What you see: R. Crumb’s original cover art for the best-selling 1969 book Fritz the Cat. Heritage Auctions sold it in May 2017 for $717,000–a record for Crumb, and a record for any original piece of American comic art.
Who is R. Crumb? He is an American artist who led the underground comix movement. He co-founded Zap Comix and created one of the counterculture’s most enduring images with his Keep On Truckin’ single-page comic, which appeared in the first issue of Zap. Much of Crumb’s output is proudly NSFW, so Google at your own risk. In 2009, he published a graphic novel based on the Biblical Book of Genesis. He will turn 74 on August 30.
How rare are original pieces of Crumb comic art at auction? “We sell a lot of it. There’s been kind of a boom lately,” says Ed Jaster, senior vice president at Heritage Auctions. “Crumb has always been a staple of what we offer in our Comic and Comic Art sales, but we’ve never had the wealth and breadth up and down the line with what we’ve had in the last year and a half.”
This work by R. Crumb is the most valuable original comic art ever sold at auction, beating a 1990 cover from the Amazing Spider-Man #328 and a 1974 page from an Incredible Hulk comic that shows the debut of Wolverine. What’s the significance of that? “Put it this way. If you want to buy a Picasso pen-and-ink drawing, $717,000 will get you a really good pen-and-ink drawing,” he says. “You certainly could buy a more expensive Picasso drawing, but this is right there.”
Why has Crumb bested the more traditional superhero comic book artists? “What’s special about Crumb is he’s transcendental. He’s transcended his given media,” Jaster says. “There’s no comic book artist I can think of who’s had as many museum shows and international shows as he has. Crumb has been relevant ever since the hippie days and he’s never gone out of style.”
How long do you think these records will stand? “The original comic book art one, maybe not too long. Comic book art is incredibly popular,” he says. “Those two $657,000 sales were as pleasant a surprise as the Crumb art was. There are scores of things more desirable than them out there. It’s just a matter of them coming to the market. There’s probably an amazing thing out there that will get five or ten million, if it exists. As far as breaking the record for Crumb, I know the cover art for the Cheap Thrills record album is out there. The first Keep on Truckin’ or the cover of Zap Comics #1, a very small distribution comic, are the things that could sell for more.”
What else makes this piece of original Crumb comic book art special? “There’s some irony here in that Crumb is known for pushing the envelope with his subject matter and political views, but Fritz and his girlfriend are quite demure. It’s PG-13 for Crumb, who is known for adult material. It’s kind of a sweet thing,” he says. “And the book, Fritz the Cat, moved Crumb up in importance to be maybe the most famous cartoonist of his generation. It catapulted him from the guy who does sleazy, objectionable stuff to a guy who was really important, and this was the piece that did that.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Graham Nash’s collection of original Crumb comic artworks is up for bid in Heritage Auction’s Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction in Dallas from August 10 to 12.