I have to admit, I was surprised to learn that Rob Liefeld’s relaunched Extreme Studios line had received attention on the online news magazine Slate, and reading the article itself, I realized why: It presumes Liefeld has done something he actually hasn’t. Writing about the transformation of Prophet, Glory and Bloodstrike at the hands of Brandon Graham, Joe Keatinge and Ross Campbell et al., David Weigel says that Liefeld “open-sourced” the characters, noting that “every copyright holder should be this generous, and this clever.”
Of course, this isn’t what happened; Liefeld still owns the characters, and Graham, Keatinge, Campbell and everyone else is working for him in much the same way other creators have worked for Todd McFarlane on Spawn, Marc Silvestri on his various Top Cow characters, or even Marvel and DC for decades now. It’s not really “open source” comics at all, because there’s still an “official” centralized canon version of the characters, and the material isn’t available for free for all to use as they wish. But reading the misconception made me wonder: What if Liefeld had open-sourced the characters?
Imagine a world where Prophet, Glory and the other Extreme relaunches happened as in our world, but were accompanied by Liefeld telling the world, “Everyone else can do what they want with the characters, as well.” What could have come from that? Maybe little in terms of printed comics. After all, we’ve already got more than a handful of public domain characters out there worthy of time and attention and outside of Image’s short-lived Next Issue Project, Dynamite’s Project Superpowers and Masks titles, and A.C. Comics, I can’t think of many publishers who have rushed in to do anything substantial with them.
Online, of course, it’d be likely to be a different thing altogether. Internet culture has long embraced one level of open sourcing comic characters; fan art, fan fiction and just fan culture as a whole has led to various reinterpretations of existing characters and material, whether through selective reading (the idea that this story “counts,” whereas this other story doesn’t), active reinvention (something like Project: Rooftop, for example) or something in between (FanYay, perhaps?). Considering the online response to Glory in particular, it’d be nice to imagine that character having multiple afterlives post the cancellation of the Keatinge/Campbell series online, each one as “valid” and permitted as the printed comics that had come before.
Of course, such Internet appropriation happens now to copyrighted characters, so perhaps we don’t even “need” open sourcing of characters and creations for that to happen. But I find myself enjoying the idea that, when a creator is finished telling the story of a character or world that they’ve invented, that they would give it to everyone else as a gift, to see what could be done with it instead. It’s unrealistic and terrible business sense, but something about it appeals to me, nonetheless. Let the creator move on to something new, but give the fictional characters an opportunity to do the same thing, too. It’s a strange and silly idea, but one that makes me smile, nonetheless.