“So. Mr. Farrar,” said Coleman Chandler before taking a sip of whatever it was he was drinking. He swallowed and placed the glass back down on the table. “Tim Miller told me good things about you. I wish I had spoken to him earlier.”
“Tim’s a good guy,” I said. Tim actually was a good guy. I’ve known him for years and I’ve sold him or found for him a lot of good art. I’d last spoke to him about a month ago concerning a Mike Mignola Hellboy page he was looking for. I managed to track it down and hook him up with the owner. Worked out well. When I thought about it, Tim owed me a few favors. Maybe this was payback for one of them.
Chandler nodded and leaned back in his wicker chair. He thoughtfully eyed me for a few seconds.
“What do you know about Curt Swan, Mr. Farrar?”
I leaned back in my seat too and thought about that for a minute, sorting it all out.
“Well, let’s see,” I said. “I know he started on Superboy in the late forties. Then he took over Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen in the mid-fifties. His Superman pretty much became the DC “house” style, replacing Wayne Boring’s version. I know that he worked on just about every Superman book DC had until about the mid-eighties when DC more or less fired him. Which wasn’t cool. He drew that great Alan Moore story “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Steel” and some other stuff after that but he basically got pushed aside for newer artists. And then he died in…. ’96, I think.”
Chandler nodded appreciatively. “You know a good amount about him.”
“Kinda my job to know that stuff.”
He grunted slightly and shook his head. “You would be surprised at how few people know what they should know for their jobs.”
I couldn’t argue with that so I stayed quiet. Chandler took a sip from his glass and set it back down.
“Well, I will tell you a few things you don’t know. Like, Curt Swan was a friend of mine. Well, he was a friend of mine and another man, who was my oldest friend. A man named Stewart Carvell. Stewart and I grew up in Princeton Township. A lot of people thought we came from money. We really didn’t… we were just fortunate enough to have fathers with businesses that had survived the Depression. By the time both of us had been born in 1943, those businesses were doing fairly well. And as the oldest boys, Stewart and I were like princes, heirs to the family business thrones. We didn’t mind though. That was our fate and we didn’t hate it. It was just the way it was.”
Chandler stopped to take another sip of his drink and I used that time to do the quick math, which admittedly, wasn’t that difficult. Born in 1943 meant that he was 71 years old. Jesus, I actually thought he was older than that by at least ten years. But 70 was nothing to sneeze at either.
Chandler set his glass back down and continued. “But Stewart and I shared, while growing up, a common love. Comic books. We just loved them. We read Detective Comics and World’s Finest and the Timely books and the EC books… everything. We just were in awe of the artwork, in awe of these artists ability to bring these crazy stories to life. And our mothers taking those EC books away from us and throwing them out just made us want to read more of them. They weren’t corrupting us like that idiot Wertham wrote. They were grand entertainment and escapism to two boys who had their lives already mapped out for them. Even through college – Princeton, of course – Stewart and I kept reading them, kept loving them. By then Timely had become Marvel and a whole new interest came about in these new super-heroes that lived in New York – in a real city – and had all these problems that you could actually relate to. And Kirby…” he paused and shook his head in awe. “Jack Kirby completely blew us away. The power, the dynamism of his art. Amazing. It just leapt out at you. It was like 3D in a 2D book.” He stopped and peered at me suspiciously. “Do you like Kirby?”
“Love him. I have four Kirby pages. Two Black Panther pieces, a New Gods and an Invaders cover. No Silver Age art, unfortunately.”
“Hard to come by.” Chandler said, relaxed again. “I thought you were going to say you hated Kirby. I would’ve asked you to leave.”
“I wouldn’t blame you.” I said and we both laughed. I had apparently passed a little test there.
