I read with interest and sympathy last week the report that popular comic-book artist Adam Hughes would no longer do commissioned sketches at comics conventions anymore after being frustrated time and time again to see the artwork he’d thought he’d created for fans sold online for several times more than what he charged for the sketch in the first place. While being told he was fulfilling a fan’s dream, he was really engaging in work for hire. His disgust with repeated deceptions is completely understandable, and it’s a shame that opportunists — who clearly know what they’re doing is shady — have ruined things for others.
I’m not only a big fan of comics, but I collect original comic art too, and I’ve got a great little collection of sketches in a small sketchbook I bring to cons (on the rare occasion I can get to one). Many artists do what Hughes has done in the past, doing sketches for a short list of fans who pre-pay. I’ve never availed myself of such services. I don’t begrudge artists the decision to charge for con sketches (especially when such paid commissions are usually fairly detailed); after all, many comics professionals are shelling out money from their own wallets for display space at these events, and selling sketches (along with limited edition sketchbooks, original art and other merchandise) is a good way to recoup such expenditures. I’ve just decided to direct my financial resources and time at cons in different directions. Whenever I’ve gone to cons, I’ve been on a budget (travel has always been involved), and I wasn’t keen on leaving my sketchbook with an artist for a day or more at a convention. Like I said, it’s a small sketchbook, and I don’t like having it tied up with just one or two artists for the entire event.
So obviously, the sketches in my collection are ones comic artists have done for free. Such free sketches tend to be rough, loose, quick pieces of art that really double as autographs for fans. Still, one can find such “quickie sketches” on eBay and elsewhere for sale. Again, it’s a shame to see some flipping with something designed as a celebration of comic art, as a small connection between creator and a fan.
It’s been a while since I had a chance to have an artist add something new to my sketchbook. I’ve been lucky enough that a few of the artists I’ve encountered have seen my sketchbook as a bit of fun for them, or even a challenge. My sketchbook has a theme — “Ouch, that’s gotta hurt” — and many seem to appreciate that I don’t come looking for the usual sketch of whatever characters they’re known for illustrating or some requested piece of cheesecake. I’ve had a few artists flip through the whole sketchbook, looking to see how other artists interpreted my theme and what they chose to include. They’ve used pencils, inks and markers to various colors to create images ranging from simple to intricate, from rough to finished.
I thought I’d share a few of my favorites here, with the stories of how they came to be (or what I remember from the encounter) and what I like about them. Click on any of the sketches to see a larger scan.
The first sketch above is by writer/artist/publisher Steve Conley. It’s the second sketch in my book (the first is a self-portrait of Brian Michael Bendis a la Fortune and Glory), and I got it at Comic-Con International San Diego in 2000 (wow, was that really more than a decade ago?!?). I attended the convention as part of my then-job with Fandom.com, writing reviews for its Comics Newsarama site (which went on to become newsarama.com). Anyway, back to the sketch. Conley is best known for his Astounding Space Thrills, a self-published comic and webcomic about a space-faring adventurer named Argosy Smith. Pictured in the sketch is his friend and sidekick Theremin, a man whose consciousness was transplanted into some kind of gelatinous material.
I love the action in the moment, the perspective and the detail in the glop making up Theremin’s head. It tells a little story, and for those familiar with the comic, it offers a great moment of humor. Such an injury is really little more than an inconvenience to Theremin, and fans of AST can imagine his annoyance. It was this sketch that let me know I’d be getting some gems in my “Ouch, that’s gotta hurt” sketchbook.
Next up (the second sketch on this page) is one of the smallest drawings in my sketchbook but also one of the most meticulously detailed ones. Also procured in San Diego in 2000, this one is by artist Philip Bond. At the time, he was the cover artist on a DC/Vertigo series entitled Deadenders (written by Ed Brubaker with interior art by Warren Pleece). This sketch is of the teen protagonist Beezer. Mod elements were big in Deadenders, including proliferation of teens on scooters, so this vision of Beezer wiping out and ruining his face (which didn’t go down in the book).
I love this sketch for a number of reasons. Again, the theme has inspired a comedic scene. Bond didn’t usually portray Beezer in such a cartoony way, but he’s adjusted his approach to suit the moment. I love the look on the character’s face; it seems to be one of disbelief or detachment rather than pain or fear. It’s clear what’s happened, and the motion — both of the pavement-eating victim and his accidentally abandoned conveyance — really comes through.
Before he was known as the regular artist on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Charlie Adlard, the artist responsible for the third sketch on this page, did a lot of work for DC Comics and its Wildstorm imprint, as well as some creator-owned projects at AiT/PlanetLar, if memory serves. I believe in 2000, he had either just completed work on a Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossover story, or it was coming up. That explains his choice of Green Arrow as his subject for, yes, another comedic sketch carrying on the theme.
I like how Adlard brought texture to the hero’s costume with thick marker strokes, and the hairy ass was a hilarious touch. Furthermore, as is the case with other sketches, one can still see the rough pencil lines that the artist used to draft an initial vision for the sketch. I love that you can see the process at work there.
I also attended Comic-Con International San Diego in 2003, and that year, artist Ted Naifeh, perhaps best known for his work on his Courtney Crumrin comics, co-wrote and illustrated a comic entitled How Loathsome, published by NBM Publishing. It’s an underrated work and deserves attention. It’s a look at the people living on the periphery of everyday urban society, people living alternate lifestyles but nevertheless feeling the same kind of joys and pains those of us on the more conformist side of the world experience.
One of the reasons I love this sketch in particular is because Naifeh chose to include me in it. Yes, that’s me. The pose and the stiletto evoke memories of the S&M elements from How Loathsome. The expression demonstrates just how far outside my comfort zone I really am in the fictional circumstance (I’m guessing Naifeh read my review of the book). I also enjoy how he’s incorporated a word balloon (as a few other artists in the sketchbook have done); it makes it seem like this is more than a sketch but a panel from an otherwise non-existent comic. This is also one of several sketches that’s done only in pencil but still looks crisp and sharp.
The last sketch I’ll share is one of the last ones in my sketchbook. It’s one I got from Parker and DC: The New Frontier creator Darwyn Cooke, and it’s one of three Cooke sketches in the book. When he gave me back my sketchbook at a convention in Toronto in 2003, he said he was disappointed with this sketch, so he’d included a straightforward, non-themed Green Lantern drawing (right before New Frontier‘s release). But I was thrilled with this “Ouch” sketch of the Hulk and Spider-Man. Great humor, personalization, the remnants of the initial process in the form of blue lines, and a little bit of profanity that takes it beyond the norm for corporate super-hero characters. Cooke’s known for more noir and/or nostalgic visuals, but this sketch features his humor cartooning, which we see from time to time as well.
A quick search of listings online indicate that I could probably sell one of my Cooke sketches (especially the more iconic Green Lantern Hal Jordan head-and-shoulders shot) for at least a couple of hundred bucks. No chance. No dice. That sketch and all of the other ones in my sketchbook aren’t for sale. I don’t see them as commodities. They’re mementos. Each represents memories of the event or experience that led me to get it, of the comics that inspired them and the larger bodies of work of the artists in question.
My hope is that other artists will continue to sketch at conventions, whether it’s gratis or paid work. Hughes’ frustration and ire are completely understandable and justified, but I hope he and others artists out there might take solace in the fact that there are many of us who cherish those sketches, whether we got them at conventions, store appearances or through the mail as commissioned work.
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