Wow! All hell has broken loose in comic book-land! Last week’s surfeit of Aquarian-born comics creators created a busy circuit of birthday parties, and if I had a dime for every time the name “Gary Friedrich” came up, his legal fees would be paid.
IP Wars are breaking out everywhere. Why here, why now? As always, follow the money. The most visible and lucrative segment of comics industry has, since the great distribution collapse of the ’90s, been primarily in the IP business. Entire comics companies have sprung up just to create movie storyboards masquerading as comics. Big media corporations outfit swanky offices just for the purpose of developing existing IP. It’s become a cottage industry. No wonder then, that controlling and profiting from IP has become THE major preoccupation of the comics industry from the CEO selling movies to the colorist selling prints.
I’ve been storing up links on this subject for the last few days and writing about them has already turned into a novel. Augie DeBlieck has already posted a long essay rounding up many lines of thought, some of which I’ll be duplicating, but if you want to stick around for the ride, hop on the chopper.
While reading others concerned thoughts over the last few days, it dawned on me that the US comics industry is really going the way of doujinshi—the unauthorized, fan-made comics of Japan based on existing properties that are tolerated by the real Japanese publishers as long as they don’t get too big. More than half a million doujinshi fans crowd Comiket, the semi-annual amateur press event, to vie for rare books from the best “circles,” as amateur studios are known. Circles are now important farm teams for pro publishers. CLAMP, the hugely successful manga collective, got its start in doujinshi, as have many other major Japanese creators.
While the concept of doujinshi seems alien to American comics, I think in reality it has already pulled a cuckoo on us—we’ve unwittingly raised its young right alongside our own. “Unwitting” isn’t even the right word. We’ve joyously and happily welcomed the cuckoo into our fold—it’s part of the widespread acceptance of “sampling” in all fields. Yesterday’s Paul’s Boutique is today’s Pinterest board.
Unauthorized drawings of copyrighted characters are such a staple of the internet that I don’t think we realize how embedded they are. Take away the “cute drawings of Robin” posts from Comics Alliance and posting frequency would be drastically cut. The same is true for io9, SuperPunch, and any other website of the Reddit generation. Artists do it, too. Take, for a plucked at random example, the Andy MacDonald Ghost Rider as Biker Scout drawing at the top of this post that I just happened to see while I was working on this. MacDonald has a whole series of nice Ghost Rider sketches on his blog—and I doubt he thought twice about posting them.
For the last few days everyone on the internet has been oohing and aahing over Ulises Farinas’s amazing Mos Eisley drawing, with guest appearances by Star Trek and other licensed characters.
It’s a truly amazing work by an amazing creator. The only problem—he’s selling this as a print. I have no idea what the legalities are, so just go buy one—fast. Lucasfilm has loosened up on the licensing of late—Jeffrey Brown?—but this seems to be a bit more Comiket.
American comics artists have already embraced doujinshi as a means to get their work known. All those sketch blogs and Tumblrs. Heck, people even make their own fan movies, like this Kickstarter-funded Static fan film that was promoted on Robot 6 and everywhere else.
Director Stefan Dezil made the film as a tribute to the character and the late Dwayne McDuffie. Is he profiting from it? Probably not. Technically, it’s copyright infringement, but it’s also the kind of thing that comics companies don’t really care about since, in the words of Marvel Publisher Dan Buckley:
Buckley: We in no way want to interfere with creators at conventions who are providing a positive Marvel experience for our fans. We want fans to speak and interact with the creators who wrote, penciled, inked, lettered, colored or edited their favorite stories. Part of that positive interaction is that a fan can walk away with a signed memento or personalized sketch from an artist.
Dezil, Farinas, and MacDonald are all providing a “positive experience for the fan.” Part of the reason is that the unauthorized art is often better than the official art, like this horrible Captain America flash game I found being advertised on The Beat the other day. And then there’s Before Watchmen, an UNauthorized fanfic based on a literary classic. It’s going to be the year’s biggest comic and there’s not a thing we can do to stop it.
So welcome to Doujinshi Nation, where corporations wring the last drop from every character and professional artists do better work for free than paid artists who are getting a crappy wage.
What is really going on?
