It started with the JSA. It is always about the JSA, whether as a young lad seeing the cover of JLA 21 in a Woolworths a full two weeks before it went on sale at newsstands. Or, as a not so young lad browsing through a Boston Comic Store during a post marathon walk. This time, as I picked up the fifth issue of Alter Ego with an incredible Infantino cover featuring the JSA, I had no idea this would take me to a very expensive yet fulfilling hobby.
That issue generated enough interest for me to continue buying Alter Ego and as I read the various issues I started noticing commission credits for not only the artist but other people too. Commissioners, folks like you and I, who would get artists to do work to their specifications and liking. Can you imagine the guys and gals who drew comics would draw something for me! I was about to slide down a slippery slope.
My first commission in 2002 was a piece by Dick Ayers featuring the Two-Gun Kid and the Ghost Rider. I paid 95 dollars for it and thought that was a lot of money. I had no idea, but the toe was in the pond and within months I was swimming in the deep end with a solicitation of Shelly Moldoff and Jim Mooney to do a Batman Family and Legion piece respectively. The Moldoff arrived first and it was just incredible, more than I ever expected and sits framed in my home office. I thought every commission would be like this, I’d give a description and the artist would take it from there. The second commission shattered that theory. Jim did an incredible commission adding two additional Legionnaires and the clubhouse but he drew my favorite character wrong. Mon-El as a blonde with swept up hair. I agonized over how to deal with this. I mean Jim drew two extra characters, how could I write back and say hey, one of the characters is wrong and you forgot to put the stripes on Sun Boy’s trunks. Plus there is the chance of the work getting lost in the mail or it taking a long while to return to Casa Dunne. In this case I simlpy took the piece to a convention Jim was appearing at, introduced myself and in the politest way possible asked if he could fix Mon-Els hair? Jim was incredibly gracious and took pen in hand and fixed the work. I did not push my luck, Sun Boy’s trunks are still missing those Forte ’lines.
I learned several important lessons from this encounter. First, remember what your parents taught you, be polite. You may be hiring someone’s skill for awhile but how you interact with them may impact their performance for you. You know, like your workplace. Secondly, each artist is different in terms of art direction. The more reference you give them along with your general thought on a commission the more likely it will resemble the vision you have in your head. There are various ways to do this. I have a friend who draws stick figures to give an artist an idea of what he wants. I tend to find different published images of the characters I want in positions similar to my commission vision and create an image on a sheet of paper which I then send to the artist. This seems to work best on multi-character commissions, such as my Bob Layton, JSA commission. On a single character commission, usually a request to an artist like a Sean Chen, Jay Garrick Commission I had done. I simply asked Sean to give Jay, Infantino speed lines and Sean knocked it out of the park.
Reference is very important with modern books, every artist seems to think they should and can improve on the original designs or ones that have been long established. I would politely disagree and so I usually suggest they look at the provided reference and use that as a model. Of course this is a matter of taste, If for example if I were to ask Ethan Van Sciver to do a character and I haven’t (although my wife and I had a great conversation with him at one convention) I would not ask Ethan to draw the character like Jack Kirby, that is insulting to Ethan since their styles are so different. But I do suggest if you like certain things about how Kirby did a character, suggest or provide reference showing what it is you like about that work. Still using Kirby as an example, you might say how about your take on a Kirby Kackle behind Green Lantern? Or in this case I’d say since I am particular about masks can you make it like the original mask the way Gil Kane drew it. Compare the Kane mask to the Adams mask to the Ed Benes mask, they are all world’s apart. As far as I am concerned all masks should be drawn the way Kirby, Wood and Gil Kane drew them and with small eye holes. So to conclude, reference matters but how you ask, will help carry the day. I had a conversation with Al Plastino one time and he told me he was leery of doing recreations because some people object if a single ink line is left off the recreation. For the record Al does take commission requests, does great work and hit it out of the park when I suggested a World’s Finest type commission. In this case no reference was necessary, Al knew the characters and wanted free rein to draw what he wanted. I was thrilled to get a Plastino piece and was delighted with what I received.
Most of the time I am delighted with what I get because I communicate what I need to the artist and provide reference, it helps especially at conventions! I remember an artist who had problems with a commissioner because he drew the wrong Captain Marvel. This artist was linked to the Marvel, Captain Marvel, the commissioner wanted the Fawcett Captain Marvel. I understand they worked it out.
