WHERE COMICS AND COMPUTERS MEETI'm writing this week's column strictly in the StarOffice suite from Sun Microsystems. It's running in the Linux-Mandrake 7.0 operating system, just released this past month. So far, so good. It's a remarkably intuitive system and looks just like a Windows app, for better or worse. Most importantly, it can read MS Office documents, too.
But it's gotten me back to thinking about something else. It's an idea for a column I've been mulling over for months now, and one that revolves around another interest of mine: How would an open source comic book work? Would it even be worth doing?
WHAT IS "OPEN SOURCE"?
Traditionally, the theory has always been that you develop new computer programs - whether they be applications such as word processors or fun stuff like games - behind closed doors. The code you use to create the program never gets seen by anyone other than those coding it. The stuff you buy in a box or download off the 'net is binary-only. It'll run on your computer, but you can't see how. This prevents you from making changes to the code, porting it to another system, or even pirating copies, depending on the software encryption technique. This is how software companies have traditionally modeled their businesses to make money.
With the advent of the Internet, open source coding has gained a new foothold and become more popular. (This isn't to say there was none before the modern-day Internet, but that the ease and facility of communications over the net made it more prevalent.) Code is developed "in the fishbowl." Anyone can take a look at it at any time and suggest changes. They can submit those changes to whoever is in charge of the project and can have them be adapted as part of the code. The biggest and best examples of this so far are the Linux operating system and the forthcoming Netscape Navigator web browser based on the Mozilla engine, which has been two years' in the making. Most of the Internet runs on such projects: Sendmail, for one example, is used to traffic e-mail around the 'net. The Apache web server is another, and is used for more than 50% of all web sites, including this one.
Open source computer coding works so well because you have so many sets of eyes looking at the program that bugs are bound to be caught and fixed faster than with just one set of eyes debugging the code. Features and enhancements are gleefully added into the code for the sake of bragging rights by the authors, or just as a way of making the program more useful for their own purposes and needs.
Yes, companies have even found ways to make money with this free software. Although the code may be free for all, companies spring up around it mostly to offer support.
This is a huge oversimplification of the whole concept and practice. For the best description of it, check out Eric S. Raymond's excellent article, "The Cathedral and the Bazaar." It's also available in book form, too. It changed the way I thought about computer programming.
THE COMIC BOOK CONNECTION
How would this work with comic books? Is what Marvel and DC do really the closest thing to the open source comic book model as we're going to get? An argument could be made for that today:
Open source coding works when one person - starting with the creator of the original code and then handed down, traditionally, to hand-picked successors - creates a project. Other people are allowed to look under the hood, as it were, and contribute code. The person in control can decide whether or not the code is helpful and then add it in, or not. This happens with a series of programmers who contribute code.
How is this different from comics? Here, the editor is the source code handler, and the freelance writers and artists are the contributors to the project. Each gets their turn, according to how the editor feels their creative input will help. The contributors don't own the code. Storylines are suggested in letters of comment all the time. There's tremendous feedback, both positive and negative, as each issue comes out in both letters and message boards and e-mail. So, in a way, there are plenty of eyes ready to point out the bugs in comics today. How many "Dangling Plot Lines" lists have you seen for comics such as X-MEN or THE SAVAGE DRAGON?
Actually, though, it's very different. One major difference is that in open source programming, anyone can effectively fork the code. Although anyone with enough political clout amongst programmers can make any changes they like, they're under obligation to release the source code, whether people like it or not. If they don't like it, it gets ignored and everyone goes on with their lives. If they do like it, you get the potential of a fork in the code, unless the originator adopts the code himself or talks the forker out of it. (Maybe I should use a more family-friendly term than "forker," eh?)
Imagine what would happen if the Siegel family forked the Superman code. =) One version of Superman is on Earth-DC and another is on Earth-Shuster. One Superman is married to Lois Lane, while the other isn't. One Earth has plaid Kryptonite, while the other has Jimmy Olsen raising his back leg to pee on Perry White. Absurd, ain't it? But that would be the danger, unless both sides could agree on one editor. Storytelling is much too linear and fans are much too hung up on continuity for this to make sense. It's not that the market can't support four SUPERMAN books a month - it has for a decade now - but that the market might not be willing to support four different versions of Superman. Where's the CVS (Concurrent Version System) for that?!?
