Monday, July 16, 2007

In Defense of Frank Dietz

Over at the Classic Horror Film Boards this past weekend, Frank Dietz (seen here with his much-deserved "Artist of the Year" Rondo Award) startled everyone by announcing his retirement as horror fandom's foremost artist and caricaturist.

"Unfortunately," he writes, "the selling of my work is apparently illegal, which I did not realize after 12 years of doing so, so I will no longer sell my monster art... Is this an overreaction? Perhaps, but the answer is simple. I have two beautiful daughters. I will not endanger my children's financial future by testing the wrath of studio lawyers, who could 'send a message' by wiping out my life savings. It's that simple."

Frank's announcement does not confirm that he has been approached by a studio legal representative and served with threatening "cease and desist" paperwork, but it would seem a strong possibility. Frank's portraits and caricatures do indeed feature copyrighted characters, trademarked faces or studio makeups, and he sells this work to private collectors.

As someone who owns a couple of Dietz originals (a painting and a charcoal portrait), I find the possibility of such bullying both galling and reprehensible. I say this as someone with intellectual property of my own, toward which I feel a sense of vigilance and responsibility. Certainly, I would object if someone announced their intention to film my novel THROAT SPROCKETS without my permission or involvement; on the other hand, I believe that my rights as creator begin to lose some of their grip, or should, when it comes to my work inspiring other forms of art. The link no longer works, but I once found online a painting by an artist named LĂ©andre Borgia that was labelled as an hommage to THROAT SPROCKETS and, a couple of years ago, a writer approached me seeking my permission to write a novel in which my novel would play an active part in the narrative. I found both of these responses to my novel immensely flattering; it wasn't the same thing as finding my original TABOO story (illustrated by Mike Hoffman) bootlegged in a foreign comic book with the TS movie's title changed to DEEP THROAT. To that, I did object.

When any artist lets their work out into the world, either by printing a book or selling a movie ticket, it is absurd (to use one of the kinder characterizations) for them to presume that their creative rights extend to cover anything and everything that work might inspire. It has to do with the free exchange of ideas. It used to be the same way with movies -- would there be a Batman without Roland West's THE BAT, or a Joker without Paul Leni's THE MAN WHO LAUGHS? -- but no more. Why? Because Hollywood has no new ideas, only new technologies and new video formats. This places a terrible burden on the precious reserves of ideas these studios already have: a burden to make these old ideas continually profitable. If studios had an ounce of faith in a future based on new commercial ideas, they wouldn't need to worry so much about the past.

What if Frank Dietz creates an original portrait of the Frankenstein Monster, or Vincent Price, or E. E. Clive, and sells it at a convention? How does this differ from, say, Basil Gogos doing a painting of the same, selling it to Warren Publications as a cover of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, which is then sold coast-to-coast on newsstands? Is the latter more acceptable, even though it involves a much larger exchange of money all around (especially for Warren), because it is promotional in nature? But who is to say that the art of Frank Dietz isn't promotional? It's fan art like his that kept the appetite for classic monster movies alive all those years when Universal, Warners, Columbia and other studios couldn't be bothered to release those films on home video -- at conventions, in fanzines. But in today's paranoid and possessive climate, such loving action becomes litigable.

Who we must ultimately thank for ugly turns of event like this are, of course, the Studio Attorneys, who must account for their lavish annual salary and expense accounts by doing something/anything. And so Goliath turns viciously on David, bringing down his colossal foot on the banner David is carrying, which just happens to say "YAY, GOLIATH!"

While the expense would surely be dreadful, I would love to see a case like this honestly explored in a court of law. Frank's caricatures are certainly humorous and satire and parody are protected by the First Amendment. There is also the matter of precedent to be considered here. Universal's monster characters, to take a handy example, have not appeared exclusively in Universal films since their inception. You can also find them in shorts and cartoons made by other studios, in MAD magazine, in editorial cartoons, you name it. It comes with being part of the cultural landscape, and none of the artists who perpetuated these characters in these secondary media did so for free, nor were they required to tithe a portion of their salaries back to Universal. And, truth be told, Universal lost nothing by sharing these characters thusly with the world, while they gained a fabulous fortune in terms of fame and public goodwill. But in today's legal view, something like Bobby Pickett's "The Monster Mash" might be characterized as having siphoned unforgivable millions from the Universal till, even though everyone who bought that record loved Universal's horror movies all the more as a result of hearing it and hearing it again.

Sure, Frank profits from his drawings and paintings -- or did. But, as I said over at the CHFB, it's not really the subjects of Frank's work that sell it; it's what his eye and hand bring to those subjects. I have seen a dozen people crowded around his table at Wonderfest, looking at the artwork on display, and everyone zeroes in on something different, something that speaks to their own unique experience of that character, that actor, that scene. In fact, I would go so far as to contend that nothing tangibly existed of, say, Vincent Price and THE TINGLER that can be seen in Frank's caricature of same prior to his drawing it. Through his work, Frank was able to make some elusive quality of Price's performance in the film tangible, in a way that it isn't evident in stills or even necessarily in the movie itself (film viewing being such a subjective matter in itself) -- and that's what makes his art so special and so beloved by fans.

If a studio should want to harness such talent and put it to work for them, that's one thing. But to reach over and unceremoniously pull the plug on an artist's entire future of self-expression, because they are under the psychotic impression that they somehow own it, is something else entirely. Yet this is "studio thinking," wholly consistent with a system dedicated to making us pay over and over for the same movie-going experience, whether it's remakes or double- and triple-dipping DVDs, and obtaining ultimate control over all that we see and hear regarding its output. If such corporate characteristics were applied to an individual, they would qualify him or her as mentally ill.

If Frank Dietz's right to interpret the monsters we know and love in art can be intimidated out of existence, how long will it be before the interpretations of the written word -- film criticism, for example -- suffer the same fate? We must have freedom of the press, which is predicated on what I referenced earlier, the free exchange of ideas.

Mr. Studio Attorney might counter by asking, "What's so free about Frank Dietz charging for his artwork?" Actually, Frank's artwork is freely displayed -- he puts it in galleries and on convention tables to attract and amuse people. It's free to look all you want. When money does change hands, it's mostly to reimburse him for the time and materials that brought those works to life. The people that buy his art then display it on the walls of their homes, where it becomes a vehicle through which these actors, characters and scenes can be venerated and enjoyed on a daily basis -- because the original product, the film itself, has already been consumed. To create art for such a purpose is, in my view, a more honest and respectable living than making your product's biggest boosters feel like crooks.

Hang in there, Frank. Whatever the situation is, I hope it can be resolved.

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