Fan art or copycat art?
Posted on March 22, 2018Special Topics in Studio Arts: Ideas and Issues: Reproductive Media in Contemporary Art
In the world of creative entertainment—movies, television shows, and video games—there is an audience, and there are fans. While this term derives from the derogatory adjective “fanatic,” that connotation is mostly left aside today. The creative entertainment industry and the art world share many artists and things in common, and one of them is that those two institutions hold panels during which audiences can interact with the artists, the creators, and the performers. However, this dichotomy is more and more being blurred, not only because fans’ demands affect the creators, but also because fans themselves also contribute to the worlds created for those entertaining works by generating new works themselves; fan works. This labour is sometimes celebrated, and at other times these endeavours are shut down by intellectual property owners. Let’s explore how these fans copycat the works they appreciate, and what are some of the implications of those actions.
While fan works are widespread today, mostly due to a higher level of literacy and a better access to production tools, the practice of appropriating an artwork’s world and codes is nothing new. From the Antiquity to the Renaissance, bards and minstrels would adapt and copy stories and legends, and present their own versions to their hosts. Many texts were are not included in the Jewish or Christian bible—Biblical Apocrypha—either because their authenticity could not be confirmed, or because the authors were simply inventing or copying content. Interestingly enough, the famous Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan might also have been a copycat himself:
He wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy at the old library at St. Michael’s college [at the University of Toronto]. He had the books of people he had read or fear about open at the appropriate pages and a couple seminarians running from one book to another taking quotes down, and he would string them together with blurbs or commentaries of his own. That was the way McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy. And he was reproached for his method. People said he was plagiarizing or ripping off other people’s ideas. He didn’t see it that way at all. He saw that by using these chunks—these gems, these fragments that you shore up against your ruins, as T.S. Eliot would say—in a way, he would actually give them a different content and meaning.1
When a text or an artwork is found to be genuine, an authority—religious, artistic, or otherwise—recognizes it as canon. Walter Benjamin would probably argue that doing a thing canon is akin to conferring it an aura.2 In the case of the creative entertainment industry, that authority is the copyright holder. In some cases that may be a single person. However it is often an organization with capitalist interests. Copying any work under copyright is then met with legal actions.
A good example of this is Tintin. Created by Belgian comic artist Hergé, The Adventures of Tintin ran from 1929 until 1976, and inspired countless others to become artists themselves and create their own comics. Contrary to American comics, European comics are mostly produced by the authors themselves. Where Americans publishing companies would hire new artists or new writers and churn out new adaptations, a dead European artist usually means the end of a series. Tintin was no exception. Heirs of Hergé have been notorious for holding a tight control over the copyrights of the artist’s work. In turn, the prices of authentic works exploded. In 2015, a Dutch court ruled that it was actually Casterman, the publisher of the comics, that held the rights and not the heirs.3
Pastiches and adaptations of Tintin nevertheless existed previous to that ruling, but it is unclear if copycat artists now pay any royalties to Casterman if they are selling their works. The world of Tintin has its rules—composition, pace, dialogue, etc.—as well as its cultural biases and issues. Adaptations either play by or subvert those rules. Yves Rodier—a French Canadian illustrator—created Tintin au Québec (see Fig. 1). It is a pastiche which copies the composition style and details of the series to bring the reporter in a location he never visited in the series. Murray Groat—a Scottish illustrator also known as Muzski—combined the world of Tintin and the creations of H.P. Lovecraft in a series of fake covers. In Fig. 2, Tintin and Haddock can be seen running away from C’thulu, a gigantic cosmic entity created by Lovecraft. Finally, French street artist Dran moved away from Tintin’s boy scout image by making him visit a dirty subway in France, pick up a fight with a hooligan in England, and suffer a massive hangover in Barcelona (see Fig. 3). Dran’s abuse of the character is a good illustration why copyright holders are afraid of fan creations, as they idealize a version of the work which they believe must not be altered.
Fans also write stories: fan fiction. These works of fiction can go in all directions: they can be set in the world in which the source material is set, or in another one altogether. Characters can act as their original counterparts, or even evolve altogether differently. The stories could be about what happened before or after the original fiction. There are even stories where characters romantic relationships are explored and celebrated. Those relationships are called “fanship.”
In the early 1990s, Marvel stopped publishing The Transformers comics, as the popularity of the American series was in decline. In the UK, many fans then started writing fan fiction which they would exchange in fanzines, mostly for their own fun. In 2001, one of these writers, James Roberts, published a 280-page book of Transformers fan fiction. Almost a decade later, two reboots of the comic book series later, Roberts was introduced to IDW Publishing—who is now licensed to print new Transformers comics. Roberts worked on a few ongoing series, and eventually ended up leading the scripting of many miniseries and his own ongoing series.4
His writing style respectfully copycats the source material, but he is also bringing his own touch to his scripts. He created the concept of “Conjunx Endura”, which could be understood as a lifelong relationship. The mnemosurgeon Chromedome is Conjunx Endura with the archivist Rewind (see Fig. 4), although he believes Rewind would leave him if he found his previous partner. The tall and taciturn Cyclonus is Conjux Endura with the short and expressive Tailgate (see Fig. 5), although he does not show his affection publicly. As most Transformers are identified as males in the text, this means those relationships can be perceived as homosexual.
