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 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.
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?
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?