A cheaply and quickly produced work, not intended to be shown to the masses and disseminated only to the extent required to fulfill some non-artistic obligation like claiming a trademark.
The term originated in The Golden Age of Comic Books
, when there was a big rush to copyright as many characters and titles as possible, but the actual production time of a comic book made it a bit problematic when days or even hours mattered. The solution? Create a simple mock comic, often just a cover and some unrelated filler made up of garbage sheets, and submit it to the copyright office. The term itself comes from the fact that these comics weren't ever actually made to be distributed, often just going straight to the ashcan (period vernacular for trashcan) once they did their job.
Starting in the Dark Age
of comics, an "ashcan" copy of a comic, often black and white and limited in distribution, would sometimes be distributed as a promotional item. These comics were called "ashcans" for marketing reasons (i.e. to imply rarity and value like the Golden Age versions) but really had little to do with Golden Age
- The most widely-known example is Flash Comics, which was actually the title of two different ashcans from different companies seeking claim to the title. DC Comics' Flash Comics combined cover art from Adventure Comics #41 with pages from All-American Comics #8; Fawcett's Flash Comics (also printed under the title Thrill Comics) featured the origin of Captain Thunder, who made his first regular appearance as Captain Marvel in Whiz Comics #2 (there was no Whiz Comics #1).
- "Action Funnies"
- Fawcett's 5-Cent Comics and Nickel Comics ashcans marked the respective debuts of Dan Dare and Scoop Smith, both of whom subsequently appeared in Whiz Comics. Nickel Comics became a regular series, but without Scoop Smith.
- Eerie #1 was a hastily assembled digest of horror comic stories with a print run of a few hundred copies, created by publisher James Warren to deny the title to rival publishers Myron Fass and Robert W. Farrell.
- While most prevalent in comics, other entertainment fields have done similar things, including the 1994 The Fantastic Four movie. The flick was made on the cheap, and never intended for wide-release. The studio was given a certain number of years to make the film, and would lose the rights if no film was produced. By the term of the contract, they had to make a film. No one specified it had to be a good one. It only exists in bootleg copies - including online ones.
- This was parodied in Arrested Development, where it's stated to be one of several movies made by Imagine Entertainment (the studio that makes the show) for just such a reason: the actors were the people working the bar when Ron Howard was told their contract was expiring, and they were also hired to work at the wrap party.
- Sam Raimi and friends had Within the Woods, a short film that was a prototype of The Evil Dead made to convince his townsfolk to finance the project.
- The 1966 adaptation of The Hobbit was this. Producer Bill Snyder bought the rights to make a film from J.R.R. Tolkien's estate on the cheap, and just before it was set to expire the popularity of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books skyrocketed. Realizing he could make serious cash selling the rights, he decided to get it extended. However a film had to be made and released in order for that to happen. With the contract set to expire in one month, he got Gene Deitch to hastily produce a 12 minute film using still drawings and got it finished in 30 days, which was then screened in a Manhattan theater on the day the contract expired. The deal being fulfilled, the contract was extended and Snyder sold the rights for $100,000 (in 1960s money). In 2012 the film finally resurfaced when Snyder's son uploaded it on YouTube.
- Japan had a law prohibiting arcade cabinets from being distributed without games. Manufacturers obliged by providing very simple games good for little else but testing the monitors and controls. Sega's Dottori-kun and Taito's Minivader are typical examples, featuring primitive black-and-white graphics and no sound.