Wednesday, July 28, 2010

COMIC-CON 2010 (part 1)

The ancient marketplace of Byzantium swarmed with traders, cutthroats, fishermen and merchants selling spices, livestock, textiles and goods from all across the known world. Its crowded stalls and narrow streets reeked with exotic smells and clamored with a dozen languages. When normal language failed, the vocabulary of commerce always prevailed.

[I just returned from the world famous San Diego Comic-Con-- always a mind-altering experience. This week I am posting a series of observations about my experiences there.]

The exhibition hall at Comic-Con is an airplane hangar sized petrie dish, where the conversion rate between artistic talent and cash is renegotiated thousands of times each minute. Art is bought and sold in every form, both as originals and in all manner of tangible and intangible reproductions. Oil paintings from the past are marketed alongside vapor ware from the future. The tools for making the next generation of art-- magic brush pens from Faber-Castell, Tombow and Prismacolor, or software from Z brush-- are marketed like the magic wands in Harry Potter.

For me, one noteworthy story about the value of art comes from these beautifully painted animation backgrounds which could be purchased by the fistful on the last day for $10 apiece.

Original paintings produced by skillful artists cost less than a printed poster.

Walking the exhibition hall, you developed an appreciation for the fact that the price of art is tied less to its quality than to its function. No matter how talented the artist, or how these images look, they were produced on an assembly line for high volume use, and the artists had already been paid once by their corporate employer.

The price of these paintings was discounted far below their inherent quality because the pictures had already served their primary function.

The same observation can sometimes be made about the price of illustration art generally. It often sells for less than its artistic quality would justify when compared to gallery art, because the primary cost of creating the art has already been covered by its initial commercial sponsor. Once an illustration has fulfilled its primary function, the secondary collector can sometimes purchase the work of a talented artist who in a rational world might be unaffordable.


Anonymous said...

The first comment! Thanks and looking forward to the rest of your take on Comic Con.

Tim Langenderfer

armandcabrera said...

Great insightful comments. It seems to me some illustrators gain value with time and some gallery artists lose value over time after their creators deaths for exactly the reasons you point out. The illustration must be removed far enough from its purpose to be considered art again and the gallery painting stripped of its fads diminishes; both can only retain their value with quality.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe those were selling for $10!

MORAN said...

If the artistic value and the economic value of a picture ever overlap, it is sheer coincidence. You have to make up your mind which one you are more interested in.

Richard said...

So I wonder if these backgrounds are still owned by the owners of the cartoon.

Could I buy all the backgrounds for a given cartoon and animate an entirely different cartoon over it and sell that cartoon? Probably not.

I find that really odd. You can buy the piece but in a big way they still own it.

norm said...

I think there's another factor that affects price. And that's popularity of the project the art is from. I'm assuming those paintings weren't from a terribly popular show. Art suddenly looks "better" when you find out it's from something with a big name of something people have a strong sentimental attachment to.

Of course I could always be wrong about these.....
What were they from?

norm said...

I figure it's like selling your original comic book pages. You're selling the art....not the reproduction rights.

...though, there are probably some reasonable exceptions, such as, if you're re-selling the art and printing an image in a catalog.

norm said...

There's another layer of ownership too. If I buy a Hellboy page, I can't take the intellectual property of the character himself and sell my own Hellboy stories.

So....I'm ok with the whole partial ownership thing.

Richard said...

"You're selling the art....not the reproduction rights."

Right, but why shouldn't purchasing those original pages also buy you the reproduction right?

"...though, there are probably some reasonable exceptions, such as, if you're re-selling the art and printing an image in a catalog."

What if I was making a coffee table books of the items found in x-artists desk when he died. Perhaps among them was this original Hellboy drawing.

The way I see it, it's just silly that I wouldn't be able to include that drawing in the book without paying Mignola -- the person bought the drawing afterall, and I bought those items in his estate, how is it that in all this I have managed to not be able to reproduce this image that I own for my "Personal items of x-person" book?

It seems that the copyright here would be over-reaching.

"If I buy a Hellboy page, I can't take the intellectual property of the character himself and sell my own Hellboy stories."