Just by effect of its very ludicrousness, though, I think the example above also makes an excellent point. If the Shuster estate were to "fork" the mythology and turn Jimmy Olsen into the sort who would pee on his boss' leg for fun, people would not accept him as the One True Jimmy. The fork would be stopped there because nobody would accept it.
There are bigger differences, too. The comic company still owns and controls the comics. The source code - the scripts and the original art and the lettering files in the case of computerized lettering - isn't shown, not that it makes much of a difference. (I imagine, though, if a dozen extra sets of eyes were reading comics before they went to print, you'd have less Comicraft typos.)
However, the "source materials" are, in theory, returned to its originators, who can then do with it what they want. Artists often sell their original art. Writers can print up copies of their scripts to sell at conventions. In the end, however, the company controls distribution and cost of the final product. The comics aren't given away for free and the companies exist for much greater reasons than support.
OPEN SOURCE COMICS TODAY?
There are some potential examples of the methodology at work today.
Fan-fic actually comes quite close to open source comics. Leaving aside fan-fic's based on previously-established characters, fan-fiction is often composed of characters of the original writer's creation who are more than willing to let others use them in their own stories for no monetary purpose. They do it for the love of the art form, or the characters, or just for the writing practice -- much like open source coders program for the betterment of a program they happen to find useful or something they intrinsically like. The stories can be copied or downloaded without paying the author a fee. The same is true with open source projects.
(Fan-fiction based on copyrighted characters is even freer, but is in violation of the law, technically. In order to protect themselves from the law, fan-fic writers of copyrighted characters and universes would definitely not charge for their stories since that would open them wide for lawsuits.)
Actually, any comics FAQ you can think of is comes close to being an example of open source coding. You have one maintainer and a bunch of contributors. The best stuff gets in. One person maintains it. Many can correct errors as they pop up. Popular opinion can influence the writing of the FAQ.
TheBench.org is coming close to open source cartooning. It's a simple three-panel comic strip and everyone is invited to mess around with it and create their own strip. The results appear daily and some are really funny. Not all, though. There needs to be some sort of moderation process. Granted, humor is subjective, but some of this stuff has to be lame by any standard of humor. You have a guy and a squirrel sitting on a bench. The rest is up to you.
Some are calling this "open source" cartooning, but it really isn't. If it were, you'd be able to create your own strip and post it to your own web site. Heck, you could create your own web site and make this into a daily comic strip all your own, using those characters, without fear or litigation or intellectual property rights problems.
No, this is really just "community" cartooning, which is all the web site makes itself out to be. It's similar to the way SciFi.com used to throw up live images from the channel on the web to let people make funny captions, a la Mystery Science Theater 3000.
I suppose you could make the case that it is open source, and just under a restrictive community license wherein the characters are still owned and maintained by the web site of origin.
But I think that's different. More on that next week, though.
TheBench.org is spun off from the very funny on-line comic strip, Penny-Arcade.com, which is also worth a visit. There are a few on-line comic strips devoted to computers and the Linux world and geekdom and video games and more. Penny Arcade is the funniest one I've seen so far. User Friendly has a large fan following and even a book collection of the strips, but I've always found it difficult to look at, and often just not that funny. Penny Arcade is colorful, drawn in a clean style, and irreverent.
THE COMIC BOOK PUBLIC LICENSENext Friday's Pipeline2 will be my proposal for a Comic Book Public License. Call it what you want: An exercise in academic comics. A think piece. Something that might be really cool or something that you might just laugh at.
If open source comics can work, they need a license to be done under. Silly me - I'm volunteering for the task. It should answer some of the questions I've posed in this column, as well as others I've left out. This could be the start of a new big thing. Or it just might be me filling another 1000 words. Place your bets!