I kicked off this week with a big, messy post about, basically, fan fiction. Now that I’ve talked it through a bit with my incredible fellow seminarians, I think my questions boil down to: What are the aspects of a creative text that are most conducive to fostering fan fiction? and How do those attributes translate to nonfictional domains?
Here are the boundaries I’ll draw around my curiosity:
- I’m more interested in creative responses to discrete creative works (e.g. this in response to this) than I am in creative stuff made with creative tools (e.g. this built with this). That is to say, I’m less interested in the general phenomenon of people building things with games or tools that are about building things (e.g. what makes Legos so conducive to worldbuilding?).
- I’m more interested in the wealth (in all dimensions) of responses a work produces than in the inherent creativity of the work itself — the world built on top of or in response to a thing, rather than the world of the thing.
- I’m (ultimately) most interested in how these attributes of creative works apply outside the most familiar domains of fan fiction such as fantasy fiction, Star Wars, etc. I’m curious, for example, how one makes nonfiction that produces fan-nonfiction.
Some of the more unfamiliar examples that strike me as possibly alike enough to cluster with these things are:
- An interplay of visual artworks, like the Picasso and American Art exhibit, and particularly the range of artistic extensions of / responses to “The Studio.” (Including Picasso’s own extensions of that artwork.)
- Op-eds and punditry in major national newspapers and the sort of mirror-world that pundits fashion in concert with one another. (Thanks, Robin!)
- Parody Twitter accounts, like @MayorEmanuel.
Lastly, here are some of the nascent hypotheses I’m forming about aspects of a work that can help bring about world-extending:
- Expansiveness and/or continuity: The world should feel big and open enough that folks feel there’s room to play with it.
- Strong, recognizable systems: The rules and boundaries of the world should feel solid enough to provide a common structure to any world-extensions.
- Focus and blurriness: It seems important that there are areas of the world drawn in fairly vivid detail, but also aspects of the world presented only suggestively. Things to grab onto, and things to fill in.
- Fandom: This kinda goes without saying, but the work needs to have enough attractions that a critical mass of folks will fall in love with it.
There are a few other dimensions I haven’t reached the hypothesis stage for:
- What’s the effect of otherworldliness? Are works of fantasy more conducive to world-extending than works based more solidly in reality?
- How much of world-extension is related to things such as age and gender? We all seem particularly interested in extending worlds when we’re young; does the desire dissipate as we get older and busier?
- What about the degree of user/reader/watcher/listener investment in the text? To inspire fan-fiction, is there possibly a sort of attentional summit that, once ascended, begins to tunnel the person deeper and deeper into the world of the text?
Today and tomorrow, I’ll be crashing the #worldbuilding tag on Twitter to explore some of these questions. Do join me!
Apropos of nothing: I love the Celestials. (And these renderings of them in particular.)
I found this randomly, in a classic web one-link-leads-to-another sort of way, and I’m sorta fascinated by it: a collection of new webcomics all based on old, defunct Bandai arcade games:
Shiftylook exists to excavate the buried treasures of the Namco Bandai group, bringing back to life characters once thought consigned to a lonely oblivion.
The comics are pretty light—
—but the approach is interesting and brave. Call it the Watchmen strategy. Watchmen happened because DC dusted off a bunch of characters it had acquired from Charlton Comics—Nite Owl?!—and handed them over to Alan Moore. Any corporation with moldy old IP can do the same: “Here, we found these characters in a box under the stairs. Can you… do something… with them?”
I’d totally sign up to write a comic based on some weird forgotten video game.
I was at a conference called NewsFoo this past weekend. In sessions and in conversations throughout the event, folks shared a number of impressive or memorable cultural artifacts they’d encountered; I wrote down as many as I could. I often stupidly neglected to note who pointed out what. Where I’ve remembered the source, I’ve included her. Thanks to everyone who shared!
As you already know by now from Robin and Tim’s posts, DC comics is relaunching the continuity of its primary universe. While I’ll admit that my first reaction as a current collector of a handful of DC titles (Batman, Detective, Red Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman if it ever comes out, and anything with The Question—I’m new here, I have to establish my bona fides), is to geek out over all the details.
Barbara Gordon will be Batgirl again (and even better , written by Gail Simone)! Tim Drake loses his own title, but gets a new costume! Superman won’t be wearing red underwear over his tights anymore! Wonder Woman is keeping the pants! Other details, I’m sure!
And before I try to make a bigger argument, let’s all focus on the fact that the details are all that really matter here. This isn’t the first time that DC has rebooted its continuity. 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths was arguably DC’s first attempt to bring all of its titles together into a common, consistent universe. Zero Hour followed in 1994, and Infinite Crisis in 2005.
There have been other big crossover storylines like Armageddon: 2001, Identity Crisis, Final Crisis, and Blackest Night, but while these storylines have had greater or smaller impacts of the status quo, they didn’t, for the most part, erase most or all of established storyline history.
In this light what’s really notable is that A.) we’re ahead of schedule (the next reboot shouldn’t be until 2014 or 2015), and B.) all title numbers are being reset to #1.
