Saturday 16 February 2013

Dave Sim Discusses 'The High Society Collection' Art Auction

When Dave Sim announced in early February that he was auctioning some of his original Cerebus art from High Society via Heritage Auctions, I was worried. In his essay The End?, which appeared in the final issue of Glamourpuss #26 in 2012, he had outlined a 'Doomsday Scenario' in which a combination of falling sales on the Cerebus graphic novels and little prospect of other paying comics work, would force him to liquidate Aardvark Vanaheim and seek work in the Alberta tar sands. Had things really got that bad for him? I immediately faxed Dave 10 questions seeking clarification, and in the answers below, Dave explains his motivation behind the current art auction, his prospects in the comics industry, and thoughts on preserving the Cerebus Archive.

The 10 pages of High Society artwork being auctioned are reproduced below, together with links to Heritage Auctions, where you can place your online bid until 21 February. Alternatively you can bid in person at the live auction being held on 22 February at the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, 2 East 79th Street, New York.
Cerebus #26 Page 10 - Cerebus #29 Page 9
A Moment Of Cerebus:
How did you select the 10 pages for The High Society Collection art auction?

Dave Sim:
I sent a copy of HIGH SOCIETY to Lon Allen, the consignment director at Heritage Auctions. A stand-up guy and early signer of the petition. Which blew me away. I only met him once when Pete Dixon brought him to town. Anyway, I sent him HS with all of the pages in the Cerebus Archive marked with a check mark in the upper right and left corners of the pages and asked him to list his preferences. Which he did.

Did you think these would be the most appealing to potential bidders, or were they just your least favourite pages?

Well, no, you can't really DO that: least favourite pages. Heritage is the third largest auction house in the WORLD right behind Christie's and Sotheby's and surging like crazy in the last year or so. Lon has years of expertise as to what sells and what doesn't -- not just good pages but pages that will look good on the catalogue page which is often -- but not always -- the same thing. Giving Heritage "least favourite" pages would be like going into the Stanley Cup finals, thinking, Well, let's just hang back and see how this goes. It's the Stanley Cup finals. You give it your absolute best. Like Mitch Williams (to mix a baseball metaphor in here) "I pitch like my hair's on fire."

What was the motive for the current auction? Are you just "testing the waters" of the original art market place, or is the auction part of your "Doomsday Scenario" as outlined in your essay The End? in glamourpuss #26?

Well, in a sense, when you're 57 years old in the comic-book field, everything is a Doomsday Scenario. I set this in motion by calling Lon and finding out if Heritage was interested, which they were. Very. So, that was very gratifying. But you have to start early. It's a long process of negotiation and I knew that would be the case. I set that in motion and then John and I did the Kickstarter campaign which didn't require AS early a start. It was successful but I guessed the money wouldn't last much past the end of the year with all the overhead and that was what happened. Lon and I weren't ready for the November auction which is what we originally planned. There was still some negotiating to do. But we were ready for the February auction. Lead time. Everything is lead time.
Cerebus #30 Page 13 - Cerebus #32 Page 16
Will you be selling any other pages in the foreseeable future, or is this it for a while?

I HOPE this is it, period.

In between winding up Kickstarter and moving the Heritage Auction along, Ted Adams at IDW -- another signatory to the petition, which is why I trust him implicitly -- sort of cautiously mentioned that they were doing MARS ATTACKS month and was I interested in doing a variant cover? My reputation -- which bears (and always has only borne) a vague resemblance to me -- precedes me. Everyone expects me to bite their head off whatever they're asking me. Heck, Ted, it sounds like fun. Is that really what they pay for covers these day? Wow. I was impressed.

A couple of weeks later, I thought, Maybe I'm being way too Rube Goldberg about this "how do I make a living in my fifties?" thing. Why not get basic and just do, say, four covers a month? So, I asked. Apprehensive that it would be, "Uh, no Dave -- just MARS ATTACKS, okay?" Letting me figure out for myself that I'm a) too old and b) completely out of fashion. No, not YET anyway. They had, like, 19 titles for me to pick from. Warning me away from the franchises that tend to want to micromanage the property.

And then a couple of weeks later it occurred to me: hey, what if I auction the covers through Heritage? That was one of the things Lon and I went around and around about. You want to BUILD a market for your work. Put a bunch of pages in the catalogue, fine, but they also do weekly auctions. Get buyers used to the pages turning up on an on-going basis. This ties in with your next question, so go ahead.
Would you prefer to hang onto all your original art, and if so, why? Once you have a high resolution scan, what is the merit in holding onto the original art? Do you see this as your pension fund to sell at a future date, or would you prefer to keep the Cerebus Archive as complete as possible as part of your "legacy"?

Well, "legacy" in quotation marks pretty much sums up the current status quo, but, yes. The essence of the Cerebus Archive is the original artwork. Like the Andy Warhol Museum. What's the point of the Andy Warhol Museum? The paintings and the prints. The pages aren't stored in the house but the house, all the contents of the house and the off-site storage are considered the Cerebus Archive. That's what I see as my job to preserve. MY work and OUR -- Ger's and my -- work. No scan can do justice to original artwork although the technology is getting better. I don't think it will EVER be as good as the original art.

