From Robot 6 and Anime News Network: The big manga news that hit the web yesterday involved Bleach , the hugely popular manga series by Tite Kubo (from Shonen Jump / VIZ Media) and Incarnate, a recently-released comic mini-series penned by Nick Simmons, the 20-year old aspiring rock star/cartoonist son of Gene Simmons of KISS fame.
Images surfaced on this LiveJournal site that provided pretty compelling comparisons between artwork and character designs in Incarnate with images from Bleach, One Piece and even a fan art image from Deviant Art, leading many fans to conclude that Simmons is guilty of plagiarism.
Radical, the publisher of Incarnate responded fairly quickly to the controversy by announcing that it halted plans to publish the graphic novel compilation of Incarnate "until the matter is resolved to the satisfaction of all parties."
A VIZ Media representative also responded with this comment:
"We appreciate all our fans bringing this matter to our attention and we are currently investigating this issue."
Even Tite Kubo got wind of this, and responded via Twitter:
"A LOT of foreign fans have contacted me overnight about a comic book plagiarizing BLEACH. I don't really understand English, but I went and looked at the website, and apparently it was something about a comic that Gene Simmons' son is writing."
"I'm more interested in the fact that Gene Simmons' son is a manga-ka than whether he's plagiarizing me or not."
Needless to say, the reaction from across the web was swift and largely negative, and possibly only inflamed by some Facebook posts credited to Simmons that many have concluded was written by an imposter, looking to troll for insults.
Nevertheless, the faux Simmons quotes "I've never read a Japanese comic book or 'magma.'" and "Why would I name a comic after laundry detergent!" lead to the renaming of a 4chan bulletin board to "Detergents and Magma". Heck, some folks have gone as far as to call him a "douchebag plagiarist and a moron." But that wasn't all that was said online -- I jumped into the fray on Twitter and got a whole lot of fascinating responses from comics fans and creators.
PLAGIARISM IS BAD - BUT ISN'T PIRACY A WORSE VIOLATION OF A CREATOR'S RIGHTS?
So granted - things do not look good for Simmons. The examples posted are too numerous and too similar to be a pure coincidence, in my opinion. But the sheer feeding frenzy, where fans are rushing up to bash Simmons and defend Tite Kubo's rights as a creator got me thinking about another related issue: copyright infringement and online piracy, which is a far more frequently committed and far more damaging violation of Kubo-sensei's, and many other manga and anime creators' rights.
So I did what I usually do. I tweeted about it. Here's what I had to say:
"Before you get all self-righteous about how you're standing up for Tite Kubo, ask yourself how many Bleach scanlations/fansubs you download. The sales lost to mass consumption of Bleach fansubs/scanlations hurts Tite Kubo far more than any half-assed Nick Simmons comic."
"It's fine that you love Tite Kubo's work & want to defend his honor -- but while you're at it, buy his damn books instead of downloading it."
I later added:
"I'm putting out there that some of the fans who are piling on Nick Simmons are throwing rocks from glass houses. It's not about the money so much as asking people to really ask themselves what "supporting" an artist you love really means."
This got lots of follow-up comments from other manga /anime / comics folks on Twitter. Here's a sampling of what came flying my way:
Eva Volin ( @funnypages) - manga reviewer, librarian: "I pointed this out to a scanlator once. His response: 'Well, it's not like Kubo needs the money.' Sigh."
Kazami Akira (@kazami_akira) - Japan-based comics blogger: "(There's) no punishment for stealing hundreds of contents (including manga/anime)... that's the biggest problem."
Sean Kleefeld (@skleefeld) - comics blogger: "Hurts financially in the short term? Yes. But Simmons' knock-off hurts the Bleach brand on more levels over the long term."
"Plus, it's a HECK of a lot easier to target Simmons instead of the largely anonymous scanlators. On the part of Bleach fans perhaps, but there wasn't any legal actions considered until it was brought to Radical's attention via fandom."
Kasey Van Hise (@spacekase) - comics creator: "What's really gotten me about all these plagiarism stories is the attitude. Some are very cavalier about art theft."
Erica Friedman (@Yuricon) - manga/anime blogger, publisher: "Anyone who has never created a thing and had it stolen really doesn't understand the issue at all. And even if Kubo told them, they'd just find a different way to make themselves the injured party. They are sharing love, you know."
"Very few people realize how little comic artists make, in any country. If you really ask them, they'll say they don't care about "supporting" whatever - they really just want what they want."
Hisui, Reverse Thieves (@hisuiRT) - anime blogger: "Well, (these fans') love is shallow enough that when it comes down to any sort of sacrifice the love ends and the excuses begin. The only problem is 90% of the guilty will not care anyway even if they were listening. But that does not mean it does not need to be said."
Meanwhile, at least one bookseller found an upside to the Incarnate controversy:
- Elin Winkler (@doronjosama) - comics publisher and comic shop bookseller: "Have taken to upselling Bleach to customers who buy Incarnate. Working well so far!"
