Fan Art, Fan Manga, and Professional Fans
Dr. Kathryn Hemmann
“What happens when fans grow up?” asks Elizabeth Minkel in an article in the New Statesmen that discusses how fans of Harry Potter have come of age alongside internet-based fandom cultures. “For an entire generation,” Minkel writes, “Harry Potter is a core text; for many, it’s the core text, formative not only because of its content, but because of the collective experience of reading it.” This “collective experience” encompasses the whole of fandom, from midnight release parties to dorm room speculation to sharing transformative stories such as The Shoebox Diaries online. At GeekyCon 2015, held this past July in Orlando, there was a programming track that Minkel describes as dedicated to becoming a full-time geek: “Some of the guests were so obsessed with something, Harry Potter or otherwise, that they made it a career; others used their experience obsessing over something to parlay the skills they developed in fandom into a career.”
Transforming one’s passions into a career is a time-honored tradition in the American entertainment industry. Hollywood is filled with directors, screenwriters, set and prop designers, wardrobe specialists, and other professionals who are there because of their devotion to a movie or television series they fell in love with as children or teenagers. The comics industry operates in much the same way, with DC and Marvel fans submitting their portfolios for evaluation at comics conventions and eventually being hired to work for the studios they’ve admired for years. Even independent or “online famous” comic writers and artists, such as Jeffrey Brown (Darth Vader and Son) and Ryan North (Adventure Time) have been signed to work with established franchises, while other creators, such as Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik (Penny Arcade) and Andrew Hussie (Homestuck) are so successful at online self-publishing that they manage to become self-employed owners and managers of their own franchises.
A similar system exists in Japan, where the established path to becoming a professional manga artist involves drawing self-published fan manga called dōjinshi. Like the fanfiction posted to sites such as Archive of Our Own and the ubiquitous fan art on sites such as Tumblr, dōjinshi feature original interpretations of established intellectual properties. They are physically printed by small specialty companies and sold at special “fan events” (dōjin ibento), the largest of which is the biannual Comic Market, which draws close to half a million tabling artists and attendees. Although such conventions are still representative of a subculture within the Japanese entertainment and publishing industries, fans make only perfunctory attempts to conceal their activities, as the dōjinshi they produce are of immense interest to publishers and producers. What better place to monitor market trends and scout new talent?
While American corporations such as Disney and HBO are well known for issuing cease and desist orders to fan creators whose reworkings of licensed intellectual properties become too successful, many Japanese corporations instead choose to co-opt fan talent. For instance, the Kadokawa Corporation, which began as a publisher of printed material and has gradually expanded into movies, music, television, animation, and video games, has licensed the BBC’s Sherlock miniseries, for which it has commissioned a manga adaptation (pictured above) serialized in one of its flagship magazines. Because of the popularity of both the miniseries and its comic adaptation in Japan, Sherlock has become the source material of many dōjinshi such as the one (by Pixiv user Ishi) pictured below, in which the characters are transported to Japan and Sherlock is imaged as the “No. 1 Detective in Northern Kantō.” There is an anmoku no ryōkai, or “implicit understanding,” between Kadokawa and the fans of its properties that the corporation will tolerate the creation, sale, and distribution of transformative works as long as they remain primarily within the subcultural realm of fan events and internet-based forums. Since an artist currently drawing amateur dōjinshi based on Sherlock may well become the artist who draws the next official adaptation, Japanese media companies consider it to be in their best interests to allow fan communities to thrive and prosper unimpeded by threats of legal action.