So how much does it cost? Well these days more than when I started and some folk are just outrageous. I understand one of the top modern artists these days asks 2K for a single figure commission. I wish I had 2K to spend on a commission. More power to those that do. I generally think anywhere from 300 to 800 dollars is about right. The higher the price, the more characters I expect to get which helps considering my fondness for the JSA and MLJ characters. Have I paid more than 800 ? Yeah, a few times. But frankly, in these days I think you have to be realistic. I recently saw a well known silver age artist put up a commission piece on ebay for a thousand dollars, one week later after not selling ,it was reduced to 500 dollars. It should go at that price. If they had done one of their more familiar characters it might have gone for a thousand dollars, but how many people are going to bid on Dynamo as opposed to Batman .I believe it was two years ago Bob Layton had a sale on his commissions, next thing I knew I was number 31 on his wait list. That’s right number 31. Commissioners will respond to reasonable prices and they will spread the word. Every artist has to place a value on their time; you as a commissioner have to place a value on the amount of money you are going to spend on a commission as opposed to a published piece of art. In all likelihood the published piece will have more financial value, but in some cases you can’t put a price on the value of a commission. For example;, my Jerry Ordway JSA piece…priceless.
As I have spent more years in the commission game I have been able to say to some artists okay I have 500 dollars to spend, what will you do for that amount? Again politeness matters. Sometimes you can simply say that’s a bit too much for me right now, perhaps we can do something later. No hard feelings and you’ve left the door open for another opportunity.
So what about paying? Well I can say that so far I have not been burned, but I have simmered a couple of times. I have been kept waiting and waiting for some commissions beyond the expected time of delivery, in one case up to a year. I have two friends who have waited four and two years respectively, for their commissions. Now I can’t speak for you but if I am waiting that long I would prefer the money be in my bank account gathering that measly one percent interest as opposed to someone else’s account
I find Frank Brunner’s approach to be the best. Frank asks for half up front when he is ready to begin the commission and the rest upon completion. Frank also sends prelims, so you know how the work is going. I think that is fair. You are entering into a contract of sorts with the artist, he has incentive to finish the piece so he can get paid, put food on the table, pay the electric bill or buy another X-Box game. I usually try and negotiate that kind of a deal. Sometimes I can and sometimes not, if not, I have to decide how much I want the work from that artist.
Here are two examples; artist number 1 has done one commission for me and solicited additional work. I have done another piece with him but I paid nothing up front. When he finishes, I’ll pay, as expected, he is slow again, but this time I don’t care as much since I don’t have any money invested just time and patience. Artist 2 agreed to do something for me last September with the understanding it was a mid October anniversary present. I’m writing this in March; still no commission and he got paid up front. I wanted him to do the work and I gambled. I have no doubt it will be great when I get it, but… Which brings me to my pet peeve. I find most Golden Age (the few that are left) and Silver Age artists have a great work ethic and if I do a commission with them I will see it in the mail rather promptly. Newer guys not so much and here is where the peeve comes in. Some, not all artists leave me with the impression that my money is second rate, that if they get a job from DC or Marvel they should stop my commission in order to work for the company. Well I get it, the company will publish their work that will be widely read. But, you know, my cash buys the same amount of groceries as the DC check does and if they enter an agreement with a commissioner then that client should be front and center. I know this is somewhat controversial, but if I take my car to Midas and they say they’ll fix my muffler by five that night I don’t expect to be told I got another job and I took care of them before you at 5:00PM. If you are out there looking for commissions than you have an obligation to honor that commitment. Patience may be a virtue but artists should also remember that agreement should be honored within the specified /promised time frame. It’s a Golden rule if you will.
But that should not sully the joy of the commissioning experience. I can’t tell you how much I have enjoyed conversations with Joe Giella, who reminds me of my late father with his commitment to work and family. Jim Mooney’s words of advice played a key role in marrying my wife; we toasted Jim at our wedding. My experiences with Bob McLeod enabled me to hire him for a work related project and I was able to assist Joe and Hilarie Staton in promoting their well researched and invaluable comic on Celiac disease. Talking to Paul Ryan for 45 minutes this December about a commission my wife wanted to give me for Christmas left me doing a mild jig at the conclusion of the phone call. I love the Christmas card I get from Joe Sinnott every year. Every time I look at the Joe Kubert, Hawkman framed in a hallway I smile. Murphy Anderson doesn’t do commissions to the best of my knowledge anymore. I own one thanks to Bill Howard (huge thanks Bill) but one of the best moments of this hobby was seeing him at a convention and saying “Thank you, thank you for all the years of entertainment you have provided me.” Commissioning allows me to interact with all these artistic legends of my youth and that may be the final reward to a commission, interaction with the people who brought mine or your heroes to life.