There are a few things to unpack from this concept. The series is about robots that transform into vehicles or animals, and many writers and fans have argued that robots are asexual. At other times, and in some incarnations of the series, there are male and female characters. There is even an official retcon5 that explains the low ratio of females in that cybernetic world.6 More importantly, it shows what fans actually dare to do with the original material. In this case, the relationship concept became canon by the fact that the copyright holder accepted to publish the material, instead of leaving fans to write their own stories to feel represented.
There are times when authors trying to retcon events into the source material are perceived by fans as pandering. As Marcus Boon explained in In Praise of Copying, there is a lot of Harry Potter fan fiction in circulation.7 Many of the authors of those works are not even trying to make believe that their text is written by J.K. Rowling, the original author and creator. Instead, those fans are expanding the Harry Potter world, either by choosing to extend the story of a secondary character, or by changing events that happened in the canon and create a “what-if” type of story.
During her US book tour in 2007, Rowling declared that one of the main characters, the Hogwarts school headmaster Dumbledore, is gay. Many fans rejoiced that the author acknowledged what they believed, but many others thought it was an issue that she did not declare it explicitly in the original text.8
When asked on social media if there were Jewish characters, Rowling confirmed it and named a character. Here also, there was a backlash because the issue of representation is not something to be sprinkled onto the work after the fact, but rather it should have been explicit in the original creation.9
In an interview in 2015, Super Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto declared that the characters of the multiple Mario games are actually more like a troupe of actors, which would account for them being enemies in a game or in a play10, then playing golf or racing go-karts in other games.11 In a way, this is how fans perceive many of the characters created by artists and the creative industry over the years. The remix culture in which artist-fans live is fuel for them to appropriate the popular icons and recast them in different contexts. In a way, this is exactly what authors like J.K. Rowling did: she took legends from all around the world, and reorganized them into a logic that fit her stories. The difference is that legends are part of the public domain.
Also, brands and advertisers have pushed for audience participation with what is known as user-generated content. They have invited people to write slogans, create videos, draw images, and provide all sorts of other creations. In turn, brands then use these works for more advertising, usually without paying any fee to the creators, stating that the exposure they provided was worthwhile.
While not all copyright holders sue fan artists, those that do should consider the intent and value of those works. Many of these fans only intend to give back to the original authors by contributing to the lore of their work with their own touch. Just like fine artists do when copying the masters, fans learn from the copies they do, and eventually become the next generation of artists.
1 Derrick de Kerckhove, Forward Through the Rearview Mirror: Reflections on and by Marshall McLuhan, eds. Paul Benedetti and Nancy DeHart (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), 115.
2 Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (London: Penguin Group, 2008), 5-8.
3 Agence France-Presse, “Tintin fanclub wins legal fight with Hergé heirs over image rights,” The Guardian, June 9, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jun/09/tintin-author-herge-rights-moulinsart-casterman.
4 “TFCon Chicago 2014 Panel – James Roberts,” YouTube video, 28:32, posted by “TheAudioKnightsTheatre,” October 27, 2014, https://youtu.be/akFOnU4T9OM.
5 Retcon: a contraction of “retroactive continuity.” The action of explaining past inconsistencies to justify them after the fact.
6 Justina Robson, The Covenant of Primus (London: Becker & Mayer, 2013), 12-13.
7 Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 117.
8 Aja Romano, “J.K. Rowling’s tweets on representation at Hogwarts provoke major fan backlash”, The Daily Dot (blog), December 19, 2014, https://www.dailydot.com/parsec/jk-rowling-jewish-queer-harry-potter-students/.
9 “JK Rowling outs Dumbledore as gay,” BBC News, October 20, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/7053982.stm.
10 Jason Schreier, “Miyamoto Confirms That Super Mario Bros. 3 Was A Play,” Kotaku (blog), September 10, 2015, https://kotaku.com/miyamoto-confirms-that-super-mario-bros-3-was-a-play-1729805751.
11 Dan Ryckert, “Mario’s Creators Answer Burning Questions About The Series,”, gameinformer (blog), September 10, 2015, http://www.gameinformer.com/themes/blogs/generic/post.aspx?WeblogApp=features&y=2012&m=09&d=24&WeblogPostName=miyamoto-tezuka-interview&GroupKeys=.
Fig. 1: Yves Rodier, Tintin au Québec, accessed March 20, http://tin-7.soforums.com/t887-Illustrations-Tintinesques-d-Yves-Rodier.htm.
Fig. 2: Murray Groat, Tintin in R’lyeh, accessed March 20, http://tintinininnsmouth.tumblr.com/post/18070462871/tintin-in-rlyeh.
Fig. 3: Dran, Tintin en Barcelona, accessed March 20, http://www.last-concept.com/v1/tag/tintinen-barcelona/.
Fig. 4: Story by James Roberts, pencils by Agustin Padilla, inks by Jose Aviles, colours by Josh Burcham, letters by Tom B. Long, Edited by John Barber, “The Gloaming,” Transformers: More than Meets the Eye, #16, April, 2013, accessed March 20, San Diego: IDW Publishing.
Fig. 5: Uncredited artist, James Roberts, Twitter post, March 15, 2018, accessed March 20, https://twitter.com/jroberts332/status/974278453146144769.
Richard Irvine-Brown, “Transformers: Misfit robots and the women who love them,” BBC News, November 11, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/amp/entertainment-arts-45521345.
Tigerhawk7109, “Top 5 Same-Sex Transformers Couples,” Seibertron.com (blog), June 6th, 2021, https://www.seibertron.com/transformers/news/top-5-samesex-transformers-couples/45992/.