Framing Dejah Thoris
An Essay on Art, Comic Book Art, and the Collecting Thereof
— or —
The High Cost of Hanging a Barsoomian Princess on the Wall
In February of 1912 — in a serialized story titled ‘Under the Moons of Mars — Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced one of science fiction’s most enduring characters. One hundred years later, Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, is still very much on the minds of science fiction and fantasy fans. Replying to a fan’s question regarding the correct way to pronounce the princess’s name, in a letter dated December 22, 1931, Burroughs included the following pronunciation key. A scan of the original letter can be found at http://www.erbzine.com/mag28/2834.html. Once on that page, scroll down to see the letter.
It all started when I realized the kids would inherit a house with unblemished walls. By that I mean that other than a few glass-fronted frames containing this or that seldom noticed family photograph, the walls in this house had always been uniquely bare — bare of color, or line, or life. And this has of recent become an irritation.
When I worked, this house was little more than a bedroom stopover between outside obligations. With retirement, it has become the very tangible walls of my world. My life no longer takes place some other place. I no longer measure the passage of days by time-clocks, paychecks, or those dreaded annual evaluations. When that cycle stopped, that’s when I began looking at these unblemished vertical expanses of wallboard and paint and muttering (usually to myself, thought with age I’m not always that cognitive of my surroundings) that this quite simply will not do.
My managing editor (read wife) and I have decided that after our passing the kids will have to patch and paint these walls, and maybe even haul away a lot of loathsome stuff. We’ve decided that these walls are a like a blank piece of paper waiting for a story. These walls need color, energy, and a healthy dose of editorial comment. We decided to hang some art. And at least some of that art, after given sufficient time to compost, will doubtless prove to be loathsome.
Historians, art critics, and those educated enough to have a clutch of upper-case letters clotting the space immediately after their names have battled over what is and isn’t art for ages. And as per usual, this learned pile has largely missed the most important point. The problem is not so much defining art. The problem is affording art.
On one of our stops at the Tin Man Gallery in Spokane’s Garland District I saw a collection I really liked. There were half a dozen pieces, each individual piece in itself a patchwork of shallow, box-like surfaces of varying projection seamlessly joined together then painted over with graphic scenes and patterns. The images were explicable — you could tell what was being represented. But the varying depth of the images as they transitioned — as they flowed up or down from the surface of one box onto the surface of the one next to it — tended to intermix each surface’s particular image into an almost surrealistic whole. The color pallet for the entire collection was intense — emphasizing the dimensionality introduced by the relative depth of each adjoining box. And most of the pieces on display followed what I consider my primary rule for any art I’m expected to live with. Despite the subject matter, technique, or style, there should be nothing fundamentally unpleasant about the work.
I like to see an artist putting his or her education to good use — as this youngster obviously was. On the downside, his asking prices indicated he intended to recoup a good portion of the cost of his education in one fell swoop. While helping him out at least some seems only fair, to buy a piece or two of his work would have meant pushing our house taxes back another year. I’m not saying that prices asked for art are unfair; I’m only saying such requests have largely shut us out of the market.
In the area of taste, I guess I’m a bit of a prude. I feel much of the supposedly avant-garde shock and shutter seen in galleries is just cheap regurgitation — a lot of it from artistically educated people who would rather be chatting over wine and cheese than doing the work necessary to perfect whatever actual skills they might have. Playwright Tom Stoppard says much the same thing through his character Donner in 1972’s Artist Descending a Staircase. Donner sums it all with, “Imagination without skill gives us modern art.”
This isn’t meant to suggest I dislike modern art. It only means I dislike laze modern art.
Pat — my wife — was not nearly as enraptured with the constructions in the Tin Man Gallery as I was, though she indicated she could live with “one” of them if I insisted. Like many partners, we still have trouble agreeing on style, content, and such when it comes to art — and likely always will. And I, like many partners, have learned when it’s best not to insist. But not long after our perusing at the Tin Man, Pat caught me flat-footed.
While taking a shortcut between the potted plants and chocolate covered blueberries on our weekly trek though the north side Costco, we walked into one of those framed-art displays — the kind where a vendor has taken a clutch of twenty dollar mass produced prints, put them in good-looking frames, and marked them up four or five hundred percent. Within seconds we were leafing through the stacked rows of standing frames.