PLAGIARISM IS NOTHING NEW, PLUS IT'S FUN TO CRITICIZE THE FAMOUS & UNWORTHY
Several people pointed out that plagiarism in manga isn't new - in fact, many Japanese manga artists have been accused of plagiarism. Yaoi artist Youka Nitta was accused of tracing from fashion magazines, and subsequently 'retired.' Artist Yuki Sugetsu was caught for plagiarism in Eden no Hana, and those books were pulled off the market. Even Katsura Hoshino, creator of D.Gray Man and Takehiko Inoue, creator of Slam Dunk have been accused of plagiarism. Comipress has an overview of past manga plagiarism scandals that's well worth checking out.
There's also the schadenfreude (e.g. taking pleasure in others misfortunes) aspect of this story. The Simmons controversy attracts lots of attention and bile because he's young and famous, and because he is perceived as being stupid enough to think he could copy one of the most popular manga series out today and think that no one would notice.
Here are more choice comments from the Twitter-sphere:
Hisui, Reverse Thieves (@hisuiRT) - anime blogger: "I also wonder if this was a) Not a the son of a celebrity doing it and b) An amateur doing it, would we have anywhere near the outrage?"
- Maximo Lorenzo (@MaximoLorenzo) - comics creator: "It's not what (Simmons) has done that makes it out of hand, it's he's a celebrity and people love a good witch burning. It's fun. As someone who is gleefully picking on Simmons, No. I work really hard to stray from my influences, and pay for good comics. Whereas he's a spoiled rich kid, riding on daddy's success and probably deserves this, it'll last what? A week? we'll get bored."
However, as Kelsie (@bicyclefish) pointed out, "I wonder about the roles of "assistant artists" Nam Kin, Ben Harvet & Shi Hua Wong (Studio IL) in this Incarnate matter."
Hm. Good question - surely at least ONE of these artists involved in this project would know the story behind the artistic similarities pointed out, wouldn't they? Curiouser and curiouser.
WHERE'S THE LINE BETWEEN TRIBUTE AND COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT IN ARTISTS ALLEY?
Now here's where things got even more complicated, when I tweeted THIS comment:
"I mean, if we're all outraged at Nick Simmons' copying Tite Kubo's artwork for profit, what about those people selling Bleach fan art at cons?"
One reason that fans cite for being angry at Simmons act of 'copying' another creators work is that he's getting paid for it. But aren't artists who create "fan art" of other creators' characters without permission also being "paid" when they sell those works at cons? So where's the line drawn there?
Most people were quick to point out that the differences between the two scenarios. The most frequently cited rationales for "fan art is not the same as plagiarism" were:
Fan artists readily attribute the original characters as the work of the original creator, whereas Simmons' artwork, several plot points and character designs in Incarnate did not credit Bleach or Tite Kubo at all, and therefore, it was deceptive to sell it as "original work."
While the "fan tribute art" are sold in artists alley, most artists don't make any profit from it.
Artists who create 'fan tribute' art are doing it because that's what sells. Buyers at anime conventions are largely uninterested in artwork that depicts original creations.
The Japanese comic scene has a long tradition of a fan art / doujinshi culture, where pro and amateur artists alike create "fan tribute" artwork and stories for sale at huge shows like Comiket.
Tracing and direct plagiarism is frowned upon in Artists Alley too, so even by that standard, Simmons' art would be vilified if shown/sold in that context.
However, not everyone was willing to say that derivative fan art is totally okay. Here's a sampling of the many, many comments I got from fans and comics creators alike:
LKK (@LKK6144) -comics fan: "To me, the issue is this. Simmons sold his art under the claim that it was original. The publisher bought his art believing it to be original. Simmons potentially committed fraud in doing so. It's the fraudulent aspect that bothers me. "
"Fan art seldom claims to be wholly original art. No fraud. When fan art is copied & claimed as original, other fans will come down on them just as hard as now."
Cetriya (@cetriya) - comics creator: "Copying off of others' hard work instead of learning to draw cheapens the manga style, making it hard for us to find decent paid jobs."
Infinity Shark (@infinityshark) - comics fan: "Doujin, despite not having original characters, are fan-made. (The examples of Nick Simmons' artwork that we've seen) were painfully obvious trace-overs."
Yidi Yu (@Kiriska) - comics creator: "As a creator, I don't think I'd mind people selling fan art of my characters all that much, but tracing my stuff? That's not cool."
Doujinshi, or fan-created comics are a big part of comics culture in Japan - many creators get their start by creating and selling doujinshi / comics featuring their interpretations of characters and stories created by other creators. Meanwhile, it's unlikely that an American comics publisher would tolerate an artist publishing and selling an unauthorized Superman / Batman yaoi manga story at a convention, much less at the level that it is tolerated in Japan. So if it's okay in Japan, is it okay here? When is it NOT okay?
Carolyn Urban (@agdeeds) - comics fan: "Manga makes up a huge part of Japan. Doujin has been established and serves its purpose there. Different ballpark in the US."