Which is, of course, a marketing ploy. Industry wisdom is that #1s sell better. If DC’s marketing department had their wish, every issue would be #1, every month. A world of one-shots! Every issue a collector’s item!
Continuity is a storytelling technology. It’s a way of organizing information, conveying character over extended periods of time, giving depth to plot, and communicating history in a way that doesn’t demand retelling with each iteration.
It’s an enormously useful tool, with rewards for both writer and reader, but it also has limitations. It highlights any asymmetry in knowledge between writer and reader. If the story you’re reading demands familiarity with a previous story you missed, you can feel lost. If the writer contradicts a previous story, you can feel that something is wrong. In a medium, like superhero comics, where the suspension of disbelief is critical, a discontinuity can be fatal.
Or not. As the DC Universe in particular illustrates, continuity is nothing if not elastic. Between 1938 and 1985, it wasn’t even seen as particularly necessary. Each corner of the DC Universe largely concerned itself with its own particular space, and, in practice if not editorial principle, that’s largely true today as well. In fact, I’d argue that every new story recreates its own continuity. That is, this big thing that we’re spending all our time worrying about, hyping, ruing the lost of, it doesn’t really exist. Every writer constantly has to decide what to use, what to ignore, and what to re-invent. There’s even a word for changing continuity on the fly— retcon, for “retroactive continuity,” which is now both a noun and a verb.
Robin makes an excellent point that continuity, this depth of character and wealth of story, is the one major attraction that the big comic companies still hold for creators — and that if you have a lottery-ticket idea, the character and story that will be the next Batman, or Harry Potter, or Twilight, then you’d be a fool to sell it to Marvel or DC like Bob Kane, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster did back in the 1930s. It would probably be more accurate to view Marvel and DC as they currently exist not as comic book companies, but intellectual property holding corporations that happen to print a handful of comic books, as just one way in which they manage and profit from their IP. I guarantee you that at the top levels, it’s how they view themselves. They have to.
But at the same time, it’s not really an either-or position. Jim Lee, one of the founding forces behind Image Comics — who may not have created creator-owned comics, but gave the proposition market power like few entities before — is also one of the driving forces behind the DC relaunch, which will introduce a number of his former Image franchises such as Grifter and Stormwatch into DC continuity.
This, of course, isn’t the first time that DC has integrated other universes into its own. Captain Marvel was originally a property competing with (and more popular) than Superman, until DC sued, shut down publication, and eventually acquired the character. Alan Moore’s groundbreaking Watchmen comic originally grew out of DC’s acquisition of Charleton Comics’ characters, but since Moore’s storyline made many of the characters, um, unusable, DC made him create new ones. (Captain Atom became Dr. Manhattan, The Question became Rorschach, etc.)
By rebooting its continuity, DC is, in effect, updating its operating system. We’ll know in a few months whether it’s Linux or Vista.
But rather than thinking of continuity as some sort of sacred history of tradition, let’s remember that it’s a technology. And like any technology, it might be most interesting once we start thinking about how it can be hacked.
The canonical example of a continuity hack may be Watchmen — but I’d also throw in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Steven T. Seagle’s It’s a Bird. All of these stories play with continuity, not in order to retcon, reboot, or reinforce it, but to use that root access for their own idiosyncratic purposes. And it’s these interventions, not the big events, that ultimately bring the stories back to their foundations and move the whole industry forward.
I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS
I’m going to jump in the middle of Robin and Gavin’s exchange on the DC Comics reboot, even though I explicitly told both of them that I didn’t want to read about it and had nothing to say about any of it, because some things Robin just wrote sparked some ideas that I want to follow here.
Today, you don’t go work at Marvel and DC because of what they are; you go because of what they have. It’s almost like a natural resource. Superman and Batman are potent substances. They have this incredible innate energy, this incredible mythic density, built up over decades. They really are like petroleum—a bright eon of individual organic contributions all compressed into this powerful stuff that we can now burn for light, for entertainment, for money…
How do you weigh the opportunity to work on an old titan like Superman against the opportunity to create something wholly new, and to potentially profit from that creation? Is it only sentimental or emotional value that draws an artist to the former—or is there more?…
Maybe what we’re talking about here is the difference between being an entrepreneur and being a custodian. We tend to think of artists as entrepreneurs, right?—inventors, trailblazers, risk-takers. To make meaningful art is often simply to try something new.
Now before I start, I want to stipulate a few things. First, I want to take seriously Robin’s two primary arguments in his post:
- “I want to talk not about Superman’s universe, but our own—because I think this strategy says something interesting about creative economics today.” Let’s call this the explicit argument.
- Comic books themselves, as content, not just the strategies of their publishers and artists, have something to say about this. Let’s call this the implicit argument.
And I want to add a third point, that I’ll call the unconscious argument. It’s something I don’t think Robin necessarily intended, but which is entailed in the way he formulates the problem:
Everywhere in Robin’s post where he writes “artists,” you can substitute “journalists”—and probably many other nodes in creative economies, broadly construed.
