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Gorillas Riding Dinosuars | Royal Historians or Fanficcers?

The Royal Historian of Oz

The Royal Historian of Oz

Tommy Kovac and Andy Hirsch’s The Royal Historian of Oz reminds me that there’s a fine line we have to walk as fans of comics and adventure stories in general. At least, this is how it is for me. You tell me if it’s the same for you. I first noticed it around ten or fifteen years ago when I was really into Star Wars and Star Trek novels. I loved both of those franchises and couldn’t seem to get enough of their characters, so I tried – really hard – to keep up with those characters’ exploits in every medium I could: films, TV, comics, and books.

The bad thing was that the book publishers knew it. They knew they had me and between Wars and Trek they published new books just slowly enough to let me keep up, but quickly enough that I didn’t have time to read anything else. It was the No Time for Anything Else part that was their downfall. Frustrated that I was only reading Wars and Trek stuff, I quit them. Cold turkey. I love my old, favorite characters, but not so much that I’m willing to give up discovering new ones. That’s the tightrope.

It’s the same with comics. Even though they’re much quicker to read, most of us have limited time and money to spend on them. We have to make choices. And every time we choose a licensed comic or one about a corporate-owned or public-domain character, that’s one less creator-owned comic we can read. This isn’t a post about how creator-owned comics are better than corporate ones (‘cause that’s certainly not always true), but it is a post about balance. I’m not advocating that anyone give up corporate or licensed comics; I’m just saying that we need to be thoughtful about our purchases.

After the break: Royal Histories or Fanfics?

The Official Oz Society disapproves

The Official Oz Society disapproves

The Royal Historian of Oz touches on this subject in an intelligent, entertaining way. But it’s not about buying fiction; it’s about creating it. The story’s set about 40 years into the future and copyright laws have changed enough that a group called the Official Oz Society now has the power to determine what stories are and aren’t allowed to be told about the formerly public-domain Land of Oz. That’s not stopping Jasper Fizzle from writing and submitting Oz tales though. The problem is that no one thinks Fizzle’s stuff is any good, including his son Frank (named for L Frank Baum, naturally). Frank can’t bring himself to tell his dad that he’s no good, but he does encourage him to quit writing about Oz. “Can’t you make up your own characters, and your own made-up crazy-ass fantasy world?” But Jasper can’t stop. He remembers how much the original Oz stories meant to him when he was younger. “How I clung to them for dear life,” he says. Oz rescued him and he wants to do that for other people.

Like I said at the top of the post, the commentary on writing your own stuff vs someone else’s creations is intentional. I’m looking forward to seeing where Kovac and Hirsch take it. But there’s more to the story than just that of course. Jasper finds Dorothy’s silver slippers in an estate sale and uses them to go to the real Oz, hoping to use it for inspiration in his stories. But while he’s there he crosses a line and makes some enemies, which sets up the adventure ahead. All of which is very cool and worth mentioning, but not really connected to my point about writing other people’s stuff.

In my heart of hearts, I think it’s better to create your own characters and your own stories. I don’t want to imagine a world where Mike Mignola is only known for Rocket Raccoon and Batman. But I get why people write other people’s characters. Sometimes, it’s just the money or the exposure. You get a lot more readers when you’re writing X-Men than when you’re writing Casanova. And hopefully, a lot of those new readers will follow you back to Casanova when you re-launch it (not that I’m at all pretending to know any particular person’s motives). But The Royal Historian of Oz reminds us that it’s not always as mercenary as I’ve just made it sound. Oftentimes, you do it for the love. You grew up reading Fantastic Four comics – or watching Doctor Who or reading Alice in Wonderland or whatever – and you loved them enough that you just want to give back. There are lots of valid reasons for working on someone else’s stuff. The problem is when that’s all you’re interested in doing.

Don't

"Don't you have any original ideas?"

This isn’t just a problem for professional writers. There’s an ongoing debate amongst writers – pros and amateurs both – about the value of writing fanfic. Some claim it’s a valuable tool in learning to write because it allows you to practice and find your voice without having to create your own characters. Others – like me – don’t get why creating characters is such an insurmountable task that you need someone else to do it for you for a while. I don’t think that writing fanfic has no value; I just don’t think it has anything to do with the craft of writing. Instead, it has everything to do with loving those characters so much that you want to spend more time with them. And – like Jasper Fizzle – you want to share that love with other people. There’s nothing wrong with that. What’s wrong is when that’s your only creative outlet.

Speaking of fan fiction reminds me that there’s another angle to this too having to do with words like “official” and “canon.” Everyone knows that the stories in Topless Robot’s Fan Fiction Fridays (NSFW, by the way) aren’t canon, but – even though Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had nothing to do with it – the latest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man is. What about Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics though? Are they official? They’ve got the LucasFilm stamp of approval, but so did Marvel back in the day. Are Jaxxon the Giant Green Rabbit and the Starkiller Kid official parts of Star Wars lore?