Emil Petrinic (@strangegoat) - comics creator: "The Japanese publishers are very smart to tolerate doujins. They create new artists, and keep fans involved. It creates a much livelier creative comics culture than the Western approach."
Hisui - Reverse Thieves (@hisuiRT) anime blogger: "To throw out another layer that only makes things more complicated: Doujinshi artists in Japan make money off copyrighted material."
A.T. (@ATborderless) - Japan-based comics fan: "Making money from non-original doujinshi used to be hated among fan artists. Now young people in Japan don't feel bad about it."
Rebecca Hicks (@RHicks) - comics creator: "It's a heck of a line to walk: Wanting fans to feel connected to the work without letting them feel that they own the work."
Heidi Kemp (@zerochan) - games reviewer/writer: "I'd say at least half of doujin artists at Comiket aren't making profit & many even lose money. If you're doing a more obscure doujin subject, then you run the risk of losing a lot of money. But you do it because you love it. Doujin printing isn't cheap, and if you don't completely sell out of a print run, you're likely in the red."
Rowan McBride (@RowanMcBride) - writer, anime fan: "Creating a dounjin to make money is the worst life-plan ever. That's like planning to make it big as a Spandau Ballet tribute band."
Several artists pointed out that one reason why artists create fan art to sell at anime convention Artists Alleys is because fan art is what sells.
Kelsie (@bicyclefish) - comics creator: "From my personal experience: At anime cons fan items sell more. At comic cons, people seek original art & stories more."
Maximo Lorenzo (@MaximoLorenzo) - comics creator: "I know plenty of brilliant artists who can't sell original work because no one knows who they are, fan art circumvents this dilemma."
Emil Petrinic (@strangegoat) - comics creator: "Plagiarism and Piracy are both significant issues, but quite separate, in my opinion. Piracy damages the original creator but Plagiarism rips off consumers as they're unknowingly paying for something not new. Remakes and lack of originality in fiction aside, that's the point of buying creative works; you're paying for new original works."
"Fans aren't professionals, so different rules of artistic conduct apply."
Kevin Church (@BeaucoupKevin) - comics creator and graphic designer: "Did they create the thing they are making money from? No? 'Different rules of artistic conduct' -- That is the most loaded phrase I have ever seen. It's a bit of cheap semantics to justify 'fans' making money off something they didn't make."
"If I can make new comics with people that can draw, someone that CAN DRAW ALREADY can make new comics. This might be why I don't particularly like 'fan culture' that profits/piggybacks on someone else's work. I don't see how 'they lost money' justifies creative theft."
Christopher Butcher (@Comics212 ) - comics blogger and manager, The Beguiling: "I think selling fanart and 'plagiarism' are pretty close together. One gets a pass cuz of fan entitlement. I'm paying tribute to the artist by selling bad copies of their work' is the same as 'I'm helping by spreading scans."
"Simmons is ripping off Bleach, but he's funneling it into something new. It's derivative & shows very bad judgement, but it's SOMETHING. Selling fan art that rips off Bleach just to rip off Bleach under the guise of 'tribute?' Far, far worse in my estimation."
"I think fan creations are great, I truly do. I think profiting off of the work of others under the guise of a tribute is gross. No, they're claiming that they love Bleach and then selling work that rips it off. That disconnect is even more fucked up."
(Christopher expands upon this thought at his blog, Comics212.net.
Zac Bertschy (@ANNZac) - Editor in Chief, Anime News Network: "Though I will say the folks just drawing Naruto's head and making hundreds of buttons and selling them for $3 a crack in the alley isn't 'fan art' any moreso than bootleg Bart Simpson tee-shirts."
Mochi Momo (@mochimomo_HI) - illustrator: "Maybe Artists Alley is not a good place for an artist to make their mark; customers don't care for original work. Tributes and homage is what drives the market at artists alleys. Artists may be stuck making those instead of making their own."
Kelsie (@bicyclefish) - comics creator: "Cons have various rules regarding fanworks. Otakon limits number fan pieces to 200. (See Otakon's Artists Alley guidelines) Fanart at Ohayocon cannot exceed 50% total number of unique pieces & must be 40% changed from the original design." (See Ohayocon's Artists Alley guidelines)
Dan Hess (@dansaysstuff) - comics creator: "Me, I'm fine with Artist Alley fan art as long as the artist is doing it in their own style - a fresh take on the work. It's just the blatant copying of someone else's style AND work, that bugs the heck outta me. You're an artist! Do your own thing!"
Beverly Wagner (@djwaglmuffin) - comics creator: "Hey, if artists want to sell themselves short by doing zilch but fanwork, let 'em. They'll learn nothing and go nowhere in the end."
So Twitter-storm though it was, the responses I got to the opinions and questions I threw out there on Twitter on this subject was fascinating to read -- and I'm sure there's more out there to be said and heard. Want to add your two cents? Chime in with your comments below, or send 'em my way via Twitter.
MORE UPDATES: Nick Simmons released an official statement about the controversy.
Image credits: © Nick Simmons, © Tite Kubo, © Deb Aoki, Bleach doujinshi by Studio in Labor