Every so often, I see some really horrible fan behavior on the internet, and a pro responding in kind, and I think to myself, maybe it's time I got around to doing that column about how the internet bringing the creators and the audience closer together is really a bad thing for comics.
And then there's an incident like the one in class a few weeks ago and I have to re-think my position.
We're getting into a nice groove now in the Cartooning class. First issue of the year under our belt, and the kids are closing in on the deadline for the second one. The guidelines are pretty simple -- two pages minimum per student, plus a splash page. If they want to go longer they can, but two pages of panel-to-panel continuity is the minimum. And the material has to be all-original.
Occasionally I get an argument about the last one. Usually it's from the boys, who more often than not just want to re-enact some video game slaughter from Doom or something like that. The girls tend to want to do more interesting things, they never lack for ideas. So I was really surprised when Tiffany asked me if she could do a comic based on a book she was reading.
"It's not a comic, it's a BOOK," she said. "Does that still count?"
"It's still copyrighted material," I explained. "It belongs to the author. Same as the copyright notice we put in our books." I pointed out the little (c)2006 notice on the inside front cover of the book we'd just published. "Your stuff belongs to you and her stuff belongs to her. You can't just take someone else's idea without permission. That's what the notice means."
Tiffany nodded and sighed and went back to her desk. I thought we were done.
The following Tuesday, Tiffany came in waving a slip of paper. "I got permission, is it okay now?"
"Well, I'll be--" --damned, I almost said, but cut it off just in time. "Let me see that."
Sure enough, it was a printout of an e-mail from Tamora Pierce, granting Tiffany a limited permission to adapt her stuff for comics, cautioning her that it couldn't be done for money, but she was proud to have inspired such an effort and by all means go ahead, and finishing with, Keep doing what you love!
Okay. I knew when I was beaten. Besides, I was proud of Tiffany for taking the initiative... and I'm not so old that I can't remember the lure of doing fan fiction.
So Tiffany has been slaving away on her Tamora Pierce adaptation for the last couple of weeks.
Last week she blurted out, "You know Tamora Pierce is working for Marvel now!"
There's something really endearing about my kids coming to class with comics industry news. "Yes, I know," I said, smiling. "In fact she's doing a revival of a strip I used to like a lot when I was about your age."
"White Tiger!" Tiffany said, breathlessly. "She wrote about it on her web site!"
Inspiration struck. I smiled slyly and said, "I have a column on the net, you know. If you want, I'll bring in a copy of White Tiger when it comes out and if you want to review it, I'll put it up in the column."
So I brought in an original Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, thinking Tiffany would enjoy seeing the source material, and also #1 of the White Tiger revival.
I was really curious about her reaction, especially after our own Joe Rice had opined that he didn't think Tamora Pierce's book fanbase would care for the comic. Because Tiffany is the TEMPLATE for those fans -- a twelve-year-old girl who scorns mainstream superhero comics but likes manga and loves fantasy novels. So here's the test case for all of us that get annoyed at how inaccessible superhero comics are for new readers.
This was a couple of weeks ago. Honestly, I thought Tiffany had forgotten, but Tuesday she came in beaming and handed me the comics and a sheet of notebook paper with her handwritten review.
Review of the White Tiger by Tamora Pierce
I liked the new plot! I read the original White Tiger and I didn't get it. The new plot is exciting and I liked the detail and the color. The end of #1 left me wondering what would happen next. I think it's awesome that they have Pierce in comics.
Tiffany, age 12
I knew she would be inclined to like it simply because it was by Tamora Pierce, the nice lady who was letting her do a fan-fiction comic. Even so, I was surprised. I had expected her to be more confused by the continuity stuff.
"You really enjoyed this?" I asked her.
Tiffany nodded enthusiastically. "Oh, yeah! I really want to get the next one, I want to see what happens. I mean, she's just lying there in the street all bloody and stuff, it can't end like that!"
