Comic Book Copyrights and Trademarks: You’re Doing it Wrong

By my own admission, I’m no legal expert. I’m not an intellectual property lawyer. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t have any advice for aspiring comic book creators on the subject of copyright and trademarks.

As I mentioned, I’m not an expert in the legal field. I don’t know every in and out of how to protect your intellectual property. And I’m certainly not going to tell you not to. What I am going to tell you, is that if you’re worrying about copyright and trademark before you have anything to protect, you’ve got your priorities backwards.

I recently saw a posting on Facebook by an aspiring creator. He was looking for artists, but couldn’t pay them, because he didn’t have much money, and needed those funds for printing costs, advertising, and copyright and trademark filings.

You know what else he didn’t have? A story. Characters, a plot, a title, designs, to say nothing of a script or artwork. He was worried about protecting intellectual property he didn’t even possess.

This brought to mind a scenario that I encountered at one of the first comic conventions I ever attended as an artist. There was a guy going around looking for talent in artists alley (if you know artists alley, you know there’s a lot of people there, a fair number quite good at what they do, and most of them are hungry for paying gigs). This guy would go up to an artist whose work he liked (he was also looking for writers, but don’t ask me how he was trying to identify them), and pull out a business card, proudly proclaiming that he was the trademark owner of what was on the card. The card read “BYCH” in a kind of circuitry-looking font. So this guy owned a trademark on a homophone of “bitch.”

That was what he owned. Much like the person I described above, he did not have an artist attached to this project. He did not have a writer. He did not have a plotline, or characters. He had one word on a business card. He had done, from his perspective, all the hard work, coming up with the oh-so-clever title. He just needed some people to fill out the details, like what BYCH actually was and how a story could be built around it. A quick Google search indicates that the trademark has since been abandoned. Which makes sense, since, in order to maintain ownership of a trademark, you have to show continued use. I’m not sure this guy ever had any use of it.

But that’s the problem some creators have (and, in the case of the BYCH guy, I’m using the term “creators” very generously): they have this notion that protecting intellectual property is more important than creating it. Any idea they have could be gold. They might have the next Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on their hands. Even if they do, you know what? Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird didn’t just come up with a fun sounding name for a book and run off to the trademark office. They actually made a damn book.

Protecting your IP is absolutely necessary, no doubt about it, and like I said, I’m not the guy to ask for advice about the ins and outs of that stuff. But if you’re the guy who’s more worried about trademarking a symbol or copyrighting a name than you are about actually crafting something worth protecting, you’re going about creating comics completely backwards.

Spider-Woman’s Ass and the Comic Book Boys’ Club

If you follow the world of comic books (and if not, why are you reading this? This is an article on a comic book company’s website), you know that the biggest story this week has been Spider-Woman’s ass. Marvel released an image of a variant cover to Spider-Woman #1 by Milo Manara this week, and it caused a bit of an uproar. That, normally, wouldn’t be enough to get me to sit down and write an article about it, but the backlash against the uproar disturbed me enough that I felt compelled to voice an opinion.

There are two covers to Spider-Woman #1. One is by Greg Land:

Fasteball special!

Greg Land is an artist who, if you’re not familiar with his work, literally traces photographs for his comic art, and there’s strong evidence that many of those images were originally pornographic in nature:

None of these people are actually supposed to be having sex
None of these people are actually supposed to be having sex

Surprisingly, the Land cover is not the one that caused an uproar for being overly sexualized. No, the cover that caused all the commotion is a variant by European erotica artist Milo Manara:

Isn't she looking heroic?

First, let’s be realistic about what we’re looking at here. This is a sexualized image of Spider-Woman. She has her back arched in a way that is anatomically questionable, and certainly not practical, and she has her buttocks pointing out in a very suggestive way. Her nose is tiny and her lips are full and pouty. This is a sexualized image. If you can’t acknowledge that, then you don’t get a seat at the grown-ups table. Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, in a Tumblr response to the controversy, said, “It’s also, for a Manara piece, one of the less sexualized ones, at least to my eye.” Less sexualized than most of the art of a man known for drawing erotica, but that’s an admission from a Marvel higher up that the image is sexualized.

Before I delve too far into the controversy, I will say that, prior to this cover, I wasn’t familiar with Manara’s work. Shocking, I know, but I’m not too into European erotica. Looking at his body of work, he’s certainly a talented artist in his chosen style and field. This image isn’t among his best. Ignoring the sexualized nature for a moment, there are noticeable anatomical problems (what is going on with her neck?) and perspective issues with the background.

Some people have commented on the issue, and I’m referring specifically to female commentators here, because they’re the ones people are getting up-in-arms over. There are some professional artists whose work I admire greatly who, when this story broke, came out with a resounding and, sadly predictable, round of, “Oh, great, here comes the complaining from the feminist wanna-be artists.” Because, of course, the only reason anyone would ever dislike something is because they’re frustrated that they aren’t able to do whatever it is they dislike.

