Since the early 1980s Sean Rutan has been a fan of superheroes. What began with an appreciation of cartoons and comics led to collecting and accumulating an impressive knowledge of comics and comic art. Now, Rutan has been added to the team at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles as the Comic Art Specialist. Rutan spoke to Scoop about his journey as a fan and collector, connecting with Hake’s, and his ideas for the future.
Scoop: When and how did you become a comic book fan?
Sean Rutan (SR): Hmm, there’s no doubt that my gateway drug was The Super Friends cartoon, followed soon after by the two Spider-Man cartoons of the early ’80s. Beyond the cartoons, I grew up with Mego figures and Underoos in my early formative years and they remain among the greatest superhero products ever created. With all of the cartoons and merchandising in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I really did come of age in a fantastic era. Then at the wise age of 3, the first comic I ever picked up off the rack was Captain America #252 from the sublime [Roger] Stern/[John] Byrne run. My grandpa and I had walked down to the corner Lawson’s market where I discovered the spinner rack and recognized many of the characters from my cartoons and my toys. The Captain America logo really jumped out at me and I loved Cap’s costume (it didn’t get much deeper than that at 3). I’ve been hooked ever since and Cap is still my favorite character.
Scoop: Which comic book titles do you collect?
SR: To reduce some of the stress on my wallet, I’ve focused on original art and vintage toys since about 2012, at least when it comes to my long-term personal collection. I do read comics however, especially trade paperbacks, with a smattering of Image titles along with my Marvel mainstays and a few DC event books (Kingdom Come, Justice, Identity Crisis, etc.). I actually love my local libraries for comic reading and they order new stuff for me all the time. Traditionally I’ve been a fan of Cap, Spidey, Wolverine, Daredevil, and the Avengers, with Flash, Batman, Captain Marvel (Fawcett/DC), and the JLA balancing out the other side, while my tastes in recent years have gravitated towards a wider range of books outside of the “Big Two.”
Scoop: Has it changed over the years?
SR: It definitely has, but then again so has the writing. The style when I was a kid had more exposition in the dialogue and was designed for younger readers, but it seems to have evolved into more adult fare as the hobby’s population ages. I still enjoy the old superhero stories and characters, and that’s where my collecting is centered, but I’d say that my current reading is more focused on the independent creator-owned side. Plus, the aforementioned shift in focus from comics to original art has been the biggest change of all.
Scoop: Do you collect comic art from certain titles or artists?
SR: Actually, my specialty is characters as drawn by their creators. For example, I just picked up an original 1940s large-art panel of Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor drawn by their co-creator, H.G. Peter. So, we’re talking [Jack] Kirby Cap (and much of Marvel in general), [Joe] Shuster Superman, [Steve] Ditko Spidey, etc. As a matter of fact, if anyone has a lead on a Joe Certa original of Martian Manhunter, please shoot me a message. That’s a bucket list item that I’m worried I will never be able to find!
Scoop: That’s an interesting way to focus your collection. What made you decide to collect that way?
SR: I think it’s ingrained in me from a youth misspent on collecting sports cards. I learned that the majority of the “best” sports cards were always rookie cards, so I’ve always gravitated towards the similar with comic characters. When you combine that with my interest in history and a fascination with the early days of the comic book industry, you end up with a collector who loves the creative process in its whole, from character conception to costume design to the first historic appearance, etc. Since I got to the comic art game late, my ability to acquire true first appearances is nil, so the next best thing for my tastes is to find original art of a character as drawn by his/her creator. I also think that, many years from now (hopefully), I will have a unique collection to share with my grandchildren that’ll be interesting from both an artistic and a historic standpoint, despite entering the hobby later than I might’ve liked. I’ll say this, though…when I think about how excited I was as a kid to find Earl Campbell’s rookie card for $15 or Art Monk’s for $25 in the late ’80s, it makes me cringe in retrospect to realize how many pieces of original art I could’ve bought on the cheap instead. The art I could’ve bought back then would be worth thousands of dollars now, while I’d be lucky to get $15 total for both of those rookie cards today. That was paper route money not well spent! [laughs]
Scoop: What are your favorite original art pieces in your collection?
