Some time ago, I went to the Makers Faire and I attended a talk by Adam Savage, of Mythbusters. He was wearing his Indiana Jones hat, and he told a story about the man who made it. The man, Marc Kitter, was obsessed with the hat from Raiders of the Lost Ark. He researched it endlessly, learning that it was different from the hat in the next two films. He wanted one exactly like it, so he learned millinery, and made it himself. This lead to a business of making hats. He became so good, the producers of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull came to him for new hats for the movie. Artists begin by copying.
As a boy, long before I went into animation, my early ambition was to be an artist for Marvel Comics. Of course, I began by copying the characters I liked, and I even sent some of the drawings to the artists at Marvel, with fan letters. And I got responses! They were really nice.
I think all comic artists start off emulating their heroes. Some become accomplished artists and still create new works based on the characters they love. Fan art is huge now. I recently read an online article on how the producers of the TV series Adventure Time used fan art ideas to produce an entire episode.
There are definitely some legal issues involved with creating, and distributing, fan art. This article from THE FINE PRINT is a good look at the copy right considerations. The author, Jomo S. Thompson, also discusses the place for parody:
Due to the U.S. love affair with free speech, Parody enjoys great protection. Well executed parody will steal just the right elements from the target to make the identity clear, then let the roast begin. Even if the “core” elements are copied and the economic value of the original is harmed, a parody is still protected.
An interesting point was made by a commenter on that blog:
fan art is also looked on as a “training ground” for new talent.
Entire TV shows are built around parody. “Robot Chicken” and the “Mad” series on Cartoon Network are just two examples. So, if you are interested in creating comedic animation, perhaps professionally, and don’t have any ideas of your own you are happy with, then parody might be a good way to go. Here is a very good goof on The Avengers from independent animator Junaid Chudrigar.