bit different.”
The artworks have been put on display for the residents to enjoy, and workers are being invited to come and select a work of their choice over the course of the week, based on their seniority.
Looking back on the last few months, Eastman said that the word “challenging” only scratches the surface of the realities that people working in retirement communities and long-term care homes have been facing.
“Our focus has been on keeping our residents safe and healthy,” she said. “That has guided every decision about what we needed to do.”
Eastman underlined the importance of clear communication and trust as key pillars to the success of the Grace Village community since the start of the pandemic
“It’s a shared responsibility with employees, residents, their families and other people in the community; You have to have trust in each other,” she said. “The more you communicate about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, the clearer it is that we’re all in this together.”
Asked whether the home has faced the same sorts of difficulties with people failing to respect rules and guidelines that have been reported at other care homes in the region, the interim director said that there have certainly been cases where people needed to be reminded of the reasons why things are the way they are.
“We’ve remained quite strict, but we’re trying to be as sensitive as possible,” she said.
In matters ranging from employee scheduling during a time when multiple days off in a row might be needed for a test, to figuring out how to offer residents enrichment when gathering together is largely off limits, Eastman said that her key word has been optimism.
“I try to focus on what we are able to do, rather than what we are not able to do,” she said, adding that the support and commitment of the whole team plays an important role in making a challenging situation more feasible. “What they are doing goes above and beyond what their employer is asking of them.”
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