SR: I’ve only got maybe a half-dozen pieces that are truly untouchable, though I do appreciate it all for specific reasons. The aforementioned H.G. Peter original was a grail piece for several years and then I ended up finding it “in the wild” while flipping through a random stack of Bronze age art. I was also pretty pumped to find a Paul Norris Aquaman drawing last fall after many years of striking out. And since Cap is my favorite, one of my coolest memories is of meeting Joe Simon (unexpectedly, as he wasn’t listed as a guest) at the 2010 NYCC. This was before I really knew about original art, but having been a Cap fan for exactly 30 years at that point and then getting to meet the first man to draw him in costume was awesome. I wish I could’ve met The King, but my awareness just wasn’t there yet in the ’80s and early ’90s. The cool thing about meeting Joe Simon was that I now had a personal connection to the artist to go along with my love of Cap, so when I had a chance to buy a few originals from his estate sale a couple years later, I jumped at it. One piece I got was a large painting recreation of a splash page from Captain America #1, but what I didn’t know was that Joe had been interviewed for Superheroes: A Never-ending Battle on PBS, so when the documentary was finally released, I saw him on TV holding the very painting that hangs in my rec room. I was thrilled and that piece probably remains my favorite to this day.
Scoop: What type of superhero memorabilia do you collect?
SR: Aside from the creator/creation art, another goal of mine is to acquire a published cover of every major superhero. That’s most likely going to take many years to complete. Beyond that, I absolutely love pre-1975 toys in their original packaging. Specifically, I’m on the lookout for any 1960s Captain America toys, a boxed 1967 Marx Marvel train, and maybe more than anything else, another 1961 Dessart Brother’s Adventure Costume in the box. I only have the Flash from that set and they are brutally tough to find. Again, please let me know if you have a lead on one! I mainly try to balance my collection with items that I played with as a kid and rarer memorabilia from the ’60s and earlier. I love the “Marvelmania” era toys and merch and have been enjoying the hunt as I try to complete full runs of toys from the era.
Scoop: What are the standout memorabilia pieces in your collection?
SR: Well, with keeping the balance between my childhood favorites and historical pieces in mind, I’d have to say that the historical stuff is currently winning in regards to my focus. As much as I love the ’70s and ’80s stuff, I feel that (for the most part) it will always be available whenever I’d like to pick it up. Some of the older stuff is way tougher to find, so when a hunt pays off, it usually means a bit more to me personally. I love my sealed 1967 Justice League board game set. I was also lucky enough to complete the entire 1966 Buttonworld set from Marvel, with the entire first series sealed in their original carded bags. The second series buttons were revisions that Marvel mandated to Buttonworld, but they were released just before the company was sued into bankruptcy from the Green Hornet debacle, which makes the revised Marvel buttons very tough to find. I also dig my complete set of 1966 Topps Marvel flyers in the original countertop box. I do love my G.I. Joes from the ’80s, too, and the boxed 1979 Hulk Stunt Cycle from Amico was a tough find. But if I only had to pick one piece from my collection, it’d be the Flash costume from Dessart again, as I just don’t know of any others that exist and it’s also the first toy ever made for The Flash (the 1942 pinback sits next to it in my display case, but that’s not really a toy).
Scoop: Is condition important to you? Will you let something pass by to find a better version?
SR: Depending on the piece, for sure, though I will say that items of or near one-of-a-kind status might not be something I’d pass up. I prefer my mass-produced pieces to be minty, though I often frame original art with mid-range copies of the comic book for framing/display purposes. It depends on the final presentation of the display piece.
I guess you’re right, though, in that condition does play a factor. I almost pulled the trigger on the Dessart costume that Hake’s listed a few auctions ago, from Chip Kidd’s collection. It was Green Lantern and it’s great, but I ultimately passed because it was lacking the mask. I know that a GL exists with the mask in the box so I gambled that I might have a shot at it one day.
