What do Uber, Wallstreetbets, and NFT’s have in common? Perhaps more than we think. NFT’s (Non Fungible Tokens) are all over the news and collecting spheres have taken note. The word ‘fungible’ basically means non-unique; a hundred dollar bill is fungible, a Bitcoin is fungible, while a physical painting or a one-off digital file of that painting is not. NFT’s are a way to register ownership of a piece of digital art and track its movement on the blockchain. If you’re the owner of said art file, no one else can claim ownership unless you sell or relinquish it to someone else. It sits in your digital ‘wallet’ and may be accompanied by a certificate of ownership or a physical token which comes with your purchase. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that other digital files of the artwork do not exist on the internet for free consumption (they probably do) or that you have the copyright or monetary rights to the artwork (you certainly don’t – the artist holds onto this).
Beeple’s sale of his ‘Everydays’ project for $69 million (a price verily engendering a sexual frisson) through Christie’s seems to be the story that’s acted as a lightning rod for this topic. A lot of veteran collectors (who tend to be middle aged and older) have been crying refrains of: “I’ll never go for it!” and “this is ridiculous!” Though the current hype might amount to little more than a “bubble” (it makes sense that speculators and investors rush in at the flush of something new), that doesn’t mean that it won’t leave waves or even a tsunami on the practice of selling and collecting art/comic art. When in history have things just gone back to exactly the way they were before technological innovation rampaged through?
It might be foolish to imagine there aren’t large numbers of millennials and post-millennials who are completely comfortable owning art in a purely digital way. If we look at people who were born in the early twentieth century – let’s say someone who was born in 1925 and lived through the Great Depression – by the time 1975 or 1980 rolled around, there would be many things this person might find very strange or alienating: station wagons, personal computers, jet planes, fashion trends, cassette tapes; the list could go on and on. Of course, mainstream comic books would look nothing like the newspaper comic strips they’d been familiar with while growing up. The idea of collecting comic art pages would probably seem totally bizarre. And yet, that person born in 1925 would only be fifty or fifty-five years old: essentially only halfway through their life. Many comic art collectors in their prime collecting years are roughly that age now.
You can see where I’m going with this. I’ve been expecting something like this to happen for a while. Not happy about it but expecting it nonetheless. When people began slabbing comics, I found it an inelegant and meaningless practice. I’m no snob but I do like being able to flip through and read a comic – after all, that’s why they exist. Slabbing fixes them so that they become objects only to be bought and sold, serving no purpose beyond their collectable valuation. Collectors could no longer pretend that collecting comics was about enjoying the creative merit and content of the comic itself. Artwork shifted to the digital realm and original penciled pages (if they existed to begin with) now rarely had inks and never text (both inks and speech bubbles/captions being rendered through the computer) and they didn’t feel complete to me. But they still felt more or less like comic art; it was Marshall McLuhan’s precept about new technologies initially imitating the functions of their predecessors before evolving. Digital art might not really become a substitute for art as we know it – it might simply be imitating its function at this early stage of its development.
Encoding artwork as digital files left in a digital wallet to me signals the equivalent of slabbing – it is simply about owning the thing, it is about the bragging rights. Now, one could argue that owning art has always been a matter of bragging rights – and essentially that is what collecting is. I personally don’t believe this contention but I’m sure there are other people out there who do. In Pretend It’s A City, Martin Scorsese’s Netflix miniseries focusing on Fran Lebowitz, Lebowitz talks about art auctions in New York City. She describes the hush that descends on the room as a Picasso is wheeled out, the bidding war that ensues, and the exultant clapping that ensues as the hammer price is declared. Lebowitz quips: “We no longer applaud the art, instead we applaud the price.” There’s something very telling about Lebowitz’s anecdote and her frustration with what New York City has become. It speaks to a gentrification that has also subsumed the comic art hobby and its marketplace in its wider thrall.
There are many reasons for people of my generation to dislike NFT’s. A unique reason is the toll on the environment that mining cryptocurrency (with which NFT’s must be bought) exacts, not to mention the creation and transaction of the NFT’s themselves. They leave a heavy carbon footprint and since I am technologically clueless, I can’t talk to the issue beyond that.
There’s also that element of hucksterism; besides what could be perceived as an inherent shallowness and irreverence for the art traditions that have come before, this trend can be seen as very of the moment, vapid, embodying social media and millennial values. In the same way that millennials looked at their lack of economic opportunity and used their technological know-how to disrupt industries (such as AirBnB which circumvents the hotel industry), NFT’s disrupt the traditional art marketplace and the gatekeepers who would determine who flourishes and who does not. However, the effects of these disruptions on economies aren’t always positive or well thought out. Uber has put a lot of cabbies’ livelihoods in jeopardy and led to increased assaults on both passengers and drivers. AirBnB has led to various problems in the buildings and communities in which owners lease their domiciles.