Oz is even more complicated because – unlike in Jasper Fizzle’s world – there’s no Official Oz Society to determine which stories are and aren’t official. When Jasper visits Oz and brings back a flying monkey, is that an official Oz story? Is Fables? Is Lost Girls? Is The Oz-Wonderland War? Does it even matter?

But

But is it Official?!

I’m going to argue that it doesn’t. Though it seems to matter to Jasper Fizzle, it doesn’t to Kovac and Hirsch. Like our look at retconning last week, the officiality (I made up that word) of these stories ultimately comes down to quality. We accept as Official Canon the stories that we like and dismiss those that don’t. It can’t be as objective as simply identifying who created or commissioned the story. It has to do with personal preferences informed by even more individual things like how familiar I am with other stories featuring these characters. Is Chewbacca’s death in the Star Wars novels canon? Is Star Trek V? In spite of what I said earlier about The Amazing Spider-Man, is “One More Day?” They don’t have to be if you don’t want them to.

It goes back to what I was saying about writing someone else’s stuff. We need to take this discussion a lot less seriously. Not that it’s unworthy of talking about at all, but there’s no reason to pick a side and stick to it unwaveringly. Take what you like and leave the rest. Don’t dismiss writing someone else’s characters, but don’t let that be all you’re writing. There’s no reason to avoid comics by third-party creators as long as that’s not all you’re reading. And don’t obsess over what’s in official continuity and what’s not. That’s mental energy you can spend on enjoying cool comics instead.

Which brings us to this week’s discussion questions. What’s a really cool comic that someone made using other people’s characters? What’s an absolutely horrible comic that you’d like to erase from a property’s continuity? And of course, does official canon matter at all or are you free to pick your own?

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7 Comments

First off, thank you so much for liking FFF. I absolutely love them, especially the stories by ComicsNix. The guy’s the fanfic equivalent of Alan Moore. Except Alan Moore kind of is a fanficer. I was reading Neonomicon today and realized that a lot of Moore’s famous works are derivative of or based on older works. Watchmen and Charlton. Lost Girls and the stories they were based on. LoEG and every book ever written. Neonomicon (not famous, but on my mind) and Lovecraft’s monsters. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow – characters owned by DC well before he wrote it. V for Vendetta is a history fan’s fanficer. Moore took a figure from history (Guy Fawkes) and wondered what would happen if he lived in 1984. Those are all stories people enjoy, but they’re all based on something else. I think it’s possible to make great work using characters and ideas others have created, as long as the creators bring their own passion and ideas to the project.

I can’t think of a horrible comic I want erased from history because the bad ones can bring me joy. Liefield’s Captain America boobs, Arsenal holding a cat’s carcass thinking it’s his daughter, Gwen cheating on Peter, Blob eating the Wasp (actually anything Jeph Loeb has written). They’re all terrible, but in the end, I keep talking about them and making fun of them. If they weren’t in continuity, what would I have to bitch about (other than all the titles I love being canceled and retconned.)

Thanks for this article; it really got my brain juices flowing and got me interested in checking out the (not-)Oz comic you referenced.

Steven R. Stahl

July 28, 2010 at 9:58 pm

What’s a really cool comic that someone made using other people’s characters? What’s an absolutely horrible comic that you’d like to erase from a property’s continuity? And of course, does official canon matter at all or are you free to pick your own?

You seem to be assuming that fan fiction writers will merely be repeating dialogue, plot material, etc. from stories they’ve read. That’s not necessarily true. If they’re talented writers and take the trouble to develop the characters as a writer handling them for the first time would, then the stories can be as good as any commercial fiction featuring the same characters. Formula fiction produced by the professional writers will be worse.

When professional writers advise would-be writers to develop their own material instead of dreaming about writing about ____, they mean that the novices should take classes on writing, learn the basics of writing, recognize the differences between commercial fiction and literary fiction, learn how to write to editorial specifications, etc. Treat writing fiction as an art form before focusing on it as a way to earn money. When the time comes to write for publication, the novice will find that some publishers want formula fiction {The Da Vinci Code, etc.) that can be easily marketed. If he’s taken classes, he’ll understand why they do that, and do the best formula fiction or commercial fiction that he can, while realizing that he’s not producing literary fiction.

The coolest superhero comics I’ve seen are still the classic Marvel comics from the ’70s, when the writers were producing the best stories that they could.

The comics I’d erase from continuity are “Avengers Disassembled” and everything based on that — and if that requires treating “Avengers Disassembled” and practically everything since then as elaborate illusions, so be it.

