Monday, June 04, 2007

Art: Recreation vs Copying

You're looking at one of the most iconic comic book covers of the last thirty years - Uncanny X-Men #137. Penciled by John Byrne and inked by Terry Austin, it's one of the most recognisable covers you can find and it's one of the most impressive covers that the famed Byrne/Austin team ever created, and that's saying a lot. Byrne and Austin worked on a number of titles over the last thirty plus years, but their true Golden Era was from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s when Byrne left Marvel Comics for DC, and Austin inked him for an early Superman issue. A Byrne/Austin cover can set you back quite a few thousand dollars, and the right cover can cost the same amount as a brand new luxury car or even a small house. Don't believe me? Have a peek at eBay one day or just search some original art sites and you'll see what they can go for.

The art you can see to the right of this text is a scan of the original cover art, sans logos. I have no idea who owns this cover. I certainly don't, but I imagine that if it ever came onto the market then it'd be selling for a nice five figure sum, if not more, quite easily. No questions asked. I can think of about five people with very deep pockets who'd go after that art with a violence normally seen on Formula 1 tracks. It's what's referred to as a 'grail' (as in 'Holy Grail'). It's the unobtainable. It's the prize. You own this and you can brag to anyone and everyone. It's yours. Nyahh Nyahh Nyahh. Tongue poking stage. The closest you could get to this cover was by either getting a decent scan or by buying the actual book.

Until now.

Recently John Byrne, the original artist of the piece in question, has decided to do a one-off recreation of the art and is auctioning it off via his art dealer, Jim Warden. On his forum, Byrne stated that he believed this isn't a true recreation, it's a 'reinterpretation'. The logo has been moved (personally I always hated that bloody great ad on the original comic) and the lettering has been done by hand and is just as dodgy as the original cover itself (I'm sure someone out there knows why, it might have just been an off day for the letterer, Byrne is trying to be consistent). The relative artistic merits can be discussed until the bovines return to the grassy knoll, but hey - you can't have the original, so this is the next best thing. Even when Marvel asked him to re-do the cover for their Classic X-Men series Byrne took a different approach and gave us a similar scene, from a different angle.

So far, so good. You can't own the original art so you can own a decent recreation of the art done by one of the original artists. Byrne probably sold off the original for peanuts back in the early '80s, this time he'll make a nice chunk of change. He's only doing the one recreation, good for him. That makes it even more valuable for the right person.

Now look at this.

Here's the cover to Iron Man #126 as published. It was drawn by John Romita Jr and inked by Bob Layton. John Romita Jr is much like his father in that he generally avoids doing recreations. But then why would he? His art has developed over the years and frankly it's hard to differentiate this from a pure Bob Layton cover, not to denigrate either men as both are quality artists. Again, the original cover art wouldn't be cheap, as JR Jr is a popular artist, but it'd not cost as much as the Byrne/Austin X-Men.

So what are these two covers? They're line for line recreations done by two different artists, although you'd be forgiven for thinking that they're from the same artist using two different pens - they are from the same source, that is a copy of the original cover, lightboxed and traced off. One is clearly marked as a recreation, the other isn't. In the right locations you can buy these and other such copies for a fraction of the price of the original. I'm expecting that while the original art to that cover might well set you back a few thousand, for less than a few hundred you can easily find an artist who'll quite happily recreate it. And some collectors will justify it the following way: "It's homage."

Technically speaking it's not. It's a straight copy. Suggest to anyone in the movie making business that Gus Van Sant's version of Psycho is homage and they'll look at you queer. They'll rightly say, no, it's a copy. He used the same script, used the same locations and shot the same movie only with different actors. That's a straight copy. Homage, by definition, has several meanings, the ones that seem appropriate here would be as follows:
1] Respect or reverence paid or rendered.
2] Special honor or respect shown or expressed publicly.

Now tell me how is it showing respect and honour by copying another persons work line for line and then selling it for profit? Nah, forget it, I've learnt from bitter experience that people can justify anything that they believe is the truth. If someone believes that throttling kittens is a good thing to do then they'll justify it until they die.

