A Modest Interview: Damonk Talks with Sean Howard About Copyright and Stuff
While there are many out there who decry sprite-based webcomics as less than art because they use other people's original material for their own purposes, there are others – like A Modest Destiny's Sean Howard – who actually work hard to not only create their own ORIGINAL pixellated works of comic art, but to also lobby to keep others from stealing said work. Following a recent "incident" revolving around the subject of copyright issues and laws, Howard took the time to speak with the Comixpedia about himself, his work, and his views on the matter.
Who are you, and what's your background, Sean?
I'm Sean Howard, creator, author, and... uh... guy behind the webcomic A Modest Destiny. My background is actually in programming. I've been game programming as a hobbyist and professionally for almost 15 years. It was the need to create graphics for these games which led to my interest in pixel art. I've always loved videogames and especially the style of videogames.
What first got you *into* webcomics, and what inspired you to start your own?
Like I said, I've always been a huge fan of games. It was actually when the website gamefaqs.com was down for a server upgrade that I first started webcomics. The admin of the site had posted a list of things people could do rather than visiting his non-working site, one of which was a link to Sluggy Freelance. I quickly became a fan of the comic and followed it for several years after that.
When I lived in Japan, a combination of culture-shock depression and a severe lack of anything to do led me to spending the last two months of my stay holed up in a computer lab on campus, mostly reading webcomics. And I read pretty much all of them. At the time, Keenspot wasn't quite the all encompassing billion comic empire that it is now. And while I read them all, I didn't keep with any of them when I returned from Japan.
After Japan, I spent a year creating demos and sending my resume into the game industry. After about 8 months, things were looking pretty bleak and I was looking for some way to be creative and possibly invent my own job. I started doodling in Photoshop with some characters I had drawn for an RPG. I created a few sample comics and passed them around to my friends. They all loved it and wanted more. Unfortunately, September 11th hit about 3 days after I started and, mixed with a few other hard experiences, the aspect of creating comics was dropped.
After I got into the game industry, I started wishing I hadn't and really wished that I had spent more time making those comics. I had gotten more joy out of that process the ANY experience associated with being in the game industry. After I quit my job and moved back to Florida, I decided to give it a try and I've never been happier.
Considering that the vast majority of Sprite comics use copyrighted characters from video games, what made you consider to render your own webcomic in Sprite format?
Being a game programmer for the majority of my life, I'd require art for these games. At first, my artistic skills were pretty amateur, but I still enjoyed making that kind of art. I'd even do it without having a game in mind. I'm not an artist, though I can whip out a doodle every once in a while. My interest in pixel art was purely practical. I wanted to make games and I needed art for these games.
However, I got pretty good at it and I really enjoy that style. As a kid, I used to pore over videogame magazines staring at the screenshots, imagining what interesting game may be waiting for me to play. I don't really do that anymore, but I still appreciate the art style and do, in fact, prefer it to many other art styles.
The original idea for A Modest Destiny, and one that is still in the cards, was to create videogames that were associated with the comics using the same graphics. So people could read about the characters and events in the comic and then play a Java applet of some big event. It's kind of a cross-marketing thing. The comic could sell the games and the games could support the comic. But it's also just something that I think would be REALLY cool. As a gamer and fan of webcomics, it's just something I'd want to see.
How much time does it take to create a Sprite webcomic, and what is your process?
Well, I don't really consider AMD to be a sprite comic. I think that title infers that there is a limitation. Yes, AMD resuses art a lot, but so does PvP, Penny Arcade, and Mall Monkeys. But like these comics, I am only limited by my own artistic ability and not whatever few poses MegaMan may be available in.
It is because of this that the time for each comic can vary vastly. Some of the more simple comics only take about 15 minutes to lay out and finish. However, some comics which require a lot of new art assets like new backgrounds, characters, or action poses can end up taking several hours to do. I've always been a real perfectionist when it comes to my pixel art, but the daily schedule forces me to get things to a good enough stage – which is actually a good thing. If I could follow my natural tendencies, each comic would feature far more new art, each of which would require about five times as much time to perfect. It could take days to do a single comic.
The process of laying out a comic is, as could be expected, very simple. Normally, I just grab a background and slap a few characters on it. Most of the time, I try to avoid that. I think the readers would get bored of seeing the same stuff over and over again. That's why I try to vary the settings every couple of days and if I revisit an old setting after a while, to add in new background elements to make it more visually interesting. I also try to make the scenes interesting by having some scenes take place during the day or during the night. One recent comic took place in the early morning with sunlight filtering in through the windows. It was a nice effect, I think.
You've been publishing A Modest Destiny since January of 2003, and you've yet to miss a day. How do you manage to keep up with a daily pace like you do?
