Chicks On Anime
Fan Art

by B. Dong, C. Brienza, R. Sevakis, Oct 28th 2008

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Casey is a freelance journalist, and also writes reviews for ANN.
Robin is an illustrator, and also the creator of Anime News Nina.

Last week, we talked about the ins and outs of one aspect of fandom—fan fiction. This week, we wanted to look at another side of fandom, fan art. In particular, I wanted to learn more about what goes on at Artist Alley, and tackle some of the more controversial questions that people have about the concept of for-profit fan art. Luckily, not only is Robin a fabulous artist, but she's been part of the Artist Alley scene for several years now, and she was able to give us a lot of interesting insight into what actual artists think about selling fanart.


Bamboo: So, Robin, since you are the resident artist, why don't you start this off and talk a little bit about fan art and why it exists.
Robin: *laughs* Well, I think it's pretty obvious why it exists. People fall in love with all their favorite anime characters in every way. They want to see these characters that they love—different interpretations of them, or maybe artwork or images of them. You know, doing something that you wouldn't be able to find in the canon artwork. That's why I think it really came about, and also the passion of the artist who also loved these characters and just wanted to draw them more.
Bamboo: So when you go to an Artist Alley at a convention, you see a lot of people selling their fanart of other characters, and you also see people asking for commissions from the artists of their favorite character. You're basically selling artwork of someone else's creation. Some people would say that there are legality issues there.
Robin: I think that it is a little bit of a grey area. My opinions have actually 360'd on this, the more experience I got at different Artist Alleys and the more conventions I went to. Again, it's a little bit of a grey area because you are, in a way, profiting off of someone else's character. But on the other hand, that is where the demand is. I mean, there are way more people asking for their favorite characters from anime titles than there are people saying, “I see you have this picture of a random elf I don't know,” or just dragon artwork. So that'll be just 90 percent of the commissions artists get. That's just what sells more.

And the artists do work really hard, so I did always feel that, yes, they deserved to get paid. I mean, the first couple of real anime conventions I worked at, I barely even went to the bathroom. I was just at a table drawing I probably wouldn't have eaten if someone hadn't gone out for me, because I was just so busy, and I was working my ass off and so I thought, “They're asking for these characters. I'm working really hard, I should get paid.”

Bamboo: But if you want a picture of an anime character, why not just buy a poster? Why not buy an artbook?
Robin: Well, that's kind of what I don't fully understand. A lot of customers just love seeing different interpretations of these characters done by different artists, and so getting to see these characters in situations that they would not normally get to see them in is nice. For instance, there are no professional, real posters of Naruto and Sasuke being all yaoi together, or, you know, characters from different video games crossing over and doing creative things like that. I think that is what people are looking for, but I still am a little bit confused when people say, “Just draw Kakashi,” you know? In that case, just get a poster of him. But I think those people are looking for different interpretations.
Bamboo: When I was a kid, I also drew fanart. I think most anime fans go through a phase where they think, “I like this character, I'm going to draw him.” But for me, at first, I started with an image and drew a reproduction of it so that I could learn to draw the characters, and then I'd build on that experience and be able to draw different interpretations. But sometimes, I'll go to an Artist Alley and think, “Wait a minute, I've seen that exact same picture of Tasuki and Chichiri from Fushigi Yuugi. I know this, because I also drew reproductions of the same poster.” I guess in that respect, it bothers me out a little bit.
Robin: I haven't really come across it, but I think most people don't really think that's right, because you are basically straight-out copying from the original, professional image, and you aren't doing anything creative with it. I'm sure most people are against that. I mean, it's okay to copy stuff for practice, but to sell it makes me wonder, “Why didn't you add to that? You just copied a picture.” But what I think is interesting is, I used to think that all fan art was okay to make a profit off of. But when I started going to larger conventions, the Artist Alley really turned into such a huge production that it was practically professional, and you're still profiting off the different characters. What I mean is that the stuff that's sold were items that could easily have been the regular merchandise.

I noticed the stuff that was really popular was little stuff like pins and buttons, bookmarks and little stickers. I'd see some that were just little drawings of the character's head that didn't look like it was in a particular different style or anything. But that still sold like hot cakes, and it's basically mass produced. They weren't one-of-a-kind drawings or limited prints or commissions; these people were mass producing their posters and merchandise in almost a professional way, and to me, I felt that was wrong. I sort of changed my mind about the legality of fan art after that.