When we had a number of pieces in the Norman Rockwell Museum's COMIC LIT show that toured for years, I went to the opening in Stockbridge. Rockwell signed a PILE of prints before he died and they're using those at least partly to buy paintings back. Which was very foresighted of him. You see behind the scenes: this is how you do this. You create currency that will appreciate over the years that you can use to get the work out of private hands and into the hands of those charged with preserving your -- in Rockwell's case -- LEGACY.

In other words, you don't build the Cerebus Archive by selling HIGH SOCIETY pages. But I'm at the low ebb of earnings potential because of...let me be diplomatic...the political climate. I'm pretty sure the climate will change:  you can't ignore the only 6,000 page graphic novel forever, I don't think but it has been ignored for twenty years and there's no sign of it being paid attention to. People love Rockwell. People hate Dave Sim. So, for me, it requires more of a process of pulling the wagons in a circle and keeping my powder dry. Keeping myself and CEREBUS from being destroyed in my lifetime and for as long after I'm dead as proves to be necessary. I think about it a lot. I'm making progress.

Finishing off your previous question: I realized, God willing I'm going to have 48 IDW covers a year to sell. So, that's the fall-back position: Lon gets a cover a week pretty much through 2013 for his weekly auctions. I don't own the images. It's work-made-for-hire. It's really just a way to practice and learn photorealism and stylized realism. Once it's done it's a lesson learned, percolating through me during the three weeks I'm writing THE STRANGE DEATH OF ALEX RAYMOND and then applied to the next batch of covers and (ultimately) to the STRANGE DEATH pages when I'm at the point of doing them full time. And -- potentially, anyway, we'll see how it goes -- it means I don't have to sell CEREBUS artwork or STRANGE DEATH artwork or glamourpuss pages.

But I have that option (in reverse order of preference) if the economy continues to just limp along.
Cerebus #36 Page 1 - Cerebus #39 Page 17
Have you ever regretted selling a piece of your original art?

At a specific level, I regret having sold ANY of it, which is why I try to structure things so I don't have to. I envy people who have ALL of their own work. I think Wendy Pini still has all of ELFQUEST. I think Jeff Smith still has ALL of BONE. The Walt Simonsen THOR book IDW did was only possible because he had all the artwork. Good for Walt! I wish I could say that about HIGH SOCIETY.

Is it that you feel a bond toward it, or could you care less about it once it's printed?

Well, as I say, it's off-site so it's not something that's -- with apologies to Burt Bacharach -- "always there to remind me". Personally, no, I don't have a bond with it. It's just bad art. Things I tried to do well and was successful with to... a degree. 75%-happy-with-it pages, 50%-happy-with-it-pages. Some 90% happy with it. Mostly 95% happy with what Gerhard did pages, which is a different thing. The best analogy I could come up with would be Barry Windsor-Smith and "Red Nails". Barry isn't happy with it. It's like, "I know how to do all that much better now." The proportions are off. All you can see are the flaws that you couldn't see when you originally did it. But I saw it when I was 17 so I'll always see it as a 17-year-old would see it. "THIS IS BLOWING. MY. MIND." But to Barry it's just bad Barry art.

But, yes, definitely -- it's the work he's most known for in comics. For me, there should be a Gorblimey Museum or a promise of a Gorblimey Museum where you can go and see all of "Red Nails" on the wall. Or rotating 10 pages at a time. And that isn't going to happen. "Red Nails" was purchased in its entirety. So, it's in private hands. That means only one lucky guy gets to see it. Well, CEREBUS and HIGH SOCIETY are my "Red Nails" and I know that. You have to be able to stand back far enough to see what everyone else sees the way they see it and be... responsible... towards that. If I sold all of the CEREBUS artwork and STRANGE DEATH artwork and hung onto the glamourpuss pages -- my personal preference -- posterity would take a dim view. Like Lewis Carroll annotating thoroughly all of his treatises on mathematics and preserving the material. Get a grip. ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. That's what people want.

The political climate I referred to is at its worst in Kitchener. On top of which even the people who know what I did look down on it. Not with any animosity. It's just a comic book. Weird thing to do for a living. I know the guy who pretty much runs Heritage Kitchener. I know the Mayor. It's just not something we could have a conversation about. So, preserving it to a future day when that... POSSIBLY... isn't the case is a pretty much insurmountable task. But, then so was producing it in the first place, right? One example of insurmountable follows another. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebooks, "Learn young about hard work and good manners and you'll be through the whole nasty business and nicely dead again before you know it."

