Spotting art in the wild on a Superhero Safari: How Licensed Art works.
Our favorite superheroes are everywhere these days. From the big screen and video games, to action figures and children’s books, our favorite caped wonders have escaped the confines of the local comic book store and have found themselves in almost every aspect of the media.
One of the most important markets that comic book characters have remained strong in is actually so subtle that it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Enter the world of Licensed Art.
What exactly is Licensed Art and why is it important in relation to comic books? Before we get into that, I’ll explain how the employee relationship works in the comic book industry.
In the world of professional production art, the way things work is pretty straightforward. There is an employer/employee work relationship where an employer will pay an employee to create art. This art is then used in a final product that it was intended for. For example, when comic book veterans Ian Churchill, Norm Rapmund, and the team of Color Artists at Hi-Fi create artwork for “The Ravagers” from DC Comics, the nature of the art being produced under the legal definition of Work-For-Hire is typically (but not necessarily always) intended for limited publication in comic book form. That is, the artists can expect to see their work reproduced in the monthly comic, later on in a collected Trade Paperback version, as well as in Digital Comic versions.
Most work contracts for big league companies such as DC Comics and Marvel are catch-all contracts, meaning that under the explicit language of the contract the art becomes the property of the company that has ordered it, and they have complete reproduction rights on it. So if one day we see a t-shirt with a scene from an issue of “The Ravagers” for sale, it is, without divulging the details of the contracts, most likely within the rights of DC Comics to do so and profit from that.
With that profit comes a cost. The old saying, “You have to spend money in order to make money” is reversed in this case; when you make money, you have to spend money. This is called a Royalty Payment. Royalty Payments ensure that there is a quid-pro-quo (this for that) arrangement when something is reused for profit. For example, if an art team is paid $X for the original production art for a comic book, and the company produces from that art a pair of shoes with the artwork printed on the sides, it’s only fair that the art team is given a portion of that profit as well. Typically, Royalty Payments are a very low percentage, and only kick in after a certain profit ceiling has been reached. Regarding Royalty Payments, a contract will typically explain that once a certain amount of money has been made from the new product produced from the old art, then the art team will get a fraction of a percent of the profit made from each new sale.
This is a wonderful setup for artists, but it can backfire on the company in some situations, specifically where the products being made are created with little profit, or even being offered “at cost” in value markets.
In comes Licensed Art. In essence, all art in the comic industry is licensed. What we refer to with this term, however, is when art is produced for the company who has complete, carte blanche rights to its use from there on, and may sell the rights to that art to other companies for the creation of new products.
Licensed Art is vital because it permits comic book companies to use, distribute, and reuse artwork while keeping a budget.
As artists, of course we want to ensure our own financial safety by making as much money as possible, so in the production of Licensed Art we are typically paid slightly more up front. Think of it as a Royalty Payment in advance.
This allows for a new market of low-profit, high distribution products to be created and to then saturate the market.
Coloring books, greeting cards, stickers, school supplies, lunch boxes, Frisbees, shoes, the list goes on. All of these products you can find at the local department store, supermarket, dollar store, and even the corner gas station. These things are all great, but even mighty companies like DC Comics and Marvel aren’t big enough to have their own footwear division, Frisbee factories, etc.
Because they’re produced in such high quantities to be offered at such a low price, it would be nearly impossible for the company to recover any profit if Royalty Payments were a consideration with these products. The idea here is to respond to consumer demand, by offering these things. There isn’t always a lot of money for a company to make, but the tradeoff in having “The Mighty Avengers” coloring and activity books in the dollar store is that a consumer demand has been met, the company has “broken even” on the sale of the product, and now there is a happy child with a coloring book, who in ten years may remember how cool he thought “Spider-Man” was, growing up, and that may lead to him visiting his local comic book store and catching up with his old friend Peter Parker.
Hi-Fi Artists are responsible for much of the Licensed Art you may see from Marvel today, with much more to come.
We illustrate and paint Marvel characters for children’s books, activity and coloring sets, and many other products. As Marvel and its parent company Disney brainstorm to create new products, many times our art will be reused. For example, I recently saw a page I had painted for “The Courageous Captain America: An Origin Story,” where Captain America is running to battle in World War II reused as the image on an audio button for “The Mighty Avengers: Play-a-Sound” book and more Hi-Fi artwork can be seen on the cover of “The Mighty Avengers: Look and Find” both of which are published by Publications International.
The art keeps coming back in different products, and that’s great news. Marvel and others are pleased with the work we’ve done and is continuing to reuse much of it as Licensed Art. I even saw an activity book where some of Hi-Fi Creative Director Brian Miller’s paintings for the protective sleeve covers of the Marvel Origin Story books were re-purposed into face masks. What a cool added value for the activity book, to be able to pop out a die-cut mask and wear it to become your favorite Avenger!
There are many teams producing Licensed Art for the comic book industry, but much like every product, there is a dwindling contingency that is American-made. Because of economic hardships, following the example of what happened with the 1980s Cartoon and Animation Industry, many companies have opted to look to the artists of Asia to produce comic book art. Though they’re very talented, because of lower standards of living they accept a lower rate of payment. The comic book industry has pushed and tugged towards this end, but American artists are pulling it back. Hi-Fi Colour Design, despite the British “u” in Colour is an American-based company and many Hi-Fi Artists and colleagues live and work in America.
Veteran comic book penciler and Pittsburgh’s own Pat Olliffe produces much of the preliminary pencil work that we use as the framework to what we do. Brian and Kristy Miller have the heart of Kansas City and the hip-factor of Arizona. They manage these large projects as well as provide art from the Hi-Fi Mothership in Arizona. Hi-Fi Artists like “yours truly” provide art from around the nation. Some pages that I painted in “The Incredible Hulk: An Origin Story” were painted on an 18-hour bus ride to New Orleans. A battle between Iron Man and Hawkeye in “Hawkeye Joins The Mighty Avengers” was painted at the same table in the family home where my whole family encouraged me to draw when I was a child.
I believe that these are only possibilities for the American artist. We’re free to be mobile, and not confined to a studio in . The office of Hi-Fi is virtual, and the work week of the Hi-Fi Artist is flexible. Our art can and has been made from our homes, coffee shops, libraries, and even in unexpected places like on interstate bus rides. With the advent of Tablet computing, and great how-to books such as How to Paint Comic Books with the iPad I can’t wait to hear about what interesting new places people will create artwork from.
We’re all very proud to serve you in bringing your favorite characters to you. From the Color Art found in the pages of DC Comics’ “Green Lantern Annual #1” at your local comic shop, to Marvel children’s books found at the book store and on iTunes, to anywhere else the art may appear.
Keep your eyes open for more Marvel art from Hi-Fi Artists in the near future!