Pipeline: Of Conventions, Sketches & Legal Goings-On

Tue, February 21st, 2012 at 1:58pm PST | Updated: February 21st, 2012 at 7:20pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist
6

OF CONVENTIONS AND SKETCHES AND WHATNOT

While I think the sky won't be falling soon, I can't guarantee it won't at some point in the future. There's far too much history and potential here to recommend selling con sketches of others' trademarked and copyrighted characters.

One of the many controversies of comics in 2012 so far has been the recent ConSketchGate, spun off from GhostRiderGate, which kinda spun off from BladeGate, though everything likely goes back to a KirbyGate of some sort or another.

Sean Gordon Murphy kicked it off when he announced on his DeviantArt blog that he wouldn't do con sketches of characters he doesn't own anymore. From there, the usual internet tempest-in-a-teapot kicked off, with all of the standard arguments, personal vendettas, accusations of one-sided reporting, Chicken Littles, end-of-the-world predictions, and railing against corporate America.

It's been a fun year already, hasn't it?

I find myself siding with the Chicken Littles on this one. It might not be because the sky is going to fall tomorrow or might in a few years, but just because it's a better business practice for freelancers to shield themselves from such catastrophic events now, rather than having to pay the price later. Doesn't it make more sense to side with the angels from the start, rather than having to make a deal with the devil down the line? Don't you get your oil changed in your car before it starts making noises so you don't have to replace the whole engine later?

As this hullabaloo started in the wake of Marvel's lawsuit against Gary Friedrich, Marvel stepped up and made a statement about the whole thing here at CBR. Curiously, this calmed a lot of people down, with some even claiming it validated their position.

I find it curious, because Marvel said absolutely nothing new about convention sketching. I thought we had gotten to the point in this day and age that we can all easily parse the words of public figures who try to claim the high ground while leaving so many doors open that you know their heating bill is huge in the winter.

This is what Joe Quesada said:

Let me put this as simply as I can: Marvel is not looking to make any new policy announcements through this lawsuit -- a lawsuit that began five years ago.

This doesn't, of course, preclude a new policy announcement at random later on, regardless of this lawsuit.

As a case in point, the Internet and the creative community became incredibly concerned when Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, thinking that Marvel now wouldn't return original art to its artists, even despite my publicly stating the contrary. As you can see, that was unfounded.

True, Marvel hasn't started keeping the original artwork to their current titles. To do so today, they'd have to renegotiate the terms of their work-for-hire agreements, so it wouldn't be a blindside anyway. Plus, with more artists working purely digitally, there's really no "original art" to confiscate, unless you're talking about original Photoshop or Illustrator files. ("Artist shall hand over their hard drives upon completion of the issue's work, keeping no back-up copy locally or server-side." Yeah, don't see that happening, but maybe I'm not a creative enough lawyer.)

However, I wouldn't consider those original art concerns to be unfounded, to begin with. Ask Don Rosa and any Duck artist about Disney's position regarding original artwork.

Quoting Wikipedia:

Rosa did a few more comics for Gladstone till 1989. He then stopped working for them because the policies of their licensor Disney did not allow for the return of original art for a story to its creators. This was unacceptable to Don Rosa, since a part of his income came from selling the originals, and the original art is the property of the freelance artists unless otherwise agreed upon. Without that extra money, he could not make a living drawing comic books.

Original pages by Don Rosa are rare, with convention sketches making up the bulk of the art available by the artist

Check out the pages tagged with Don Rosa's name on ComicArtFans.com. It's overwhelmingly con sketches and commissions. A couple original art pages leaked through, and I'm not sure Disney wouldn't consider those to be contraband.

But does this prove the point that Disney won't go after artists for sketches today? They don't give Rosa his art back, but they let him do sketches, right? Is it possible that the sketches are the concession they make in that case? Or is it more likely that they overlook the small dollar figures inherent in sketches while clamping down on the more reproducible original artwork that would carry a larger value?

I don't know. If I was a freelance artist, what level of risk would I be willing to take? Do I carry on the way the industry has always worked on the assumption that it'll always work that way because, well, that's the way things have always worked?

The purchase of Marvel by Disney also did not affect one program that both companies have always held fast to. Neither company offers royalties for overseas reprints of their works. And I bet Don Rosa's Duck stories have been reprinted and sold ten times more overseas than most of Marvel's superhero works from the last twenty years. But that's a topic for another time...

Dan Buckley followed up Joe Quesada's point with one of his own:

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.

As superhero comic fans, you all see the plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, right? Do you really need me to parse that for you? At the very least, it sounds like Marvel is OK with Marvel creators doing Marvel sketches. If you're working across the street at DC, though? Not so sure. Do you, Mr. Freelance Artist, feel comfortable with the way these large entertainment corporations' lawyers neatly define a con sketch? How would they feel about a commission? Many commissions are hardly "interactions." An artist will have a list, will do the sketches in their hotel rooms that night, and sell them the next morning.

