Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hey, let's talk about that whole Ghost Rider thing and how comics rely of the Gray Market


I've never understood exactly how the comics convention industry works.  But more than that, I haven't understood how, the past few years, its become increasingly popular for folks to take to Etsy or to some other place on the web and sell non-licensed images of licensed characters.  Heck, I'm not clear that some of the published material in a few artists' sketch books I've bought were reproduced and sold to me legally in the strictest sense.

What seems to have brought all of this to a head is that former comics artist Gary Friedrich, the man who (sort of, maybe not) invented the motorcycle-riding, flame-skulled character Ghost Rider for Marvel has sued Marvel (now owned by Disney) for one reason or another, and Disney counter-sued with a $17,000 lawsuit at Friedrich for the proceeds he's earned by attending cons and selling sketches of Ghost Rider.  (See the very clever Ty Templeton cartoon for a rebuttal).

I point you to this article, because it echoes a lot of what I'd always wondered about how the industry has been  more or less ignoring the very real problem at the center of the Con and Commission Sketch sub-industry in comics.


Much how the local Austin film industry is made on the magic of occasional tax breaks and the starry-eyed hopes of a few local dependables and a nigh-endless sea of former RTF majors hoping to work on an honest-to-gosh Hollywood type movie at little to no cost (and many would probably pay to work on the films so they could claim experience for when the next non-paying gig comes around), the comic industry is full of bright-eyed twenty-somethings with a bucket of talent and hoping for the next big opportunity based upon the current work for which they're getting gouged.

There's a whole essay in here about how that's okay, so long as one goes in eyes-wide open, but that the future for anyone hoping to make a living in comics and not wind up absolutely destroyed by the industry needs to start doing creator-owned work as soon as possible.  But we'll save that for a later day.

I note the bright-eyed world-view because it seems often that the comic industry operates on a sort of high-school understanding of what "should be" versus "what is in your contract" and the fact that "you are now working for and with corporations larger than most nations' GDPs when you tangle with Marvel (Disney) and DC Entertainment (Time Warner)".  They can bankrupt you with a $17,000 lawsuit.  The suits their attorneys wear when they don't care what they look like are $17,000.

Look, I'm no attorney, and I more or less believe in the judicial system we've got, but...  I can't guess where the future of Gary Friedrich lies, nor do I really know if a judge or jury will find merit to someone's claim.

Sometimes a lawsuit sort of works out.  The last remaining Siegel is currently @#$%ing with DC to such a degree that it caused the New 52 Relaunch and the Superman in the upcoming movie to have a new costume.  But that's the one case.  And it certainly has nothing to do with Artist X going off and selling pictures of Superman at a convention which, legally, looks a bit more like going off to publish an unlicensed Superman book or to sell bootleg Superman t-shirts, etc...  than any claims to actual ownership (judging from sorority mixer shirts I see on campus, you can't stop abuse of something like the trademarked Superman symbol, you can only hope to contain it).

DC has been a part of Warner Communications for a long, long time, and I don't know that fairly-new DCE honcho Diane Nelson knows about or cares about the regular infringement at cons.  But it does seem the comic industry and Con industry are so intertwined these days that the symbiotic eco-systems for both would get completely disrupted should they start threatening artists' alley with lawsuits.  But outside on Cons?  Commissions?  Etsy?

I don't know what someone in legal from Disney or Time-Warner is going to say about what boils down to dilution of brand, the easier the web makes it to not just make these things findable, but to produce.

Full disclosure, I do own the odd item sort of like what I'm describing such as a Jill Thompson reproduction on an unlicensed water color of Wonder Woman which I don't mind mentioning because the picture and Jill Thompson are both awesome.  So there.  But I also know its an oddball item in my collection of comics stuff.  Normally I don't buy anything that isn't licensed by the creators or company, mostly because if its not licensed, I feel myself in a weird legal limbo, and, frankly, unless the work is by an established creator for whom I already have a warm fuzzy, I don't really get all that jazzed about owning their work, be it a print or a Batman Sherpa Hat from Etsy.*

But ordering a picture of Batman from, say, Norm Breyfogle (or a Wonder Woman picture from Jill Thompson) would be a whole different can of beans from the Etsy thing.  Norm Breyfogle is selling pictures of Batman at a profit with no legal basis for doing so...  Its legally gray at best and a civil and/ or criminal case at worst.

However, wandering a Con, its pretty clear that a Comic Convention isn't just a lot of established artists that supplement their income from doing sketches of Batman.  There are plenty of artists you've never heard of with their gallery of drawings for sale.  Add in the market for, oh...  topless Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman black and white poster-sized prints (yes, I saw this booth.  So, so many ways to sue there) and its a pretty weird thing to watch go down.  The hard thing for those in the trenches will be that if the right person at Disney or TW gets fired up, this whole Con thing is going to crash down around people's ears.**

So...  I don't know.  One thing that seems true about the comics community getting all riled up about this issue is that its going to draw the attention of the lawyers.  And, keep in mind, the lawyers were the ones at Marvel who successfully argued that the X-Men were not humans in order to increase profitability on their line of Mutant action figures, completely ignoring the content of the actual books themselves.  These are large corporations, and that starry-eyed idea of how things should be rarely matches what is profitable or protection of IP.

On top of recent internet related issues such as SOPA, I intentionally draw no income from this site so that it can't be demonstrated that I make any dough from using all sorts of imagery here.  All of this game can turn on a dime.




*Not to be a jerk, but I'm an okay artist.  If I just wanted a picture of Batman, I'd sit down and draw one.
**but will also possibly spare us having to ask Ethan Van Sciver to be the one to police the Rob Granitos of the world.
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