“Well, by then,” Chandler continued, “Stewart and I were making trips to New York and getting to know the city better. Both of our father’s businesses were there so we prepping ourselves. Feeling out the town before we were expected to be there everyday. I believe it was 1962 or ’63, when Stewart and I met Curt Swan at a cocktail party in Midtown. We were star struck. The artist of Action Comics and Superman, both of which we still read, was standing right in front of us and he was a great guy. Modest, nice, engaging… everything you would want your heroes to be. He seemed almost amused by the fanboy reaction he got from two Princeton students, both A students and on the honor roll. But he never spoke down to us and even befriended us. Sometime after that he invited us out to his house in Connecticut and showed us his studio. That’s when we first saw the cover to Action Comics #305. Are you familiar with it?”
“Not off the top of my head, no.”
Chandler frowned. “Yes, of course. I’m sorry. I hit you with a very vague reference there. I’ll show it to you later. It’s Clark Kent changing into Superman but he’s being viewed through a two way mirror buy some gangsters. One has sold his secret identity to the others for a millions dollars. And one of the men has a box with a chunk of gold Kryptonite in it.”
I shook my head. “I love those crazy old DC stories. They had, like, 10 different types of Kryptonite that had ten different effects on Superman.”
“Yes,” Said Chandler amused. “They did get a little carried away with all the Kryptonite.” He thought for a second and then adjusted himself in his chair. “Anyway, we saw that cover in the unfinished pencils, sitting on Swan’s drawing table. And it was beautiful. Stewart and I just fell in love with it. Then a few months later and I don’t know how, Swan got his hands on the original, fully inked version. I don’t know the story behind that. DC and Marvel never gave those pages back to the creators then but somehow he had it in his possession. He knew we loved the cover though and I don’t remember how this came about but he offered to give the page to either Stewart or me. We couldn’t decide who would get it so we played a game of Gin Rummy to decide. Winner got the cover. Forever.”
He stopped and took another sip of his drink. He was playing it out, enjoying the drama. I could figure out who won the cover, though. At least, I thought. Maybe I was wrong. Now I wasn’t so sure. He actually had me leaning forward in my chair, waiting on this little cliffhanger he had going.
Chandler put the drink down and leaned back slowly. Oh, boy. He was loving this. I tried to look like I didn’t care but I’m sure hanging on the edge of my seat like that was a big giveaway.
“I lost.” he said.
“Ah,” I said after I had pulled myself back from the tip of my chair. He really got me with that story. “That must’ve been kind of upsetting.”
“You know, at first I was kind of upset. But then I quickly realized how silly I was being. My best friend, who I saw everyday, had won a great prize. I realized that not only should I be happy for him but, selfishly, I could see the page whenever I wanted. He was for all intents and purposes my brother. And so, for 40 years if I wanted to see it I could. It didn’t matter who had won it.”
Chandler stopped and his face darkened. It really was like that old saying “a cloud came over him”. Any hint of humor and nostalgia disappeared from him and was replaced by a deep sadness. You could just see it. And right then, I knew what he was going to say next.
“Stewart Carvell died five weeks ago,” said Chandler, trying very hard to stay toneless and unemotional. “Pancreatic Cancer. It was very quick.”
I had an aunt who had died from Pancreatic Cancer. Brutal. You barely had time to celebrate this person’s life while they were here before they were gone.
“I’m sorry. To lose a friend after so long….” I stopped, not knowing where I was going. Probably just making it worse. ”I’m sorry.” I repeated. What more could I say?
Chandler nodded slowly. He said “Thank you.” and then just seemed to go elsewhere. He was still sitting in his chair but was clearly out of body, off in another time and place. I just let him stay wherever he was, feeling whatever he was feeling and checked out the sunroom some more. I couldn’t imagine having a room like this, all glass enclosed and temperature controlled. The room faced west so you got the majority of sun at the end of the day. I could imagine reading by the setting sun, the room all vibrant gold and orange. I would be out here all the time. Between this and the gazebo, I would never see the rest of the house. Damn, it was good to have money. I sighed and looked out into the backyard. Somewhere out in the distance a dog barked. Probably upset that his Perrier bowl was empty.