Framing looks like it should be easy. But it’s actually hard to pull off successfully. This is very much a craft requiring equipment, experience, and an exceptional eye for color, texture, and geometric balance. So — in these framed-art kiosks you’re buying assembly line artwork and paying a premium for the framer’s skill.
We were shuffling through the usual syrupy Thomas Kinkaid’s, a few classic Italian landscapes, and some of those nice photographs blown up to impressive size while maintaining remarkable clarity. Most of this we’ve seen and passed over before — till of a sudden Pat says, “I really like this!”
Oh my! It’s a painting titled The D. J. by Justin Bua. It has overtures of a three-dimensional airbrushed cartoon — which is not necessarily a bad thing. And finally I have to admit this scene of a black “rap” disc jockey at work is a nicely balanced and colored composition. Then she finds another one by the same artist, this called El Guitarrista. It’s a portrait of an acoustical guitarist — composed in that same urban-jazz style.
And then she finds something she likes even better. It’s a Kandinsky abstract — and a famous one at that.
My wife has surprised me. How cool is this?
Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian by birth, is considered the father of ‘abstract expressionism’. The print Pat was taken by is titled Gelb, Rot, Blau — which translates out as yellow, red, blue. It was composed in 1925, while Kandinsky was teaching at the Bauhaus Institute in Germany. Eight or so years later he immigrated to France to get away from the Nazis. The Nazis viewed abstract expressionism at too intellectual — and therefore too leftist and liberal for their liking. Some things never change.
“This would look really good in the living room,” Pat says. And then, “I think we should buy it.”
Of all the prints and artwork we’d looked at, this is the one she likes? Still, I have to admit, it looks pretty good to me too.
About this time the woman tending the vendor’s display approached us. Painfully thin, she looked to be the jittery, perpetually hungry type — the latter further suggested by the fact that she was holding her hand over her mouth in an attempt to conceal the fact that she was eating.
“Sorry,” she apologized. “They’re giving away samples of the chocolate covered blueberries.” Finishing her mouthful of blueberries, she added, “Have you noticed how much there is to eat in this place?”
And she was talkative. From boredom I suspect — since tending the framed art display doesn’t seem all that mentally distracting.
She detailed where in Costco the best free food samples were being distributed. And then, noticing the print Pat had picked, “That’s probably Kandinsky’s most popular one. Not that I know all that much about art, but I’ve picked up a little bit just working around the stuff.”
We said we’d think about the Kandinsky while doing the rest of our shopping. We picked Pat up some strawberries, along with our usual shopping cart of this and that. We added a Celine Dion CD — more out of habit. And we stopped by the framed art again on our way out — where I made sure the frame’s glazing was glass, not acyclic, before laying its substantial mass over the top of the cart. We got in line at the checkout. A minute later our art girl came bouncing up.
“I just like to ask the people who buy these pictures what they do for a living — just for my own curiosity.”
“Well then, what did you do?
Pat said, “I owned a children's clothing store in Cranbrook, British Columbia, and my husband worked as an orthopedic nursing assistant at Holy Family Hospital here in Spokane.”
The girl lit up. “You know, a surprising number of the people buying framed art at the north side Costco are firemen, teachers, or nurses. Now in the valley Costco where I usually work, they seem to mostly be either psychiatrist or counselors. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Yes,” I replied. “But then I’ve heard that about the valley before.”
The man in line in front of us turned his head and with a cryptic nod said, “Yep.” Without further comment he pushed his cart forward. From appearance, my guess would be that he’d likely attended his fair share of group sessions — obviously in the valley.
So we get our Kandinsky home. It was pre-strung for hanging, which — assuming the framer knew the difference — solved the problem of which side was up. And after we’d hung it, Pat started talking about all our home’s other empty white walls, and how they seem like blank canvases that could use just a little bit of color.
Exactly what I’d been thinking since retirement. And now that it had become her idea, everything was going to work out perfect.
Later that evening my son came down for a visit. When Bowen noticed our new print, he observed, “So you picked up a Kandinsky. He’s my favorite.”
