© John Watson

The comic artist fighting to keep making art

“I’m not doing this out of spite or revenge, or even for justice,” says Alex Norris, whose ‘Webcomic Name’ series has been the subject of an expensive legal battle in a US federal court since 2019
June 5, 2024

A pink blob is going about its day. The word “exists” floats above its head. “You are so brave,” interjects an orange blob to the pink blob. “I love that you are proud to be ugly and weird.” The pink blob stays mute. “I admire that you don’t feel the shame you should be feeling,” insists the orange blob. Then the pink blob gives its immortal punchline, the same as it is in every strip: 

“Oh no!”

The online comic series, literally Webcomic Name, is the creation of Alex Norris—who since first publishing this pared back, three-panel strip in 2016 has amassed more than 760,000 followers on Instagram. From a studio in Margate, Norris (who uses they/them pronouns) tells me they hit on one of those “once in a lifetime, perfect things” with this series: something creatively fulfilling that happens to have found a mass audience. 

Unfortunately, though, Norris has been unable to fully enjoy this rare livelihood: since 2019, they have had to fight to defend their copyright in a US federal court.

Back in 2017, Norris signed a contract with US-based table-top games-maker Golden Bell to create a boardgame and toy based on characters from Webcomic Name. Golden Bell argued that this contract meant Webcomic Name, “Oh No!” and other aspects of Norris’s work became the company’s intellectual property, to do with as they wished; Norris, who had no intention of handing over their intellectual property or working with Golden Bell outside of the boardgame, sued. 

The case, though still ongoing, has already seen rulings in Norris’s favour on two counts in a summary judgment. “The judge has clearly stated that I own my comics, and that the other party has infringed on my copyright,” Norris said of the rulings back in March. Now, however, Golden Bell has opened up a second lawsuit, this time against Norris and books publisher Andrews McMeel, who brought out a collection of Norris’s comics in 2019 despite a cease-and-desist order from Golden Bell.

The legal battle has dragged on for five years—more than half the time that Norris has been publishing Webcomic Name. “It’s kind of taken over my whole life,” they tell me. Norris initially paid their legal fees with their own money, but in 2022 had no choice but to crowdfund the remaining cash. Having to ask for money this way felt “very ugly”, Norris says, but the response has been heartening: as of this May, Norris has raised £325,000 from some 16,000 individual donors. “The comics community have rallied around me because they see it’s the story you always hear about.”

“I’m not doing this out of spite or revenge, or even for justice,” Norris says. “I don’t think that’s a good reason to go through the legal system, unfortunately, because you don’t get that.” The fight, they explain, is for the right to carry on creating work on their own terms.

Norris’s main takeaway from the US legal system is that it’s “not built for people without much money”. They also reckon the legalese of “intellectual property” is alienating for most artists, as it says much about art as a commodity without a word on the person who created it. “This is something I’ve made. How can it exist separately from me?” Norris asks, comparing Webcomic Name to a work of public art: free for anyone to read and share online, without the question of ownership entering the equation.

Norris says that, once the case is put to bed, they aim to match the crowdfunding sum by raising money for charity. “If I ever have money in the future, I really want to focus on giving it to other people who are making art as well,” they tell me, “because that’s the thing I really care about.” For now, we can only hope the case ends on a more upbeat note than pink blob’s punchline.