I’ve learned that if a piece has a big enough flaw, like a wonky panel or significant damage or a missing piece, I am the type who will mentally divorce myself from it. That’s when I end up selling something for a loss because I get impatient and that’s a bad trait to have as a collector [laughs], so I’m trying to police my buying habits going forward. It’s going to take discipline, though, because I literally just bought the box to the 1967 Ideal JLA playset and I already feel the urge to get rid of it because it’s incomplete without the figures.
Scoop: How have you gained your knowledge of comics and art?
SR: Wow, that’s a complicated answer. It’s a myriad of sources, from other collectors and dealers who are wiser than me, to trial and error, to long hours spent reading on the subject and studying comps, from my earliest days talking to dealers and other collectors at “cons” in our local mall. Luckily, I am naturally curious about history in general, so the formative years of the comic book industry have always fascinated me. This makes learning easy and enjoyable because I can tie the art itself to the men and women who created the hobby that we know and love.
As a specific example, my friend Marvin Hoover found a complete Batlash story of original art, drawn by Nick Cardy, in the spring of 2012 at a local flea market. Marv had been a toy and comic collector for many years and had some familiarity with original art from seeing it at bigger cons and from collecting sketches over the years. I had been an avid comic reader and collector for most of the 1980s but by the time I started driving in the early-to-mid ’90s there were other things that distracted me from the hobby.
Quite frankly, it had never even occurred to me that artwork someone had drawn was available to the public or even still existed after their initial usage. I was completely ignorant to the process when he showed me these pages and it truly fascinated me. By this time, Marv had completely dedicated his collecting to Spider-Man so he had no use for the Batlash pages.
We did a Google search for people who buy art and found several sites online, which actually made it somewhat more confusing for the noobs we were at the time. Luckily, when we went back to look at the first Google hit, we found that he was local, which was unique to all the rest. It turned out that we had Romitaman in our literal backyard. Marv exchanged a few emails with Mike Burkey and they agreed to meet. There’s actually a funny story to this because Mike forgot that Marv was coming over late after his 2nd shift ended and wasn’t expecting to have a cop at his front door at midnight, but that’s for another time.
The bottom line is that the literal door that Mike opened that night in 2012 ended up opening a metaphorical door that completely changed how I collect and, really, my life in general. This in turn led to other contacts within the hobby, many of whom I am proud to call friends, and it’s this network that I have leaned on to learn and improve every day. The only regret is that I didn’t start down this path much sooner.
Scoop: Have you been a Hake’s Americana & Collectibles customer?
SR: Yeah, that’s actually what motivated me to reach out to Alex and discuss the possibilities of a comic art opening. More than any other source, I found each Hake’s event to have the best blend of rare and interesting stuff, both to gawk at and to bid on. I loved Hake’s and wanted to be a part of it.
Scoop: You’ve joined Hake’s as the Comic Art Specialist. What will that job entail?
SR: At this point, it’s a bit of a fluid description that will evolve over time, for many different reasons. First of all, I am currently in more of a consultative role as I still live in Ohio. The kids have a few years of school left and that is making a full transition to Hake’s HQ a bit of a moving target. That’s one of the great things about the digital age we live in, though, as most of what I do can be done remotely.
Secondly, I am extremely honored to have been considered for this role and I take it very seriously, but I am by no means a finished product when it comes to being a comic art “expert.” I have acquired a great deal of knowledge over the past 5 years and it continues to grow daily, but there is always more to learn. So, whatever I need to improve upon in regards to accumulated wisdom I hope to make up for with my sincere appreciation for the hobby. I feel like my clients get an immediate sense of trust when dealing with me and that’s huge in how I hope to build my career at Hake’s.
With all that in mind, my role is to provide a resource that both Hake’s and our consignors can use to help evaluate both monetary value and current market interest in original comic art, specifically superhero titles. My goal is to help collectors determine if it’s the most opportune time to sell a piece and, if it is, do so in a way that maximizes the market visibility of that piece as it goes to auction. Not all of the art that Hake’s lists is sourced by me personally, but I am absolutely happy to offer any insights to whoever asks, be it a fellow employee or another collector.