Does everybody known about Kandinsky except me? If so, it’s a good thing I have him hanging right side up.
Having made a tentative commitment to buy some more art, we also agreed we’d need to stay with prints, posters, and photographs due to those ever present economic considerations — though we might to be able to expand our definition of “prints” to include a few limited editions.
Since we decided to start with something likely to prove less expensive, our next purchase was a large season three poster from the television show True Blood. While not exactly art, it’s most certainly going to add some color.
The poster is titled Do Bad Things. It’s a panorama showing the cast of HBO’s popular vampire melodrama lazing languidly in the dark melancholy of a mossy Louisiana swamp. My idea was to have the 24 x 36 inch poster professionally framed. Since the wife is a longtime fan of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse novels, as well as the television series, this proved to be an easy sell.
Our archival quality print — purchased directly from HBO’s online shop — only cost twenty dollars. Having it professionally framed multiplied that figure times twelve — which blew my “less expensive” hypothesis all to hell. The result is absolutely beautiful, but it’s still a poster. And it’s primary value — besides how good it looks on the wall — is the education it has provided. The most important lesson being that in the future it’s perfectly acceptable to install posters in cheap plastic frames.
I also learned that one of the “tricks” professional framers use to make low-cost prints like our Kandinsky and our True Blood poster look so good is glue the entire reverse firmly to a backing-board. By carefully pressing the back of the print onto a flat, adhesive surface, all future potential for waves, wrinkles, and such can be removed. When elevated vertically on a wall, the print won’t sag over time. The only issue going forward will be the ability of the print to hold its color as it ages. While that is largely dependent on the relative quality of the print’s inks and the underlying paper-stock, once the print has been framed it’s possible that any acidic effects caused by the glues and other mounting materials might also become an issue. In other words, if generational durability is a consideration, then the quality of the materials used to frame an image become just as important as the quality of the material the artist or printer has applied the image to.
Our framer is the William Grant Gallery in north Spokane. This small but well equipped combination frame shop and gallery is named after the owner’s father, who, prior to his passing, enjoyed working at the craft himself. This gallery is also where we found our first limited edition print.
I’m told Steve Hanks is able to blend that powdery matte surface common to watercolor with the clean-edged draftsmanship possible in acrylics by priming his watercolor boards with a clay matrix. The slower and more controlled absorption characteristic of the clay makes his trademark near-photorealism in watercolor possible. Photorealism always draws my attention. And looking, I saw more than just a near perfect mimicry of reality. I saw hyper attention to the fall of light and shadows. I saw movement suggested by fabrics draped with a hint of instilled energy. And I saw a color pallet that moved from light to shadow and back again with fidelity. This was not just photorealism. This was something beyond that. Hanks is freezing a moment in time, then subtly altering that moment to infuse back into it a suggestion of the moments preceding and the moments yet to follow. This, along with his choices of subject matter — nudes, romantic interiors, and the reflective qualities of water – have insured Hanks a large fan base.
So — when we saw this nicely framed Hanks on sale at the William Grant Gallery, we took the plunge and bought our first limited edition print. The work is called The Warm Side of Winter. The painting clearly implies that underneath the blanket wrapped around her, the subject — the girl — is nude. She’s sitting in the light pouring through a window. It’s a snowy day outside the window — thus the title.
As noted, this picture was on sale. The limited edition print part of this framed picture, one of 1,650 copies, costs one-hundred and sixty dollars — more or less depending on the vendor. What was actually on sale was the frame, that being one of the gallery’s own creations. And having gone through the process of scratch-building a similar sized frame for our True Blood poster, we had some idea of how deep off retail this sale actually was.
That’s not to say there aren’t some problems with limited edition prints. For one, the smaller the print run the higher the price. I see that even with Hanks. Some of his more exceptional work is copied in editions of two-hundred prints or less. With print-runs as low as that, the cost per print frequently exceeds a thousand dollars. And there is a sizable grouping of other popular artists who produce limited edition runs in such small quantities that individual prints often sell in the three-thousand dollars and up range.