As a follow-up to my earlier compilation, “The Two Mayors,” here is the stunning conclusion to the story of @MayorEmanuel. He won the election and as predicted by Mayor Daley, vanished into a time vortex in order to save the multiverse.
I’ve also been boning up on my @MayorEmanuel backstory, and man, it is totally batshit in the best possible way. There are layers and layers to this thing that I couldn’t even guess at, and a few I’m probably still missing. In short, the anonymous author(s) of the thread have been building towards this science-fiction/comic-book resolution of the story for a while now, first planting the seeds months ago, then grinding them up like fine celery salt.
You can read a quick-and-dirty PDF of all of @MayorEmanuel’s tweets here, assembled by @najuu (h/t Carla Casilli). I’m not Storifying the whole thing, because 1) Twitter’s archives have a hard time going back that far in the Storify interface and 2) even if they did, I’m not stupid. But I would like to do my small part to gather the limbs of Osiris just here at the end. Enjoy.
Today, the city of Chicago elects its mayor. In other cities, there would be a primary vote, then another at the time of the general election in November. But given the scarcity of Chicago Republicans — it’s like 25 guys, and they’re all professors in three departments at U of C — the Democratic primary would effectively determine who will be mayor of the city anyways.
So, Chicago’s mayoral race is nonpartisan. And it’s at the end of February — which in Chicago, is even more masochistic than it would be in cities with a more temperate climate.
Since Chicago’s longstanding Mayor Richard M Daley announced he would not seek re-election for another, Rahm Emanuel, former Chicago-area Congressman, Democratic Party powerhouse, and (until recently) Chief of Staff for President Obama, has sought to sew this thing up. There were some brief problems establishing his residency and right to run for office, but now it looks like he’s off to the races.
Since Emanuel announced he was running for office, he’s been joined by a delightfully funny and foul-mouthed shadow on Twitter calling himself @MayorEmanuel. Like Fake Steve Jobs before him, @MayorEmanuel combines a kind of exaggeration of the known qualities of the real Rahm Emanuel — profanity, intelligence, hyper-competitiveness — with a fully-realized, totally internal world of characters and events that has little to do with the real world and everything to do with the comic parallel universe @MayorEmanuel inhabits.
For instance, @MayorEmanuel’s “about” section on Twitter reads: “Your next motherfucking mayor. Get used to it, assholes.” The idea is that if we strip back the secrecy and public image to something so impolitic, so unlikely, we might arrive at something approximating the truth. But, despite my status as a one-time — and actually, I still hope future — Chicagoan, I haven’t been a regular reader of @MayorEmanuel. My friends retweet his funniest one-liners, and that’s good enough for me.
Yesterday, however, @MayorEmanuel outdid himself. He wrote an extended, meandering narrative of the day before the primary that took the whole parallel Rahm Emanuel thing to a different emotional, comic, cultural place entirely. It even features a great cameo by friend of the Snark Alexis Madrigal. The story is twisting, densely referential, far-ranging — and surprisingly, rather beautiful.
And so, once more using the magic of Storify, I’d like to share that story with you. I’ve added some annotations that I hope help explain what’s happening and aren’t too distracting.
In its original form, it has no title. I call it “The Two Mayors.” Read it after the jump.
This comic (by Apostolos Doxiadis, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donnais) is the best graphic treatment you will read that summarizes and explains both the life and ideas of Claude Lévi-Strauss and the great Aeschylus trilogy The Oresteia. It is also probably the only comic strip you’ll read that talks about topological transformations, and the “algebra of action.” I think I can say that with some certainty.
The nerd/insidery factor is high here, but speaking as a quasi-expert who’s always looking for ways to make obscure lit/theory intelligible, I think it actually really does a good job of clarifying some of this stuff. And it actually works as a little three-page comic, too.
A few reactions to Disney’s purchase of Marvel:
- Can we call this the close of the Modern Age of comics? Sometime during the early 00s—maybe even earlier—it seems like big corporate comics (DC and Marvel) shifted decisively from creating new characters and storylines to mining the creative capital they’d accrued over decades. (There’s a fossil fuel analogy lurking here.)
- I’m not talking about relaunches and re-interpretations, a la The Dark Knight Returns and John Byrne’s Superman reboot back in the 80s. I’m talking about all you do is look backward—whether it’s retold tales like Marvel’s Ultimate Spider-Man or recursive loops like DC’s Infinite Crisis.
- Okay, I’m sure there are lots of little exceptions, but I really really want to pronounce Marvel and DC dead. C’mon, can’t we just pronounce them dead?
- And what I mean by that is: They are no longer engines of creation. They now exist to license, merchandise, expand and exploit the IP they’ve been nurturing over the years. Which is totally okay! But…
- Who’s gonna create the new characters?
(Hmm. That ended up being more suited to paragraphs than bullets. Oh well, not changing it.)
Another detail from the story: Marvel has just 300 employees. Think of that company’s cultural “throw-weight”—not insignificant—and divide that by its headcount. Pretty impressive.
What have you noticed about comics in the last 3–5 years? Anything noteworthy? Anything that this deal crystallizes? Where is the medium going?