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Wednesday, December 10,2008

Captain Comics

The story of an unassuming fan-boy’s one-of-a-kind collection and the good he plans to do with it

by Bill Castanier
The first thing you notice about Dan is his smile. It’s a little turned on one side by cerebral palsy, but it lights up the room. He’s usually waiting at the door for your arrival, ready to take you to his tidy, but packed — packed may be an understatement — upstairs storage rooms jammed with an estimated more than 30,000 comics. It’s an estimate, because Dan (last name withheld to protect his identity because he has a fortune in comic art in his house) has given up on counting. “I’m a geek,” Dan proudly exclaims, raising his hands over his head in a comic-book victory sign.

Now, 30,000 comics by any measure is a major collection, but in his calm voice Dan casually drops the news that about 10,000 of them are signed by the artists who drew them. This alone makes the collection jump to world class, and Dan is more than a world-class fan boy.

Over the last 24 years, Dan and his close friend Dennis (every hero needs a sidekick), have attended more than 200 comic-book shows, mostly in the Midwest, where Dan’s easy-going attitude and appreciation for comic art have endeared him to legendary and far-flung artists, including Gary Baseman, John Buscema (now dead); Joe Sinnott; Dick Ayers; George Tusca; Jerry Robinson (creator of “Batman” characters The Joker and Robin) and Marie Severin.

These artists have sketched for him, many times in full color, drawings of Batman, Superman, and scores other super heroes. Some have even sketched Dan in these drawings, but he doesn’t particularly like those.

This is where Dan takes collecting to a whole new level. He guesses he has more than 600 signed drawing and sketches in his collection, which he adds to all the time.

Randall Scott, curator of the Michigan State University Comic Book Collection, says this is a one-of- a-kind collection of signed comic books and comic book art. “I don’t think anyone has got anything like that,” says Scott, who has seen Dan’s collection. “I don’t know any collectors on that level.”

Ray Walsh, proprietor of Curious Books in East Lansing and a long-time collector and purveyor of comics, agrees. “This is a unique collection and virtually impossible to duplicate,” he says.

Although it’s never been formally appraised, these local experts believe Dan’s comic art collection could be worth as much as $500,000. Maybe more.

However, Dan wants to do something more than admire or sell the art.

Inspired by “Heroes,” a 64-page comic book published in 2002 to recognize the rescue workers of 9/11, Dan decided he wanted to use his collection to do something similar for struggling comic book artists.

He plans to publish a limited edition comic book, with all profits going to the Heroes charity (related to the 9/11 book only by name), a fund for comic creators in dire straits (www.heroinitiative.org). Many artists, especially those from the Golden Age of comics (1930s, 1940s), worked without contracts, benefits or health care. Few owned any rights to their work.

Dan would like to see about 80 of his pieces used to illustrate the book, and he thinks that since they are one-of-a-kind images, other collectors would snap them up. If the initial publication works, Dan says he would continue with a series.

Dan has a strong attachment to his comic art; it was done for him alone, and the artists respect his love of their work. Sketch after sketch is signed, “To Dan.”

Noted artist George Perez, of Florida, visited Dan in Lansing to see his collection, and he wrote an article about him titled “Dan’s Dream” for his own fan magazine. In the article, Perez writes, “You’ve likely seen Dan at those shows, an eternally youthful fanboy with a beaming smile that offsets his uneasy gait and halted speech.”

Perez, who has drawn characters for such titles as the recent “Junior League,” “Wonder Woman” and “Teen Titans,” was excited by the breadth of original artwork in the collection.

The first piece in Dan’s collection is a black and white sketch of Mephisto by Joe Sinnott drawn in 1998. Dick Ayers, a noted “inker” for Marvel was the first to contribute a major piece. Today the collections includes work by several legends in the industry, including Dan Jurgens, Ed Beard Jr., Rudy Nebres, Mark Texeira, Steve Rude, Mike Kaluta and John Byrne, as well as portfolios full of others.

Comic book artists often do simple sketches at shows and give them away. Anyone who’s seen Dan’s collection will tell you the majority of it is more than simple sketches, but rather, intricate, fully developed comic art. Dan says artists are willing to go out of their way for him, because they know he won’t flip their artwork on e-Bay, which is not uncommon.

Comic experts who have seen the collection say it is not only the varying styles of the nearly 200 different artists that makes it unique, but the range of single characters, such as Batman, to the large groupings of multiple characters in combat.

Often, there are characters from competing publishers, so expect to see the Golden Age Flash in mortal combat with Quicksilver. This cross-drawing causes copyright clearance problems, since Marvel and DC have ceased work on any joint projects, such as the “Justice League/Avengers” comic. None of this deters Dan’s dream. He plans to do one collection for each major publisher, but that means some incredible crossovers may never be seen, except possibly at an art exhibit.

Since the proposed project is for a good cause, Walsh think it’s possible the major comic publishers would agree to a one-time book, but he said there are a lot of other hurdles to clear, such as the artists’ estates.

Dan, who started collecting comics in the 1980s, says he buys about 200 comic books each month, mostly from Lansing’s Capital City Collectibles on Michigan Avenue. He says watching animated super heroes on TV while growing up helped fuel his obsession.

So which series is his favorite? “I have too many to decide,” he says, as he rattles off “New Avengers,” “X-Men,” “Spider-Man,” “Justice League” and “Thor.” “So many,” he exclaims.

Recently, he has been excited by the resurgence of comic books, especially in the movies, and the reintroduction of “Justice League.”

Dan and Dennis are already planning their annual spring trip to a comic expo in Columbus, Ohio, where Dennis quotes the show organizer as saying, “The show doesn’t start until Dan shows up.”

In previous years at the Columbus expo, Dennis remembers a couple collectors whispering, “There’s that dude with the big-ass sketches.”

Until the next convention, Dan will continue to work the phones for permission from Marvel and DC to publish his one-of-a-kind collection of super heroes and villains. He also would like to mount an exhibit of the work so it could travel.

Scott says cataloging the art and preparing a book of this magnitude for print would take some deep pockets.

If Dan could get powerful fellow fan-boys like president-elect Barack Obama (a collector of “Spider-Man” comics and fan of the “Conan the Barbarian” series) and pop-culture collector, museum owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen behind him, he might be able to say, “Shazaam!” and have the project underway.

Before our interview is over, I have to ask Dan, if he could be a super hero, who he would be? Without hesitation, he shouts, “Thor,” his biceps bulging.

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