When Marvel Comics unveiled Italian artist's Milo Manara variant cover for Spider-Woman No. 1 in August 2014. there was no shortage of vitriol and condemnation.
Media outlets that would normally ignore the doings of the comic-book industry weighed in with outraged essays demanding Marvel "do better," as Time did. In writing about Manara's painting, in which the hero appears to be flashing an entire city's skyline while wearing no more than body paint, Vox wondered "Why Marvel gave us a sexualized Spider-Woman no one asked for." Elle put it plainly: "The image seems to toe the line of pornographic." The Guardian in the U.K. summed up the controversy thusly: "New Spider-Woman comic cover condemned for 'blatant sexualization.'"
Marvel's then-editor-in-chief Axel Alonso apologized, sort of, in a Comic Book Resources Q&A: "We apologize I apologize for the mixed messaging that this variant caused." But that didn't stop Marvel from publishing the cover, albeit with the Spider-Woman title covering its most offending part.
Nor has it stopped Manara's original Spider-Woman cover illustration from becoming, so far, the most popular offering in Heritage Auctions
' European Comic Art event, which takes place Oct. 3-4. Viewed online more than 7,000 times, already the artwork has seen extensive bidding, with more than 300 clients tracking the lot before the live auction begins on Heritage Auctions' website at 9 a.m. C.T. on Oct. 3.
"Whether you like it or not and, clearly, many did not this image is now part of comics lore and pop culture," says Olivier Delflas, Heritage Auctions' European-based Consignment Director for Comics & Original Arts.
Surely Marvel knew what it was doing when it hired the now-75-year-old Manara: For more than 50 years he has been best known for crafting erotic comic art in such titles as Genius in the late 1960s and early '70s, more famously Click in the 1980s and more recently The Borgias, his collaboration with filmmaker and artist Alejandro Jodorowsky. The artist's own website is quite explicit about his attraction to, well, the explicit: Following Click's popularity, it notes, "from now on Manara's career fully focuses on erotic productions."
That's quite clear in several other Manara originals available in the European Comic Art event, among them the undated Erotic Illustration Originale, the Saggitario cover art from 1989 and Cristoforo Colombo from 1991. All told, there are 12 Milo Manara pieces in this sale, a rare assemblage for such a coveted and, yes, controversial artist.
But Manara is far from the only highlight in the event:
There's also Enki Bilal's splash page from L'Appel Des Etoiles, published in 1975. The French artist and filmmaker was young at the time, only 20; this was long before he exhibited at the Louvre. But this beautiful, and terrifying, work makes it clear he was a visionary long before he was deemed worthy of being displayed in fine art's most hallowed halls.
The American comics legend Will Eisner is also represented in this sale, with his painted cover to The Spirit Magazine No. 36 from 1982 "an absolute 'must-have' for any Eisner and Spirit enthusiast," Delflas says. "The Kitchen Sink series was a wonderful opportunity for a whole new generation to experience Will Eisner's goofy detective, and it provided him with the opportunity to create entirely new covers."
And there is Jacques Tardi, easily one of the most significant and influential comics artists of all time French or otherwise. Heritage is especially honored to include this piece in the European Comic Art event: the unpublished Le Secret de l'Etrangleur cover art from 2006, the only one of the Strangler's Secret works offered to date. This profound piece was initially presented at the 7th Biennial of the 9th Art in Cherbourg seven years ago, where the man known only as Tardi was the guest of honor.
"For me, this ambient deep-noir is much, much better than the published one," Delflas says. "This piece is the first from that story offered on the market. All the other arts are still in the artist's possession, and will likely remain there for the foreseeable future."
Finally there is Maurice Tillieux, the late Belgian comics writer and illustrator best known for creating the French detective Gil Jourdan in the mid-1950s. "Tillieux is my weak spot," says Delflas, and with good reason: The lot offered in this auction, Page 23 from 1960's Une Enquête de Gil Jourdan: La Voiture Immergée No. 3, "gives us a thriller atmosphere worthy of the best American detective novels," writes Delflas in his description.
Some pieces are meant to be contentious. And others, like Tillieux's Jourdan, wind up becoming merely beloved.