BURBANK — Zeke Zekley watched quietly as people bid thousands of dollars for the kinds of comic strip panels he was paid $50 a week to draw in the 1930s.
"I never had any idea that these drawings would become as popular as they are today," said the 78-year-old retired cartoonist, looking around at almost 300 original comic strip panels being auctioned off Sunday at the Burbank Airport Hilton's convention center.
One of Zekley's "Bringing Up Father" strips that ran in newspapers across the nation on Aug. 31, 1941, brought $1,100 --but not to him. His daughter, Casey Sater of Beverly Hills, had brought three of her father's panels to the auction.
Zekley could only watch in wonder and think of his former colleagues, who churned out assembly line art in anonymity. "Some of these guys never made this much money in half a year," he said, as a 1940 Donald Duck comic strip panel, showing Donald being rejected by Daisy after eating an onion sandwich, sold for $5,400.
The popularity of original comic strip panels--most drawn in India ink on thick paper--is increasing, according to dealers and buyers. Some of Zekley's personal collection of panels will be sold later this year at Christie's auction house. The Burbank-based gallery plans another auction in late August.
Collectors see comic books and original panels as one way to grab a piece of their past.
"Everyone has a baseball card, but not everyone has one of these," said a 37-year-old Pasadena man who refused to identify himself.
There were 294 works offered at the auction, some of them treasures fished out of a trash bin by an unidentified Burbank garbage collector. About two dozen local collectors participated, along with at least as many phone bidders from around the country. By day's end, sales totaled $350,000 for the collection of comic strip art, editorial cartoons and magazine illustrations from as far back as the late 1920s, said Tami Mahnken, a spokeswoman for the Howard Lowery Gallery in the convention center.
Among the most valuable pieces offered Sunday was a full-page Donald Duck comic book panel, drawn by popular Disney artist Carl Barks, which sold for $16,500. An unidentified Arkansas Man paid $5,000 for an original 1933 Krazy Kat panel and a 1931 Mickey Mouse comic strip panel sold for $11,000.
Tom Neal of Fullerton came away with a 1955 Sunday Superman front-page comic strip, showing Superman traveling back in time to help Hercules in his battle against a Roman warrior, for $1,100 to add to his growing collection.
"It's truly beginning to be recognized as America's art form," said Neal, 39, who has collected the strips for 18 years. He measures the popularity of the art medium by the price increases and the growing network of private collectors and dealers.
"It's going to get much larger," he said. "Three years ago, I could have gotten this for about $100," he said of the Superman art.
The work will be added to his collection of comic book panels from what he called the Silver Art Age in the early 1960s.
The piece de resistance--which sold for $29,700--was a 1939 Prince Valiant Sunday comic strip panel, a cartoon still featured in some newspapers.
"It has quintessential scenes: a fight scene, hand-to-hand combat, a jousting scene. It's all complete," said Susan Marrone, one of the auctioneers.