Art exists in a gray area. Anyone who has ever been to a convention has run across a booth that sold unlicensed fan art: art prints, posters, or on the spot sketches of our favorite characters from pop culture. The question is, when money exchanges hands, is the artist being paid for the work they put into the piece or for the character they “borrowed”? Taking one side of the discussion, our guest for this week, Joel Rivers, presents a multi-faceted argument for why artists should not sell fan art.
Until next time,
As anyone who has attended or exhibited at a comic convention can attest, there is no shortage of artists out there drawing pictures, sketches, pin-ups, etc. of Deadpool, Batman and/or Spider-Man. As someone who’s often working a dealers’ table covered with all-original comics and characters, I can personally attest to the fact that watching those items – especially prints – sell like hotcakes at $20-$50 a pop gets old pretty fast.
Is this me chewing on sour grapes? Probably; I’m the Wilford Brimley of comics. However, what I do is also LEGAL. I own the copyright to my stories and characters. If another writer/artist’s original designs are cooler and plotlines better than mine, so be it: the market has spoken. But, this particular game is rigged, and instead of discovering new concepts and the people who bring them to life, too many fans are engaged instead in something altogether less special, in my not-so-humble opinion. Wait NO, it’s not my opinion… it’s the LAW. If you are replicating someone else’s creation, you’re stealing. And you’re probably giving some people the false impression that you currently draw Spider-Man for Marvel. To those same young and impressionable souls, you are masquerading as something awe-inspiring to them – something you are NOT. We are all ambassadors of comics, and need to take responsibility as such.
Will the monster corporations that actually own all these characters come after the black marketeers anytime soon? Probably not. But, you never know. For my own enjoyment, I often sketch my comic faves. Sometimes I’ll even gift someone a one-of-a-kind piece of original art featuring an icon. But, you will find no mass-produced material for sale at my table if I don’t own the copyright in it. (Yes, I’ve passed up a lot of easy money!). There are so many other subjects from folklore or legend that could serve as inspiration. No one owns Krampus, for example. That is to say, the Nation of Germany or some other country might argue that I am appropriating its culture, but no one company owns the “rights” to Krampus, D’Jinns, Angels, or Zeus. Unlike Mickey Mouse or Tarzan or Bilbo Baggins or the Marvel version of everyone’s favorite hammer-wielding Norse god, Thor.
Question: is it different if the artist in question has WORKED for Marvel and drawn art for dozens of issues – maybe even designed the costume of a beloved character? He/she should be able to sell prints, right?
If the artist was employed as a “work for hire”, he or she was a hired gun. He/she was most likely paid a “page rate” to draw/duplicate a character which is owned by someone else. Kirby went to his grave not owning Ben Grimm. Or, take the case of writer Gary Friedrich, who famously tangled with Marvel recently, even though he created Ghost Rider. The case was settled with Marvel retaining all rights to that character. Legally, you have no rights to your art after you sign that “Work For Hire” agreement. That is what “Work For Hire” means. Is it fair? Probably not. But, it IS the law. And that legal precedent was applied to an artist – Gary – who actually worked on the book in question. What about the rest of us?
Well, the short answer is that we have even less business drawing other people’s characters AT ALL, let alone charging fans at a con when we do so. The Graphic Artist Guild suggests, mostly to deaf ears from the looks of it, that no artist should ever work “for hire” for this exact reason. But, people want to draw comics for a living, so the pattern remains. I have, do, and will work “for hire”, because I like to eat food and, without a roof over my head, it might get really tough to draw funny books. Should I? Should we? A topic for another time, methinks.
I’m not arguing for some abstract ideal here, or just for myself. Whenever we go to a comic convention, it should be crystal clear WHEN we’re meeting the actual person who created and/or owns one of these wonderful flights of fancy vs. an imposter. It costs a lot of money to attend and exhibit, and creators sweat blood to bring their small independent books to life. Our characters end up being our children. And after all this effort, we often end up sitting next to “Mr. or Ms. Pinup.” Folks crowd around, not even glancing over at the weird guy with his little books that no one’s ever heard of; the very same “weird guy” that Eric Powell (of The Goon fame) or Robert Kirkman (of The WalkingDead) used to be.
So, for God’s sake, stop drawing stuff you don’t own! Let’s get back to creating our own characters and telling our own stories and stop selling bootleg art! Let the good books rise and the bad ones fall. I’m not against competition; I’m all for it. But, our efforts need to be more transparent if the comics industry is going to be around for the long haul. Respect the law, not because you might get dragged into court and have to hire a lawyer (which IS a good reason!), but because it’s the right thing to do. And don’t completely financially smother us little guys who actual want to share new characters and new creations. With less diversity and the loss of new voices, comics threaten to become a monoculture. None of us want that, especially me and my fellow independent creators, whether we see eye-to-eye on this particular issue or not.
I’m sure there are folks… professional folks with much longer lists of achievements than me, who will disagree. And I truly welcome what is sure to be a respectful dialogue to follow (wink, wink).
See you on the convention floor,
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Bio: Joel Zain Rivers is a comic creator, freelance illustrator, storyboard artist, and writer. His Xeric Grant-funded 6-issue black and white miniseries, Along the Canadian, was self-published in 2004-2006. He has gone on to collaborate with Sillywood Animation, an independent animation house. He was 1/3 of the artistic team Out For Justice formed in 2102 in Portland, Maine. He currently illustrates The Girl From Hollywood, a webcomic on the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. website, and stares at the ceiling at 2 AM thinking about his own comic book stories. He currently lives with his wife in Santa Fe, New Mexico.