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Jesse Hamm

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Common parlance. [Feb. 24th, 2012|07:46 am]
Jesse Hamm
Yesterday I read this article by Heidi MacDonald, in which she discusses the enormity of the current market for fan art (that is, art which features trademarked characters without permission). Various interesting points were raised, but what struck me most was this reply from artist Ulises Farinas, whose fan art sales Heidi mentioned in her piece:

"After reading this article, i have to admit i feel a little weird. But my only response is, nobody looked at my work until i started drawing black-market licensed work. It is sad, but i gotta pay bills. And if i draw a lego-dude as Green Lantern, everyone is impressed. But if i just draw my own work, everyone’s just 'eh'."

With uncommon frankness, Ulises describes a problem that has troubled artists throughout history: the disparity between what patrons want drawn and what artists want to draw.

Artists don't like to admit it (brave Ulises notwithstanding), but on the list of reasons to buy a work of art, few patrons place quality and originality at the top. What tops the list is familiarity -- that the work articulates something the patron already knows and values. The trouble is that the job of art -- the primary and most noble and most satisfying and most artistic reason to make art, even beyond displays of skill -- is to express the as-yet-unexpressed. In other words: to produce the unfamiliar. So we have a business where people who were born to create the unfamiliar and who spend their lives learning to create the unfamiliar are hired to create the familiar. We're like a mining company whose market consists mainly of people seeking lost coins.

Thankfully, the art world has found a solution to this problem:


Just kidding. The solution is familiar subject matter. The artist and patron agree to a compromise in which the artist creates a thing familiar to the patron, but does so in a way that speaks the unfamiliar. Thus we have the popular and oft-repeated account of Creation, but as envisioned for the first time by Michelangelo. Or the oft-told bio-pic as envisioned by Orson Welles, or a nude by Duchamp, or a space opera by Douglas Adams, or Batman by Frank Miller. Familiar subjects are the sugar that helps the medicine of Art go down. The more familiar the subject (the sweeter the sugar), the greater the patron's willingness to imbibe. Shakespeare knew this when he re-wrote King Lear; Lucas knew this when he revisited movie serials and the Hero's Journey in Star Wars and Raiders; Moore knew this when he borrowed from Charlton's roster to create Watchmen.

Which brings us back to comics. More than any modern artform, the business of comics depends on the endless rehashing of minutely familiar subject matter. No novel or film or TV show has generated as many subsequent stories as Superman or Dick Tracy or fill-in-the-blank. Thousands of creators telling thousands of stories, faithful to the originals right down to the hero's alter ego and the color of his cape and his first pet's middle name, for decades. Not even Christmas carols have been re-recorded as often and as faithfully as comic characters are revisited. What's the creator's reward for fidelity to this massive tide of familiar subject matter? The reader's openness to a massive tide of unfamiliar ideas. How many different opinions, worldviews and moods have been expressed through Batman to his faithful monthly followers? Compare Morrison's Batman to Sprang's for an idea of the gamut, and that's not even counting fan portrayals. (I recall an internet meme here on LiveJournal in which a thousand different artists drew and posted a thousand very different pictures of Batgirl within a few days. For fun.) The gamut of outlooks Batman's readers accept is much broader than what those same people will accept from unfamiliar characters. Like the Grimms' fairytales, Batman has escaped into the wild to become a folk narrative -- a familiar vessel for (potentially) unfamiliar ideas.

But Heidi's article indicates that a reckoning is at hand. Recent power shifts and legal scuffles suggest that we may be approaching a crossroads:

The American comics industry could go the way of the Japanese comics market, where fan comics (or doujinshi) proliferate uncontrollably, taking their place as folk culture while serving as a seed bed for the "legitimate" comics industry. (Heidi mentioned that Japan's doujinshi convention, Comiket, attracts over a million people a year. For an idea of doujinshi's prevalence, note that that's roughly eight times as many as the San Diego Comic-Con.)

Alternatively, American publishers could crack down on fan efforts, forcing fan artists to limit their output to their own original characters. Presumably artists would still be free to create fan art without selling it... but since money makes the world go 'round, this arrangement would greatly curb the production of fan art. But that's OK, because it would encourage originality, right? And originality is good, right? Sure... to other artists. Again, patrons crave subjects that are familiar -- the moreso, the better. Departures from the familiar will limit their openness to art. As Ulises put it: "if i just draw my own work, everyone’s just 'eh'."

Some will object at this point that Ulises must not be a very good artist if his fans don't embrace his drawings of original characters. "Good art will sell no matter how popular the subject!" I'd like to see them explain that to the Playboy photographer who prefers snapping shots of tree mold... but I'll settle for a more readily observed experiment, which I'm conducting on Tumblr.


I recently uploaded to my Tumblr blog a drawing I did of Viveca Lindfors, an attractive Swedish actress whose career peaked in the 1950s. It received precisely one "like" (Tumblr's version of a thumbs-up), and that was from a fellow artist.

My next post, a day later, was a portrait I drew of an another attractive Swedish actress. This portrait was drawn in the same manner, is of the same size and arguably the same quality, and is in most respects the same. The difference is that the woman featured in the second portrait is Noomi Rapace, star of the currently popular "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" franchise, who co-starred in the recent Sherlock Holmes film, and will appear in Ridley Scott's upcoming Alien prequel.

Within minutes of its appearance on Tumblr, in the wee hours of this morning, the second portrait had garnered three "likes." The first was from a person called "women-with-knives," demonstrating an affinity for the heroine of the TGWTDT franchise. A fourth "like" followed later in the morning, from the same artist who liked my previous portrait. Curiously, he was the only one of the four who "liked" both drawings. I'll presume the other three viewers had no interest in viewing my non-TGWTDT drawings, or viewed them and disdained their lack of Noomi Rapace. I'll also presume that the aforementioned artist has no special regard for Noomi or Viveca, or at least not for both of them, and in fact likes one or both of the drawings for the art's sake. Finally, and most cautiously, I'll presume that even though the other three didn't like the rest of my drawings, something unique of my mind managed to rub off on their minds -- the goal of art -- when they saw and liked this familiar one.