And no one should ever suggest that limited edition prints are investment grade materials. The rare ability of any given image to increase in value over time still remains almost exclusively with the original. Limited editions are still copies. Even when a limited editions has the potential of rising in value — or even holding its original value — that ability belongs almost exclusively to editions that are extremely limited and therefore very costly to begin with.
So — all this suggests that to have a small collection of limited edition prints we’ll need to find a corner of the art world still somewhat outside the mainstream. Somewhere where the prices asked are likely to be a bit lower.
And that’s where the Martians come in.
For several years Walt Disney Studios has been involved with bringing Edgar Rice Burrows’ fictional hero John Carter of Mars to life in a computer enhanced live-action movie. That movie is tentatively set for release in 2012. Possibly in response to that — and the fact that Burroughs earlier “Barsoomian” novels have moved into the public domain — one of the smaller comic book publishers has developed several titles based on Burroughs’ Martians. And reportedly this publisher, Dynamite Entertainment, has rendered those stories in a near perfect word to image retelling.
It’s common nowadays for comic book publishers to create multiple covers — sometimes as many as eight original and variant covers for each issue of each title. By enhancing the rarity of certain low-volume covers in this way, the publishers pander to the collector’s aftermarket. The reason for all this; publishers have discovered that stoking a healthy aftermarket by creating a scarcity through low print runs of certain “desirable” covers tends to increase sales overall by heating speculation.
The downside to deliberately building sales on a “speculator’s market” is the probability that said market will eventually collapse — as not only the market, but the entire comic book industry has done before.
On the upside, the practice of using a different artist to produce each of these multiple covers expands the demand for talented cover artists.
Whether it’s the chronic uncertainty in the comic book industry or simply the results of a revised understanding of copyright law as it relates to the images created by artist, the relationship between publishers and artists has become quite a bit more complicated in recent years. It’s now common for a creating artist to retain ownership of their work. Within this new system, artists are encouraged to invent original storylines, then shop those storylines to publishers as complete titles — as complete graphic packages. When a receptive publisher is found, the artist moves into a partnership with that publisher while retaining ownership of his or her creation.
Despite the dozens of recent technological innovations in comics such as computer graphics, it seems likely that this new business model is in large part responsible for the increasing quality of comic book artwork — as well as the diverse number of titles being published. That is to say, increasing the economic rewards possible for innovative artwork and story creation has encouraged a new generation of artists to enter the field.
Working hard to wring every dollar possible out of the collector’s market, publishers occasionally offer signed, limited-edition prints of the artwork appearing on certain comic book covers. Sometimes too, the artists themselves will offer these images through their own websites — or through outside vendors. One of the alternative covers for Dynamite’s first issue of Warlord of Mars was drawn by J. Scott Campbell. Well known and highly thought of among comic book artist, Campbell’s take on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian princess, Dejah Thoris, was unique — and fifty signed, high-quality prints of the original artwork used to create that cover were made available on Campbell’s website at fifty dollars per copy.
As noted above, Disney Studio’s is well underway in creating a movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ early Barsoomian novels. As for the term Barsoomian — these little bits of trivia will all become apparent to most everyone if the in-production movie proves popular. Since that is statistically improbable, I’ll put you at rest by clarifying that Barsoom is the Martian word for the planet Mars. But not the lifeless expanse of bone-dry desert we see beamed back from the various NASA landers. The Barsoom of John Carter and Dejah Thoris was Mars some four million years ago. It was a world with several intelligent species — all in a state of perpetual warfare over the planet’s dwindling resources.
The seductive Dejah Thoris was a princess of the dominant species — the race of red Barsoomians. As such she was a blend of three older races — the yellow, black, and white. The green Martians were the second most powerful race on the planet, and a completely different species from the red. One thing in common between most all the civilized and semi-civilized species on the planet, they’re oviparous — meaning they’re egg-laying mammals. This would include our Barsoomian princess, and probably explains why she managed to keep her perfect figure through childbirth. It also suggests that that artists will need to ignore the finer points of biology when it comes to illustrating her breasts and that problematic navel. These appendages are not high priorities for egg laying creatures, but they do prove extremely helpful when it comes to seducing earthmen such as the heroic John Carter. The breasts are useful for certain. The navel not so much.