SRS

I disagree with Mr. May in one thing: fanfiction doesn’t need to be ANYTHING. It’s strictly what its writer wants it to be. Many fics are just wish-fulfillment fantasies (sometimes erotic in nature) but that’s OK as long as they please their author. There should be no sense of entitlement about it from the audience even if they get posted on the internet. We aren’t paying for them.

Of course, IF the goal of their writer is to get a good response from others, then he or she should try to write for the audience… but that’s not necessary. The rest of us need to accept that and just avoid the fics we don’t like and look for the ones we do, just as we do with real comics. If a writer wants nothing but to write existing characters and never create his own, that’s perfectly OK too. Again, its about his personal satisfaction, not anybody else’s.

Note the difference from official work: those MUST meet the demands of the publisher, or you don’t get paid, and the audience’s, or it doesn’t sell. It’s a whole different cup of tea. Also as mentioned above, quality is NOT obligatorily tied to being official- some fanfics are actually well written and some actual comics are terrible. It all depends on the writer’s skill (and what the publisher or audience wants.) You could be the next Shakespeare but your stories may get totally ignored because they’re not considered currently “hip” (that happened to the Bard too.)

As for canon, I disagree that it’s up to the reader. The problem is, ignoring certain parts of a continuity doesn’t make them go away. For example if you hated the “Gwen Stacy had kids with Norman Osborn” thing (and God knows I did) you can pretend it was never published, if it makes you happy. But that won’t stop the fact from coming up *again* in other stories that you might want to otherwise read. There HAS to be an official canon for everything, if only to meet the readers’ expectations of continuity, which comes from reality, which (ultimately) is the ruler we use to measure everything. For example if Flander’s wife suddenly turns up alive in the Simpsons with *no* explanation, most people WILL be annoyed because of it to some degree even though in the Simpsons, pretty much anything goes; our innate sense of continuity spots it. Of course, some people may not care and others will, that’s individual taste, but nobody can fail to go “Hey, wasn’t she dead?”

Ultimately (pun intended) having multiple continuities is the best option- if you REALLY want to write stories where Colossus is gay or the Hulk is a cannibal, just put them in a separate reality, and leave the original to continue pleasing its existing audience.

Interesting that you cite Oz…

Most people know “The Wizard of Oz”, the movie, which, while a delight, fails horribly as an adaptation. (No journey to the south land of the Quadlings, and thus no Good Witch of the South; ruby slippers; flying monkeys are mute; Oz is a dream…)

As a bookseller in New York City, I would have many tourists come into the store seeking “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire (curiouser… a prequel to Baum’s books… fanfic or clever literary device?). I would always ask, “Have you read the original book?”, meaning “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. They would look at me with a blank stare, until I mentioned the first Oz book. Then they would ignore my recommendation and just buy “Wicked”.

Considering how popular Harry Potter is, I’m surprised Oz isn’t more well read. Marvel’s adaptation might change that, but I remain skeptical.

I hadn’t heard about this book, but it sounds very clever. I’m looking forward to picking it up.

Oh! Oh! I have my answer now. Batman wetting his pants.

As one who has written sequels to the Wizard of Oz books (my are based solely on the original 14 books of L. Frank Baum), I found the idea of a preconceived world, complete with established characters and canon to be very liberating.
The world of Oz, unlike most other author creations, has been subject to “fanfic” since 1921, shortly after the death of the creator of Oz.
Ruth Plumly Thompson, Jack Snow, Marcus Mebes, Eric Shanower have all put their own individual vision into Oz but each is only their own vision and creation. Once Baum died, all others are merely variations on a theme. I would include my own work in that category.
Magician of Oz, Shadow Demon of Oz and the soon-to-be-released Family of Oz, which comprise the Royal Magician of Oz Trilogy are my vision of Oz as I see it and sales would confirm that my vision has some support.
While the overall trend has been to “adultify” Baum’s original work (i.e.: Tin Man, Wicked), I have chosen to return to a child’s world of fantasy and magic. Others, such as Dennis Anfuso, have chosen this route as well, preferring to return to Baum’s original vision and we do our best to live up to his standards.
Having an established set of rules, characters and canon allows me to focus exclusively on the story and build upon my vision. Having the resources of Oz and people who’s world revolves around Oz has given me insight into the intensity at which some people operate in this realm.
Put wings on Polychrome or kill the Wizard and suddenly, you’re the Evil one!!! Such is the devotion that Oz inspires in people.
Fortunately, its the market that will ultimately determine whose work will live… and whose will fade away into the ether.
As Family of Oz approaches completion and publication, I choose to believe that my work, supported by an overwhelming public eager to read new stories of Oz, will live on long after I cross the Shifting Sands and join my fellow Oz authors in paying homage to L.Frank Baum at his home in Emerald City.

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