Comic book art collectors are an unusual lot. There's the good, the bad and the downright ugly. There's those who will knowingly deal in stolen art just to get the piece they want, there's those who will stoop as low as to steal art, there's dealers who will wade in a rip an artist off and those who will tell you that having a moral code, or ethics, will mean you'll never own any decent art. There's collectors and dealers who, for example, know exactly who stole art from a company at a given period, they know where it is and take pride in it being stolen. They'll say it wasn't stolen, it was 'liberated'. I suggest that when someone tells you that a lot of Jack Kirby's art wasn't stolen, it was 'liberated', feel free to 'liberate' something from them and use that argument. Before anyone dares to suggest that it'd be impossible for anyone to lightbox a cover, throw a few logos on it and pass it off as the original in this day and age, well read this excellent article written by George Hagenauer in which he discusses this very thing happening in the early 1980s. I'm sure that while there would be people buying and selling these fakes believing that they're the true originals, there'd also be a number of people who'd be selling these fakes as the true originals knowing their true nature. I'm also sure that now, with the advanced technology that we have, it'd be easier to forge a piece of art - when caught the perpetrator would simple say, "It's a recreation."

Those are some of the lengths that collectors will take to defend very dubious and illegal tactics, they'll get rabid and attack when you dare suggest that something is amiss and often use the defence of, "Everyone else is doing it, why can't I?" Here's a clue, not everyone else is doing it. Still I've learnt long ago not to bother debating the relative merits of morals and ethics when it comes to art with people who have neither traits.

As an aside, allow me to state right here and right now that for every dubious person in the comic book art collecting community there's at least another who is up front and fairly straight when it comes to collecting. They'll tell you how art theft is wrong, how line for line recreations are wrong and they own neither. Not all collectors are bad people, you just had to find them.

Taking a piece of art, placing it on a lightbox and tracing it isn't homage - it's copying. And just so you know the difference, the image you're now seeing is homage, as done by Bob Layton, the original inker. He drew it, he didn't trace it, he changed elements and yet retained the lay-out and the feel of the original. The two previous images are copies, and again, amongst the many definitions for the word 'copy' this one leaps out;
1] An imitation, reproduction, or transcript of an original: a copy of a famous painting.

In the last line we find the origins of recreations. Artists doing recreations of their work is as old as art itself. In Europe artists would have studio systems set up where students would learn by both watching the master at work, and also by copying his paintings. They'd then develop their own style and go out to make their own mark, or simply fall into the trap of being a medieval photocopier -just pumping out copies. A lot of artists back in the day found it more lucrative to just copy other artists works and I'm sure there's more than one person who truly believes that they own the original Mona Lisa and all others are fakes. The name Han van Meegeren will ring a bell for a lot of people. he's the Dutch painter that was imprisoned after World War II for forgery. His crime? He did recreations of paintings by the likes of Vermeer and sold them to various people, including some high ranking Nazis. van Meegeren was so good that there are those who still claim that what might be a van Meegeren are actually the original Vermeers. He's not the only one out there by any stretch of the imagination. grab a brilliant book titled 'Selling Hitler' and learn all about how Konrad Kujau forged a pile of Hitler paintings, some of which are still accepted as originals. He's also the guy who faked the Hitler diaries back in the early '80s. You've probably forgotten that.

What is a forgery and what is a recreation? Simple. A forgery has no details at all on the art identifying the artist. In some cases the artist doing the forgery will actually copy the signature. The collector then buys it, or if they've commissioned it, they then pay for it, and they have an object of envy on the wall. It's a fake, but in some circles no-one will know. Eventually the art will be sold and who's to know that the next buyer will be properly informed as to it's veracity?

I'll freely admit that I own a few recreations. I own several by Fred Hembeck, an artist who has a very distinctive style and who you'd never think did the originals. As one of the recreations I own is the cover to Superman #1 and Fred isn't pushing 100 years old, I think it's a safe bet that no-one will mistake it as the original. All of Fred's covers are also clearly marked as recreations. I also own an Al Bigley recreation of an Amazing Spider-Man cover originally done by John Romita. It's fully painted and it's also clearly marked as being a recreation. I'd not buy a recreation that didn't have, on the front, in ink, the details of the artist who has done the recreation. The recreations I have are all done in the artists style and aren't line for line copies. I'm happy with them. I can't see the point of owning a forgery or a line for line copy. I might as well just print out a high res scan and place that on the wall instead. After all, behind glass, who's to know?

