The Slow Demise of Original Comic Art

November 28th, 2017 | Posted in General

The National Cartoonists Society Foundation‘s Thanks&Giving art auction to benefit hurricane relief efforts is down to its final two days. If you have not at least visited Heritage Auction‘s auction NCSF auction pages, do yourself a favor and go take a look. Bid if you can or wish, but enjoy looking at the images. There are some amazing pieces in there. Looking at them myself I’m reminded how rare these sorts of pieces of original art are starting to become.

A few weeks ago I was at a cartooning get together and I overheard an artist I admire telling another how he now does 100% of his work on the iPad Pro. He no longer needs to even use his desktop computer, scanner, and certainly not paper, pencil, or pen, at all… everything sketched, inked, colored and uploaded from his tablet. The artist he said this to asked what programs he uses, clearly thinking this would be a great goal of his own. These artists were fairly young, looking at several decades of producing really good work, which I will be looking forward to seeing and reading. However, one thought went through my head and would not go away…

…that artist will never produce another piece of original art.

Outside of commissions that cartoonist might do on actual paper with actual drawing utensils, nothing he does professionally will exist in the physical world. None of his published work, the work that is the real fruit of his creative talent and skill, will ever be anything but images projected on a screen via electric impulses, or inks placed in small dots on printer paper. His entire career will consist of 0’s and 1’s on some electronic storage device.

Maybe no one really cares about that anymore. In the end, it’s about the finished work and not the journey that gets you there…right? That’s true, but if you’ve ever held an original inked page by Wally Wood, or a watercolor by Jack Davis, or a cover painting for a book by Frank Frazetta in your hands, you cannot help but feel something special is being lost. These pieces have a connection to the physical world that moves you in a way looking at some print cannot. Here is a piece of paper or board or canvas that the artist’s hands slaved over. On it their pencil, brush, or pen, created something incredible from nothing at all… and you hold the tangible results in your hands. The brush strokes, the pen lines, the demonstration of mastery of the medium they used, all interacting with the surface of a humble piece of pulped paper or woven threads by the actual hand of the artist. They bent over that same piece of board or canvas that you are now bending over, and spent time making their magic. That original is a connection with an artist no print or RGB screen, no matter how many pixels dense it is, gives you. It’s like a time machine…a physical connection to the moments when this piece of art was created and to the person who created it.

Sorry… got a little melodramatic there. But I really do find it sad that one of the major drawbacks of the rise of the computer as a tool for art is that less and less original art is being created. The entirety of many comic strips, comic books, graphic novels, illustrations, animations and other forms of art are being done entirely digitally, and as a result no original art exists for these works. Looking at the surface of the iPad Pro they used to created all of it just doesn’t have the same impact. Actually, it has zero impact at all.

I’m not some grumpy old fart that laments “the good old days”, and thumbs my nose at the digital age. God knows I use digital tools in virtually everything I do. I would never begrudge anyone the chance to use any tool they wish to create their work if it meant they got the results they want and maybe it even saved them time so they could get more work done. In fact the techniques I use for coloring on the computer have only the printed results in mind. When zoomed in to 200% or more on the screen they look loose and sloppy, but I only care about what it looks like in print not on the screen. The results not the journey. Art is art and the computer or tablet is just a tool. Art done digitally is not more or less valid that work done traditionally. The hand, mind, and talent of the artist is what really creates the work, not the paint or ink or pixels used to mold it.

That said, I think I am allowed to heave a sigh and lament that so few originals are being created these days, and I will be denied the chance to hold those originals in my hands and get that connection to those moments its creation really happened and to the artists that created it.


  1. Kyle says:


  2. Joe says:

    ‪I absolutely love original works. And you are absolutely right when you say looking at the image on a screen isn’t the same as holding it. I still love to work in watercolor with color pencil embellishments. I love the limitations I have in not being able to select any color I want or be able to zoom way in to work. And in fact I even like to print out reference material I look up as I feel my brain can comprehend it better when it’s not on a screen. ‬

  3. Tom Racine says:

    This has been one of those on-going conversations on the podcast for several years now. The bottom line is exactly as you say…that the artistry of using the computer/iPad isn’t the issue, that it’s just another tool to create. It’s more an issue of longevity and impact. Will people going to museums in 30, 40, 50 years walk around looking at high definition screens of people’s work and feel the same way they do about a Picasso or a Wyeth painting? Will my kids and their kids grow up feeling that a screen version of something has the same value as a canvas or a piece of comic board? Maybe they will. I’m not so sure about that. Bottom line is that obviously, the speed and connectivity of the iPad and such devices win the day in terms of making a living, so they’re not going away or anything. But I agree that there’s an aspect of it where you can only sigh and realize that perhaps holding an original in your hands is something that will become increasingly rare.

