R.I.P. Original Artwork

December 17th, 2010 | Posted in General

I received a note from an interested party yesterday concerning The Great MAD Art Sale (which officially ends on Monday, BTW… don’t delay, order now!) asking about original MAD cover artwork. He was looking to buy an original MAD cover, and wanted to know if I had any or if Mark Fredrickson has any originals available for sale?

My answers were: No, unfortunately I’ve never done a cover for MAD (well, two for MAD Kids and one for a MAD advertising insert… but they hardly count) and have no originals of cover art and, regarding Mark’s covers, I don’t believe any originals exist because he works 100% digitally these days. Fairness in conversation: I did the covers I just mentioned digitally as well.

Back in 2008 the last (an best) of the original cover art owned by MAD (or, more accurately the parent company of MAD: Time Warner) was sold at auction. Among them were 13 original covers done by the likes of Norman Mingo and Kelly Freas (and one chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs), that were considered the “Soul of MAD” i.e covers that represented what MAD was all about. They sold for a combined $750,000.

Legendary movie poster artist Drew Struzan recently retired from doing movie posters. He worked in acrylic and mixed media doing original paintings for some of the most icon movies posters in film history. His originals routinely sell for $90,000-$150,000.

Despite that market, the days of seeing that kind of original art available for sale is rapidly coming to a close. The reason? Computers. Digital artwork is taking over the commercial art field and more and more work is being done on the computer leaving no originals to be bought, framed and admired on a wall somewhere.

Take MAD covers, for example. Mark took over as the principal MAD cover artist arguably in 2003, when 5 of the last 6 issues of the year had covers illustrated by him. Except for a handful of special covers that were cartoon characters, graphics, dual covers or by the VERY rare different artist, Mark has done every MAD cover since 2005. Mark long ago put away his airbrush and went 100% digital,so as far as I know there are no originals of any of his MAD covers. Maybe he has pencil sketches or a tight pencil drawing or something that is “original” in the sense that it was part of the process of creating the cover, but there is no piece of physical artwork that corresponds with the finished cover image with Mark.

That seems pretty sad. However it’s really a kind of return to the old days and old ways. Back in the early-mid 1900’s when magazines and periodicals ruled the world of entertainment content and advertising, commercial artwork was hardly considered “art”. Magazine covers and art for publications and ads were done with materials that gave no thought to archival quality or anything other than looking good long enough to get reproduced and then it was trash. Nobody thought of this stuff as having any secondary value. MAD publisher Bill Gaines saved every piece of art ever done for MAD as he owned it all (based on the work for hire agreement all MAD artists and writers worked under), but I doubt he had any idea that the cover art of MAD #30 would one day sell for $250,000. Commercial art was a means to an end, and once the end was achieved then that art was done being of value.

It wasn’t until the nostalgia factor took over that original commercial artwork became valuable in a secondary market. Highly visible stuff like magazine cover art, art for iconic ads and products and other commercial illustration started being collected by a new generation of adults that were weaned on things like comic books and publications and who connected with those images on a personal level and… and here’s the important thing… grew up to have both money and the attitude that they would rather hang the original artwork of a cover of Spider-Man on their wall than some modern art minimalist painting. Suddenly all that trash art from yesteryear became treasures to the pop-culture saavy new professionals of the day looking to decorate their dens. A lot of that artwork was destroyed or done with materials that plain old faded away (Dr. Martin Dyes, a popular medium of color for commercial art in the 60’s, were especially infamous for losing their color and intensity is short order) so there was also a scarcity in available originals. Even the market for original comic book art, which often was saved if only for reasons of possible future reproduction, didn’t become a real market until the kids of the 50’s and 60’s became the adults of the late 70’s and 80’s with money to spend.

The point is that the illustrators of decades ago didn’t give much of a thought about the art they did past it’s reproduction. Today’s digital artist has the same sort of mentality… an original is far less important that producing the work in a faster and more efficient manner that makes for the transition from concept to printed piece as quick and seamless as possible. So you see, it’s all a return to the past.

The sad part of that equation is all the walls bereft of original illustration art in the future.


  1. Rob Chase says:

    Hey Tom, Drew actually did a MAD cover and is selling the original on his site for $35,000:


    Just thought I would toss that info out there . . .

  2. Tom says:

    I had forgotten about that cover. Wish I had an extra $35,000 laying about. I’d love an original Drew Struzan as much as I’d love an original MAD cover…. but I’ve got a kid in college and two more headed there in the next 4 years.

  3. Mark Engblom says:

    Yeah, the passing of the physical artwork “era” is definitely a huge deal…but at the same time the cost savings to cash-strapped publishers is a net plus. Converting physical artwork to printing plates was an arduous, expensive, and inexact process in decades past, and digital processes bring speed, lower costs and much greater accuracy in both the production and printing of the final product. I’ve gone on hundreds of press checks over the course of my career, and the level of proficiency printers can hit these days is light years from where it used to be due to computer-modulated press controls.