When I first started AMD, I completed the first 30 comics before I ever put them online. This allowed me to modify my style and work on my writing without having to keep up a schedule or being unable to modify works that had already been publicly posted. I'd recommend this for anyone starting a new comic. One of the biggest reasons for this is so that you can make those first few comics really good. A lot of people will just start from your first comic and read that. Even if your art and humor grows better over time, your comic will be judged by those first few comics. Make sure that they don't stink.
Of course, as buffers are prone to do, I ran out of having extra comics rather quickly. In all honesty, I keep up the daily pace through hard work. The way I see it, I've set a contract with my readers to provide a new comic at a certain time every day. If I fail to do this, or "cheat" by having stick figure vacation days or guest comics, that kind of thing is going to end up hurting my reputation. Not only that, but just having those options available will mean that I won't work as hard as I could or should.
When I go on vacation, I work to have enough comics ready ahead of time to cover me while I'm gone. When I get sick, I still just sit down and work on the comics. I can't even remember to brush my teeth every day, but there will always be a new comic. That's important to me, and I think it is important to my readers.
You once called yourself verbose, disagreeable, and arrogant. Why do you see yourself that way, and does it affect your webcomic or how you interact in the webcomics community in any way?
Well, I am verbose. I write a lot. I guess it is a bad habit on [the] Internet where any forum post longer than three sentences is skipped over. I'm disagreeable because I love to argue. I think there is nothing on this planet as satisfying than a good discussion between two people who don't agree with each other. Of course, I'm pretty much the only one who believes this. As for the arrogant thing, I don't really think that about myself, but I've heard so many people call me arrogant that I can't help but believe that I'm seen that way. It's the way I say things. Read this paragraph again. I assure you that I don't intend to come off as arrogant, but I'm sure this paragraph will do just that. I don't understand it. I don't like it. I kinda wish it didn't do that, but that's just how I talk and no matter how much I try to not come off as arrogant, I end up coming across even worse.
It definitely affects my webcomic. There are a lot of people in the community who don't like me. I've seen more than a few posts in random forums from people who say they enjoy my comic, but think I'm a big dick. My wife believes that if you showed my comic and writings to people, they would never believe that it came from the same person. It does, of course, but even I must admit that it would be hard to tell.
When I first came into the webcomic community through the now defunct Top Web Comics, I thought I'd share my feelings on making a webcomic. For instance, it is pretty easy to tell that daily updates will help your audience grow faster and keep them longer. However, my comic was unheard of at the time and the tragic flaws of my online persona lead to a lot of discussions on arrogance and stuff like that. I've still got a great many people who hate me because of those discussions (especially the classic pixel art versus sprite comics discussion).
I think that people who have seen these discussions only really see one side of me. When I'm on these forums, I'm not there to have fun or joke around. I want to talk about the craft of making comics. On my own forums at the AMD site, I'm much more relaxed and goofy. I'll talk to people about videogames and things like that. They'd have a much better time of telling you what my favorite movie was than anyone on TWC just because that's where I talk about things like that. If I'm going over to the PA forums, it is on business. Not because I want to chat. A lot of people get the wrong first impression of me because of things like that.
The way I see it, if you like my comic, it doesn't matter if you like me. I'm aware that this is a strong possibility with many fans, so I try to keep the two separate. I normally only use the front page of my comic for comic only news and have a separate section for my personal opinions. But it's difficult to separate the art and artist, and I understand this. I try to keep them separate for people who don't want to know both. It's not always successful, like this recent Penny Arcade thing, but I do try to do it.
You recently had some sort of problems involving the use of your characters as avatars on the Penny Arcade forum. Want to share your side as to what caused the problem?
Well, the issue isn't very clear from what most people know. It wasn't just that people were using my work to create avatars. They were modifying my work, taking credit for, and distributing it to others. I wanted them to stop, and they refused. I contacted Gabe and Tycho about helping me with this situation, but that tragic flaw slipped in and Gabe took offense at what I wrote to him. He decided to take comments out of context in the email and post them on the front page to make it look like I was threatening PA, which was not true. He probably thought I was, but I had emailed them to help me. Not to threaten them.
The worst part is, nobody bothered to learn the whole story behind it. They just took Gabe's post at face value without questioning it. He had many facts wrong and made assumptions about my work which were very much untrue, not to mention very damaging to my reputation. And speaking of reputation, any one who has ever had a beef with me decided to take this opportunity to come out and public[ly] bash me. It's just been this giant game of telephone where the facts get more and more muddled the further from the source it goes. There are some webcomics that have the facts so completely wrong, it's scary.