Chandler stirred a bit, as if waking from a nod off. He refocused on me and cleared his throat.
“Tethers, Mr. Farrar. Those lifelines that keep you living. I’ve lost another. My parents, my wife, Stewart… after a while you just want to cut the remaining ropes and float away too. Go be with those that you miss. You understand?”
“I do. But I’m sure Jessica wouldn’t like that kind of talk.”
Chandler smiled. “Yes. You’re right, I do have my daughters as tethers. Though one is much tighter than the other. Still lifelines, I suppose. So, somewhat reluctantly, I will keep living. And you can help me reclaim something that will help with that.”
Getting to the nitty gritty. I didn’t know what this would entail but already it was sounding a little more convoluted than I was used to.
“Stewart left the Swan cover to me in his will.” said Chandler. He stopped and took another sip of his drink. Man, this guy could make a glass of something last.
“It was the only thing he left me. We both had done very well so I didn’t need or want anything else. He kept the cover in a sealed black frame, very well taken care of and preserved. After the will was read Stewart’s wife, Erin – wonderful woman – and I agreed on a day to pick it up. So a week ago, I sent a gentleman who works for me, Rick… did you meet Rick?”
I smiled. “Yes. I met him.”
“Alright. Good man. Problems in the past but I saw something in him. Anyway, I sent Rick down to Cherry Hill, where Stewart lived, to get the cover. It’s a long trip and it’s very difficult for me to be in a car for that long. Just too uncomfortable. Going down for Stewart’s funeral was almost unbearable. So Rick drove down, retrieved the cover and began back. But he pulled into a rest stop in Freehold to get some food and go to the bathroom. And the Bentley was broken into.”
“Wow. Was this at night?” I asked.
“No. Broad daylight. Probably about two in the afternoon.”
“And they took the cover.”
Chandler nodded, his mouth a tight line. “Yes, along with a camera that Rick had in the car. And his phone.”
“That’s a hell of a coincidence,” I said. “You just get the cover and a little while later someone breaks into your car in broad daylight and steals it?”
“Well, he was driving the Bentley. I probably should’ve asked him to drive a more discreet vehicle. Probably somebody hanging out at the rest stop, waiting for nice cars to roll in.”
“I guess. And you think someone maybe sold the cover and now it’s back on the market.”
“I’m hoping. It has value and would probably fetch a decent amount but it’s of greater sentimental value to me. I called Erin after it was stolen and she was as upset as I was. It meant so much to Steve and to me. If it’s out there I want it. I will go above the market price to retrieve it. Well above.”
I thought about who I could reach out to. There were a lot of people who might’ve gotten their hands on it or who heard about it. I didn’t want to float the whole “go above market price” thing for it to anybody at first. That was just asking to get gouged.
“Ok.” I said. “I can ask around. Probably not a lot of Curt Swan covers floating around for sale.”
“Well, it’s a remarkable cover piece,” said Chandler. “It should get a lot of attention.”
I nodded my head slowly.
“Why, Mr. Farrar,” said Chandler, smiling. “Are you not a Curt Swan fan?”
“He’s a good artist. Very good. I just tend to be more of a Win Mortimer guy myself.”
Chandler’s eyes bulged almost comically and he wagged a crooked finger at me. “Ah!” he said, “Ah! I knew I liked you, Mr. Farrar!”
He rose from his chair and headed towards the door leading back into the house. “Finally someone who will appreciate this! Come! Come!”
He led me out of the sunroom and just beyond the kitchen I saw a flash of movement. No details, just a human sized blur disappearing into the hall. Had Jessica not left yet? Was there someone else in the house?
We made our way to the staircase near the front door and then started up. Chandler was making good time as he but I could tell it was a chore. I listened as best I could but I didn’t hear any movement besides ours.
“So,” I said casually. “Is it just you and Jessica that lives here? Or does your other daughter live here too?”
“Jennifer? God, no. To be honest I have no idea where Jennifer lives. The last I heard she was out in California.”
