While the old trading card business in comics has never been the same since the 1990s, there is a vibrant off-shoot that's caught hold for both artists and fans. Sketch cards have almost completely overshadowed mass-produced trading cards as a way for fans to buy original, one-of-a-kind art from both established and up-and-coming artists.
Can't afford to buy the original art from a page of your favorite comic book? Sketch cards sell at a fraction of the price and are just as unique. Can't make it to a comic book convention or pay commission prices? Sketch cards are like instant mini-commissions. They also retain the collectibility of trading cards because companies typically commission artists to do a finite number around a specific theme for a limited-edition series. Artists are also free to make their own sketch cards and sell those. As someone who used to voraciously collect Marvel trading cards in their heyday, I view this as a cool alternative that highlights and supports the individual artist more.
Some fans may be surprised to learn that standard trading cards are still being released. Upper Deck produces Marvel cards; one series is based on the movies but others are based on the comics. Some of the cards just reuse art from the comics, but there's plenty of original art too. Typical for trading cards, there are plenty of rare cards, chase cards, hologram cards and other exclusives to get people to buy as many packs as possible. One of those types is the sketch card, which seems to have broken out to have a life of its own among collectors and art fans. Because they are original sketches, there's an immediacy to them that the standard cards just don't have. It feels like you've accidentally gotten your hands on an artist's private work; it's like getting in to a concert early and catching the band doing sound check.
5Finity Productions may not be the size of an Upper Deck but it has licenses to produce cards based on Archie, Voltron, Hack/Slash, Lady Death and other properties. The company has seen the response to sketch cards as well, and in 2010 started doing informal awards to celebrate its artists. The High Five Awards uses select dealers and collectors to recognize that year's Favorite Artist (one award for overall body of work and one for a specific release) and Most Collectible Artist. There is also the 100% Effort All The Time Award for those artists who produce consistently high-quality artwork for sketch cards. George Webber just won Most Collectible Artist for this year's High Five Awards; it's the second time he's received the recognition. Other winners were Bill Maus (100% Effort All The Time) and Best Artists Larry Welz (Specific Release) and Patrick Finch (Body of Work). This isn't necessarily a gauge of the entire market, as it's an in-house award, but it certainly shows that sketch card artists are winning fans despite not being in the larger comics limelight.
That ability of artists to make their own way is another advantage of sketch cards. They don't need a company like Upper Deck or 5Finity to produce and sell sketch cards: Just like self-published artists, they can go it alone. Bags Unlimited has packs of 20 for under $4. The great Fred Hembeck has been doing this for a few years now, posting what he creates on Facebook and regularly selling them on eBay for $10 to $15 each. Typically one sketch card gets one to three bids, so most of them are attainable for fans without the price skyrocketing. He usually posts them in themed groups of 10 to 20, such as with his recent sets of classic Marvel villains and members of the Legion of Super-Heroes. So for everyone missing Hembeck's swirly elbowed take on characters, there's a new batch of them almost every day. For Hembeck, it seems to work as a fast way to boost his income from larger illustrations and cover recreations.
There's enough of a demand for sketch cards among collectors that the people at Justin Chung's World Famous Comics created SketchCards.com to try to track all of them on eBay. Most auctions end up at about the same price range as Hembeck's listings, but sometimes as low as $4. And then there are the breakout auctions, like Jeff Zapata's Garbage Pail Kid sketch card that went fore more than $100. Of course, there are also the sketch cards that go unsold, but as with anything on eBay, artists can always re-list them or sell them directly at conventions or on their own sites. And considering the time investment, being unable to sell a sketch card isn't nearly as bad as being unable to sell a comic book or even a full-size illustration. SketchCards.com also has profiles on the more popular and prolific artists that they track, such as Cat Staggs, Tom Hodges and Cynthia Cummens.
Finding new sources of income is the eternal struggle for artists, and producing sketch cards seems to be one of the lower-risk ways to do it. The market puts much of the focus on the artist themselves, which can help artists establish themselves if they can catch people's eye with the right characters. For fans of artists or characters, it's also a neat way to build up a collection of that artist's work or of that character. In fact, I'd love to see one of our Shelf Porn contributors show off a display of sketch cards, which would look great on a wall.