Derivative

>> Thursday, December 13, 2007

Yesterday, I saw something that I thought might make a new blog entry: Applegeeks featured a link to Middle-Class Batman.

Middle-Class Batman is a neat piece of artwork someone did of... well, it's Middle-Class Batman.
The idea is that this is a Middle Class Batman. Its still Bruce, and his parents were still murdered, but they were never rich, and he still ended up becoming Batman...but with a bit of a budget.
I saw that and I thought, "Y'know, that's pretty damn neat." Not just because it's a great little piece of artwork, but because I could imagine how some of the stories might go, what some of the dialogue might sound like or what some of the comic panels might look like. DC frequently does one-issue "alternate universe" comics--there was a kind of nifty one a number of years ago, for instance, in which the writers and artists imagined what would have happened if Bruce Wayne's parents had, instead of having a biological son, adopted a strange infant that just happened to have crashed in a spaceship launched from a dying planet.

I hope someone at DC happens to see Middle-Class Batman and says, "Y'know, that would make a nice little book," and that they give Mr. Mitchell money.

Let's take a funny-book character seriously for a moment: something like Middle Class Batman isn't just interesting in his own right, as a character study of an ordinary, non-playboy dude who becomes a costumed vigilante on the cheap. Middle-Class Batman also provokes us to think about the original Batman. If Bruce Wayne was an ordinary schlub, could he still be Batman? Is Batman more than just his toys? No, these aren't important questions like, "Is it okay to torture a terrorist to save thousands of American lives?" But they're interesting questions if you care about Batman, and they have the benefit of not being questions that make you want to drive a nail into your own forehead with a hammer... or into someone else's forehead.

Coincidentally, over on Scalzi's blog today there was a post about a new effort Naomi Novik and some others are working on, the Organization For Transformative Works. (Novik is the creator of Temeraire, which I blogged about a few days ago, another coincidence.) In short, the OTW is meant to support people writing derivative works, especially those doing fanfic. Scalzi's post has generated a whole lot of noise between people who appear to be active fanfic-writers and people who seem to think that fanfic is non-creative and possibly an immoral theft of other people's creative material.

Fanfic itself isn't something that interests me much. Ten years ago I wrote a short story that I never showed anyone in which an unnamed young man, a depressed Kansas farmboy, ponders his ability to fly and inability to kill himself with a shotgun--he merely swallows the pellets. This bit of mediocrity has been more than superseded (no pun intended) by Tom Haven's excellent It's Superman! and the guilty pleasures of Smallville. I thought the story was lost, but I regret to say I found a manuscript while I was cleaning recently; I wouldn't necessarily call it "fanfic," either, but, you know. The only other thing I think I wrote that almost certainly counts as fanfic was a sequel to The Empire Strikes Back that I wrote on a manual typewriter around 1980 or 1981. Hey, waiting to find out what happened to Han Solo was particularly hard if you were nine. My Dad was a generous critic, as I recall, patiently advising me that carbon (which I erroneously thought was part of the carbon-freezing process) doesn't actually have a smell, instead of telling me what an awful story it surely was. I was nine, okay?

As I was saying, fanfic doesn't interest me much, but copyright and the public domain and culture interests me quite a lot.

The public domain used to be the default. It used to be that once a creative person released an idea into the wild, it became fair game. And if someone better came along and improved on the idea, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest principle kicked in. One can only imagine how impoverished western culture would be if all those fifteenth-century Italians had been able to use intellectual property law to keep William Shakespeare from stealing from them.

It was understandable, however, that writers like Victor Hugo were concerned about piracy (more than imitation): without strong intellectual property laws, it was commonplace for a foreign publisher (or sometimes even a domestic publisher) to produce a cheap knock-off print of a book, which obviously cut into the original writer's sales. So nations developed a compromise, or tried to: an author would get a limited right to license copies for a limited time before the work went into public domain and became fair game for anyone who wanted to produce a derivative work.

Even as copyright enforcement became a norm, it appears that authors up through the middle of the 20th century had a more flexible idea towards imitation (as opposed to piracy). Pulp fantasy and horror writers, for instance, appear to have borrowed liberally from each other and mentor-figures such as H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith not merely without shame but apparently with one another's blessings. If a contemporary writer were to drop a Hogwarts reference in a short story, say, as flippantly as a 1930s Weird Tales writer might slip an "Ia! Yog Sothoth!" into a horror story, one imagines lawyers being called and motions being filed.

Which is sad. Writers who gave each other little nods and dropped names created a common world: the so-called "Cthulhu Mythos" may largely be an illusion--Lovecraft nor his contemporaries never sat down and scribbled out a pantheon or cosmology, and routinely contradicted themselves and each other--but the reason it's a persistent illusion is that the cross-references and in-jokes created a kind of tapestry. The reader can draw up a cosmology that reaches from the ancient Hyborian Age to the year 5,000 and beyond. The reader is richer.

And perhaps so were the authors: those kinds of references were advertising for the writers, and a reader who saw something he liked in a Robert E. Howard story might well decide to follow-up with the obliquely-referenced Frank Belknap Long story Howard tipped his hat to.

One sees a lot of contemporary writers say they own and control their creations, which is only legally true. Once the writer publishes, the story belongs (in a very real way) to the reader--the story only exists in a space between the author and the reader, and nowhere else. The idea that the writer's control of the right to copy, that is the right to make facsimiles, somehow extends to owning the image of his world and characters in the readers' heads is stupid and offensive. Of course I don't own your brain while you're reading this. You read, interpret; you agree or disagree. If I describe a character, you imagine him and he's yours. So, if you imagine him having depraved sexual relations with an underage goat, is that an insult to me? Obviously not: it's your depraved brain, and I doubt there are many others who, upon hearing of your barnyard obsessions, will suddenly share them or assume that I do.

The historically novel situation of copyrights lasting forever and being blurred with other forms of IP, like trademark and business practice, appears to have resulted in widespread arrogance. How dare you take my character and do your own thing? Easily, that's how: as soon as I've allowed you to read about my character, I've given him to you in a creative sense. In a legal sense, I'd prefer you not reprint my story without giving me money; and in a similar sense I'd prefer you not plagiarize--please don't publish a substantially identical story and say it's yours, not mine.

But outside of those largely-financial issues: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Really. Even bad imitation: you write a story in which my beloved protagonist is a pedophile, well... I won't exactly be happy, but at least I made an impression.

Middle-Class Batmen make the world more interesting.





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