It also got me to thinking exactly how do comic book artists, professional, published artists mind you, approach recreations. In order to find out I emailed around and asked quite a few, in the email I asked a series of questions, everyone got the same email. The questions were:
1] Do you do recreations of either your own previous work (covers, splash pages etc etc) or other artists?
2] Have you ever refused to do recreations?
3] Would you, or have you, refuse(d) to a recreation?
4] If you do recreations, do you do them absolutely line for line, or do you alter them, make them different (ie: notations to denote that they are recreations and not the original) or fix what you might have seen as imperfections that might have happened the first time around?
And, in closing, I asked for any general thoughts on recreated artwork. Some artists refused to respond, some said that they'd much rather not take part. Virtually all said that they do recreations as a way to make money and that they'd not do a line for line recreation of an artist who is still alive. Here's some of the other replies.

Inker Joe Rubenstein answered as such, "I do recreations of my own and anyone else's work ie: Starlin, Byrne, Golden, Johnny Craig (see my CAFs site). I ask if I can change the old stuff for the "better" but the client almost always wants it line for line." No words on if he has any problems with that. AC Comics publisher and veteran artist Bill Black responded, "I have done many GA cover recreations. These are for publication only for my published titles. These are done as ink line art only, then colored on the computer. Decades ago I did many cover recreations as paintings, not meant to be actual duplicates of GA line art." Paul Gulacy and Dick Ayers both stated that they do commissions, in Gulacy's case he's done exactly three of his old Master Of Kung-Fu covers, Dick mainly gets asked for old Jack Kirby art that he inked. In the case of the latter two they're recreating work that they originally did. I know that Dick clearly marks his work as recreations and does all the logos and lettering by hand.

Norm Breyfogle answered, "(question 1) Yes, when asked/commissioned to do so. (question 2) No. (question 3) No. (question 4) I improve them in minor ways if I can, within reason (i.e., without changing the actual composition, poses of characters, setting, pertinent details, etc.)." As for his general thoughts, "I'd hate to do too many of 'em, but I have no intrinsic problems with 'em. If I was getting tons of offers to do re-creations and I had other work so I didn't need the money, I'd eventually say "no," I suppose. I can see how it would become tiresome. After all, an all-new illustration is always more satisfying to me."

Alan Kupperberg was also quick off the mark with a reply and also included two scans to show what his recreations look like - click on those images for a great larger view. "I very much enjoy doing recreations of my earlier work. It's great to revisit those days and to take another shot at a given piece, to try and iron out the kinks that got through the first time. Unless the commissioner wants a line-for-line recreation. Short of a forgery, I'm open to anything.

"I also enjoy recreating other artist's covers because I find it to be a great learning experience. I get to try and crawl into another artist's head and look out at the paper through his eyeballs. Again, unless asked not to, I might tweak a little detail here or there.

"I'm a nostalgic old crank, so I welcome doing recreations as well as new creations featuring our favorite Marvel, DC and Archie Adventure Series characters. And drawing some great character that I've never had a crack at before is always an interesting and exciting artistic challenge.

"Any persons interested in inquiring about commissioning such pieces may contact me through my website; alankupperberg.com"

Dick Giordano, one of the true living legends in the industry had this to say, "Recreations: I only recreate art that I have done myself. It is a firm policy and I refused 2 from clients of my art agent just this week because others had worked on the covers. Doing those would not be a recreation since I didn't create them in the first place. It would be a swipe of another artist's work and quite unfair.

"To do a recreation, I require the client to supply a clean copy of the cover. Most send a scan. I lift the cover logo and copy from that by computer and paste it to the board after completing the art. Most often, I trace the art roughly and then re-ink. I feel that the client wants a version of the original cover, not a fixed up version, so I restrict corrections to elements that when altered do not substantially alter the look of the cover. Of course, if the client requests a specific change, I will honor the request.

"I'm not sure what you mean about my thoughts on recreations...it's a source of income for me and I often enjoy revisiting them. Reading between the lines, I believe you may be concerned about customers being duped into believing they are the originals. I'm sure that's possible, although I've never heard of any of my recreations being offered as the original. I've seen several on E-Bay that clearly stated it was a recreation. In any case, if an art collector looked at the art, it would be clear that it is a recreation...paper is too white, no code seal on the flip side, no registration marks or any of the material that most publishers put on their covers. I use Blue Line Pro paper. To be sure, an amateur, could be fooled but again, I've never heard of that happening."

