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Dissecting Dumbo by Candlelight

Allan Mullen, An anatomical account of the elephant accidentally burnt in Dublin, £2,250 ($3,670) at Lyon & Turnbull of Edinburgh on May 4.

Anatomical drawing of an elephant from Mullen’s curiously titled book. Courtesy of Lyon & Turnbull.

Published in 1682, this curious tract, illustrated with two folding engraved plates, reprints a letter that the author, a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, had written to Sir William Petty of the Royal Society. The pachyderm in question perished when the booth in which it was housed by a showman named Wilkins caught fire. Wilkins had to engage a “File of Musqueteers” to prevent an unruly mob taking away bits of the poor beast as souvenirs, but Mullen, having been quickly alerted to the incident, persuaded Wilkins to let him carry out a proper dissection and anatomical study. To save the creature from further decay and keep it out of the hands of the assembled rabble, this was done that very night, by candlelight and with the assistance of some butchers.

The skeleton and other body parts—“the Trunk, Toung, Gutts, Penis”— subsequently became an entirely different show attraction for Wilkins, but Mullen’s prompt action provided valuable new information on the anatomy of elephants.

In looking for background on Mullen I also found the intriguing note that four years after publishing this work, he left Dublin in disgrace and in 1690 died of the drink in Barbados. Another story for another time, perhaps.

This very rare copy of Mullen’s tract, in modern calf-backed cloth and, like the copy sold in 2005 at Sotheby’s as part of the great scientific library of the Earl of Macclesfield, lacking the final four pages of advertisements, was part of a collection of books from the library of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland being sold in Edinburgh.

The Dark Knight Illuminated

Frank Miller, original artwork for The Dark Night Returns, $448,125 at Heritage Auctions on May 5.

Batman and a female Robin soar above Gotham City in this most desirable piece of original comic art. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

In the 1980s, a four-issue series of comic books created by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson rejuvenated Batman as comic publisher DC’s most popular superhero, and in 2005, Time magazine ranked Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as one of the top ten graphic novels of all time.

Those unfamiliar with, or not especially drawn to, this world of the superhero comic may wonder at hearing that The Dark Knight Returns is “universally acknowledged as one of the most important and influential stories ever published,” but it is undoubtedly the masterwork of illustrator, writer, and film director Frank Miller, and here we had what many would regard as the most memorable image of all in The Dark Night Returns—a full page or ‘splash’ of Batman and his new, female Robin.

“Holy …!” as the original Robin would doubtless have exclaimed.

Locked away in a single collection since purchased at the time of its creation, this was the illustration chosen to represent the 1980s in the recently published 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. Prior to sale, Heritage had thought it would easily reach six figures, but even so, they admitted to being slightly surprised by the drawing’s astonishing success.

The previous record price for a piece of original American comic book art at auction was set only last year, when a 1980s Frank Miller cover drawing for Dare Devil #188 sold at Heritage for $101,575, but in that same year Frank Frazetta’s 1955 cover for Weird Fantasy #29 was reported to have been sold by Heritage via a private treaty sale for $380,000.

These last mentioned artworks can both be seen at Cool & Collected, my source for these comic book revelations.

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