Casey: I think that ties into the area of fan fiction we were talking about earlier about intellectual properties. One of the things you often hear is people talking about music pirating, because that is the most common kind of legal violation of intellectual property that we have these days. But when you think about it, let's say I go to Best Buy and I steal the latest Brittney Spears CD off the rack. We know that's wrong because that store lost merchandise they already paid for. They didn't get a profit off of it. Brittney Spears and the record company aren't going to get a profit off of it either. But what if I download it off of the Internet? Nobody loses anything unless I downloaded it instead of buying it, because that's a fine distinction, but an important one.

We could say, “Well, some jerk uploaded the new Britney Spears CD onto some torrent tracker, and it was downloaded a hundred million times in 24 hours.” Then you look at those numbers and say, “Oh my God, that was a hundred million albums she would have sold.” But in fact, it wasn't. There are a lot of those people who downloaded the album who were not going to buy it anyway. So only those people who downloaded it instead of buying it are really the ones who are causing the harm, because they are the place where the money is being lost. No money is being lost if you download it and go, “Well, I don't really like Britney Spears, but what the hell, let's give it a try. I would never spend money on this.” Well, maybe you'll like it, and then after that, you'll spend the money on a Britney Spears album.

Robin: How are you connecting this to…
Casey: To fan art? It's kind of like that, where it doesn't harm the original creator unless they are literally tracing something, or somehow copying something that will replace profit the artist would have made.
Robin: See, I generally agree with that, but I think the way that some of the fan artists are doing Artist Alley as a full time job, going to all the conventions, and they are mass producing posters and merchandise of other creators' work. While you're right, and this isn't necessarily taking away from a legitimate item, it is still a different artist who drew it. But I don't know, something about the mass production of it and how professional they're being about it, it's almost more like being a company than an individual artist. It just sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth, you know?
Bamboo: Yeah, and some people have said that drawing fanart or doing doujinshi is kind of like a band doing a cover song. But the difference is that when bands do cover songs and sell records, they have to pay royalties to the rights holder of the original song. That's not the case with fan art. If you sell a million copies of Bowling for Soup covering Britney Spears or something, the record company gets part of that.
Casey: Actually, the writer gets part of that.
Bamboo: Alright, the writer of the song gets part of that. But in the case of fan art, the creator doesn't see any of it, even though you are profiting off his or her work.
Robin: I think that, yeah, when it's mass production, it's less personal work from the artist. I have no problem with people getting commissions and printing stuff at home or printing what they can, and there are a lot of young, up-and-coming people who are learning how to be artists, which I think Artists Alleys are great for. But when it just comes to how you drew a picture of Naruto five years ago and you're still printing 200 copies and selling them everywhere, that is what's kind of iffy for me.
Bamboo: I guess I don't really mind commissions, because for anyone who has ever been to an Artist Alley, you know that commissions are very, very cheap, pricewise.
Robin: For the most part.
Bamboo: Yeah, for the most part. You go up and ask someone, “Hey, could you please draw me this picture of so and so doing whatever,” and they'll say, “Okay, come back in an hour or so,” and it's five dollars. The table next to them is selling laser printer photos of a print that they've printed a thousand copies of, and that's also 5 dollars. And they only had to draw that once, while with the commissions, you are paying them for their effort.
Robin: For an entirely new effort.
Bamboo: Right, so I can agree with you that to mass produce something seems a little unfair.
Casey: Do people buy it?
Robin: The mass produced prints? Oh yeah, and I think those are the people probably making the most profit. I think what surprised me… I started off by going to really small conventions, or conventions that were not entirely anime, and then when I started going to bigger ones like Sakuracon or Anime Expo, what kind of freaked me out was that people's displays were like so elaborate that they were like the same gigantic displays that were in the exhibit hall. Some people put a bunch of money into it, and it no longer felt like a bunch of amateur artists doing this for fun, or trying to make some money on the side. It felt more like a business, and I kind of got sort of turned off after that. They also make more money, too, and that takes away from the more amateur people.
Casey: Do you know anyone who actually makes a living entirely off fan art?
Robin: I don't personally.
Casey: Do you think that it is actually possible to make a living off fan art?
Robin: I think so. Maybe not very many, but I'm sure there has to be someone because some of these artists go to every single convention in the country. They have tons of prints and buttons all made already, and for one thing, if they aren't making a bunch of money, how can they even afford to get all those plane tickets everywhere? I mean, that's what's kept me in the small game for a while. I couldn't afford to fly out to every state in the US.
Casey: The reason why I was asking is because I know a lot of people who work on the periphery of the industry have another full time job, that's not strictly related to what they're doing, or is only semi-related to their fan activities. So it seems possible to me that a lot of these people are going to these conventions in order to drum up business for their graphic design, right? Or something like that.

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