So that's where things stand at the moment. The arithmetically gifted among you will note that the Rapace drawing is exactly 4 times as popular as the Lindfors drawing. However, the day is young, and the sampling is currently too small to be representative, so it will be interesting to see if the numbers increase enough to confirm my hypothesis that people find familiarity more attractive than quality. Of course, were this a scientific experiment, I would have had to take more steps to ensure accuracy (such as not inviting meddling by telling everyone I'm conducting an experiment), so let's just call it a friendly bet.

Specifically, I'm betting you can see the value fan art has to achieving art's primary goal.

UPDATE, 2:30PM: The Rapace drawing now has 52 likes; the Lindfors drawing holds at 1. Incidentally, the Rapace drawing got a boost from a reblog by a blogger named "f***yeahnoomirapace," who hasn't seen fit to like any of my other, Noomi-less drawings.

UPDATE, 12AM: The Lindfors drawing now has 2 votes. The second "like" came from a reader of this LJ blog, who did not "like" the Rapace drawing. The Rapace drawing, at 20+ hours in, has 71 notes -- about a third are "reblogs," the rest are "likes."

I perused the Tumblr galleries of several of the rebloggers, and they tend to be women, ages 17-21, who are into romance, sadness, death, natural scenery and cats, for what that's worth. The real issue here is the 71/2 ratio -- this is the edge IP grants a work over other works of equal merit.

UPDATE 5:30PM, Feb 25th:

UPDATE 10PM, Mar 5th: The Lindfors drawing has held at 4 notes for several days. The Rapace drawing reached 104 notes today, including reblogs, which suggests there will be more notes coming. I probably won't continue these updates, but you get the idea.

Part of my hope in choosing Rapace/TGWTDT was that, though popular, she's not overexposed. I do wonder whether a more famous celeb like Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, Lady Gaga, or Kim Kardashian would have received more notes, or if their media saturation would have prevented that. I just did a quick search on each of those names, and I saw 3 notes, 6 notes... so I assume the latter is the case.

[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2012-02-29 08:22 pm (UTC)
I tabled in Artist's Alley at the Image Expo this past weekend, and have to agree with just about everything you posted.

I think the people who really cleaned up in Artist's Alley were, as always, artists who don't seem to do anything but draw Marvel and DC pin-up sketches. In a lot of cases, it's not even people who are drawing at the conventions, but are selling not-so-great full-color prints of Harley Quinn to people who are the target audience for that sort of thing. This was especially frustrating since the convention's mission statement was about the greatness of independent comics. Getting rid of people who don't draw comics, don't actually draw at the conventions, and are mass-producing prints of copyrighted characters isn't automatically going to create an audience for actual cartoonists, but I sure wouldn't miss them.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2012-02-29 09:12 pm (UTC)
Seems to me that interested fans are driven to patronize those print hawkers by the fact that major publishers don't offer a wide variety of posters of their characters. In the '80s, Marvel and DC used to produce enough posters to block the sun out of every comic shop window in the nation, but I haven't seen any new ones in years. They need to lock Art Adams in a room with a stack of paper and a coffee machine, and re-conquer that market.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2012-03-01 08:27 pm (UTC)
True. I just feel the need to shake these guys by their lapels and yell "You're being a bad fan!" I guess there's no accounting for taste, but it kills me when I see artists like you or Steve Leiber, people who've really dedicated themselves to their craft, selling reasonably priced one-of-a-kind convention sketches being outsold by artists doing really bad Terry Dodson impressions.

Leave the print selling to the Golden and Silver Agers who can't knock out ten-minute sketches anymore. I think I'm even okay with artists who sell prints of their own original characters and landscapes (although I still prefer comics-only conventions), but those no-background, bad computer-colored Poison Ivy prints make me wonder why I'm trying so hard to get these people as my audience.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2012-03-01 09:13 pm (UTC)
I'm not a comics-only guy (I love picking up photocopied sketchbooks, etc, at cons), but the bootleg print market does seem like it's asking for trouble. I tabled next to one of those convention-only artists at WonderCon one year, and he said he sells art (mostly of others' IP) at about FIFTY CONVENTIONS per year. Pretty much every weekend, he's at some comic con or sci-fi con or something, selling pics of Poison Ivy or Captain Kirk, etc. At WonderCon alone, I saw him take in thousands of dollars.

On the other hand, I met an artist at Comic-Con one year who was selling large, full-on paintings of trademarked characters for 4-figure prices, and he was approached by some Hollywood lawyers who told him to knock it off, or else. So, they're out there, probably just trying to weed out the big fish.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2012-03-01 09:28 pm (UTC)
Once you become a de facto publisher, that's an invitation for legal departments to take a closer look at artist's alley, which could eventually cause trouble for the artists who are operating under the settled upon "gentleman's agreement" with Marvel and DC: "I toiled away under work-for-hire conditions for a while until you decided not to hire me for jobs anymore, but I built up enough of an audience working on your characters that you'll let me supplement my income with $50 X-Men sketches at conventions, which gets you free publicity and lets me pay the bills between jobs."

I'm curious if the guys making all of this money at conventions every weekend are reporting their earnings to the IRS. I'd bet that there are thousands of dollars from every single convention that people don't list as taxable income at year's end. A lot of baseball players got busted for things like that at card and autograph conventions in the 1990s, and I'd bet there are some big offenders in the comics biz, too.
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