  4. I feel the same way. Real original art, something that shows the line, the color, and the “work” that went into producing a finished material work is a tactile connection to the artist, with the knowledge that there may be copies, but you’re holding the only “original.” Like holding an antique pocket watch in your hand feels like real ‘time’ compared to looking at numbers on a digital watch…y’know ? Anyway, ditto dat, Tom.

  5. Lunzerland says:

    I’m in full agreement with everything you said. In my own work I use the computer as a tool as I “put together” the artwork, but I always make sure I end up with a physical piece of art in the end.

  6. gWebber says:

    I started out on paper, went to computers for a few years and now I’m back to working on paper with real ink. Why? Because working only on a computer you start to lose certain drawing skills and let’s face it, holding physical art in your hands is meaningful.

  7. Glenn Robinson says:

    God how I miss Mad covers which were so painstakingly hand painted by the likes of Norman Mingo, Kelly Freas, Jack Rickard and Bob Jones. Those cover artists were in a league of their own. And no one surpasses Mingo’s depiction of Alfred E Neuman.

    When I was home from grade 1 (1976) with whatever sickness befell me at the time, my mum bought me a copy of Mad magazine 182 which featured a cover by Bob Jones depicting Alfred as a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Over the course of the week I was at home I studied and copied that cover continually. By the time I returned to school I was drawing Bob’s Mad cover from memory, complete with colour shadings and skin tones. For better or worse, it put me on the path to become a graphic designer.

    Call me old fashioned, but I genuinely miss the hand drawn cover art of Mad, and the pen and ink work of the artists inside. These days it seems anyone can pick up a drawing tablet and create something, but back in “the good old days” the work that went into Mad was just incredible.

  8. I feel the same way!

  9. Rob Stolzer says:

    I’ve chatted with a couple of current comic book artists in recent years. Both not only still do their work traditionally, but are incorporating hand-drawn word balloons as well. Part of the reason is for aesthetics, while the other part is for the secondary market (at least in one case). Original comic book art without word balloons is missing part of the visual/verbal marriage.

  10. Jim B says:

    I’ve realized this for some time now. It’s the same for animation when acetate cells were replaced by the screen.
    The only consolidation?- Original art will increase in value.

  11. alex carter says:

    Maybe it’s just because I’m old, but I’m gonna stick with physical art materials and just get a good scanner to start, and then a better scanner (bigger). So what if the colors might not be computer-perfect, or there may be a bit of white-out here and there? I want original pieces of art to go out into the world and go where they’re going to go …

    I fell for the “go to college and study electronics” scam, what a chump I was! But thinking back, all the art I did in high school is still out there, somewhere. It’s in the “not quite bad enough to get thrown away” category, so it’s out there somewhere.

  12. DamonW says:

    If it’s required by the publisher to go digital then I totally understand the need to switch over, but if not then I can’t fathom the decision not to put it on paper when the Original art marketplace has exploded in the last decade. If my last name was Lee, Mcfarlane, or Romita and I was paid hundreds if not thousands of dollars every time I put a pencil to paper I would draw on everything I could get my hands on. It just seems like an unwise economic decision not to…

  13. Mike Gowans says:

    Also, Working traditionally gives you the greatest(and often overlooked) advantage———–The magic of your mistakes!———-There’s no undo button, no filters, no layers——–no safety net——–if you’ve ever seen watercolors interact on paper to create something beautiful you hadn’t intended to create, you know what I’m getting at……………..

  14. Tim Lasiuta says:

    I agree Tom. i recently purchased some 1949 romance artwork from Tom Gill (for harvey Comics), and it oozes talent and commitment. Imagine twenty years from now when illustrated fiction fans are searching for original art , and all they get is a print from a digital file. The artist will never have touched it, nor the inker, nor the letterer or colorist. No value at all for the future…Give me analong, inspired art pages that will survive a magnetic storm.


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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