The Collection

Al_hirschfeld_stamps_1

These things never start in an orderly fashion, and they quickly veer beyond my control. I sort of like that.

A couple of summers ago, I read Drawn & Quarterly Showcase #1, a book featuring the comics of two young cartoonists. The second one, Nicolas Robel, left me cold. But the first one, Kevin Huizenga, floored me. His thin line, scratchy and minimalist backgrounds, and deep black skies are incredible. His backgrounds are filled with the detritus of modern life—power lines, billboards, neon, litter—but his work is surprisingly clean and direct, as if the Peanuts gang had grown up and moved to the suburbs. The story presented here concerns Glenn Ganges, a young hipster living in St. Louis (where Huizenga also lives), and his increasingly surreal quest to insure that his wife has a healthy baby. It starts out hilarious, and then becomes unsettling.

I loved him immediately. The back of the book is drawn by Huizenga. In it, a car driving in a jet-black night, with the moon casting a glow on the thin clouds and highway. Billboards, road lights, and restaurant signs float in the night—the signs’ poles don’t quite touch the ground; there are lights indicating the presence of buildings, but we don’t actually see any buildings. The image is slightly abstract, more suggestive than concrete, but I had no difficulty in deciphering the scene. It’s beautiful.

Around this time, I read Terry Teachout’s Commentary essay, “Living with Art,” in which he describes how and why he started collecting art. Building the Teachout Museum, with modern art prints and originals, brought him solace, but also instigated a sort of mania. He quickly found that he would never be done with collecting—there’s always one more Fairfield Porter print to get, one more Helen Frankenthaler pencil sketch that breaks the heart.

I like modern art, but I don’t know enough about it to even know what I would (or should) want. Still, I reread the essay—it’s lucid and vivid without being simpleminded or condescending (I can’t find a free link; otherwise, I’d lead you to it.)—and started thinking about Huizenga, whose work I also found myself rereading. An idea began to gestate.

While I don’t know the art world well, I am an avid comics reader. Was there a market, I wondered, for cartoon art, my true love? The ads in the Comics Journal and Comic Art indicated that, yes, indeed, there was.

Still, I didn’t know how to begin. So I did what seemed natural. On a martini-fueled Saturday afternoon, I made a long list of cartoonists whose work I’ve always admired, of specific pages, strips, and book covers I loved. I chicken-scratched an ideal list—Whose work would I like an original of, or at least a rough penciled page? Who would be ideal for a single panel? For whom would a nice print suffice? The list kept growing.

Next up, I took a quick stroll through eBay. While window shopping through the site, I came across an item that I didn’t even know existed. In 1995, Al Hirschfeld drew a set of ten stamps of silent film stars—Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lloyd, Clara Bow, and others. With his quick, jazzy line, he nails the essence of each actor. I wanted a set immediately, and placed a bid on the cheapest auction I saw.

A week later, I was holding my first acquisition.

The unbroken, unbent set looked better in close-up than onscreen. The lines were sharper, the use of simple red and purple bolder. Of course, the stamps were smaller than they appeared onscreen, but I was satisfied. Honestly, I thought this was the end of it. Okay, I’ve collected a piece of art, no matter how cheaply, no matter that it’s a set of stamps that cost me less than $15 total, and now I’m done.

Of course, I wasn’t done. I’d spent a lot of time making that list because I cared about it. Huizenga’s art still lingered in my mind. But he was an independent artist who mostly self-published—the Showcase was his first big exposure—and whose work I never saw on eBay. And I would know. During that summer, I searched for his name every day on eBay. More and more, I became convinced that the only way I’d get a piece of his art would be to buy it directly from him. But how would I do that?

Those Hirschfeld stamps gave me confidence or, at least, returned my mental capacities to me. Why not just Google the man, and see if he has a website? Sure enough, he does. Here’s the funny thing about collecting—in your mad dash to acquire art, you find yourself being brave enough to do things you never imagined yourself capable of doing, like emailing a stranger and offering to buy something from him.

Mr. Huizenga,

I recently came across the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, and was deeply impressed by your comics. In particular, I was mesmerized by the back cover of the book, and wondered if this art was available for sale, either as an original or as a full-color print. I look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.

Sincerely,
Walter ___________

He got back to me immediately, but dashed my hopes. No, he wasn’t selling the original of that piece, and he didn’t have any color or black-and-white prints for sale. But he could, if I gave him a few weeks, recreate the cover in a new black-and-white illustration, for a small cost. Well, thanks anyway, Mr. Huizenga, but— Wait. You’re willing to draw an original for me, for less than $100?

I’ve never been in a position to have a piece of art commissioned expressly for me. I never really thought that I would be. Despite all the best advice collectors could give, I didn’t even bother to haggle.

Since then, I’ve bought a Julie Doucet print, a Souther Salazar print, and a large R. Crumb print. The bug has bit me.

But they’ve all languished in my closet. One of the first rules of collecting is this: “Dang, that artwork came cheap. Shame about the frame.” Custom framing is expensive. With the exception of the gorgeous Huizenga drawing, nothing I’ve bought so far will cost more than the frame I’ll put it in. If I thought I knew nothing about buying art, I was humbled by how little I knew about framing.

Last Friday at work, however, I mulled it over while staring out the window. What am I doing with over $300 worth of art if I won’t show it off? I had, after all, made haphazardly a list of local custom framers. But the best framing advice I could get comes from the dearest source of all.

“Mom, I’m thinking about framing some of my stuff—”

“Do it yourself.”

“Are you kidding?”

“You know what it costs to get art framed?”

“Sort of.”

“Then you know I’m not kidding.” And she proceeded to tell me about buying preset frames, matte paper, acid-free adhesives, and the costs I could expect to see. I spent a rainy Saturday afternoon at Michaels MJDesigns, buying equipment.

And that’s how I spent last Sunday slicing my fingertips with an X-acto knife, then gumming up the wounds with spray-on adhesive, and smudging them with graphite from my pencils. I matted the Hirschfeld set and a 20-piece set of “Comic Strip Classics” stamps myself, using 4×6 and 8×10 frames. The rain rattled and splattered on my balcony. Los Lobos’s Kiko surged through my stereo. I haven’t had so much fun in a month.

The two pieces look pretty damn good, if I do say so myself. I have neither a scanner nor a digital camera, so you’ll have to trust me for now. (The above photo shows a rough scan of the Hirschfeld set.) I’ll take the Huizenga piece and the larger prints to a professional. I chose to work with the Hirschfeld set because it merges three major interests of my life—movies, cartooning, and the postal service. The postal service? Well, yes. All four of my parents—Mom, Dad, Stepdad, and Stepmom—have at some point worked for the U.S. Postal Service, and I spent many a school night listening to talk about the postal union, junk mail, and mediocre bosses. That first acquisition was an odd way of paying homage.

Now, as soon as I figure out where to hang these in my apartment, I’ll be on my way.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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