Original Comic Book Art: Chopped, Stolen, Reclaimed, and More

Amazing Fantasy #15
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

You wanna see the original art from Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man? You can do it anytime, for free.

You wanna see the original art from Amazing Spider-Man #1? You likely never will.

Okay, let’s just tackle the juicy one first. The story of the Amazing Spider-Man #1 art has been told, re-told, and circulated and re-circulated so many times that an exact telling is likely impossible by now. But this gist is:

At some point in the 1980s or 1990s, a prominent 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, 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. The dealer would up $10k lighter, but with the Amazing Spider-Man #1 art to show for it.

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

Similar tales of old art resurfacing exist left, right and center in comics history for one simple reason: For the longest time, original comic art was “worthless.” 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.

By the 1970s, comic book artists started getting their art returned. Most filed this occurrence under “no big whoop.”

“I thought it was a passing phase,” says John Romita, the longtime Marvel Comics art director and legendary Amazing Spider-Man artist. “We knew there were some collectors, but I thought people would say, ‘Oh, I got one of these. Now I don’t need any more.’ I vaguely remember one of the first things I sold was for $15.”

But $15 became $150, then $1500 and now $478,000 and more. Romita looks at it all as water under the bridge, and doesn’t beat himself up over it.

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

“I was not a good prognosticator,” he laughs. “I hear figures that I can’t even believe any more. I’ve probably ‘lost’ so much money by now… If I had to total up all the money I robbed from myself and gave away, I’d have to put myself in jail. But it’s all like a joke to me. That’s the way you have to look at it.”

Marv Wolfman was looking right from the jump. Wolfman has spent decades as a writer and editor at both DC and Marvel, but in the 1960s, he was a rabid fan whose high school was a mere five blocks away from DC’s offices. DC used to give weekly tours, and one day, a young Wolfman was on that tour when DC executive Sol Harrison wheeled a giant cart by overflowing with Golden Age art.

“Sol said, ‘If you kids want anything, take it. This is all going to the incinerator anyway,” Wolfman remembers today. “Well, we dove in there! We had a sense of the value of the art, even if DC didn’t at the time. I must have walked out of there with 100, 200 pieces.”

Wolfman says he divided those pieces up among his friends … and kicks himself, just a little.

“A stupid move today!” he laughs. “Today, I could retire on a few of those pieces. But back then, it had no financial value; it was just that we loved the stuff. So I gave tons of pages to my friends.”

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

Wolfman’s dive bore some amazing fruit more than 50 years later. Part of his haul from that fateful day was an unpublished 12-page Superman story from 1945 that he hung on to. Wolfman sent the art back to DC to be scanned, and the story saw print in 2018’s Action Comics #1000.

Wolfman also parlayed his fandom and his tour into an internship at DC Comics circa 1965-67, where guess what his job was?

“Sol Harrison had me slice up the artwork in order to fit into the incinerator,” Wolfman says. “I could keep some things, just as long as it was sliced. What I did, ’cause he wasn’t looking all the time, was slice between the panels. In the old, 1940s art, it was a pretty standard grid at that point. So I would do that, and find a way to take those sliced-up pieces. So I saved a lot of the art there. A lot of the pages you see out there, the 1940s stuff and so on, you see taped back together. That’s because of me, on many occasions. I just wanted to preserve the art.”

Alas, Wolfman couldn’t save everything.

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

“I remember in one particularly horrifying instance, I had the Gil Kane art from the origin of the Atom story (Showcase #34),” Wolfman says. “Sol came by and said, ‘That’s not how you do it,’ and stated slicing it criss-cross, destroying the artwork. As soon as he’d leave, I’d go back to slicing it my way. I remember Sol doing the same with Alex Toth pieces, a Neal Adams story.”

Wolfman is happy with what he saved, but looks at those long ago days with a bit of a shrug.

“Nobody wanted the art,” he says. “The artists didn’t want the art. They thought of it as just secondary material; part of the process. It was finally my generation, the second generation of fans, starting with Roy Thomas, Jerry Bails and that crew, who started to see value in it. The fans had to teach the professionals that this had value.”

Artists started getting art back from Marvel and DC circa 1974, but decades of backlog made for a backfiring engine. In 1998, with a new “Strange Tales” imprint in the works, Marvel had a notion to do a reprint paperback of old monster tales. An assistant was dispatched to a storage closet to see what they could find, and returned with 50+ pages of originals, including covers. The stack was handed to longtime editor Ralph Macchio to try to sort it out. But with some of the work unsigned, Macchio’s eye was deciding factor. This cover looked like it was penciled by Rick Buckler and inked by Frank Giacoia, but had faces re-drawn by John Romita. Who to give it to?

Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Amazing Fantasy #15 original art
Credit: Steve Ditko (Marvel Comics)

The echoes lasted decades. In April 2004, Marvel Comics returned a four-foot stack of original art to artist Stan Goldberg, with material dating back to the 1950s. On May 25, 2005, Marc Silvestri got a FedEx package from Marvel. It contained one page of art returns from Web of Spider-Man #20 … from 1986.

Lawyers will tell you today that if you own old original comic art, your custody is likely legal. And a lot of the reason is that for decades, it was chopped, thrown away, lost, and regarded as worthless. A chain of ownership is all but impossible to recreate. Even if it resurfaced years later and was sold for $10,000 on a park bench.

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