(This might be a first, where the best written version of events comes from “The National Enquirer.”)
After the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy, a number of tributes were made. In 1964, due the lead-time needed to create commemorative issues, DC Comics had two “Superman Meets JFK” issues put to print. The first was “Action Comics #390,” in which the plot had the late President help Superman by covering for “Clark Kent” so Lois Lane wouldn’t discover Superman’s alter ego.
The other was “Superman #170,” in which the Man of Steel is given personal orders by Kennedy to Superman to help promote the Presidential fitness program. (The story goes that the plot for this issue came from Pres. Lyndon Johnson himself.)
As a result of the direct request of the White House, the story goes that the original pages of art were to be donated to Kennedy’s widow Jacqueline. She then in kind, donated the pages to the Kennedy Presidential Library, which is on the campus of Harvard University.
But apparently the pages never got there; in fact, they were sold unknowingly at auction at Sotheby’s in 1993, and where about to be sold at auction again next month. Starting asking price, $20,000 a page.
Perhaps even more cryptic, the auction is set for November 22 in Dallas; the very date and location of the Kennedy assassination.
Fast forward to last month’s New York City Comic-Con and the story of 91 year-old Al Plastino. Plastino was the artist and inker on “Superman #170,” and believed like everyone else, that his pages were on file in Boston…until they were shown to him by an employee of the auction house.
As many of you already know, all of us in the comics dept., in addition to just working there, are huge comic fans. One of our employees was chatting with Al as a fan at New York Comic Con, and Al expressed interest in seeing the art, so we brought it for him to look at. That’s when someone from the Hero Initiative snapped a few pictures.
We’re all very sorry to hear that Al Plastino never got the art back from DC, but we all know the sad realities of the comic publishing business back in those days. Heck, it’s one of the reasons I am on the board of the Hero Initiative and the reason Heritage helps support them.
Plastino then wrote out this plea on his personal Facebook page:
Please help if you can. The art I donated and thought for all these years was being housed at the Kennedy library at Harvard is now being auctioned off on the anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. And now I am finding out that the art may have never made it to the library. The archivists tell me there are no records of it ever being received. I asked for the art back and they will not give it to me. I asked for the consigner’s name and they will not tell me that either. They tell me I have no rights to my work and that it is too late to get it back.
Since then, the auction house has suspended the listing of the art while it investigates. Sadly, Plastino is facing an uphill fight when it comes to getting the art back. Back in those days of comic book publishing, artists rarely if ever got their art back. In fact, it was common practice back then for both Marvel and DC to warehouse original art and do with it as they pleased. It wasn’t until the late 1970s to mid-1980s that it became common practice for a comic book company to return original artwork.
Before then, only a few big names like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had enough clout to get their artwork back. In the case of Kirby, it took lawsuits to get some of his original art from the 40s and 50s back. Today, many artists hang on to their art for sentimental reasons, some do sell pages, but often as a last resort.
For artists like Plastino, who had no pension plans and lived month to month on their artwork, selling pages meant building a nest egg. Add in how he believed it was going to be given to a Presidential Library to be part of history, and the discovery of them being at auction is an incredible betrayal.
Plastino’s case is now being handled by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and Hero Alliance, both non-profits which deal with ensuring comic book creator’s rights are honored.
But advocates for comic book artists say that since the art was never given to the museum, Plastino remains the rightful owner. Comic book publishers, they claim, only buy the publishing rights to an artist’s work, not the work itself. Publishers generally dispute this, and it’s an issue that’s been debated for decades.
“He never gave up ownership of the art because DC never purchased it from him or paid sales tax,” asserted Kris Adams Stone, daughter of comic book legend Neal Adams. She added that legal papers are being prepared to halt the auction for good.
As the current owner, there’s nothing to say they did anything legally wrong. The real question going forward is how they never made it to the Kennedy Library in the first place.