The question of whether NFT’s are valid collectibles becomes highly subjective depending on who’s viewing the collectible, and the question quickly becomes an utterly meaningless and irrelevant one. It might be more useful to look at the phenomenon of collecting itself and why people collect the things they do. Often, it’s to capture a feeling of nostalgia, an idealized sentiment for things and processes from the recent or distant past. We are not collecting the thing so much as that which it evokes: the sentiments we attach to a physical object, a value that exists more in the mind than anywhere else. Ultimately, in the Platonic sense, all collecting and value exists only in the mind. Anything can serve as a collectible in this case as long as it evokes sentimental value. Sometimes people collect artwork or other artifacts because they come from the hand or life of the creator. That object becomes imbued with a certain mystical value like a totem, containing a spark or tiny piece of fossilized soul of the creator, simply because a revered person has touched it or better yet, brought it into being. This approach becomes complicated as art is produced through increasingly digital methods. With comic art, there is a whole hierarchy of qualifiers which determines why one such piece is more valuable than another: covers are privileged over interior pages, superheroes in costume are more sought after than panels of them in their civilian identities, first appearances and key events are sought over quotidian scenes, etc. This is as arbitrary and meaningless as anything else, especially when some odd association is privileged over craft and effort. Finally, of course, there is price. Commodification purely by itself can be a timely motivator for why people seek out a collectible.
The last of the three reasons above is the most deleterious. In the last column, I talked a little bit about the inherent problems with selling or trading – you run the risk of feeling burned later on. Collecting for value amplifies these stakes and dangers. You can end up being sucked into a vortex where your allegiance and feeling for the prices replace your feeling for the art – it can happen so subtly and powerfully you don’t even realize it’s happening, especially as a market becomes hot and inflated. It’s what Fran Lebowitz refers to in the anecdote above. Higher volatility and rapid cycling of trends and bubbles will most likely lead to a crash in the market and the hobby. The Image era/Speculator era of mainstream comic collecting in the mid-nineties is a perfect example. What you want instead is for a hobby to grow naturally, organically, healthily, welcoming new members constantly and consistently, not to mention easy access points as its community grows.
High inflation/speculation in the market also leads to a very unhealthy relationship between collectors and the art they chase. In some ways, it can be pleasurable to be in thrall to something to such a degree that you spend all your waking hours thinking about it. There is a sort of a fetish quality, an S&M pleasure, in such worship. However, I’d argue that once the time of acquisition has passed, it’s rarely as satisfying as longing for the item. If this wasn’t the case, people wouldn’t need to continue collecting to such a great degree. These feelings create neurological tracks in our brain that demand greater and greater acquisitions in order to perpetuate the same feeling we had before, chasing that high of acquiring new items which once seemed beyond our reach. Anyone who’s spent a day at the casino or trading stocks intensively will know this feeling: it’s not unlike a gambling addiction and the house ultimately wins. Worse than a gambling addiction (which might leave you flush with money after a good day), this way of collecting leaves you flush with collectibles but no guarantee you will acquire their perceived value. The only way to achieve value is to actually cash in your chips and make a profit while paying commissions and navigating the vagaries of the market. Only dealers routinely do this well and they do that by not forming attachments to what they sell. You essentially have to give up what you love in order to make money at it.
Simply owning the piece or pieces can imbue a sense of pride or self worth but since those feelings are dependent on others recognizing the worth of what you have, it’s not an intrinsic value; it can be a very fragile and conditional form of esteem. Once again, a person can make him/herself very vulnerable by doing this. Like all things that trade on these feelings, the structure is essentially a pyramid and the business a pyramid scheme. Those that got in early at the top, along with dealers, industry marketers, auction houses, and other parties controlling the flow of trade, profit while the punters at the bottom support the scheme. There can be some sort of satisfaction in jockeying for one of those top places in this schema I suppose, although relatively few people will acquire such a position. Furthermore, the status will only be recognized among the niche that actively pursues that hobby. One’s status will only be validated as long as a lot of other people agree that what one has is desirable.
Will superhero memorabilia continue to endure and be desired as cultural commodities? I really don’t know. It would defy logic if they were but then, life is rarely a logical affair. Things change so fast, I wonder whether future generations will venerate the same things we do. I don’t know if comic art can be considered analagous to Monets and Picassos – they are not created under the same conditions, the people buying them are not the same, and they definitely don’t hold the same widespread regard, no matter how many billions of dollars the MCU currently makes. The speculation that causes people to regard price over object warps the industry and hobby. Whereas once it was common to talk to creators that one liked, strike up a conversation about what their work meant to you, then conduct a purchase of art that felt pleasant all around, now artists are becoming more and more anxious about whether to sell their pages for an affordable price. The relationship used to be one of patronage but now, sometimes, it has an adversarial quality. Artists don’t know if they’re going to regret the decision a few years down the road themselves or whether they’re being taken advantage of. Similarly, collectors may resent these interactions – though the underlying relationship was always a commercial one, now it may feel primarily so. There have been so many collectors who have either taken advantage of artists or cozied up to them and lied about values and prices in order to get their art at a bargain that artists are rightfully distrustful when they hear sweet words. It is the greatest irony that a collector might seek to rip off an artist when buying their work even while purporting to be (and quite possibly believing they are) the artist’s biggest fan.
