Jack Kirby and Daredevil images as created by Michael Cho, reprinted here for editorial purposes

Jack Kirby and Daredevil images as created by Michael Cho, reprinted here for editorial purposes

Updated August 3rd (see bottom of post)

Let me say first off, I straight up love Michael Cho’s art.  He’s quite talented, has a pretty cool retro style, and does some really good stuff. With that said, he recently made a post where he took someone to task for wearing a t-shirt that depicted a piece of his art. I read through the comments and most of them just seemed to be “Yeah, good for you Michael, tell him!”, naysayers were ignored, and in truth they devolved into trollish behavior.  The story was even reported on by the Joe Shuster Awards website.

Something didn’t sit right with me though.

If this is a commercial venture, I say “More power to you Michael”, but if it is not…if it’s one fan who took it upon himself to make a t-shirt and wear it to a local con…really?  Where’s the harm?  Why should an artist respond with anything other than flattery when someone is so inspired by their artwork to create a one-off t-shirt out of it?  I certainly wouldn’t expect the artist to go off advocating what amounts to vigilantism on his behalf.

The T-shirt in question is from an image that Mr. Cho posted to his blog in February. The only difference is that the person who created the t-shirt removed Mr. Cho’s signature (which isn’t cool in any case).

I must confess in the heady days of my first colour inkjet printer, when I stumbled across a 10 pack of “print and iron-on transfers”, I took some of my favourite comic book covers, printed them on $8.00 Haynes T-Shirts, and had some of my favourite t-shirts that I’ve ever owned.  I didn’t feel guilty about this, I didn’t consider it offensive to Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, or George Perez.  I was honouring their work by wearing it on my person and loudly proclaiming “I am a fan of this work, look how cool it is.  Comics are cool!”.

Mr. Cho says:

Firstly, I don’t like people ripping off my artwork to put on t-shirts. Even if they print only one, for themselves. My work is clearly copyrighted by, and owned by me. It says so at the bottom of this blog.

Here’s the problem with this comment.

When, you put your stuff on the internet it is in the wild and you no longer have control over it. When you do so, people are able to put it on their own computer and do with it as they will.  If you want to keep stuff for yourself, then hang it in a gallery with an express “No photographs allowed” mandate.  That’s the only way you can be sure it will never get out into the wild.

There’s another point here too though.  The sheer hypocrisy of Mr. Cho’s arguement.

Again, from the same post:

I don’t want to make money off of his memory or likeness. Kirby has a fine estate, and unless they authorized the work, I would never ever want to violate his memory by exploiting him one more time.

Mr. Cho has a problem with making money off of Jack Kirby’s likeness…however he doesn’t mind making money off of Kirby’s creations. His most popular prints feature Iron Man and the Silver Surfer Kirby creations.  For this year’s Fan Expo he’s already pre-sold a convention commission of Daredevil.

Now I’ve seen Mr. Cho at many shows, some of my friends consider him a really good friend, and a couple of times I’ve considered purchasing a print or a commission from him.  Mr. Cho’s artistic style is very inspired by Jack Kirby, but he does most of his work in monotone, which works really well with his style and creates cool “pop art” pieces.

His subjects are usually Marvel and DC characters.  Characters which to my knowledge Mr. Cho does not own copyright over.  Nor to my knowledge does he pay a licensing fee to Marvel and DC for these.

At conventions Mr. Cho regularly sells his very nice, high end prints for I believe $50-$80.00 $20-$40.00 each.  A friend of mine bought a commission of a Marvel character off him last year for $200.00. Not bad money, especially considering he will sell double digits in both prints and commissions at this year’s August Fan Expo.

This also brings up the copyright issue.  Can you claim copyright on an image which isn’t yours in the first place?  Can I create an image of Superman, and claim copyright on that image when I don’t actually own the license for Superman?  I’m not a copyright lawyer, but I don’t believe that my copyright as an artist supersedes the existing copyright of the original creation.

Update – This is in fact true. If I create an image of Superman, DC Comics still owns the copyright on Superman, but I have copyright on the image which I created. My rights as to what I can and cannot do with this image are still largely governed by the copyright on the original creation. I can for example sell my drawing, but I cannot make a mass run of prints of that drawing. Certain details are still murky though. How many is considered “mass run”? At what point do the lawyers have to get involved so that I’m not diluting their brand?

Also, Mr. Kirby isn’t a public figure, so does Mr. Cho indeed own copyright on this image of someone who’s image is not inherently copyrightable by him?

I’m not sure the answer to those copyright questions, but here’s the artistic hypocrisy as I see it.  Mr. Cho has a problem with people stealing his artwork to create their own t-shirts, but regularly does the same with the intellectual and corporate property of others, and indeed has profited off it in the past.

I wonder how the corporate overlords at Marvel and DC feel about Mr. Cho’s profiting off their creations?

Update – and my last word on this particular post

First, some clarifications:
My prices on Micheal’s prints were wrong. Those have been updated in the story.

Micheal closed comments after anonymous trolls overtook the posts.

My understanding of copyright is a little off. Artists own the copyright on the image they create even if it is an image of another person or entity’s creation. They do not have the right to reproduce that image, although publishers have turned a blind eye to small print runs and one-off sketches.

Which means that Michael Cho owns the copyright to the image of Jack Kirby that he created. If he created a picture of me, he would own the copyright to the image of me, but not the copyright to my likeness. He could then go ahead and create prints and t-shirts of me, and I guess there’s not much I could do about that other than make a blog post asking people to tell the person who was wearing the t-shirt not to wear it.

I’m still not convinced that a really over-eager law clerk for a nameless faceless won’t challenge all of this some day.  I just refuse to believe that if I make up a limited edition print run of 20 copies of my hand rendered version of the Coca Cola logo and sold them for $10,000.00 each, that an army of vultures…err, I mean lawyers…won’t descend on me with the quickness.  What defines limited? Is there a hard number? Is 100 too many? Is it 1000? This all seems so very vague, and my dealings with lawyers has taught me that vauge means “not permitted”.

Finally, the crux.
My title was intended for shock and awe (hey, I took journalism, and worked in editorial for nearly a decade, I learned in that time how to craft a headline that got reactions).

I am aware of the power of the word “Hypocrite”. I used it intentionally because it is a powerful word.

A better title might have been “Artistic Double Standard”. It would still get my thesis across, but would probably offended Michael less.

My thesis still remains, I personally don’t see the harm in one individual making one t-shirt.  I do see the problem in a commercial enterprise making copies of this t-shirt.

I understand that Michael is concerned that members of the Kirby Estate could be offended by the t-shirt and think that someone is licensing Kirby’s image.

I think if the people he’s concerned about lead balanced lives, and didn’t obsess over comics and comics culture…well maybe…just maybe this whole thing wouldn’t have happened, and that guy in Charlotte could wear his t-shirt without the fear of being a victim of vigilante justice.