Why would Murphy worry about Disney clamping down on his Marvel-themed artworks?

As it turns out, part of that is influenced by Marvel's actions against his "Wolverine ABCs" book that everyone was linking to last year. Murphy made the mistake of selling it as a small sketchbook and had to pay the price. So if you think Murphy is a complete Chicken Little, know now that he's had experience with the Marvel law team and knows how they negotiate. It might not have been directly linked to con sketching, per se, but it's a very close grey area he worked on there.

It's possible we're reading too deeply into the statements from Quesada and Buckley. Perhaps they weren't armed by Disney lawyers with precise verbiage to give out before making such statements. At the very least, I hope they talked to Disney or Marvel lawyers before making such claims in public as representatives of a Disney-owned company. To do otherwise would be irresponsible at such a high level, particularly during pending litigation.

But perhaps they were talking more off the cuff, or perhaps a slip of the tongue left a key clause out. Let us say Quesada and Buckley have all the best intentions in the world of keeping the current system alive, where artists at conventions can sketch to their heart's content without fear of licensing questions from Marvel. (And then forget what your mother taught you about the road to hell and intentions. . . )

I believe they believe that, by the way. I think they're both respectable people, with all the best intentions for the creators who work for them. I don't think either Quesada or Buckley are looking to screw anyone, though they still have to answer to their superiors at some point.

What happens, then, when Buckley and Quesada are gone? What happens when Disney decides to make a go of it themselves? Disney attempted this with their Mouse and Duck properties twenty years ago, hiring people like Marv Wolfman to write a DuckTales comic and Peter David to pen The Little Mermaid.

If Disney brought in someone from the outside to manage the business, who's to say this policy won't change, and that there wouldn't be amnesty granted to artists who did business under the previous executives' years by those rules? Could you explain to someone outside the comics industry why allowing freelancers to draw your characters and to profit from them is something you should continue to overlook?

Did we all not read Tom Spurgeon's article this week, which specifically talks about the question of what happens when comics' corporate masters decide to make seemingly random or epic sweeping changes occur? All bets are off then.

All it takes is one bad quarter for the stock owners to want heads on pikes. While Marvel Publishing is a laughably small percentage of Disney's portfolio, the issues at stake here are not related to the publishing, but to the IP, and the value of that IP. That's why Disney bought Marvel, and that's where all the money is. Having creators selling sketches of Disney IP for small money devalues the IP in some way, doesn't it? Disney has done this before; see, as usual, the famous case of the day care center with Disney characters painted on the wall. Disney was well within their rights to pursue that. How, technically, is that any different from individual businesses (many freelancers are LLCs) selling sketches of those characters?

Even if you don't think these works devalue the IP (and I don't think it does), try explaining that to the suit at the top of the chain of command. He's the guy looking to milk every penny out of the company and keep all of its assets as strong and as valuable as possible. (See Ike Perlmutter.) That is his very job. As a publicly traded company, the job is to grow every quarter and to provide as much value to the stock owners as possible.

That's why seemingly unimaginable decisions get made at the turn of a hat at public companies. It's about regaining the trust of the stock holders who technically own the company and who expect increased profits every quarter. They're notoriously short-sighted and fickle.

Can you imagine an editor-in-chief leaving a comics publishing company and publishing programs he had blocked suddenly come roaring back to life?

Oh, yeah, that's right: "Before Watchmen" and Paul Levitz.

Look, it's just smart business to not open yourself up to this kind of thing. You can argue until you're blue in the face that Marvel and DC won't do these things, that they've never done these things and why would they start now? You very well may be right. I hope you're right. But if I'm an artist at a convention whose livelihood depends on these sketches and other streams of revenue, I'm not taking any chances with it. No lawyer in his right mind would advise me to continue making money off IP owned and controlled by someone else without their OK. It's sad to say, but it's just smart business.

When CrossGen had artists signing at their booth, the artists would sketch only CrossGen characters. They'd sign anything you put in front of them, but sketches could only be done of CrossGen properties. Once the artist was off the clock and at their table in Artists Alley, they could sketch whatever they want. Was that a matter of respect (Don't ask CrossGen to house a Marvel/DC promoting function?) or was it a legally smart thing (Don't make it look like this scrappy upstart company is trying to make money off of The Big Two?). It's probably more the former than the latter, but I'm sure their lawyers slept better at night that way, too.

The obvious answer to this is for artists to sign some sort of contract with the publishing company whose characters they want to use. Maybe it's a nominal thing: a standard contract that you fill out and attach a check for $1 and all is officially permitted. If I were an artist, that's what I'd want. If I were a publisher, I'd like to have the good will that such a contract would have with a legion of creators promoting my characters, though I might put in a clause that the contract wouldn't cover adult-themed sketches. I think that's reasonable.

