A top-condition copy of 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, will cost you $300,000 or more. You can get a cheap reprint for a buck or two. Or, you can view the original art…for free.
The art is housed at the United States Library of Congress, as befits its status. Just how it got there? That’s a bit of a mystery.
“I got this cold call asking if I wanted the art from Amazing Fantasy #15,” says Sara Duke, the curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Art at the Library of Congress. “So I just said, ‘Yeah, absolutely, please. I would love that donation.’ And then I looked it up and I realized just what was being offered.”
Duke admits when that call came in 2008, she was not 100% comic-versed. “I could have told you that Action Comics #1 was the first Superman, but I could not have told you that I knew that Amazing Fantasy #15 was the origin story for Spider-Man,” she says. “It was a big double-take moment.”
The offer came with one proviso: The donation was to remain anonymous. And no matter how many times she’s been asked, Duke refuses to name the donor.
“But I will tell people that it is not Marie Severin, it is not Steve Ditko, and it is not Stan Lee,” she says, speaking of Severin, the longtime Marvel production artist, and the Lee/Ditko creative team, and. “A lot of people have been reaching out now that they have passed, thinking I will talk about it now. I will not talk about it.”
Duke’s tight lips honor the donor’s original intent. And she does her best to pass that disposition on.
“I honor the spirit of that generosity by showing the art to anyone who makes an official request, as long as they meet our minimum criteria,” she says. “They have to be over 16, and they have to be eligible to get a readers card. It’s very easy.”
So just how did the art wind up in the hands of whomever donated it to the Library of Congress? No one knows. For the longest time, original comic art was considered worthless by many. It was a step in a production process. Stan Lee used to tip sandwich delivery boys with pages of art, and DC Editor Julie Schwartz used to give original cover art away to whichever fan wrote the best letter about an issue.
It’s very possible the art was either once lost, or more likely stolen. Which calls to mind a great comics urban myth (probably an urban reality) about the original art to Amazing Spider-Man #1. The story has been told, re-told, and circulated and recirculated so many times that an exact telling is likely impossible by now.
But this gist is that at some point in the 1980s or 1990s, a prominent but unidentified comic dealer got a cold call: "Would you like to buy the original art from Amazing Spider-Man #1, the whole issue?" The dealer was certainly interested, and his curiosity was piqued even further when the buyer explained his terms, which paralleled something out of a spy novel: Meet me tomorrow at a certain time at a certain public place. Bring $10,000 cash, and the art is yours.
The dealer was intrigued as hell, and also cautious. He withdrew the money from his bank, but arranged for a few friends to be watching from a few strategic locations. Long story short, the appointment was kept, the swap was made, and no shenanigans ensued.
For Amazing Fantasy #15, the Library of Congress has any of a number of valuable pieces in its archives. For its part, it makes sure it has its legalities covered.
“We have what’s called an Instrument of Gift,” Duke says. “We ask that the donor sign that they own legal right to the art, manuscript, books, or whatever they’re donating, that they possess the legal property.”
And Duke says that’s the best they can do. Many of the Library’s pieces are hundreds of years old.
“We’re not going to go chasing through the halls of time trying to figure out how did it get from point A to point B,” she says.
But one thing is clear: Artist Steve Ditko had no issue with the art’s provenance.
“I will say that Steve Ditko knew that the art was coming to the Library of Congress,” Duke says. “And even though he was an Ayn Rand objectivist, and those followers typically believe the government shouldn’t have any role in anybody’s life, he told the donor that it was theirs to do with as they wanted, and he had nothing to say about it. And that seemed very true to who he was.”
Duke is true to who she is. She wants to show you the art!
“People are more than welcome to come,” she says. “When you book your trip to Washington, that’s the time to contact me, not after you’ve arrived. I want to give people 60, 90 minutes to view the art, but that typically requires at least two weeks in advance to schedule.”
Duke promises it will be worth it.
“When you see the art, you see the dialogue,” she says. “And in this case, there is real dialogue between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko that show they were both very creative forces in the creation of Spider-Man.”
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