In the heyday of Superman comic books — the late 1940s through the 1960s — Al Plastino drew scores of issues, earning $50 per page as a freelancer for the publisher that became known as DC Comics. In the late ’50s he helped create new characters, including Supergirl, and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and he drew the syndicated Superman and Batman newspaper strips.
But in his telling, Mr. Plastino, who died on Monday at 91 in Patchogue, N.Y., took his greatest pride in a single special story, “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy,” which he began drawing in 1963, before Kennedy’s assassination. The story, conceived with the Kennedy White House, paired Superman and Kennedy as allies in promoting the president’s new physical fitness program.
The issue was not yet finished when the president was killed in Dallas that November, and DC initially decided to call it off. But after getting encouragement from the new administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the project went forward in revised fashion.
For the story’s first page, Mr. Plastino drew a flying Superman looking toward a ghostly, larger-than-life image of the president looming over the Capitol dome, where a flag is at half-staff. Also on the page was a note explaining the story behind its publication. The last page included another note: “The original art for this story will be donated to the John F. Kennedy Memorial Library, at Harvard University.”
For the next half-century, Mr. Plastino proudly told people that his drawings were in the library’s care. Then, in October, while attending Comic Con in New York, he was approached by a representative of Heritage Auctions who was excited to show him that Heritage had the original art and was preparing to sell it. The asking price was $20,000.
Mr. Plastino was confused. Was the auction house selling it to make money for the library? No, it turned out; Heritage said it was representing a private owner who had bought it at auction at Sotheby’s in 1993 for $5,000. A few phone calls established that the Kennedy Library had no record of the art’s ever having been in the collection. It remains unclear how it ended up in private hands.
“Al was just devastated,” said Dale Cendali, a lawyer who has worked with comic book artists and happened to be at the show.
Ms. Cendali, working pro bono, sued to get Heritage to disclose the identity of the seller. The company withdrew the art from sale and returned it to the consignor, but it has not disclosed the seller.
Ms. Cendali said in an interview that Mr. Plastino and his family had wanted the art to be available to the public through a museum or another organization, and that the family would consider dropping the case if the owner agreed to turn over the art.
“We’re hoping the consignor will do the right thing under the circumstances,” she said.
Alfred John Plastino was born on Dec. 15, 1921, in Manhattan and grew up in the Bronx. His mother died when he was 6. His father, who made hats and sold them from a store on Fifth Avenue, often dropped his son off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where young Al would sketch Monets and Michaelangelos.
Mr. Plastino is survived by his wife of more than 55 years, the former Annmarie Perkins; a son, Fred; three daughters, Janice Iapaolo, Arlene Podlesny and MaryAnn Plastino-Charles, who confirmed the death; and six grandchildren.
Correction: December 4, 2013
An obituary on Saturday about the comic-book artist Al Plastino referred incorrectly to “Superman’s Mission for President Kennedy,” which Mr. Plastino illustrated. It was a story, not a “special issue,” and Mr. Plastino’s drawing of Superman looking toward a ghostly image of President John F. Kennedy appeared on the first page of the story, not on the cover of the comic book in which it appeared.