We stopped at the first landing and Chandler caught his breath. It was a pretty tall staircase.
“No,” he said. “It’s probably best that Jennifer doesn’t live here anymore.”
Yikes. Chandler turned, walked to the next set of steps (how big was this house???) and started up.
“Oh, and Rick.” he said, stopping on the stairs to look at me. “Rick lives here, too.”
Our pace had slowed but we finally made it to the next floor. Most of the doors leading to the rooms were closed but one at the east end of the house was open, daylight streaming out into the hall. After Chandler caught his breath we headed towards it.
We stepped through the door and I stopped when I saw everything. I just stopped and stared.
The room was a gallery. The floor was beautiful blond wood and bone colored walls held black framed artwork that took up all the wall space that the two big windows didn’t. I turned to look and all I saw was comic art. From where I stood I could identify a Gil Kane Green Lantern cover, a Wally Wood EC science fiction page, a Will Eisner Spirit splash, a John Buscema Conan page…. he had artwork by some of my all time favorite comic artists, pieces that I could not afford to even hold much less own.
There were two rows of frames around the whole room, except for the wall at the north end, which had four rows. A small chair sat near that wall, so you could sit and see the art comfortably without bending. In the center of the room sat a tall flat file that served as a sort of desk, probably filled with art that hadn’t been framed yet or art that wasn’t quite wall worthy. On the flat file sat an empty frame, a John Romita Spider-Man page and a small slip of white paper.
Suddenly Chandler, who had been standing next to me and watching my reaction, hurried over to the flat file. He slid the Romita over with his left and placed his right over the slip of paper. If I hadn’t noticed the paper in the first place I probably wouldn’t have thought much about it.
“So, Mr. Farrar. What do you think?’ he said, smiling.
“This is amazing. This art… just amazing. Can I look around?”
“Of course! Feel free!”
I slipped to my right, half looking at a Berni Wrightson Swamp Thing splash and half watching Chandler out of the corner of my eye. He took the white slip of paper that he had palmed, folded it and opened a smaller top draw in the flat file. A quick glance at me, where I played up my analyzing of the Swamp Thing art, and then he dropped the paper into the drawer and quietly closed it.
I decided to let that slide for a bit and just appreciate the art. Next to the Swamp Thing was a Batman page from the short but legendary Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run on Detective Comics, featuring the Joker in the story “The Laughing Fish”. And next to that was the cover to Batman #84, which was done by Win Mortimer. In fact, the three covers next to that one were all Win Mortimer pieces. There was Detective Comics #267, which was the first appearance of Bat-Mite, the classic Superman #76, which featured Superman and Batman both swooping in to save Lois Lane from atop a burning building and Superman #74, which depicted Lex Luthor turning Supes and Lois into stone with some kind of machine.
I had never seen the original art to these, only the scanned color art online or reproduced in a DC collection. Seeing it in black and white like this, with all its tiny revisions and whited out spots and pasted on masthead was like a revelation to me. You always appreciate comic art more when you see the originals and this made me like Mortimer even more. At DC in the 40’s and 50’s they had a lot of artists like Swan and Al Plastino and Wayne Boring but I always liked Mortimer better. His covers were always more kinetic to me, with interesting angles and a slight canting of the characters to add some movement. I was just blown away looking at them.
“I thought you might like these.” said Chandler, smiling.
“I’m just amazed. I can’t believe you have this art.” I turned around and scanned the whole gallery. There were two Curt Swan Superman covers next to the Mortimer pieces and a great Jack Cole Plastic Man page next to those. There were more great pieces that I hadn’t even gotten to yet, a lot more. “I can’t believe this whole damn room.”
Chandler laughed and at the same time I heard a floorboard or step creak out in the hall. I looked out but saw, as I expected, nothing. Then I heard another slight creak, lower this time. Somebody walking down the stairs, trying to be silent. Boy, there seemed to be some curious stuff going on in this house. Which reminded me of something.
