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Superman Exhibit Opens at JFK Presidential Library

DC, the comic book company behind Superman (as well as Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern), collaborated with the Kennedy Administration to produce a story promoting the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. In the story, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy asks Superman to encourage Americans to exercise and eat healthier foods.

The story, “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy,” was set to appear in Superman #168, which was dated April, 1964. It would have been printed in January of 1964 and released in February, but, of course, Kennedy was assassinated in November.

Naturally, the comic book publishers thought it would be in poor taste to send it to newsstands and pulled it. Eight months later, though, with the encouragement of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy,” saw publication as a posthumous tribute to J.F.K. in Superman #170 (dated June, 1964).

Cartoonist Alfred John Plastino (1921-2013), who worked on Superman for about twenty years from 1948 to 1968, as well as Superman and Batman comic strips in the ‘60s, was proudest of the work he did for “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy.” According to the J.F.K. Preesidenital Library & Museum, “In December 2013, just one month after Ms. Plastino passed away, DC Comics donated the drawings to the Kennedy Library. They are displayed here for the first time.”

This account is true, but omits some interesting facts. As Laura Italiano reported in the New York Post last October, Al Plastino believed for fifty years his original drawings for “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy” were already at the J.F.K. Presidential Library until he discovered, while at the New York Comic Con, one of the exhibitors was about to auction then off (“‘Superman’ artist stunned to find ‘donated’ work on sale”).

…the library says it never received the artwork. And now, it’s in the hands of the Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, where it was due to be gaveled off at starting bid of $200,000 on the assassination’s 50th anniversary — until bad publicity halted the sale, at least for now.

‘I almost started crying,’ Plastino told The Post of seeing his beloved artwork, which he called ‘my pride and joy,’ in the hands of a nearby exhibitor.

‘The guy tells me, ‘We got your work,’ and I said, ‘What? How the hell did you get it?’ He wouldn’t tell me where he got it.’

For its part, the auction house related that the same anonymous collector had owned the drawings for twenty years, having bought them for $5,000 at a Sothby’s auction in 1993. Al Plastino’s daughter, MaryAnn Plastino Charles, told the New York Post her father, who was ninety-one years old and suffering from prostate cancer, was “devastated.”

Ms. Italiano explains in her article, “But advocates for comic book artists say that since the art was never given to the museum, Plastino remains the rightful owner. Comic book publishers, they claim, only buy the publishing rights to an artist’s work, not the work itself. Publishers generally dispute this, and it’s an issue that’s been debated for decades.”

Kristine Adams Stone, daughter of another famous cartoonist, Neil Adams, told the New York Post, “He never gave up ownership of the art because DC never purchased it from him or paid sales tax,” and added they were preparing legal papers to permanently prevent the sale. Neil Adams, who has worked for Archie Comics, Warren Publishing, DC, and Marvel, as well as started his own independent comic book company, successfully led a campaign more than thirty years ago for comic book companies to return the original artworks to the artists.

The artists could then earn additional income by selling the original drawings at comic book conventions. Cartoonists of any age might benefit from this, but it is especially important for older artists who are no longer active in the field.

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