Maybe it won't be Marvel or DC pursuing this. It's tough to think of who else would want to, though. Image Comics doesn't own any of the characters it publishes. Dark Horse doesn't own as many as you might think. Oni doesn't own any. It's up to individual rights owners to provide these opportunities. There are a lot of those, though, and con sketches are notoriously random at times. Still, I'd encourage independent creators to pro-actively offer up their characters for con sketches and commissions from unassociated artists. If Sean Murphy wants to sketch Hellboy for someone, I'm sure he'd feel better knowing Mike Mignola had made a public statement that he was cool with it, in far more certain terms than Marvel did.

And, yes, I'd also stop making sketchbooks filled with Marvel and DC characters. That's asking for trouble, and I don't even think that's a gray area. That's black and white. Ask Sean Murphy.

I've seen the comments against Murphy across the internet, from people claiming he's a Chicken Little and the chilling effect a decision like this could have across Artists Alley and the convention scene overall. The counter argument to all of this is that nothing has happened yet and so why worry? I'm sorry, but if this is how I made my living, I want far better reassurance for my bank account than "I don't think they'll come after you someday." That doesn't help me sleep at night.

OF COLORING AND LETTERING

It's a frustration of mine that too many colorists today get too flashy in an effort to look plain. Contradictory? Perhaps, but sometimes monotone is as hard to read as the super-rainbow-bright-gradients that were the norm when Photoshop first became a factor.

This week's "Prophet" #22 is the latest victim of this. While about half of the book is fine, the other half requires you to read the book in a very brightly lit room if you want to make out the art. Too much of it is colored in dark colors with not enough difference between foreground and background. When your two color choices are dark purple and dark brown, things start looking like one big lumpy mess.

There's a way to do color in scenes where a single color dominates the whole scene. Laura Martin is great at that. She manages to separate background from foreground well with a bare minimum of colors. She just makes sure the values of those colors are different enough to allow one to pop off from the other. It's about creating depth by changing the values of the colors in the foreground sufficiently from what's on display in the background. And for goodness' sakes, don't color things so darkly that it hides the art.

Meanwhile, in another comics discipline, how about some lettering tips that are very much needed for some independent creators whose samples I've seen on-line this week?

Don't cram the balloon's tail into the character's mouth. Give the character some personal space. This goes double if the tail is very long. Stuffing it down someone's mouth from a balloon high up in the air looks even more ludicrous. Make sure it's pointing to the character who is talking. Make sure it's pointed at their mouth. Then push the point back a little.

Don't change the size of the font inside of the same balloon. Sometimes you might need to squeeze the letters together just a hair on one particular line to fit it in a regularly-shaped balloon. But never adjust the height of the characters on the last line to squeeze it in. That's even more obvious and off-putting.

META: CBR REVIEWS

Last week was officially my last week as CBR Reviews editor. I am leaving to free up some spare time to pursue other things, to catch up on some sleep, and to stop having nightmares centering on Oxford commas, em dashes and quoted titles.

The mantle has been passed down to CBR's own Stephen Sunu. So if anyone reading this has questions about the Reviews section or wants to pass along review materials, please contact Steve from here on out. He'll help you out.

The reviews section of the website began nearly four years ago, and we've posted nearly 4500 reviews in that time, at a rapid clip that boggles my mind every time I stop to think about it. We started from nothing and have built it into one of the most popular -- and most quoted -- sections of this website. And I wanted to thank all the reviewers I've had the pleasure of working with in that time: Tim ("When Words Collide") Callahan, Kevin Church, Benjamin Birdie, Chad Nevett, Greg McElhatton, Doug Zawisza, Ryan K. Lindsay, James Hunt and Kelly Thompson. It's a multi-continent affair, and it's awe-inspiring the way the machinery churns along from week to week. Only on the internet!

Pipeline continues apace. There's no slowdown here. I'll also likely contribute a review to CBR Reviews from time to time. I did recently review "Thief of Thieves" for that section, which I hope you all caught.

In the meantime, I look forward to catching up on all the other things on my To Do list, like reading more comics!

IN CONCLUSION

The "Near Death" trade paperback is out this week, collecting the first five issues of Jay Faerber and Simone Guglielmini's Image series. I was tough on the first three issues, but thought the fourth and fifth turned things around and brought the book up to its full potential. This one is definitely worth a read, and only $10 at a go.

And if you like "Emitown" from Image and don't want to wait for the imminent "Emitown 2" release, check out Natali Nourigat's "Betweeen Gears" this week for fun single page autobiographical comic book making.

Lots of pictures are going up at AugieShoots.com. I've shot two concerts in the last couple of weeks for a total of seven different bands. I'm catching up with the backlog, slowly but surely.

eBay Auctions || AugieShoots.com || VariousandSundry.com || Original Art Collection || Google+ || Twitter || E-mail || Pipeline Message Board

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