Right, but I feel like there is a notable difference between a recognizable character/likeness and these somewhat nameless backgrounds.

Richard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard said...

Let me clarify the point for a second.

Imagine you own a Norman Rockwell painting. Don't you think you're the person who controls the rights to its distribution?

Did Norman Rockwell's family somehow maintain the ownership of his intellectual property after he died, meaning that even though you may have that painting in your personal museum you couldn't sell posters of it ten feet away in the giftshop...

David Apatoff said...

Tim-- thanks! There's no shortage of material at Comic-Con. If my schedule permits, I'll post something new each day.

Armand, I generally agree although I can think of some quality art that has not retained its economic value, and bad art which is still worth plenty.

Anonymous (2)-- astonishingly, yes. There were boxes of thse paintings priced at $20 apiece, which on the last day became $10 apiece. It's hard to think that the time and skill necessary to produce these were valued at less than minimum wage. That's why I wanted to sort through the market forces responsible for such pricing.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN, I hope it's a little more than coincidence, but I agree that the two categories are not in synch.

Richard, I am certain that the copyright to these images is still owned by the cartoon company. Buying the original does not give me reproduction rights, except under the "fair use" exemption to the copyright laws, which applies here.

Norm-- I agree. These were not backgrounds to any cartoons you or I have ever heard of. Disney backgrounds go for a pretty penny. But for anonymous, low budget cartoons, somebody had a lot of pride and self-motivation to produce backgrounds as nice as these.

David Apatoff said...

Richard wrote: "Imagine you own a Norman Rockwell painting. Don't you think you're the person who controls the rights to its distribution?"

No. Curtis publications, which commissioned all those Saturday Evening Post covers, controlled that right (which it sold to a successor in interest). They are rapacious about enforcing their copyright and squeezing every nickel of royalties they can get from those images.

Rob Howard said...

>>>Curtis publications, which commissioned all those Saturday Evening Post covers, controlled that right (which it sold to a successor in interest). They are rapacious about enforcing their copyright and squeezing every nickel of royalties they can get from those images.<<<

I am encountering a similar situation with Random House and Watson-Guptill on some of my out-of-print books. Even though I am listed as the copyrights holder, they feel that they own the rights to future reproduction.

kev ferrara said...


Am I to understand that you did not buy these paintings at $20 a piece but you did buy them when they went down to $10?

Richard said...


I was thinking more in principle than in practice with the Rockwells.

Any name would do, what I am really get at is how can a piece be in a museum, and yet that museum cannot sell posters of it.

Does no one else see the law here as over zealous?

norm said...

I really do think art should be valued on its own merits, and good art is good art , no matter what it was done for....but, as someone who also likes a good deal, I think it was cool you could take advantage of the whims of the market and grab a ton of nice stuff like this. (Like the stack of Vic Catan and Gerry Talaoc "House of Mystery" pages I picked up at Comicon a few years back, for five bucks each)

If you could buy the rights along with the art, the companies would never let their artists sell the originals.
David could probably say if I'm right here, but I think this would open a can of legal worms that would jeopordize the company's exclusive rights to the characters themselves.

David Apatoff said...

Rob Howard wrote: "Even though I am listed as the copyrights holder, they feel that they own the rights to future reproduction."

Yeah, military training is all well and good but when corporations start acting like jerks, it's the legal training that pays off.

Kev: The interesting thing from a Comic-Con perspective is that there were boxes and boxes of these pictures waiting to be rescued. We can talk in our high falutin' terms about the inspiration or sensitivity necessary to produce or appreciate good pictures but here are some pretty darn good pictures that were produced and paid for as a commodity.

Anonymous said...

Could it be that studios are chucking everything that isn't digital because they don't want to be burdened with storage?

kev ferrara said...

Oh, I don't blame you for buying them, David, whether it was because you liked them, because you wanted to help preserve them, or because the price was right. Any reason we can think of is a good enough reason.

I was kind of wondering about whether you saw them when they were at $20 and bypassed them. And whether it was the $10 price point that caused you to take action. If this was the case, the actual value of each painting, (according to some economic schools) would be established somewhere in the $15 range by your actions as a free consumer in the marketplace. (Bypass at $20, glomming them up at $10, actual value must be in between.)

