What's faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive-and could easily set you back as much as a brand-new BMW? At current prices, the answer might be a piece of original comic book art. These oversized black-and-white panels are essentially leftovers from the process of producing a comic. Once sought out by a tiny group of fans, they have gained acceptance as collectible artworks, and their prices have risen accordingly. "Pages that went for 30 or 40 bucks 20 years ago," says collector and dealer Mike Burkey, of Romitaman Original Art (romitaman.com), "are now going for 10 to 20 thousand dollars." Especially prized pieces can command six figures.
The hand-drawn panels bear the marks of several collaborators: the penciller, the writer and the inker. The process-basically unchanged for decades-produces covers (the most highly prized), single-image interior "splash pages" that introduce a story (next in the hierarchy) and the multipanel pages that compose the bulk of the comic (typically the most affordable).
Other attributes increase desirability, explains New Jersey-based dealer Will Gabri-El (comicartpage.com), who owns one multi-panel page that he values at $17,000. It's from just the third comic devoted to Marvel's Fantastic Four (early '60s), and is written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, two giants of superhero comics. It's a classic page from the heavily traded Silver Age (roughly 1955-1972), which was a period dominated by the brooding characters and complex plots that Lee and Kirby pioneered at Marvel Comics. The Golden Age dates from the first Superman comic in 1938 to the mid-'50s, but the scarcity of extant original art and astronomical prices have beset its market.
Insiders attribute this hobby's growth to our endless fascination with superheroes, the rise of Internet trading forums and its acceptance in the fine-art world. (Even Sotheby's and Christie's have dabbled in it.) However, as prices rise and attract speculators, many longtime collectors are griping that the hobby's camaraderie is being lost as they are squeezed out of collecting the very art they helped to champion.
A good place to start exploring the hobby is comicartfans.com, a vast site where members can display their collections and share information. Several auction houses host both in-person and online sales in original comic art, the largest by far being Texas-based Heritage Auction Galleries (ha.com). You may also want to attend one of the many conventions held across the country-the granddaddy of them all is the San Diego Comic-Con, scheduled this year for July 22-25.
Fortunately, you needn't dip into the kids' college fund to get your superhero fix. Pages by lesser-known Silver and Bronze Age (1973-1985) artists can be found for under a grand. Or to get in on the ground floor, look into collecting originals from artists at work today. A diligent collector can find worthwhile pieces fresh off the drawing board for a few hundred dollars.