It came as an enormous surprise to me that I still had 190 pages of HIGH SOCIETY when I had to go and get them for Sandeep to scan. Just a PILE of artwork. I thought it was like CEREBUS where I have maybe two dozen. That was what made me think: Well, okay, you've got about 170 pages more than you thought you did. It's a good representation. What's 10 pages going to hurt?  It was a very unhappy first step though.
Cerebus #44 Page 1 - Cerebus #50 Page 1
Are there any pages/illustrations you absolutely would never sell?  If so, which and why?

Never say never. Another massive hit to the global economy like September 2008 and I could be trading HIGH SOCIETY pages for loaves of bread in my 70s and 80s.

I think you mentioned during HARDtalk interview / HARDtalk Tour that Gerhard still had an ownership interest in his Cerebus art. Does this factor into your selling timetable at all, or do you control when/where it sells?

It factored into the decision to do HIGH SOCIETY pages. Those pages are mine so I have control there of when/where it sells.

For tax reasons, the artwork is considered the property of Aardvark-Vanaheim and is valued based on the raw materials that went into it which Aardvark-Vanaheim paid for. So, basically $5 worth of illustration board, ink, tone, border tapes, etc. When I bought Gerhard's 40% of the company, we basically did "one for me, one for you" on paper. We both have a complete inventory of the artwork with every other listed page highlighted in yellow. It was a way of avoiding trade-offs -- oh, I wanted THIS page or I'll trade you all of THIS issue for all of THAT issue. I forget if Gerhard has the yellow pages or I do. The idea is if someone wants to make an offer on a page or cover, he or she makes it to whoever has "jurisdiction" over that page or cover. The "jursidication" guy says a) okay, it's yours.  b) he gets paid and c) he pays the other guy whatever he considers a fair share of the offered price (bearing in mind that he'll be on the other end of that if the other guy sells a page). We did that with a few covers that Gerhard had jurisdiction over -- wide range of prices, to establish the principle: these don't have a fixed value until someone makes a solid offer. Ger looked at what I had done and paid me what he thought my part was worth on THAT cover. That's the way it's stood since 2006. I haven't sold anything I have jurisdiction over and neither has Ger. We're both old enough to think "You know, I will probably live to see the $20 loaf of bread and the $40 jug of milk." 

Have you kept a scan/photocopy of all the non-'comic page' illustrations you do? I'm sensing the potential for an ART OF DAVE SIM book from IDW after the CEREBUS COVERS books.

It would be nice to think. Like I say, people love Norman Rockwell and people hate Dave Sim. That's going to be reflected in the level of interest for however long that proves to be the case. Could be "all better" now, could be booming like a skyrocket -- everyone loves me or loves my work, could be tanking -- Dave who? Chris Ryall, the editor-in-chief,  really likes the covers I'm doing for IDW. REALLY likes the covers I'm doing for IDW. Right now, that's the middle of the circle around which I have my metaphorical wagons. I really don't want to do anything with IDW which has the potential of them saying "WTF?" when they look at the sales figures. The impression is that the COVERS books will do land-office business. If they DON'T do land-office business, I'll still have my cover rate and whatever I can make from Heritage auctioning them. It's buying me time to do THE STRANGE DEATH OF ALEX RAYMOND. I really can't ask for more than that.

The prices on the HIGH SOCIETY pages are already about as high as I thought they would end up, so there IS cause for optimism. I can't even guess which page will go for the most. But, that's what makes horse races.

Bottom line: if the covers deal with IDW maintains itself and they hit a certain price point in the Heritage Auctions, yes, these will be the LAST "High Society Collection" pages you will be seeing.
Now, YOU guess what that means. :)

Own a piece of Cerebus! Dave Sim's High Society Collection of original Cerebus art is being auctioned by Heritage Auctions. You can place your online bid until 21 February or bid in person at the live auction being held on 22 February at the Fletcher-Sinclair Mansion, 2 East 79th Street, New York. The pages being auctioned are:


Dominick Grace said...

Man, I wish mi could afford even one or two of these, but given where the bids are now, I doubt I could afford even the one that goes for the lowest amount.

BTW it's instructive to keep on scanning through what else they're auctioning. E.g. original Joe Simon cover form the 1950s, comparable to the lower end of the Cerebus bids; ENTIRE ISSSUES of originla art by Jack Sparling, current bid $450-777; Polly and Her Pals page from the 1950s, $220; Suydham "Mudwogs" page for under a hundred bucks; Curt Swan Superman splash page for $325 etc. Dave's faring well in some pretty good company. And if I don't stop scrolling through, I might just have to kill myself....

Anonymous said...

While I can't spend several hundred on the original art, I, and probably many like me, would spend $50 for a high-quality framed print of these pages.

mateor said...

When describing Cerebus to friends and family...I always say that 'someday' people will stop being mad enough to just read the book.

It is a 6000 page work of the highest level of craft. I know people really disagree with Dave. But what does that matter? I have never been able to see that point of view. It is art, you don't have to agree.

Good luck to Dave. I have gained a bunch of respect for IDW through all of this. I always thought of them as just a licensing company, but this has opened my eyes and gotten me to try several IDW products.