In other words, it would be contended that you (in your heart of hearts) do in fact think the value of these works are around $15 a piece or else you would not have purchased them so readily at $10 but not at $20.

If you didn't know about these items until the last day, my point is moot... you didn't participate in establishing their monetary value by buying them because we would have no way of knowing if you would have bought them at $20 or even $50 a piece.

Anyhow, I agree that Art's currency exists apart from capital... as a psychic artifact that, like oil or grain, is fungible in its own right.

Rob Howard said...

>>>military training is all well and good but when corporations start acting like jerks, it's the legal training that pays off.<<<

I know that the military is a branch of the diplomatic corps, but I hadn't thought of calling in an air strike to solve contractual issues.

I'm planning on doing some POD editions through Amazon and that will be under their ISBN bundle. If Random House wants to be contentious, they certainly are big enough to do it whether they're right or wrong. I suspect they'll come around. It's not as though any are Tom Clancy blockbusters.

Richard said...


How much would you have to rework your own content/wording before you would arguably have the right to publish this information with a different title?

Kagan M. said...

Richard, most illustrations are created to permit their usage to a client for a period of time, then the full rights go back to the illustrator. The original art is never part of the deal, it always remains the creators' property. And if he sells the original art, he's not transferring any rights for reproduction.

The animations backgrounds were probably done in-house by staffers with wages and therefore owned by the company that comissioned them.

See this recent bit of controversy at drawger for an idea how illustrators view the value of their work:


David Apatoff said...

Kagan M-- thanks for a great link to Drawger. I visit that excellent site frequently but I missed this hot debate.

Etc, etc-- these pictures weren't being purged because of some digital conversion. They were just part of the massive volume of art regularly created and cast off from the animation industry. I assure you, Disney keeps all of their old paintings under lock and key.

Kev-- I didn't originally appreciate where you were going with that question. Your point is certainly fair-- the art market is what the art market is, and consensual pricing is self-legitimizing.

Stephen Worth said...

You're mighty generous with these BGs! Those three tone trees aren't too different than the imported sofa size oils you see at the flea market. They're painted in the standard Korean formula. It's hard to get them to paint any other way. By the way, the value of animation BGs is usually how well they work with a character. No ground plane, aerial shots and snow scenes are hard to match to characters.

David Apatoff said...

Stephen, thanks for lending an experienced eye to these backgrounds. I enjoyed your take on them very much. I did not mean to suggest that they are works of great genius, but they seem to me to be lovely little pieces painted by capable, anonymous artists. A background shouldn't be too ambitious or too distracting or too high contrast, but in terms of filling their place and time, I think these are neat. And I remain surprised you can buy this kind of talent for $10.

Matthew Adams said...

When I worked for the newspaper my illustrations were not my own, and never will be. The newspaper owns the copyright, and to work there I had to accept this.

There have been cases in the past (and probably still now) where if you worked for certian design agencies full time, any work you created even outside of your work hours belonged to them.

Copyright in my opinion has rarely protected the originator of the artwork, and generally seems to be set up to provide lots of money to men who have little to do with the art.

David Apatoff said...

Matthew, I agree that as a general matter copyright law is skewed in favor of the corporate employer, although even when the individual artist retains the copyright, he or she often lacks the resources to enforce their rights in court. When the artist has the resources, they often conclude it is just not worthwhile because they would spend more on legal fees and court costs than they would ever recover in court. (See my note to Rob above on the wisdom of going to law school).

Anonymous said...

I callanged some arty farty critics on this blog and was labled a blue collar studio hack because I've worked in commercial illustration studios, or on commission for ad agencies, movie directors or bublishers.

Art is devalued by modern critics for the most ridiculous reasons...

He did it to a brief... He used photos as reference material... He had to read the script or follow some art directors concept before making the first rough sketch for approval.

But all the great classical artists followed a brief or some Bible passage to illustrate a religious scene. Rembrandt did it all the time and nobody calls him a studio hack.

Contemporary critics know bugger all about visual art. They just follow bullshit fads like dogs following other dogs arses... usually to con wealthy tossers with more money than artistic taste.

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