For the past five decades, comic book artist Al Plastino was proud to tell people that his original art for the DC Comics story "Superman's Mission for President Kennedy" had been donated to the Kennedy Library at Harvard University.
He had been drawing the story when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, and work halted until the White House said to proceed. It was published in July 1964 with an editor's note on its last page announcing the original art would be donated to the library.
He was shocked, therefore, to learn it wasn't.
"I cried, I actually cried," said Plastino, now 91 and living in Shirley, who was one of the most prolific artists drawing Superman from 1948 to 1968.
He learned the truth at a recent comic book convention, when representatives of a Dallas-based auction house told him his artwork was actually in private hands and scheduled to be auctioned later this month, with an estimated value of more than $50,000.
The owner who consigned the work to the auction house, who hasn't been named, had bought it for $5,000 in a 1993 Sotheby's auction. It was on a catalog page with comic art listed as coming from the collection of rock and roll star Graham Nash.
The auction house, Heritage Auctions, now says it won't auction the work until questions about ownership are resolved. Plastino wants it back.
"I said, 'Where the hell did you get this work; it was supposed to be at the Kennedy Library,' " he recounted. "The longer I live, the more I find this world is not what it's supposed to be."
Dale Cendali, who heads the copyright and trademark practice group at the New York law firm Kirkland & Ellis, and is representing Plastino pro bono, is trying to find out how the art left the possession of DC Comics and where it went. She said that the Kennedy Library told her it was never in its possession. She maintains that the artwork belongs to its creator by default.
"The responsibility for proving clear ownership lies with the consignor," she said. "This is an unusual case in that the artwork itself makes clear that the artwork was supposed to be donated to the museum."
She added, "These early creators really did not get the credit and compensation that they should have. Many have passed and here is someone who is still around, thank God, and who deserves a proper outcome, and that the work be respected."
The murky fate of Plastino's original work isn't surprising to those familiar with the comic book industry's earlier practices.
"The publishers of comics treated original art very casually for many decades," said Paul Levitz, former DC Comics president, and now a writer and consultant with the company, as well as a college lecturer, and freelancer on book and comic book projects. "Many possible bad faiths could have happened to it."
He added, "I can tell you many of the companies like DC have been treating the art with respect for decades now and ensuring it was returned to the artists. . . . I think it would be a happy ending if [Plastino's] artwork ended up in the museum library because it's an appropriate piece to be there and I hope it happens."
The story depicts Kennedy enlisting Superman in his initiative to get America's youth more physically fit. It includes a full-page drawing of Superman waving to a ghostly image of Kennedy in the clouds over the White House.
A copy of the comic book, Superman edition #170, is in the collection of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, in the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shots.
Comic book writers and artists have won more control over their work, and some rights to profits derived from their characters. But they have yet to profit fully from the huge success of movies based on comic characters, said famed comics artist Neal Adams, known for his work on Batman, the Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Superman and X-Men, who has been fighting for more rights for creators since the 1970s.
"Things were not gentlemanly or professional," he said of past practices. The promise made to donate Plastino's work "slipped into that dark place that nobody knows about."
But, Adams added, "To make such a promise to Al, for Al to every Christmas and birthday to tell the story that he had a piece at the Kennedy Library, there were certainly promises made. But it didn't happen. And it's unfair to Al and it's unfair for that piece to be floating out there."