Well, it didn't. I picked up #2 today -- Wednesday as I write this -- and I'll post Tiffany's further reviews of the series later on, if I can persuade her to go into a little more detail.
I admit I'm rather liking this new White Tiger series myself, and unlike Tiffany, I was predisposed to hate it. I still remember when the hip new trend was to retire an old hero and get a young heroine to take over the job (it got especially egregious in the old Infinity, Inc. but it was going on all over the place, you probably remember it too if you've been reading comics for any length of time.) Apart from that, the original Sons of the Tiger/White Tiger epic that played out across most of the run of Deadly Hands of Kung Fu was a favorite of mine, and I am one of those readers that gets a little testy when some new version of an old fave shows up and manages to throw away everything that was good about the original premise. (Again, I'm sure you have your own list, but the handiest examples I came up with off the top of my head were the Hal Jordan Spectre and Trials of Shazam.) So I wasn't going to bother with this -- from what I'd seen of this new Tiger in Daredevil, it looked an awful lot to me like Marvel was doing the Yolanda Montez Wildcat. Yawn.
But if a student asks me about a book, I'll usually try and find a way to get it into the classroom. And once I had it, I flipped though it, and was pleasantly surprised. This has just enough legacy references to make the old Deadly Hands of Kung Fu fans like me smile, while at the same time is apparently accessible enough that a twelve-year-old girl that likes unicorns can still enjoy it. That's a tough tightrope to walk. Plus Ms. Pierce and co-writer Timothy Liebe have wisely opted to stay away from the whole Civil War thing, setting this story in the months before. All those things get points from me. And finally, Tamora Pierce treated my student with kindness and encouragement instead of blowing her off, which makes me inclined to cut her book a little more slack than I'd normally give yet another C-list superhero relaunch.
I'm glad I did, because I find I'm enjoying it. There's some good stuff going on in here, and I especially like the idea that this White Tiger is a rookie who's learning how to do the costumed-hero thing on her own, there's a charming sort of early Spider-Man vibe to that particular subplot. Provisional thumbs up from me too, as well as Tiffany.
Just as an aside: The interesting thing to me about this whole episode, when I step back and look at it from an industry-analysis viewpoint, is the viral marketing involved. Tamora Pierce knew Marvel wasn't competent to push her new comic book project to the fans of her novels, so she made sure it was front and center on her web page. And 12-year-old Tiffany, who does NOT LIKE superhero comics, read the web page info and that got her excited about the project, which in turn prompted me to sample it. Left to myself, I probably wouldn't have.
There's a lesson there, Marvel marketing people. If you don't get a collected edition of this book into the young-adult section of chain bookstores -- and make damn sure to get Tamora Pierce's name on the cover in big giant letters -- well, you're passing up millions of dollars. Don't ignore this huge, throbbing dynamo of as-yet-untapped consumerism out there for comics. There are thousands upon thousands of these bookish teenage girls daydreaming and drawing unicorns on their binders, they've all got money to burn, and they all love Tamora Pierce. Get this comic into their hands and get them texting each other and it'll make Civil War's numbers look like the income from a mediocre bake sale. Seriously. Here's your answer to "Minx" and it's already got the brand-name familiarity. Think about it.
Me? I'm thinking there's some positive uses for this internet thing after all.
See you next week.
ADDENDUM: Tamora Pierce drops by in the comments section below to respond to the piece. Here is a snippet (read the comments below for the full response):
I'm thrilled to read the actual continuation of the story behind one of these mails! (Usually the exchange itself is the last I ever hear.) And I had to laugh at Tiffany's coming back with actual permission when you didn't expect it! I tend to give limited permission for such things because when I started out I was writing fan fiction (though I always point out at talks, in my best old lady voice, "We didn't have an Internet, and we didn't call it fan fiction! We called it Star Trek stories, and Tolkein stories, and we were glad to have 'em!). I think it's a great way for writers to edge into writing big projects, when creating worlds and characters can be intimidating to a beginner.