Despite her alien biology, Dejah Thoris has long been the subject of some of the most sensual renderings in fantasy art. Though very much inhibited by the prudishness of the late Victorian age, Edgar Rice Burroughs still managed to describe Dejah Thoris, and describe her often, as either naked or clothed in little more than jeweled ornaments. On the other hand, the early illustrations for these stories were modest in the extreme. Most critics suggest legendary artist Frank Frazetta gave us our modern image of Dejah Thoris in the 1970’s when he created a series of covers for paperback reprints of Burroughs’ Martian novels. It’s more probable that Frazetta was simply returning to the source and drawing directly from Burroughs’ descriptions. Regardless Frazetta’s princess was provocative, voluptuous, and untroubled by what some might consider her flagrant disregard for modesty.
I was personally introduced to this scintillating tart in one of the Hillyard District’s old Goodwill stores. Considering that Goodwill Industries regularly throws any Playboy magazines dropped in their donation boxes into the trash (a policy not likely to have changed over the last fifty years), I suppose that statement requires some explanation.
It was around 1960. I was rummaging through Spokane’s old north side Goodwill looking for back issues of National Geographic when I came across a cheaply bound hardback titled The Gods of Mars. I knew that Edgar Rice Burroughs was the creator of Tarzan, especially since Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan was a stable on local television at that time. Discovering Burroughs had written what appeared to be real science fiction was a revelation. And the title, The Gods of Mars, seemed absolutely sacrilegious — which gives you some idea of exactly how repressed the 1950s and early '60s were.
A lot of us were introduced to the concept of sex in cinema by Maureen O'Sullivan's “Jane” costume, or lack of same, in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate — though as I recall the nude scenes (above water O'Sullivan, below water her swim double Josephine McKim) and a lot more had been cut from the television versions we saw. Keep in mind that 1950s and early 60's television was hardly high-definition. And the quality remaining in those often used reels of film very poor. So poor in fact that it would often have been hard to tell if someone on screen were in fact nude. As for Jane’s costume, if you want to know how much of O'Sullivan was seen as she swung from tree to tree in this particular movie, think Princess Leia in her slave costume. Not much difference. But exposing the American public to either would have caused moral mortification during the McCarthy era.
Despite being neutered of its nudity, first run movie audiences still loved Tarzan and His Mate. But even with all the important parts covered, the moral minority was still in a state of apoplexy over any number of other points. For one they were enraged that Burroughs’s had reportedly failed to marry Tarzan and Jane before the couple started tree-habiting together. Add the bits of buttock revealed below the string-gathered sides of the two stars’ loin cloths, and indignation boiled. So the blue-noses made sure the next Tarzan movie placed O’Sullivan in the jungle-savage equivalent of a burka.
If you want to see what the director's original take on O’Sullivan’s swim sequence was before the scene snipers had their way, the newer Tarzan DVDs have restored Tarzan and His Mate to the pre-censored version. Is she naked? I’d say so. But the nudity is tame by today’s standards.
Anyway, my Goodwill find, The Gods of Mars, was first published as a novel in 1918. It was Burroughs’ second Martian adventure. Its hero was again John Carter — an earthman somehow transported back in time as well as across interplanetary space. I recently tried to reread some of this material and found age — most likely mine — had squeezed all the zip out of it. But after the seamless cinematic magic of Avatar, I think we've finally reach a technological state in which the movies can do the imagery found in the various Barsoomian books justice. The question now is whether the results will be a well-crafted piece of cinematic art, or just another demonstration of the campy dullness usually produced by people who believe themselves too sophisticated to take the spirit of the material seriously.
And then too — one of the questions on everyone’s mind is how seductive the Disney studios will allow Dejah Thoris to appear. To say Disney has changed over the years is putting it mildly. The money’s on some evolution of the sexy version because that’s where the money is. When it comes to the cinematic arts, with rare exception potential profit always triumphs over other value systems — and the Disney Corporation has proven no exception. If the final cut is too high in sex and violence — and one page in a Barsoomian novel without at least some violence is a rare page indeed — Disney will just put the movie out under some subsidiary’s corporate banner.
If so, that would be a hopeful sign for those of us who like our porn rated no lower than PG.
