FEATURE: Lieber Takes The High Road With Underground

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Digital distribution is changing the ways in which data can be disseminated. Accessing unauthorized digital copies of comics carries the label of “piracy” or the more politically correct terminology, “filesharing.” There are thousands of websites, forums and blogs that offer unauthorized publications, including comics.

Some publishers have been aggressive in …issuing cease and desist orders and asking for their products, current and future, to be removed. Marvel Comics, the #1 publisher in the industry has been the most proactive in aggressively tackling unauthorized distribution of their material.

The proliferation of filesharing has experienced significant accelerated growth due to several factors. First of all, comics publishers were very late to the party. Digital comics have been made available through manual scans for several years. It wasn’t until 2010 that DC or Image made their digital product available to consumers. Marvel has played with an online subscription service for the past couple years, but it’s been slow at converting their titles and you can forget about new releases (from the past 2 years).

Some creators, such as John Byrne, have taken an aggressive stance, likening digital piracy to rape. While a few members of the comics community have actually challenged the industry’s tendency towards demonizing filesharing, their vocalization has lead to consternation and controversy. A prime example being Mark Waid’s controversial speech from this year’s Harvey Awards at the Baltimore Comic Con. Waid was reported as saying that the concept of public domain should be embraced in this new age of technology. Our own Major Spoilers team discussed the event with Waid, providing him a forum for elucidating his perspectives on filesharing.

The most recent exchange from a comics creator discussing digital piracy with end users comes from a artist Steve Lieber. Lieber, who is perhaps best known for his work on Whiteout (adapted to film last year), found one of his books featured on a filesharing website. Underground, written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Lieber, was published by Image Comics in 2009. Although the book proved to be a modest sales success, Parker nor Lieber’s pockets were overly stuffed with greenbacks once all the dust settled. This is often the case with comics publishing, particularly creator-owned works put out through Image. Many times it’s the lure of creative freedom and the possibility of ancillary income derived from the concept, specifically, if it’s made into a motion picture or television show.

Lieber’s been in the comics publishing game since the early ‘90s and has worked for most of the known and even unknown comics publishers. So imagine his reaction when he saw his stuff online being downloaded for free!

He had a thoughtful and honest exchange with the individuals on the message thread.

“…As for putting all the pages up here. What can I say? I get that this is how things go, and I’m trying to live in the same decade as everyone else. If nothing else, I’m flattered someone thought enough of the book to take the time to scan and post it.”

This is certainly a different tone than is typically voiced by creators who are being ‘ripped off.’

Lieber drew the inherent comparison with the downloading of digital music.

“I got into most of my favorite bands after hearing them on 3rd generation cassette mix-tapes or my crappy alarm clock radio and getting curious enough about them to go pick up a CD or see them live. It feels like a safe bet that things will eventually work the same way with the stuff that I do. Like I said on twitter yesterday, I’m willing to trust that Jeff’s and my readers will compensate us for the work.”

A few trolls attempted to bait him in the message thread, but Lieber remained civilized and cordial He extended an open invitation to people to contact him.

“If anyone has any questions about the book, post them here or ask me on twitter @steve_lieber.”

Once the internet comics community caught wind of this incident, people responded strongly. People gave Lieber and Undergound a wealth of exposure and the goodwill generated from his behavior resulted in a sales explosion. Lieber and Parker responded by putting digital copies of the book up on their website for free. They put up a donation button and links for interested parties looking to purchase hard copies of the collected edition.

Sales are so high that they’ve fallen behind on shipping out people’s orders and have apologetically explained that volume has just been too high for them to feasibly keep up.

I contacted Lieber to extend my appreciation for his treatment of fandom. He spoke with me about the exposure and his thoughts on the topic of filesharing.

“It’s a little awkward to be getting so much coverage for finally deciding to do what other comics people have been doing for years. Cartoonists like Erika Moen ( http://darcomic.com ) and Dylan Meconis ( http://lutherlevy.com ) know so much more than I do about the culture and economy of doing free comics on the web. The coverage ought to be about people like them.”

Lieber didn’t even bite at the opportunity for self-promotion. When I asked him about upcoming projects, he said he’s creating commercial art for ad agencies and may have something comics-related to announce in the upcoming months.

Filesharing. Piracy. Copyright infringement. There are as many labels for the act of downloading comics as there are perspectives on what to do about it. Clearly comics creators need to have the means to earn a living. Yet, perhaps if we keep an open mind about the inherent possibilities of digital media, rather than the more popular perspective of theft and admonishment, there is some middle ground to be found. Maybe it’s possible to have it both ways. In the case of Steve Lieber, it would appear that there are ways to embrace the advent of new technologies and emerge triumphant.

Major Spoilers does not condone the unauthorized downloading of copyright-protected property. However, in the case of Underground, Lieber and Parker would like to offer you the opportunity to download it from them directly. Visit their website at http://www.undergroundthecomic.com/. Show your support by making a donation or by making a purchase through their site.