(On a quick aside about comments on the Land cover: there are literally entire websites dedicated to arguing that Greg Land is a hack and figuring out what movies, other comics, and pornographic films/pictures he takes his imagery from. But those are run by guys)

It’s disheartening to hear that sort of talk from artists whose work I admire. As someone involved in the comic creator community, even if on a much lower level, these are guys I’ve admired. I think their artwork is fantastic, and I’ve had to opportunity to spend time with some of them at conventions, and they’ve been nothing but great to me, even if I’m a relative nobody.

I must also say that I find a couple of things wrong, offensively so, about that statement. The first is that “feminist” is not a dirty word. Feminism simply means the belief that women should be given equal treatment and respect to men. That’s not a terrible concept, but the word has been twisted over the years to conjure all sorts of horrible, emasculating stereotypes. The second part of the statement that I take offense to is this notion of “wanna-be artists.” To my mind, there’s no such thing as a wanna-be artist. I’ve had numerous people talk to me at conventions and store appearances and tell me they wanted to be an artist, or they were an aspiring artist, or whatever, and I always look them dead in the eye and tell them they already are an artist. If you have creativity in your heart, if you express yourself through some sort of artistic medium, you are an artist. You might not be a professional artist, you might not be on the level of skill that you’d like to achieve, but you’re already an artist.

A defense I’ve heard in favor of this cover is that “Manara’s a master of female anatomy,” implying both that, because he’s a master, he’s above critique, and that he actually is a master. I guess drawing something over and over for many years gives one greater knowledge of that thing than people who actually possess it? Telling women that Milo Manara knows female anatomy better than them is more than a little insulting.

All this talk of raging feminists and attempts to silence female critics really leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It seems there are many who view the world of comic books as a boys’ club. How dare any “outsider,” someone who’s not a professional in this industry, and especially a female outsider, dare to criticize “one of our own.”

I get being defensive. I get it. The comics community is a tight knit group, and that’s awesome. I’ve often found it to be one of the greatest things about comics how open it is to people with a genuine passion for it. I’m a virtual nobody in the world of comics, and yet I can go to a show and get the same table space and foot traffic as J. Scott Campbell or David Finch. I can rub elbows with Chuck Dixon and Greg Horn, and have conversations with Talent Caldwell and George Perez where I’m treated like an equal. It’s a great feeling. To then see that not everyone is given that same equality and welcoming is really sad.

Women make up at least have of the population of the planet (and people who love women make up even more), so why not try to include them, if not strictly from a business standpoint? And, seriously, who wants to go to a party with no girls? I’ve had the guys at my day job trying to get me to go have a beer with them every weekend for the last month, and every week we have the same conversation: “Will there be any women there?” “Nope, just creepy, socially awkward dudes.” “No thank you.”

One argument I’ve heard put forth is that Spider-Woman is, by her nature, a sexual character. “Isn’t part of her powerset pheromones that she can use to seduce people?” Well, yes, but I have to shake my head when people can’t understand the difference between sexual and sexualized. Women are, shockingly, people, human beings, and human beings, like all animals, are sexual creatures. They like sex, want sex, and have sex. And that’s okay. That’s more than okay. It’s pretty great. It’s debatable whether Jessica Drew having pheromones as part of her power set automatically makes her a “sexual character,” (especially when you examine how screwed up her backstory is otherwise), but when you reduce a woman to her physical form, and an exaggerated, nearly-impossible physical form at that, that’s not a woman being sexual, that’s sexualizing a woman. The woman depicted on the variant cover of Spider-Woman #1? That’s not a woman in control of her sexuality and her agency, that’s an object of desire for men to beat off to.

I’m reminded of a scene from this summer’s “Edge of Tomorrow,” a scene which, due to the cyclical time-traveling nature of the film, happened over and over again. When Tom Cruise’s character first meets Emily Blunt’s character, she’s doing push-ups, and gets off the ground in the most amazingly sexualized way possible, by pressing her pelvis against the floor and giving her back a ridiculous amount of chest-thrusting curvature. It wasn’t sexy. It was actually kind of funny. It was the same footage played again every time that moment came up, and I can see why. There’s no way that kind of movement can be comfortable, or easily replicable.

But, without that, how will we be reminded that Emily blunt is attractive? You know, besides looking at her. Emily Blunt doesn’t need to go through all that to remind us she’s sexy. Emily Blunt looks sexy running, jumping, punching, shooting, stabbing, or even just doing the damn push-ups. Because Emily Blunt’s a beautiful woman. Spider-Woman is a woman in a skin tight suit who goes around kicking ass. She’s a super spy who can fly, bench press a semi-truck, and shoot electricity out of her hands. That’s hot.