So how to do we live in this world? After talking to people in all walks of the comics industry over the last few days, it’s become very clear that Marvel and DC already have policies in place about sketching and sketchbooks.
One of the prime pieces of evidence over the last few days has been this Sean Gordon Murphy post in which he goes on the record with how Marvel stopped him from selling a sketchbook of Wolverine drawings:
Last year I drew the Wolverine ABCs. When it was done, I printed out around 200 sketchbooks of them to hand out to industry friends. I knew enough about copyright law to know that I was in the gray area, even though they were only meant to be given away as gifts. I also gave them to people and editors who worked at Marvel–clearly I wasn’t trying to hide what I’d created. Because I was a pro and because I wasn’t selling them, I figured I’d be fine. After three conventions of EVERYONE telling me I should sell them, I broke down and sold some. At the last show that season, I sold the remaining 40 copies or so.
Then Marvel called. I explained that I didn’t have a warehouse of sketchbooks, I only made around 200 (or close to that) and mostly I gave them away. I explained how none of the Marvel editors complained when I handed them one, and my lack of hiding the ABCs should show the innocent nature of my endeavor. I even offered to sign a Cease and Desist, and pay them the money I made selling the last 40. But Marvel wanted the rights to the ABCs–they wanted to own them and pay me nothing. I wasn’t willing to do that, so I got a lawyer. And we eventually came together and agreed to drop the subject if I simply removed them from my site and promised not to make any more sketchbooks.
I was in the wrong. I really can’t be angry at Marvel for their actions. They were in the right, even though some things at conventions are tolerated, it’s still technically wrong. My mistake was being a higher-profile artist and making a themed book out of Marvel characters. I was surprised that it led to the threat of legal action, but it’s not my call to make. I apologized to Marvel up and down, and I still feel incredibly stupid for what I did.
After talking to a few industry folks over the last week, we can spot what went wrong with Murphy’s plan. In fact, here’s a piece of advice for people who may be printing up their own unauthorized sketchbooks and whatnot: don’t give them to your industry friends. It’s one thing to make something cute, but even your friendly neighborhood comics company employee may have to suddenly become Company Man if he’s handed a trademark-infringing item in his booth.
It seems that one of the reasons that Marvel’s Buckley and Quesada had to make a statement was because they are already negotiating with some creators on sharing profits on their doujinshi sketchbooks. This is a little like Jim Shooter’s retroactive licensing deal but a bit more than $1. We suspect that DC has also dealt with various aspects of this, as they did with the Adam Hughes case.
Although Gary Friedrich’s $17,000 bill for Artist Alley would seem to indicate a chilling effect, our discussion suggests that the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on most casual sketching remains. It’s the printed, organized efforts that would seem to be at the most risk.
And what about Disney and its notoriously ruthless IP police? The most cited case is the famous one where Disney lawyers forced a daycare center to remove murals of Mickey and Donald. Although this case should not be forgotten, it took place in 1989. Disney loosened up quite a bit on the idea of IP after that, with the creation of its very first creator-owned division, Hyperion Books, and even the aborted Touchstone line at Disney Comics. Since then it’s become less draconian about fan art and creators—although, to be fair, it would be hard to be less draconian than painting over pictures in front of bawling toddlers. While Disney remains the most proactive IP protector in the world, I would also not take a 1989 case as an example of the totality of their thinking 23 years later.
Unless, of course, The Ike Option becomes more widespread.
So, again, why here, why now?
Follow the money. In a brutal piece that has received surprisingly little linkage, Beau Smith nailed it with something called Not Fade Away:
Who determines when a comic book creator’s career begins to fade or simply end?
Deadline???Sometimes it’s the creator themself. They’ll miss multiple deadlines with little or no excuses, they’ll become “difficult” and rock the editorial or corporate boat, they’ll become tired of the monthly grind of comic books and decide to return to the nine to five working world, and sometimes they just lose their passion for creating comic books or go crazy and quit.
I’ve seen and worked with young and older talent that has chosen a path of self-destruction when it comes to their career. They were bound and most determined to plant roadside bombs on their own career path and then step on them. I’m guessing when that happens there’s a more deeply rooted emotional problem that is way beyond my education and general people skills. Those creators are their own worst enemies in their goal to create. As long as they don’t drag others down with them, then I figure it’s their own talent to waste, and trust me, I’m sorry to say, I’ve seen some major talent wasted.