Because the details being released by Disney are so scant, speculation on this and any number of other points is rabid. Insiders have said that the overall design, the overall look of the movie, is steampunk — which is just to say that it draws its visual cues by extrapolating from Victorian era technology — an era powered by steam.
If the steampunk rumor is true, it’s another hopeful sign. A number of classic science fiction stories have been ruined by “updating.” We’re usually told this is done to make dated material more “relevant” to modern audiences. Updating to eliminate the cost of recreating a vintage world isn’t mentioned. But now that computer generated imagery has made building true to the period sets unnecessary, updating is hopefully passé.
And then there’s the ever growing intertwining of comic books and cinema. One reason for this is that turning the pages of a comic book makes it much easier to explain the proposed movie’s concept to a studio executive. Executives in general are an unimaginative lot — except when it comes to plotting the assassination of whoever is currently ahead of them in the race to the next Christmas bonus. With a comic book the execs can get the idea without having to read. Reading, like creativity, is a greatly overrated qualification for the corporate class. Little extras like occasionally checking in with reality are why businessmen hire executive assistants. And sometimes — as in the case of Dynamite Entertainment’s new comic book series Executive Assistant: Iris — assistants can actually be trained to carry out the messier parts of those strategic little murders — character or otherwise — required for corporate advancement.
Essentially, a comic book can act as an illustrated script — a storyboard. In the case of the Barsoomian stories there have been a number of comic book takes done over the years — Dynamite Entertainment’s interpretation being only the latest. As for Warlord of Mars and Warlord of Mars: Dejah Thoris — the two Barsoomian titles currently being published by Dynamite — ask where the various artists illustrating these books get their inspiration for drawing Dejah Thoris and we’re supposedly right back to Frank Frazetta.
As regards my personal taste, I find much of Frazetta’s female imagery uncomfortable. An odd blend of the athletic with the Rubenesque, his fantasy women otherwise seem normally proportioned. When you think about it, normal proportions do not a fantasy woman make. Therefore it would appear that the aspects of his work that have most influenced contemporary comic book artists are the poses and his minimalist approach to clothing. Still, since he’s often mentioned as a prime influence on today’s fantasy artists, I’ll have to assume there’s something here I’m missing.
When it comes to comic artists such as J. Scott Campbell, my suspicion is that they are more heavily influenced by pin-up artist Alberto Vargas. Vargas used a set of visual manipulations to enhance the allurement of the female form — in other words; he distorted the female’s normal proportions toward an idealization. Rather than using the Rubenesque technique of enhancing the ideal feminine shape by widening the hips and thickening the thighs, Vargas thinned the waist to the same effect. He also lifted and rounded the bosoms and lengthened the legs.
Despite the various arguments stating that what we call beauty is just a social construct that can be changed by education; my expectation is that the human response to certain body images is deeply imprinted. Despite fad or social convention, what humans find beautiful in other humans always returns to the same three qualities — symmetry combined with an appearance of health and a suggestion of availability.
And as for the body distortions applied by Vargas; woman have been using various tricks to create similar illusions for centuries. High heels and corsets lengthen the legs and thin the waste. Bustiers are used to lift and round the bosoms. Lipstick and rouge are applied to mimic the flush of sexual excitement and thereby suggest availability. All Vargas or any other pin-up artist does is follow the very same patterns women are already using.
And when you move into the world of comic book art, the artist simply takes those illusions a little bit further.
J. Scott Campbell has his own website. On that website he has a store. In that store you can choose from a selection of signed, limited edition prints of his art. And one of those prints is Campbell’s line drawing for his variant cover of issue #1 of Dynamite Entertainment’s comic book series Warlord of Mars. It’s Campbell’s take on Dejah Thoris.
Even though this print is limited to fifty copies, the prints are not that expensive — fifty dollars plus another eight or so for shipping brings a copy home. Like most limited edition prints, this is not something anyone should expect to increase in value over time. Way too much material of this type is being produced nowadays for anyone to seriously hold such an expectation. All that considered, the only reason left for buying a limited edition print — or any piece of art for that matter — is the art itself.