“Oh sorry,” I said, reaching into my pocket. “Just got a text. Was expecting one from my landlord.” I took my phone out and pretended to read. “Yeah, it’s from him. Sorry.” I said again.
“That’s alright,” said Chandler.
“No, I didn’t want to seem rude. Just something important I had to look at.”
I backed up to the flat file, very clearly put my iPhone down and then turned slightly so that Chandler couldn’t see me sliding it under the Romita page.
“You – and this great, great room – have my undivided attention now.” I said.
Chandler laughed again. “No, I understand. It’s no problem. Things crop up. But I appreciate you doing that. Look around some more and then we’ll discuss the Swan cover further. I just thought you would appreciate this.”
“I definitely do. Thank you!”
I started going around the room, counter clockwise, circling towards the two windows that faced the front of the house. I looked out and down and saw Rick walking back towards the Bentley, coming from the direction of the front door. He looked up at the gallery windows, saw me and then tried to play it off as if he just happened to be staring up in the sky, like he was checking out the weather or trying to find Jupiter. I stopped myself from laughing and turned my attention back to the art. The two pieces after the first window were from Avengers Annual #10, the classic comic that introduced the future X-Man Rogue and may be, arguably, one of the single greatest illustrated issues of a comic ever. A complete home run by artist Michael Golden, one of my favorites, every page and every panel is outstanding. Next to those were a Golden Batman Family page and a Golden Micronauts page, two more jaw droppers. And then, right next to them, was Jack Kirby.
The first two were Captain America pages inked by Joe Sinnott, one showing Cap just wearing out some goons in typical kinetic Kirby fashion. The second featured the Black Panther, who Kirby and Lee had introduced in the Fantastic Four in 1965 and then paired him with Cap in 1968 in the Tales of Suspense comic right before it became Captain America’s own book. The two of them were beating up some of Baron Zemo’s goons out in the jungle. Kirby just went to town on fight scenes. You could really feel these poor punks getting their heads put out looking at those panels. There was another Kirby Cap page next to those, a great fight scene between Cap and a robot Steve Rogers, Cap’s alter ego. That one was inked by Frank Giacoa. But below that and to the left, the wall was empty, a space for three frames of art.
“I’m actually jealous that you have Silver Age Kirby art,” I said. “But what happened here? Changing the frames on some?”
Chandler smiled slightly. “No, just arranging to get more art for that space.”
I was going to continue the tour – I could see a Rafael Grampa Batman piece across the room that was killing me – but I changed my mind.
“You know, I am truly loving this room but I would be in here all day. Let’s talk about that Swan cover and how I can help you with that.”
“Are you sure? There’s plenty of art left for you to look at.”
“Is there a time limit on looking at this art that I don’t know about?”, I smiled, making it clear that I was joking. “When I bring your cover back do I have to put it through the mail slot? What’s up?”
Chandler laughed. “No, no time limit. You’re right. Let’s discuss the cover. I am anxious to get it back.”
“So I take it that you brought in somebody with some background in this to search for the page.”
All humor drained from Chandler’s face. “Yes. After getting some particularly bad advice from an auctioneer I know, I approached an overweight, unpleasant gentleman by the name of Donnie Castiglia to look for it. Do you know him?”
“Yes, I know him,” I said, trying hard not to smile. Anyone who knew Donnie would say that calling him an overweight, unpleasant gentleman was a compliment. Donnie was basically a straight up asshole to most people. To me, he was just a pain in the ass. Probably because I limited my interaction with him as much as I could. But he had a working relationship with one of the guys at Legacy Auctions, the biggest high-end comic art dealer.
“Was that auctioneer a guy named Jerry Ryback?” I asked.
Chandler just nodded.
“Yeah, Donnie’s been directing sellers to him forever. Both of them can be tough to deal with,” I said. “What happened?”
“Mr. Castiglia tried to take advantage of my feelings for that cover. He told me that he knew of its whereabouts but he would need a large amount of money to secure it. He also said that it was a “delicate situation” that required “additional funds” to pay off some information. I didn’t believe him and told him he was done. But realistically I can’t stop him from locating the art and dangling it over my head. So I really need you to find it first, Mr. Farrar.”