A lot of those personal reasons for self-destruction I can understand while others can be more puzzling. I’ve witnessed some creative careers take nosedives because of an editor that comes down with what I call “Raccoon Syndrome”. That’s when they discard a creator that hasn’t done anything wrong or detrimental to the book – and the book may even be months ahead of schedule – but are kicked to the curb because the editor sees another creator that is new, shiny and sometimes unproven in regards to handing a book in on time. The editor(s) will shuffle the talented, established creator off to limbo, just south of Buffalo, and bring in the shiny new creator without training them in what it takes to produce a monthly book, not to mention how that must work with crafting a compelling story and not just being a working cog in the current event of the month. Editors should be editors and teachers, not just traffic managers.
OUCH. It goes on from there. Go ahead and read the whole thing and those of you who have not slit your wrists come back for the discussion.
Mainstream comics creators don’t have the greatest job security and their work is prone to suddenly going out of fashion. Sometimes brutally so. It’s a cycle of life as instinctive and taxing as the salmon returning to spawn. In a recent discussion of all these issues here, people brought up Marvel’s Herb Trimpe, who is now thought of as a Silver Age mainstay. But in 2000, he was just another middle-aged guy out of work:
In 1996, after 29 years as an artist for Marvel Comics, I got fired — 56 years old, two children still in college and no job.
Things had started to get shaky two years before. The American comics industry was taking hits from changing tastes in the youth market — teenage boys had plenty of other entertainment options, mostly electronic — and Marvel couldn’t seem to lure the general population. Never mind that in Japan comic books sell in the millions to all ages. It also didn’t help that Ronald Perelman’s acquisition binge overextended the company, or that Marvel flooded the market with spinoffs and endless No. 1 issues, devaluing the collections of the faithful.
At that time, Trimpe was something of a novelty for being able to go back to school at his advanced age, finish his degree and get a teaching job.
May 27: Turned 56 yesterday. Sent in my application today to the State University of New York’s Empire State College. The Center for Distance Learning offers credit for life experience and independent study for people like me, who can’t attend regular classes. Not sure what I’ll major in. Not art. Maybe history.
Since then, Trimpe—who worked extensively with Gary Friedrich in his Marvel career, and was part of Friedrich’s injuncted convention wares—has become a comics convention mainstay. He looks quite hale and hearty for a man in his 70s and seems happy enough when he puts on his game face.
Most ex-comics pros aren’t as lucky as as Trimpe. They don’t have the willpower and training to start a whole new career. But the internet has a way of stripping away some layers of denial. All of these stories of penniless old-timers who created the character you’re buying the toys of right now haven’t been lost on today’s insecure creators. Doujinshi isn’t a paying career with a pension and insurance. The Age of Anxiety has taken hold.
The other day Tom Spurgeonsketched this spiderweb of worry with another much-linked to post called “Five Reasons To Worry About Comics That Aren’t Piracy.” Goodbye, denial—the internet puts it all out there to see. The piece touches on several problems that I’ve been harping on for the last couple of years, from 10 Days That Shook The World to the tenuous state of making a living at comics. This is another must-read if you haven’t already but for the sake of the present discussion here are the five topics:
1. The ownership of the biggest two comics publishers by gigantic entertainment corporations comes with the constant possibility for sweeping changes based on factors that have little to do with the comics themselves.
2. The Direct Market of hobby and comics shops continues to gray while suffering from infrastructure difficulties and general neglect.
3. The editorial cartooning field has yet to reach its bottom in terms of sustainable staff positions.
4. Whatever on-line market emerges will likely work in drastically different ways from the high-profit-per-piece paper market on which the current industry players depend.
5. We sort of expect people to be broke now, and this is a relatively flush period. What happens when it’s not?
As regards #5, I’ve already seen chipper young cartoonists who were sprightly gadabouts at the SPX of a few years ago walking away from comics in bitterness. Or “Applying to SUNY,” to put it in Trimpe terms. It happens.
