Unlike film and television, the comic and video game industries operate, generally speaking, more in the vein of fan incorporation than co-optation. Rather than relying on often exploitative fanwork contests to both supply advertising materials and demonstrate their audience outreach efforts, these industries allow more latitude in their authorship models — to the point of even promoting and professionalizing artists and coders from within their own fan communities. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), operating in the liminal space between comic properties and traditional blockbusters, has combined successful aspects from both traditions to reflexively acknowledge and hail fans through targeted marketing campaigns.
In April 2015 — post-Avengers: Age of Ultron, pre-Comic-Con — Marvel partnered with Adobe to host a contest for aspiring international artists. By creating Adobe Behance portfolios, downloading a free trial of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, and tagging the resulting work with #madethis #Marvel, students competed to win an opportunity to collaborate on a limited-run Avengers Origins comic that would be showcased at SDCC, sold in stores, and advertised online. The four selected students were also granted a portfolio-review meeting with Marvel artists and gifted a ticket to Comic-Con for a photo-op-cum-signing session.
Long-running blockbuster franchises like the MCU and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) are increasingly relying on similar fan-focused promotional campaigns between releases to hail fans and to avoid stagnation: fan engagement as brand maintenance. While the Marvel-Adobe contest retains some of the troubling aspects associated with fanwork contests — leveraging the affective labor of artists and/or fans to serve promotional purposes and provide synergistic connective tissue — it attempts to sidestep issues of monetization and professionalization by limiting the pool to currently enrolled art students who are, arguably, already professionals-in-training.
The advertising and coverage of the contest certainly aim to emphasize the artist half of the fan artist identity. Does the requirement of formal artistic training absolve these contests of connotations of fan co-optation and exploitation? Are these blockbuster franchises — so often rooted in comic and/or video game properties — able to benefit from those industries’ lower entry barriers and willingness to professionalize fans to reframe these contests in productive ways?