The economy might be hurting, but vintage comic book art is still booming. Case in point, Frank Miller’s black, shadowed image of Gotham’s protector is going to bring its owner a hell of a payday.
Offered for sale on June 16, New York’s Heritage Auctions estimates a $2 million windfall for DC Comics’ super rare Batman: The Dark Knight Returns #1 original art cover. Poised to possibly break the record for the most expensive American comic cover ever sold, Miller’s 1986 graphic novel redefined the depth, tone, and range of storytelling possibilities for the Bat, and, subsequently, the entire superhero genre. In the process, Miller’s deeper, more adult narrative paved for the comic cinematic universe that has taken over worldwide popular culture.
Any original from this series is among the most desirable original comic art, but a cover of this magnitude — the key introductory image from a series with so much influence on the entire comic industry — has never before been offered at auction.
The beauty of Batman lies in the superhero’s palette that allows for endless interpretation. The World’s Greatest Detective was an early one. The Caped Crusader evoked more vivid comic colors and technicolor action. Nowadays, Miller’s revolutionary vision stands at center stage. The Dark Knight cover eschewed the multi-colored, graphic-laden heroes of the time, exchanging variegated clutter for a simple silhouette of Batman in flight. Miller and colorist Lynn Varley placed the leaping superhero in front of a lightning bolt crackling behind him, a symbol of justice in a world marked by dark corruption.
The Dark Knight was the electric strike that revitalized the Bat’s place in the DC Universe. The original artwork for this pioneering story is easy. The image is an icon of a new superhero era, and one of the most famous comic book covers of all time, resurrecting Batman from a tight-wearing action figure involved in adolescent escapades into a gritty contemporary heroine — a dystopian future epic that features the black figure stalking a Gothic urban climate.
Miller’s four-issue miniseries comic shaped the Bruce Wayne that we find brooding under the Bat mask in films from Tim Burton’s phantasmagoric action horror to Robert Pattinson’s return to masked man’s detective roots. The cover also foretells Miller’s formidable storytelling and offers readers a new type of tale — gritty, realistic, and emotionally moving.
In addition to Alan Moore and David Gibbons’ Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns prefaced the modern age of comic books, which explored more mature themes and weaved more developed personalities collided to create conflicts more complex than the standard good guys vs. bad guys. The Dark Knight also previewed an era with equitable representation as to the first appearance of Carrie Kelley, the only female Robin, who would go on. to save Batman (and later become Batman themselves).
Upon its 1986 release, the comic almost immediately sold out and the DC team had to rush out a second run. Miller’s comic art, however, wasn’t always appreciated and most issues weren’t preserved. Over time, however, the Dark Knight’s reputation bloomed and finally flowered when Time ranked the series as one of the top 10 graphic novels of all time. Along the way, Miller would go on to create some of the most critically-acclaimed graphic works of all time, including Sin City and 300.
In the past few years, the comic book (and collectible) market has skyrocketed, with particularly rare examples selling for millions of dollars. In 2019, before the market’s pandemic boost, Heritage sold Frank Frazetta’s original Egyptian Queen cover (from a 1969 Eerie magazine), for $5.4 million. Although recent numbers haven’t quite reached that level, the volume of million-dollar sales continues to escalate.
In the past few years, collector markets, especially for comic books, have spilled over into the realm of fine art. As the market values the best of the best most, Miller’s cover artwork could earn the highest price of all time for an American comic book cover, and further redefine appreciation for an entire history of art.
Heritage Auctions’ June 16-19 Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction will open for bidding later this month.
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