Every semester I lecture to a senior cartooning class at SVA. The grads are smart and engaged but have no career path aside from making mini-comics and webcomics and hoping they get a spot in a career-boosting anthology so they can become an Anders Nilsen or Gabrielle Bell. I would submit that we need lots more Anders and Gabrielles, but the ones we have aren’t exactly rolling in bling.
Not everyone is a 1%er. If there were a “You must be as talented as Anders Nilsen” bar to line up to before you got into the comics industry, we’d have a paradise of quality. On the other hand, if Dan Clowes and Chris Ware had been booted out because of Lloyd Llewellyn and Floyd Farland, we’d have no Enid Coleslaw. The young cartoonist’s prospects is a huge topic, however, and examination must wait for another post.
As for topic #3, the creaky state of comics retailing, it is true that the great retailers now resemble aging city-states. It’s getting a little Denethor out there. But we’re still ahead of the game from traditional print, which resembles a Roland Emmerich movie. Image’s Eric Stephenson has a recent post on this topic that twines all these threads once more:
In the big scheme of things, the Direct Market is no more threatened than any other content-based retail business right now. It seems, though, that there’s a growing concern amongst some that as the comics industry becomes more and more entwined with the entertainment industry, the comparatively low revenue generated by the Direct Market in contrast to larger mass outlets, may result in a reduction of support for it, from the very corporate entities it helped build. Which would be a great shame, because the direct market, almost since its inception, has made it possible for talented creative and business people to shape their own independent destinies, and by proxy, has helped refine the material that makes what we do so attractive to the world.
It’s noontime at Image. It’s where the doujinshi circles of Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar are taking the skills they learned copying the creations of others and making their own comics. It’s a business model founded on the Direct Market, however, and to become completely viable it needs that system to last a few more years.
So, action items? It is soothing to look back on John Severin, who died at a good old age, turning out great work until the end, presumably economically sound and surrounded by a loving family. That’s how we all want to go. But now?
A comic book guild or union would be a great idea, but as BK Munn sketches in this history of cat-herding efforts, past attempts at getting a quorum of creators have sputtered out. Plus…unions aren’t exactly very popular in the corporations-are-your-best-friends atmosphere of 2012.
Artist Michael Lapinski has a more DIY idea that calls on the kids to get together at the barn and put on a promotion:
For me, one solution is to join all of our self-marketing efforts under one banner for the month or the Summer of BEFORE WATCHMEN. There are plenty of innovative and industrious retailers that already plan displays and initiatives to answer trends. As DC tried around the time of the WATCHMEN movie release, the goal would be to help shine a light on work, here specifically creator-owned, that is worthy of renewed attention. Very few people will buy books based on a moral high ground alone but there’s plenty of entertainment worthy of their time and money. Call it BEYOND WATCHMEN, call it the Comic Book 99%, whatever we call it, the intention would be to use this window as a global creator/retailer initiative to encourage reading outside the norm in addition to BEFORE WATCHMEN.
I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea, but a lot of it comes down to content. Some creators need a good hard look at whether their ideas are truly viable in the marketplace of today and the future. It’s not a pleasant prospect.
Finally, the week’s other most quoted post was Kate Beaton’s Q and A on making comics, a sensible piece with both practical—Tumblr doesn’t do archives!—and inspirational information. It’s overall a very positive piece, and I don’t want to be called Negative Nancy for pulling this quote, but it seems to sum up everything we’re concerned about.
How do I get paid jobs in comics?
Wouldn’t we all like to know! That is a question even the pros struggle with. Ideally we’d all be making our own graphic novels right? Usually, when people I know fish for freelance work, they get a lot of offers to.. make a comic about someone’s wife for their birthday (is fifty dollars ok?). It’s cute, but it’s not a real job that you can depend on to pay the bills. And these are talented, experienced friends with resumes stacked to the roof. If getting comic freelance work is your main deal, it’s not going to be easy to get jobs you like. Other people I know have made comics for corporations, promotional items, that sort of thing, not always comics for the comic industry. The way it goes, when you gots to get paid.
Here’s the biggest truth about comics that we all know is not going to change any time soon: we all wish comics had more money in it.
And there we will leave it for now. Other forces are swirling about—Kickstarter, book publishing, the iPad—but we’re saving that for the sequel.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.