I am okay with the possibility of digital collectibles supplanting traditional art. I personally have no interest or attraction towards digital art portfolios/files and certainly do not support their toll on the environment. But I understand that if this doesn’t fundamentally change the way people collect art, something else will. I’ve lived long enough to know that nothing lasts. The whole ethos of collecting serves to fix something in place, whether completing a ‘set’ or harkening idealized and happy memories that fix the collectible in a frame of eternalism. This idealization works against the truth that reality isn’t objective (it’s largely a construct perceived through our subjective senses) and one that is ultimately transient: the Hindu and Buddhist notion of ‘maya.’ Collecting is a thrust towards defying that reality but at the same time engenders great vulnerability and potential melancholy. As alcoholics will tell you, every time you drink out of the bottle, the bottle takes a drink out of you.
I don’t pretend to be any more invulnerable than anybody else in this hobby but I do like to be aware of who I am and what I do. Like Jack Nicholson says in The Shining, “I’m the kinda guy that likes to know who’s buying his drinks.” I have actively pursued the hobby and am subject to the same feelings as everyone else. I just don’t want to be in thrall to them – I don’t like being powerless and subject to those negative feelings when I can actively recognize them and do something. People who say those feelings don’t exist in the hobby and that things are permanently good or eternally benign, that everything is wonderful and will only get better (including the marketplace in which these transactions occur), take a pollyanna view of the situation. Whether they do this unawares or because they have some “skin in the game”, the result is the same: it creates a market that is ultimately untenable and only serves a select few who seek to profit from it.
Though I can’t predict what the future of comics memorabilia and comic art collecting will look like, I think some sort of shake-up is definitely necessary. It’s become so commodified and unattractive from a psychological vantage that any kind of shake-up might actually be for the better. It might allow a chance for something organic to grow out of the rubble. Or bubble. I realize that such a shake-up and bursting of the bubble would also affect whatever I own but at this point, I’d be willing to take that chance. It’s the choice between collateral damage and being a block in the pyramid. I’m glad that people like Beeple and Jose Delbo (whose NFT’s of DC characters he once worked on resulted in profitable sales that produced an extremely worried letter from DC to their employees; in an exceptional stroke of irony, this letter was then itself turned into a profitable NFT) have found new ways to become successful and relevant after being ignored by traditional industries. Like slabbing comics, this new development regarding NFT’s is an indication that the collectability of the art trumps the actual aesthetic appreciation of it. I know that people may argue it’s simply the same appreciation as before but transposed to a digital framework, that some people may simply enjoy NFT’s purely for their aesthetics but once again, I don’t believe these pollyanna views are entirely honest about the marketplace.
Managing my feelings around collecting art (whether they be nostalgic or frustrated) is as difficult for me as anyone else and I’ve been looking for something to act as a catalyst towards stepping away, weaning myself off the hobby. I think NFT’s and their attendant changes may be that catalyst. I’m still interested in the mechanical production of comics from the twentieth century and I think I’ll always look for pages of lesser value, especially odd things others don’t covet, but I’ve also become interested in other aspects of the production process: prelims, notes, correspondence, scripts, etc. We privilege art because we’re a very visual species. The creation of art is essential to the production of comics but it’s by no means the only factor. I’ve often wondered why scripts aren’t as collectable, available, or expensive as art. To me, especially as a writer, a script is just as essential to the creation of a good comic as the art – in fact, you could argue that without a script, the art might not be produced in the first place. I’ve begun to look for comic scripts although they’re harder to find, but that’s part of the fun; it’s like reverting back to what the comic art hobby might have been like in the old days.
I wish I had a cool story to attach to this week’s column but I have no experience whatsoever with buying digital art. I have attached photos above of a Gold Key comics script from 1975, bought off eBay. I couldn’t tell from the eBay listing photos but the writer divided each page into blocked out panels and then wrote the description and captions and dialogue for each panel inside its respective frame. I had no idea that scripts could be written this way. I thought that the Marvel method and the screenplay-style full script were the only two frameworks, besides actually going ahead and drawing thumbnails with captions written on them. The only thing of interest I can relate about buying this script is that although the seller accurately wrote my address on the envelope, USPS shipped it to the Middle East for some reason where it bounced around for a couple of months before making its way back to North America. We tracked it through the USPS website. Perhaps, it was covertly sent there by Pentagon brass to cheer up the troops. Perhaps, it came back to North America, wizened and world weary after developing combat acumen. We’ll never know. Perhaps it performed acts of unspeakable horror, carrying out secret missions which were never recorded. We don’t really know the ontological lives and identities of things we collect. What we do is use them as mirrors to reflect the things we feel, the emotions raging in our own hearts. All we can ever really fathom is what we project onto them and what they reflect back about that most mysterious marketplace of all – the human mind.