Bob McLeod was also responsive, saying this:
DB: Do you do recreations of either your own previous work (covers, splash pages etc etc) or other artists?
BMcL: I do them of my own work, or of art by deceased artists, since they can't do them.
DB: Have you ever refused to do recreations?
BMcL: No.
DB: Would you, or have you, refuse(d) to a recreation?
BMcL: I would not do one of art by another living artist, unless I had the permission of that artist.
DB: If you do recreations, do you do them absolutely line for line, or do you alter them, make them different (ie: notations to denote that they are recreations and not the original) or fix what you might have seen as imperfections that might have happened the first time around?
BMcL: I do whatever the customer requests, but I note on the art that it is a recreation, and not the original. I ask the customer to allow me to improve my art if they will, rather than recreate what I consider inferior art.
DB: What are your general thoughts on recreated artwork?
BMcL: I think it's fine, and an excellent way for people to own art they couldn't otherwise afford. That said, I wouldn't do them if I didn't need the money, but only because I'd rather do new art. I do think it's unethical to copy another artist's work and sell it for profit if the original artist might have earned that profit instead. Of course, to try to pass it off as the original is against the law.

Inker, and creator of Banana Tail, Mark McKenna also took time out to reply. "I don't have a real dilemma with recreations," says Mark. "Usually, at least to my thinking, they're done because collectors want to have somewhat of a classic piece of memorable art and possibly can't afford the original or its not available.

"I've done 2 recreates in my span and 1 was a Gambit cover, but featured Rogue in typical sexy pose spray painting her name over Gambits title. The original, which I sold on eBay, for good money was missed by a lady fan, who then asked me to recreate it. I did it for less then half of the original amount I received on the original. I also know she was filling a void that she wasn't as thrilled to have the recreation. Later I heard she bought the original as well, offering more money to original owner. I thought my recreation was slightly better then my original (over Kevin Maguire) because I had some distance to see it from a different perspective. The other was a cover to Dr. Fate #1 ('86), but it was garishly colored by Tom Smith and looked nothing like the original.

"Over all, the thing is to be honest about this practice and not try and pull one over on a collector!"

Tim Townsend, who still remains one of the best inkers in the business today, responded in detail and as his comments inspired this little article I think it's only fitting that he have the last word.
DB: Do you do recreations of either your own previous work (covers, splash pages etc etc) or other artists?
TT: I have done a few recreations of pieces I've worked on. Initially they were all done for myself but I did end up selling a couple of them. It's not something I'd like to make a habit of but, if it's the right piece and I think I can do something new and special with it, I wont rule it out.

DB: Have you ever refused to do recreations?
TT: Absolutely. Many times.

DB: Would you, or have you, refuse(d) to a recreation?
TT: Same as above.

DB: If you do recreations, do you do them absolutely line for line, or do you alter them, make them different (ie: notations to denote that they are recreations and not the original) or fix what you might have seen as imperfections that might have happened the first time around?
TT: I've only done two line for line recreations and, of course, it was of pieces I inked originally. With the others, my major motivation for doing them was that I felt I had grown as an artist and wanted to make a newer, better version of the original. Of the handful that I've done, I've only let a couple of them go. I still have the others.

DB: What are your general thoughts on recreated artwork?
TT: Whew....thats a doozy. I'm pretty outspoken on my feelings about them. There's a relatively elaborate and yet common sense logic to how many of us, pro's, feel about them. In regard to line for line recreations or something close to that, the only people that should be doing them are the original artists, penciler and/or inker, whom participated in creating the original. There's an inherent right to your own work and ideas. Beyond that, any sort of recreation by an outside party should be a "re-imagining", something perhaps based on the original image but changed by the new artist to suit his own style. The new artist has no right to the original image as-is. To copy something like that line for line (for cash) is nothing more than parasitic opportunism. They're just appropriating something created by someone else, tracing it off, and cashing in on it. For those who can not understand this line of logic, I ask you to go create something from scratch. Go pour your heart and soul in to something you're proud of, something you brought to life, and then sit back and watch someone else come along, pick it up, and sell it. There are laws against things like this in the literary world. Its called plagiarism. There are no such laws pertaining to graphic art, however.

To those of you out there who regularly make money off of this practice I say get a life and develop some talent to create something of your own. To those of spending money on these hand made Xerox's, I ask that you take a moment and consider the artist whose work and talent are being exploited. Put yourself in their shoes and think again.

Keep in mind, I'm not bagging on the practice of making line for line recreations for fun, for your own practice and personal enjoyment. It's a fantastic way to hone skills. It's when money enters the picture that the moral dilemma rears it's head. I'm also not talking about people having convention sketches or penciled pages inked by others. Just keep the common sense aspect of this in mind and it should all make sense. Just don't steal and cash in work that's already been done by another and don't support people who do.

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