But something good has come out of it. While the amount of people stealing my work to spite me has increased tenfold, they are in fact giving me credit for that work through that action. A picture of one of my characters with a different head pasted on top with the words "Copyright some asshole", while mean, does indicate that they know the original source. Also, though I believe that most of the new visitors to my comic have just been going there to send email calling me a douchebag, I've received a few emails who are glad that they found the comic.
If I could do it all over again, I would. I'd do it differently. There are a few mistakes that I made which made the situation that much worse. But I would still choose to protect my work.
Since the disagreement stemmed from copyright issues and concerns, can you elaborate on your objection to people using your work as templates to create their own forum avatars?
There is an entire genre of comics out there that are created by people taking MegaMan or Final Fantasy sprites. As someone with great respect for pixel art, I cannot agree with this behavior. More than that, it has lead to some of the worst webcomics in existence. Pixel art is unique in its ability to be cut out of the background perfectly, modified with little talent, and released with the same rough quality of what was modified. It is very easy to take MegaMan and put a skirt on him and have it look pretty good.
And people do it, a lot. It is a real danger for an original pixel work like my comic. I've had my work turned into crappy webcomics many times. If I'm not careful, my work could easily become the next MegaMan. It could be spread exponentially as each new crappy comic inspires two other new crappy comics. And this isn't paranoia speaking. I've seen it happen to my own work and the work of others. Perhaps I should've chosen an artistic format that is more difficult to steal, but like I said, I enjoy the both the style and creating it.
There is another less obvious danger to consider. If two people, working independently, create a pixel person, it is going to come out VERY different. It may not seem like it, but there is a surprising amount of variety available in a 32x32 pixel character. However, if they work from the same template, their characters will look VERY similar. This is because their inherit the style, proportions, and composition from that template.
Let's take an example. Someone uses one of my characters to create a secret agent in a tuxedo with a red bow tie. Since I use my own template to do new characters, if I decided to create a character like that, they would be very similar. Because the proportions are similar, a black tuxedo would very likely look identical. Now, even though it is all based on my own art, the person who created that secret agent could say that I copied him and demand royalties for any work which I sold using my own tuxedoed character.
This is why I have to establish ownership over my work. I one day want to sell t-shirts and printed copies of my comic, even video games. Heck, lunchboxes, toys, fridge magnets, and whatever else. I think there could be a market for this stuff one day if I continue to improve the quality of my comic over the years. If my work becomes too commonplace on the Internet, it would be very difficult for me to show that I owned my own work. It's a scary prospect. What I try to do is not limit people from promoting my work, but distributing it without credit. When that credit is given, nobody can try to take control of my work.
In general, do you feel that more webcomics artists should be concerned with copyright issues, whether by trying to safeguard their own work, or by trying *not* to use other preexisting copyrighted work (e.g., like so many Sprite-based comics)?
Absolutely. In a way, I think that the more you know about copyrights, the more paranoid you become. It's like reading a health dictionary. When you realize that a little bump on your arm could be nothing or it could be the early signs of a deadly and painful disease, you tend to prepare for the worst, even when there's only a 0.001% chance that it is.
I think a lot of webcomics aren't concerned about copyrights because I think a lot of webcomics are created as a self-promotion. If someone copies their work, they feel flattered. Not only that, but if you are creating something than even you don't feel particularly proud of, it is difficult to muster the strength to defend it. And of course, copyright theft is not going to be a problem for 99% of the webcomics out there. Not every webcomic has the readership of MegaTokyo.
But if you are serious about your comic. If you want to make something great and really do have pride in your work, I think looking into copyright and trademark law is a pretty important first step. I'm not saying getting a lawyer or anything like that, but there is a lot of misconceptions about copyright law out there that you would do well to clear up. For instance, profit has no factor in whether or not something is an infringement or not, fair use is a defensive strategy and can only be decided by the courts, and parody is not nearly as all encompassing as people think it is.
As for people making sprite comics, I really hate that. As someone who respects and was influenced by the art created by the MegaMan and Final Fantasy game, I think that it is just horrible that people would steal that art. It really makes the job of people like me that much more difficult. I mean, what's the difference between using MegaMan or using the character Maxim from my comic? Technically, nothing.
I've had this discussion with Brian Clevinger of 8-Bit Theater many many times, but we both come at this from two different sides. He, as someone who uses copyrighted works to make a living, does not have the same opinions on the subjects as I, who has copyrighted works which I don't want taken, do. 8-Bit Theater also poses a problem by example, as well. A lot of people enjoy 8-Bit Theater and they don't care about copyright laws. If I try to explain that what he is doing is ultimately damaging to the webcomic world, they see that as a threat to their favorite comic.