Look, I’m not a prude. Far from it. Ask anyone who knows me. I enjoy sex. I enjoy erotica and pornography. But there’s a time and a place. The workplace is usually not that place. A fast food restaurant is not that place. The parking lot outside of an office supply store is not that place. And the cover of a mainstream superhero comic, one that’s attempting to depict a strong, empowering image of a female character, is not that place.

Without a doubt, this Spider-Woman cover is a sexualized image of a woman. A high-ranking rep for Marvel admitted it is. Some argue that Marvel would never depict a male superhero in this way, while others will post pictures of Spider-Man that do show off his curves as he crawls, though none of them actually attain quite the spine-breaking curvature that’s on display in this picture. A counterargument I’ve heard there is that men and women are idealized differently by society (though in this instance, we’re talking about the sexualizing of a character/gender, which is a very different thing than idealizing). That’s a whole other argument, but it got me thinking: let’s set aside the male vs. female issue. I think part of the problem here is that the Manara defenders see an object of desire, a beautiful woman, idealized in a way that they find appealing: that is, with her butt in the air and legs spread. Because they find the image appealing, they won’t admit that it could be offensive or off-putting to anyone. And because it was done by “one of us,” they won’t stand for any detractors who aren’t part of the boys’ club.

What I’d like to do is image what the reaction from those same defenders would be if she were idealized in a way that was not as appealing to their ultra-macho, super-hetero viewpoint.

As Brevoort himself has said on Tumblr, “When we say ‘Manara cover’, his body of work indicates what sort of thing he’s going to do.” Yes, because he’s an artist of erotica. His body of work is provocative pictures of nearly-impossibly sexy people, sometimes doing very risqué things.

Instead of a noted artist of female erotica like Manara, what if Marvel had instead hired an artist well known for drawing futanari? A guy with just as much experience and just as long of a career. The “king” of futa. That guy has to be out there, because futanari is a thing. We wouldn’t even have a name for it, and you wouldn’t all have known what I was talking about, if it wasn’t a thing.

Instead of a woman with her apple-shaped butt a little too high in the air, the viewers were presented with a woman thrusting her crotch towards them, with a noticeable bulge in the front of her tights. No nudity, as one of the lines of defense being offered for the Manara cover is that “she’s not naked,” though her costume appears painted on. So no, no nudity, but the central focus of the hypothetical cover would be a well-defined penis and pair of testicles visible through her body-hugging suit.

I couldn't find an actual futa image of Spider-Woman that wasn't NSFW. Or almost any futa that wasn't NSFW
Okay, I couldn’t find an actual futa image of Spider-Woman that wasn’t NSFW. Or almost any futa that wasn’t NSFW. Just imagine these girls were posed in a position just as compromising as the one Spider-Woman was drawn in.

Would the people currently defending Manara be so quick to pull out the, “That’s just his style” defense when faced with an image like that? To some people, that’s an idealized image, as much as Spider-Woman’s butt all up in the air (it must be, or futa wouldn’t be a thing, and we’ve already established that futa is a thing). Should Spider-Woman, or any mainstream comic character, be depicted thrusting their erogenous zones at the viewer?

Let me try to head off one of the arguments I’m sure this will give rise to: But Spider-Woman isn’t a futa! The cover would be wrong!

My first response to this would be, how do you know? She’s never been shown full-frontal in any official publication.

My second response would be, “But that’s the artist’s style! You knew what you were getting when he was hired!” Come on, what’s good for the goose is good for the… um, shit, I’m not sure the pronoun protocol when talking about futa. Is it the same for talking about actual transgender people? (Because I’m not talking about an actual transgender person here, I’m talking about an idealized, pornographic depiction of a woman with a penis, the same as the Spider-Woman cover that started all this depicts an over-idealized image of a cis woman)

My third response would be, “She’s also not the type of character to go around ‘presenting’ to the entire city.” Now, some people are exhibitionists. They might enjoy flashing their bits at the world, and getting a little thrill that someone might be watching. Jessica Drew’s never been depicted as that kind of character (and that’s maybe a topic that shouldn’t be explored in mainstream superhero comics). To my mind, getting a character’s personality wrong is as bad as or worse than getting their physical appearance wrong.

And no, Spider-Woman in the Manara cover isn’t just “climbing.” That’s not how you climb. Your spine bends the other way when you climb.

Once the personal appeal has been removed (“Ooh, a sexy lady with a nice butt”) and replaced with something not as personally desirable (“A woman with a wang? Not my bag, man”), hopefully the pitchfork wielding defenders of the Spider-Woman cover can see how such an image might seem inappropriate. The same people who are now championing Manara, with their cries of, “That’s his style, you knew what you were getting,” could have the same thing turned back on them with this hypothetical king of futa. I have to believe most of them would have to admit, “Maybe getting a guy known exclusively for drawing chicks with dicks isn’t the best choice for the cover of a mainstream superhero book.” Just like getting a guy known exclusively for drawing erotica.