Campbell’s art is very much comic book art. Try to translate the proportions of his cartoon women into a real woman and the results would be grotesque. The fact that Campbell’s image is very much the opposite of grotesque — well, that’s the magic. That’s the kind of magic top-drawer comic book artists can create by the truckload.
While waiting for my postman to deliver my print, I dropped by our framer’s shop and asked if they would be gluing my inbound limited edition to a backing board like they had with our True Blood poster. The young lady tending the store looked a bit shocked. “We’d never recommend gluing down a limited edition print or anything else that might be of value.” She went on to explain, “When it’s something of value, our preference is to use all archival materials — meaning non-acidic paper, non-acidic cardboard, and the like. The backing-board should have a cotton fabric surface and the artwork overlaying that surface should be held in place by corner tabs — triangular plastic pockets equivalent to, though larger than, the corner tabs people use to hold pictures in photo albums. If the artwork’s image is so close to the artwork’s edge that too much surface area would be obscured once the corner pockets are concealed beneath the overlaying matt, we’d recommend using a non-acidic linen tape barely overlapping along the artwork’s edges rather than the plastic pockets.
“Regardless,” she reassured, “the idea is to do the least damage possible to the art.”
Our Dejah Thoris print arrived inside a plastic sheath sandwiched between two sheets of cardboard and then slipped into a fairly thick cardboard envelope prominently stamped several time with a vibrant red “Do Not Bend.” And we all know how well the latter works. When slipping the artwork out of its plastic sheath, the first thing that struck me was my print’s lack of gloss. Comic book covers are glossy — as are the interior pages nowadays. But this limited edition image was pressed onto what’s obviously a good quality unglazed paper. And that choice alone — the lack of glaze — removes any industrial flavor from the work by making the print look as much as possible like a one-off taken directly from the artist’s pen. I don’t know if all comic art prints are likewise sans gloss, but it seems like the better way.
The print itself is 13 inches wide by 19 high. The actual image is somewhat smaller, with a height to width ratio indicative of the fact that the image is specifically intended for photo reduction to the size of a standard comic book cover. Perusing the art catalogs, it appears that my print’s 13 x 19 inch format is fairly common for quality limited edition comic art reproductions.
Due to copyright, I’m not able to reproduce the image here, but the print appears to be taken directly from the original sketch — by original sketch I mean the drawing used to create the comic book cover before the colorist added his or her embellishments. Shading has been applied in what appears a black wash of varying opacity. Then transparent splashes of translucent purple wash have been added to Dejah Thoris’s skimpy costume and also as a highlight-overlay for the lettering. Campbell’s signature is prominent at the bottom of the print, along with an embossment and numbering indicating that this is print fifteen in an edition of fifty.
Black, gray, and purple on unglazed paper. It’s a significantly more pleasing image than the rendition found on the comic book cover itself. I slip the print back into its plastic sheath and reapply the tape used for closure. The next day we’re off to the William Grant Gallery.
In near panic, the first thing the gallery’s owner did was strip every bit of transparent tape from the exterior of the sheath containing my print. “Tape and limited edition prints — not a good combination,” he states emphatically! It’s obvious that somewhere during the practice of his craft a piece of tape ended up stuck to the surface of a customer’s artwork. That’s a caution I’ll take to heart.
And now we have a few decisions to make. We select a frame color and style — black with little embellishment. A matt — and here’s where we relied on the framer’s judgment. He found a color that came close to matching the purple used in the print. It was perfect. And then the glazing. We went with a low reflection museum quality archival glass. Very expensive — but again, perfect.
All told, we spent the original cost of our print times four to get Dejah Thoris framed. Baring accident, she should remain in good condition for several generations at least. As for whether she was worth the expense, right now the Barsoomian princess is hanging on a hook that’s been driven into one of our living room’s previously unblemished walls. She may not be as colorful as our Kandinsky, but it’s fairly easy to tell which side of her is up. Campbell’s rendering is explicit, but nothing that needs to be hidden away in a closet. And of all the loathsome bit of “artwork” the kids are likely to throw away when they eventually inherit this house, I have a feeling that Dejah Thoris will not be among them.
Something the kids wouldn’t throw away. Now that’s a damn good definition of art.
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