My pal Scott Shaw! started an interesting dialog on Facebook the other day about the plethora of artists who go to comic-cons and sell prints of copyrighted characters. This is an old topic, but I admit I have seen a huge growth in the number of vendors hawking prints of the same old characters… Wolverine, Batman, just about any female superhero/villain in a porn star pose, etc.in the last few years. Some of these booths are HUGE and have literally a hundred different prints for sale. It’s too easy to print these things off on your home computer. What I’ve really noticed is a large increase in the number of artists doing this that have either no actual credits in the comic book world at all, or very minor ones. Some of this work is actually pretty good, but a lot of it is bad, amateur work.
Before I go on, I want to address the people who right now are saying “you are such a hypocrite! You sell prints of copyrighted characters at comic cons!” Well, yes and no. I do sell prints that feature characters from films or TV, but I do not believe I am infringing on any copyrights by doing so for several reasons. First, I am making fun of these characters. Parody is a well protected first amendment right and fair use in using copyrighted content when doing it. Second, these are limited edition prints, printed by a real printer and not on somebody’s inkjet. That’s actually an important distinction. The venue in which you present your parody needs to be an acceptable vehicle of free speech. Fine art, including limited edition prints, is recognized as an acceptable vehicle of free speech. Mass produced posters, T-shirts and especially ink-jet copies are not. Finally, This is representative of the work I do professionally. I do movie and TV parodies for MAD. Doing my own caricatures lampooning films, TV shows, genres or the characters in them can arguably be said to sell because of the nature of my best known work. I am careful not to do caricatures of single individuals, include any trademarks, nor draw anything that cannot clearly be construed as a caricature. End of digression.
So why do the big comic book companies let these artists do this sort of thing? I think they are simply picking their battles. It would cost them quite a bit of money in time and energy to send representatives to all the comic cons and squash this. Then they’d have the inevitable backlash from fans about their perceived corporate greed. Fans don’t comprehend that it isn’t so much any money they are missing out on as that they don’t want shitty drawings of She-Hulk showing off her camel toe selling at conventions where legitimate merchandise is also being sold. That point is lost on the average comic book geek.
Why anyone would want to buy some of these bad (or even the good) bootleg prints of characters is beyond me. I mean, I could understand buying a print of Catwoman by Darwyn Cooke because he worked on the character for DC and is incredible, but who cares about a print of Catwoman (even if it’s pretty good) by some artist whose never done anything but sell prints at a convention? In the end it’s the consumers that are creating the market. Obviously these things must sell, so therefore there are people willing to sell them. Marvel, DC or other companies do not have booths selling officially licensed prints of their characters. If they did, they might be able to reduce the profitability of the bootleggers so they stop doing it.
If I was running the major comic book companies and I really wanted to stop this, I’d contractually allow artists who do work for me to do their own prints of characters they have worked on if they are so inclined, and then create a series of prints commissioned by the publisher for retailers to sell. Then I’d inform all organizers of comic book conventions that they must refuse to allow unlicensed prints and merchandise vendors in their shows or they might be named as defendants in any copyright cases. That’s what keeps Cafe Press and such in line. Then sue a couple of people to show I mean business. There would be plenty of fan backlash.
In the end, I don’t think the big publishers actually care much. They mainly exist these days to develop properties for TV and movies, and that business has never been bigger than it is now. The film and TV rights to characters and storylines, and the toy and merchandise tie ins, are far more profitable for them than the actual comics. Fan art and that sort of thing only helps promote the product. That’s probably their thinking. It’s small potatoes for them, and I guess they can stomach the really bad stuff floating around.
One thing I definitely think should be okay is for an artist who has been known for working on a certain character, even if they did not create it, to do prints of their art of that character. Let’s face it, many comic book artists have worked their whole careers on other people’s characters, and have brought their own vision and style to those characters. If the publisher they work for does not see fit to create a print of their art for sale, why not allow the artist to do it? That’s certainly a lot more appealing to all parties… the artist gets a nice perk in having a secondary stream of revenue from their work, the publisher knows their characters are being presented in a professional way by an artist familiar with them, and the fans can buy awesome artwork from an artist that is known for that character.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not begrudge anyone from eeking out a living on the fringes of the comics world by doing this sort of thing. If the owners of these copyrighted characters don’t seem to care, why should I?
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