In future auctions I hope to take some of the burden off of the team in Pennsylvania by helping out with more of the catalog descriptions and research as well. There are hundreds and hundreds of items in each auction so there’s a ton of work to go around…Alex keeps taunting me with the temptation of my own office at Hake’s HQ and one day I am absolutely going to show up at his office door with all my nerd gear, ready to decorate my office and get to work.
Scoop: How did you get the job at Hake’s?
SR: I was familiar with Alex Winter and Kelly McClain from seeing them at the Comic Art Con in Secaucus, NYCC, etc. And as I mentioned, I was already a huge fan of their auction events. This became a gradual conversation that eventually turned into me inviting myself to the party. [laughs] I believe in what we do and I wanted to be a part of it. I had to prove myself over time, and still do, but I’m very glad things worked out as they did. It really means a great deal to me.
Scoop: Where do you see their place in the collectibles market?
SR: Hake’s is the source for American pop culture memorabilia. Like I mentioned before, their unique blend of items is fantastic and really stands out as a must-see event every 4 months. The mix of political/historical, sports memorabilia, music and television, comic books, vintage toys, and original art is unsurpassed in its variety and rarity.
Scoop: Do you have ideas on how Hake’s can grow within the collecting market?
SR: Hmm, well, if Hake’s is the source for pop culture variety, I feel like there is definite room for growth in the specialized fields, especially key comic books and original comic art. Actually, I think the better word would be “consistency” with comic books and original art, as we’ve listed some truly epic pieces in the recent past and again this time in the July 2017 auction, but our goal is to consistently bring auctions of a similar magnitude to the market every time. When it’s political items or vintage toys, people know that Hake’s is the place, hands down. But our market footprint with comics and art is still growing for sure. I’ve found that many collectors and even dealers still think of us as, “Oh, you guys sell comic strip art, right?”
Well, yeah, we do, but that’s part of a larger goal to have a little bit of everything for everyone, every time.
Speaking of which, another key to our growth will be controlling that growth in a way that continues to protect our clients. We intentionally limit our auctions so that there is little to no overlap or competing items, so you know that if you give us an Amazing Fantasy #15 or a Jack Kirby cover, we will not list another one to compete with it. Ideally, I’d like to reach a place where we have varied two-dozen or so statement pieces of big-time art and key books, along with the same rough amount of mid-range and entry level pieces. This way, all types of collectors can find value in our shows as buyers, yet none of our sellers’ pieces are buried in an avalanche of product.
Another goal of mine is to spotlight collectors and their collections whenever possible, as I really feel like collecting and acquiring tough pieces of original or key comics is an art form in and of itself. It requires a combination of people skills, detective skills, and product knowledge that I admire, and I’d like to celebrate that whenever possible.
For example, let’s say you decide to list some art with us but you’re not liquidating your entire collection and fully plan on staying in the hobby…I would love to interview you so that other collectors know what you collect and what you’re looking for, which might likely lead to some new networking opportunities for you as a collector. If we can achieve this, you’ll be able to build a network for buying-selling-trading that will continue long after the initial auction ends. If you’d like to remain anonymous, that’s totally fine, but if you’re looking to build your collecting network I want my clients and their “want lists” to be known!
And very recently we set up a profile and banner links on the Comic Art Fans website, which I feel will be key to increasing our brand awareness among original art collectors. This is our first event to have been promoted on CAF and I’m excited to see some of the fellow collectors I’ve come to know and appreciate over the years start to list their Hake’s hauls about a month from now on their CAF profiles. I just hope they save me a piece of that sweet [Mike] Zeck art from Cap #265 and a Punisher cover from Jason [Taulbee]’s collection.
Beyond that, I feel like Hake’s Americana has thrived for 50 years because it offers some unique things to our customers and does so in a unique way. I’m proud to be a part of it and I firmly believe that all it’ll take is a slight change in the selling habits of a small segment of the original art collecting community for us to really see some impressive growth in this area. Ultimately, the market is the market and a good art piece will sell in nearly any venue if the right eyes see it. Through our parent company, we have an arsenal of resources to get our product in front of the right eyes and it’s my job to build relationships and foster trust so that more and more sellers choose to take advantage of these unique resources. I’m excited for what’s ahead!