So I can't just say that sprite comics are bad. You have to understand where I'm coming from. I'm not a reader or a fan, but as someone that sprite comics pose a very real and very dangerous threat to. Their questionable legality aside, they lead to a mentality which makes people think that all pixel works are sprites. They think that they require no effort to create. They think they all look the same. They also think it is completely okay to steal pixel art and make their own comic out of it. I mean, look at how successful 8-BT is. I can't argue with that.
The only thing I can say is that I'm going to try to create a good comic that becomes very popular. If people come to respect AMD, I'm sure that their opinion on the matter will change. Heck, it doesn't even have to be AMD. It could be any original pixel webcomic, like Kid Radd or any of the others that have sprung up recently. This could very well be a new movement in webcomics, and a positive one, but we have to be extra vigilant to make sure this movement is destroyed before it happens.
Considering that there were some professional cartoonists who were just as concerned with copyright issues as you are (Gary Larson being a prime example -- he effectively pursued any and all websites that showcased his cartoons and sent them "Cease and Desist" letters), why do you think that webcomics like 8-Bit Theater and Bob and George have not been contacted by the owners of the characters being used?
Well, you have to understand that these game companies don't consider them a threat. These are video games, not webcomics. There isn't a similar market there. Not like people taking pixel art from a webcomic to create another webcomic. Not to mention that MegaMan and the Final Fantasy games are far, far, FAR more popular than any webcomic will EVER be. Nobody is going to see these comics and think they belong to the webcomic author.
People who enjoy the webcomic may go check out the game. And suing your fans is hardly a good publicity move. If it's not a threat and will lead to a worse outcome than letting them go on, where is the incentive to go through what could be a costly legal battle?
Personally, I wish Capcom or Square-Enix would lay down a little law here and there. It wouldn't hurt to have webcomics realize that what they are doing is wrong (it's make my job easier), and it would probably be pretty good publicity for webcomics in general.
To change the subject some, where do you see webcomics going in the next year? Five years? Ten?
In all honesty, right where it is now unless someone gets off their butts and starts doing something about it. It seems that the pinnacle of webcomics right now is Penny Arcade and everyone wants to achieve their level of success - which is still just peanuts compared to what the potential for webcomics are. I see webcomics as any other type of media with all the same potentials. One day, you could be playing with Lego sets based on your favorite comic or purchase books of it at the local bookstore. Nowhere Girl was the first webcomic to be nominated for some award that has traditionally been [given to] print comics. Maybe go to the movies for part six of your favorite comic or see a TV show based on one.
Spider-Man has become part of our culture. He's had movies, comics, books, video games, toys, fruit snacks, lunchboxes, underwear, and even remote controls for your TV. I don't see why the same thing couldn't happen for some webcomic as well. Part of the problem is that webcomic authors just think so small when it comes to these things, and I'm not just talking scale either. Many webcomic authors create their comics just for themselves and don't care if anyone reads them. Some webcomic authors get themselves caught up in petty disagreements and quit their webcomics out of spite. Maybe they quit their comic and start a new one every few months. Or maybe, their comic is generic and not very good.
If webcomics are ever going to become more than what they are, we webcomic authors have to take inspiration from a source other than Penny Arcade. We can be bigger. We can do more. We can be better. We can be inspired more. And if we protect our rights accurately, we can be the fathers of new culture and get stinking rich off it at the same time. Why dream of the day when you can have an advertisement on your site when you could dream of the day that kids dress as your characters for Halloween. If Mickey Mouse was created in a basement, there is no end to the potential of a creative work. But we have to think bigger.
A lot of people make fun of this attitude. "Dude," they say, "You're just doing a webcomic." Maybe I do think too big. But when I look out there, I see so much wasted potential. So many people making the same mistakes that have been made a hundred times before them. It's sad that nobody takes it seriously as an art, but we have no one to blame but ourselves.
But other than that, I don't really think of the future of webcomics all that much. :)
Are you an avid reader of webcomics, yourself? If so, what do you prefer to read, and if not, why not?
Believe it or not, I don't read any webcomics anymore. After all those comics I read in Japan, I didn't stick with a single one of them after coming back to the US. And while I used to love Sluggy, I feel that it hasn't been very good in the past year or so. Pete just keeps repeating the same storylines over and over again. Oasis is back. The Halloween party. Santa. Bun Bun and the Easter Bunny. I think that there have been some shining moments, however, but I just don't get as much enjoyment from the daily comic as I used to. Every few months, I catch up though.
Strangely, it is Sluggy which made me original[ly] want to make AMD only three years long. I don't want AMD to ever get tired and repeat itself. I want it to stay fresh and go out with a bang when it is at its peak. Many of my fans don't like that idea and I'm not sure that 3 years is long enough for me to turn AMD into the multimedia empire I want it to be. :) I'm terrified of AMD becoming routine, but I think that because I'm aware that it is a possibility, maybe I can prevent it from happening.