    So, yeah, I’ll kinda miss seeing those inked and white-out caked originals (though, being an artist myself, I was never as transfixed by original art as “civilians” usually are), but the digital age, on balance, has provided many more pluses than minuses for the commercial artist.

    Good post, Tom!

    • Tom says:

      Agreed. While I do miss having that piece of art to hold in my hand as a physical “end” to labor over a job, I am much more interested in doing the job better, more efficiently and with greater control over the final results than I am having a drawer full of originals. I’d go 100% digital if I didn’t enjoy the physical process of drawing and inking as much as I do.

  4. Rob Chase says:

    While we can all agree that creating work digitally is more efficient and allows for more accurate reproduction, at what cost? It seems to me that our culture has become that of consumerism – only looking to the next best thing and living in a disposable world. Nothing is appreciated and art is something everyone believes they can do because they have Photoshop or Corel Draw. Even beyond that, I like seeing the artists hand in the work. The “mistakes”, the texture, trying to dissect the process the artist used to get his final result. Maybe that’s because I’m an artist, which directly contradicts Mark’s statement that only “civilians”(?) are transfixed by original art. I’ve never met an artist that didn’t appreciate or even marvel at another artists work. But I digress . . .

    To bring Drew Struzan back into the topic, he attributes his retirement to a comment made by a studio executive concerning why they weren’t going to use his art for a film poster. The executive said “Because it looks too much like art” . . . how can you remotely rebound from a statement based in such ignorance? “Too much like art”?!?!? That kind of thought process rips up Tom’s theory of returning to the old way, throws it on the floor and unloads it’s bladder on it. I think it’s a sad and selfish practice to create art in a purely digital environment. I refuse to hang up my paint brushes or my airbrush entirely. Probably because, like you Tom, I just enjoy the process too much. Everything is cyclical, so hopefully this trip around will be short lived.

    Just my opinion and we all know what they say about opinions . . .

    • Tom says:

      I can understand your thoughts, but I don’t agree that just because something is done digitally means it can’t be great art. Maybe only a print of a digital piece can get hung on the wall and no artist’s hand is evident physically, but art is created by the mind more than the hand. Materials are just materials, using ground up pigments suspended in some kind of medium doesn’t make art “art”. The computer might make it a little easier for the untalented to “fake it” but good work is still produced by good artists, no matter the medium. Illustration is created for a purpose, and once that purpose is served whatever is left over might be “art” and it might not, depending on the process involved. Even in traditional media illustration, a piece done for a magazine cover might not necessarily be a frameable piece of artwork. I’ve seen some original illustrations that look like a pasted up train wreck in person but looked good in print.

      That said I still love originals. I have a number of original comic strips and work from some of my heroes that I can’t bear to frame under glass. I love pulling them out of the drawer and getting my nose up close and seeing the pen and brush strokes, the faint exploratory pencil lines, the corrections, the happy accidents.

  5. Rob Chase says:

    I never meant to imply that because a piece was done digitally that it isn’t great art, or even art in general (great art is, after all, subjective). Everything is dependent on the artist doing the creating. That being said, a great idea does not art make. Especially without the ability to translate that idea visually – regardless of their medium of conveyance. There are plenty of people out there with great ideas, but we get paid because we can put ours on paper. I may be holding on to old school beliefs, even being relatively young, but an artist should at least posses the ability to hold a pencil and draw a picture, as opposed to importing a picture into Photoshop and using a filter or two that makes it look as though he drew it (Those whose work you’ve witnessed that was such a shambles until it was printed falls into this category as well. Or at the very least unprofessional.) Art in the current environment is composed of technicians. The giants of their field are those who can manipulate a photo the fastest and most efficiently. It’s truly sobering.

    Where would the world of art be without original, hand drawn, hand painted art? Think of the Renaissance period, all created by commercial artists of the time. They didn’t create art hoping and waiting for their big break – they did it for trade and that trade may have been food, money, or even to avoid eternal damnation (Michelangelo’s Sistine chapel is an example of the latter). Yet we now revere those works. They’re held in a higher regard that our gold reserves. There’s a reason for that.

    It would be a damn shame to have ours be the first period to leave behind CD’s, DVD’s, and flash drives (Hell, I have zip disks with art on them that I can’t retrieve and those are only 10 years or so old) as our contribution to the evolution of art.

    • Tom says:

      I don’t consider Photoshop photo manipulations or filter driven images as “digital art” any more than I call a photograph a painting. It just happens that the computer can be used for both tasks these days. How you use it makes all the difference.

  6. […] was thus in sympathy with Tom Richmond, an illustrator for MAD Magazine, among other outlets, when he discussed how original art is […]


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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