I thought about all the connections I had and the information I had access to. I could probably put the feelers out and get a response in a decent amount of time. But Donnie had those same connections and a head start on me. I could only assume, since he hadn’t held the art hostage yet, that he didn’t have the cover. So unfortunately, it hadn’t been that easy to track down. Luckily, some people I know plain old refused to deal with Donnie so that was an advantage I had. But word would probably get back to him that I was snooping around for the same page. Something told me that, although I would be tipping my hand, I would have to take the direct approach with Donnie. Ugh.
“I’ll dig around, see if there’s anything he missed.” I said.
“Knowing him, he got sloppy on a few things. I’ll find it.”
“Good man.” said Chandler. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wallet and produced a thick wad of bills from it. I could see 100’s on them. He counted off ten and placed them on the flat file.
“That’s a… retainer, I guess you could say. You will get two thousand more when you find the page. Get the price down to as reasonable a cost as you can. A very reasonable price will get a bonus that you and I will negotiate at that time but I will tell you that it will be another thousand dollars or more. And I thought you might appreciate getting cash instead of a check. Acceptable?”
I picked up the hundreds, folded them and put them in my pocket. This man just gave me a grand and told me I had two more waiting for me. And extra money for getting a good price for it. Acceptable?
“Very. I’ll get that page for you, Mr. Chandler.”
“Excellent.” Chandler smiled, stuck his hand and I shook it. “If you need anything, call my daughter and she will help you as best as she can.”
He led me through the door of the gallery and back towards the staircase. I waited until we were almost to the stairs, and then made a show of patting my jean pockets.
“Damn, I left my phone in your gallery.” I said, trying to look apologetic. “I’ll just be a second.”
I didn’t wait for a response and hurried back into the gallery, making sure Chandler couldn’t see me from his angle. I went around the large center table and quietly opened the drawer that he had dropped the folded paper in. Yeah, that was pretty damn nosy of me but he had really piqued my interest with that move. I had to know what it said. I took the paper out, unfolded it and read.
Handwritten on the paper were the numbers 48, 49 and 50.
That was disappointing. I don’t know what I expected, like it was going to say, “All my money is hidden in my mattress” or “I know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried.” Something interesting, at least. I didn’t know what the hell 48, 49 and 50 had to do with anything.
I refolded the slip of paper and put it back in the drawer, silently closing it while I picked up my phone. Chandler was just reaching the door as I was.
“Got it. I’m always misplacing this thing.”
He didn’t seem suspicious at all. We headed back to the stairs and suddenly Chandler seemed tired. Worn out. He stopped, leaned heavily against the thick wooden bannister and said, “That’s right, Jessica left.”
“Its alright, Mr. Chandler, I can find me way out.” I said. It was pretty much straight down to the front door, no twists or turns. I just hoped that Chandler didn’t think I would go apeshit in the house once I was out of his sight.
On the contrary, he seemed relieved. “Thank you.” he said wearily. He took a breath and pushed himself up. “Think I’ll rest a bit.” Wow. Chandler had appeared to be resting when I first met him. He must have used up a lot of energy and adrenalin just going over the details and talking about comic art. I watched him head slowly towards what must have been a bedroom and frowned. Getting old is a bitch.
I walked down the two flights of stairs, past the photograph of Mrs. Chandler and her sister, through the giant foyer and out the front door. The black Audi was gone and Rick was kneeling by the grill of the Bentley and waxing, trying to look busy. He had positioned himself so that he could see me as he “worked”. I waved and said, “Car looks great, Rick!”
Rick stood slowly, tossed the rag on the hood of the Bentley and just stared. So. No death-match it seemed but something else was totally confirmed: yet another Christmas card I wouldn’t be getting.
I got in the Jeep and drove off, a still scowling Rick receding in my rear view mirror.