While the International Comic Convention at San Diego might be done for the year, Comic Con season is far from over. The United States alone is riddled with smaller shows throughout the country, filling the gap until another big show arrives like October’s New York Comic Con. Frequent attendees of these big and small shows alike will understand that comic merchandise usually serves as the bulk of what is offered to fans. Everything from shirts and socks, posters and prints, there is something to attract even the casual fan. Unfortunately, this opens the door to an alarming amount of fraud and theft.
One of the most popular things to see at a Comic Convention is fan art. Fan art consists of an unknown artist producing their renditions of popular character. This is usually protected under the fair use clause. Every once in a while, I will ask an artist or designer if they’ve ever caught any flak from publishers when using a likeness of a character. The general response is that they make sure not to infringe on signature material by making it a point to showcase their own style.
With technology becoming increasingly more affordable, available, and user friendly, more people are joining the “art” game on a daily basis. Digital art does require skill, in the same right as ink and paper does, but there is an ever thinning line when it comes to digital created art and digitally manipulated art. As seen in the video below, an “artist” named Matt Walker was approached at Fandom Fest 2016 after someone noticed that his art looked incredibly similar to work by other popular artists. Jason Flowers, the man filming the video, is able to handpick different works known to be products of greats Bryan Hitch, Stanley Artgerm, Jim Lee and Michael Turner. (Warning: there is a brief amount of language in the video)
I recently got the chance to meet Fredd Gorham, an artist out of Omaha, Nebraska. Fredd produces a ton of his own work, but is also frequently contracted by none other than Mondo to commission state of the art prints for different events including movie screenings at Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas. As someone who produces “fan art” as a profession, this is what he had to say on the topic:
Fan Art was a term that relates to artwork of characters done by fans of those characters or genres. The artwork is drawn by the artist, and is sometimes sold at conventions by the artist in question. While the characters are licensed by major companies like Marvel or DC Comics, the publishers tend to turn a blind eye to it, seeing it as being more of a positive P.R. situation. Nowadays there are a whole slew of people who are just outright taking artwork from other artists, altering them slightly in Photoshop and then making merchandise with it. I personally do some fan art alongside licensed characters I have been given permission to use. But my fan art is drawn by me. I would never steal from another artist.
Mr. Walker’s only defense was that he is not a thief because he only used the popular pieces of artwork as “base images.” As explained in an interview with him below, Walker takes famous pieces of art and adds various degrees of filters to them (similar to what a person would do on Snapchat or Instagram). This amounts to any from random paint splatter effects to changing the background color and adding noise to the entire image.
The significance of all this is that the main selling point of the item is still the original image designed by the original artist. Walker never received permission from the original artists to do so, and most certainly never sends the original artists any percentage of his profits. A legal example would be when a fan sees a cool Batman image on a T-shirt at the local clothing store and then buys the shirt. The difference is that the manufacture of that shirt received express permission from the entity or artist that owns the right to that image, and some agreement was likely struck regarding the profit of sales.
When Mr. Flowers brought this to the convention’s attention, he received the following feedback:
An artist/staff member … caused a scene yelling at me that there’s nothing wrong with this other artist doing such a thin. The show owner came over himself later telling me he understands my frustration because he too went to art. Legally they can’t do anything about it.
Recently, I applied for a booth at New York Comic Con to sell my graphic novel and a few other books I’m about to release. When I was finally granted a booth in late June, one of the organizers told me that out of the “hundreds” of applications, mine was selected because it offered original content. He told me that his inbox was flooded with fan art applications. While I do believe that fan art requires considerable skill and love for these characters, and frequent buy prints from young artist whom I’ll never see again, I do see the overwhelming potential for fraud. Not only are these fake artists stealing from the original artists, but they are also stealing from the fans as well.
So when you go to your next Comic Convention (like Kansas City Comic Con, for example), be sure to take caution when buying apparel or art prints of your favorite comic or game characters. By all means, get out there and support new and upcoming artists, but be sure that you support their art, and not blatant ripoffs and manipulations of another artist’s work.