Episode 90: Primacy of Characters and Copyright

I’ve been talking about the primacy of characters in serial fiction for a while now but have never really gone too much into detail. Well details ahoy! Fair warning: while reading this you might think that I hate plot, think that all storytelling is contrived trope mixing, and that continuity must be followed religiously. Let me clarify, I love plot, am fascinated by different forms of storytelling, and have analyzed continuity to Hell and back in my Master’s thesis. Different focus but ultimately still looking at the same big picture. Time to go into the deep waters.

Authorship as a creative endeavor is a balancing act between what you believe to be original and creative with what your reader can recognize. If you go to any of the most popular forms of anything you might notice that very few of them really break the mold. There is an always will be a search for the familiar in what we read. Consider James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. That novel is huge, crazy, and no one can debate that it is original in many elements but damn that thing is near impossible to read. I’m an English major who has never really even tried to tackle it out of the fear that comes just from looking at it (to think I once wanted to become a master of Irish literature). People who have actually gone through it can’t even be unanimous into what the overall plot is, even the Wikipedia page is confused by it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finnegans_Wake

Joyce was highly original in his novel and even how to deliver it but if you are not whiling to dive into the strange and unfamiliar (and not most people are) the entire thing is going to look alien to you. Compare that with a random novel you buy at the discount bin at the super market. It might not be very good but you understand exactly what is going on. It might not do anything interesting or something you haven’t read before in countless other works but it makes sense. New and original (I hate to say it) needs to be tethered to an understandable reality for the reader. Most of this is done through language (standard vocabulary and syntax are a must) but it happens through plot just as much. You can do some pretty cool stuff even with the most basic tools of storytelling so don’t let the “dumbing down for the masses” way to get some sales get you down. Even the most creative thing you can imagine has its roots in something else that was probably written by people long before you could hold a pen. I remember during my awkward pre-teen and teen years I wanted to write an epic space adventure and some well intentioned adults heralded that I could be next Tolkien. Years later I looked back at my old scribblings and realized that I had just rewritten a large percentage of Dragon Ball Z with maybe a touch of Captain Bucky O’ Hare (if you do get the reference then bonus hipster/old dude points for you). That was the launch pad for me and I’m pretty sure that if I did want to artistically/professionally develop that story then I’m sure I could edit accordingly but the influence would be evident. Maybe I’m not a good writer but I understand that the same thing happens to a lot of people, sometimes without even noticing that you might be borrowing, stealing, and/or plagiarizing someone else’s work. My brother the musician once played for me a song he was working on, my first thought was that it was vaguely familiar to Ken’s theme from Street Fighter 2, I showed him the original http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-14W5XTqL5U, and he noticed that there were indeed similarities but he hadn’t played any of the games in years. To paraphrase Aristotle, there is nothing new under the sun, even is subconsciously you don’t realize it yet. Or maybe a more contemporary version of that statement is more appropriate: “Simpsons did it.”

Storytelling forms have evolved pretty much alongside human history so a truly original plot might be impossible. You can’t write about star crossed lovers without somehow evoking Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare wasn’t even close to the first person to make a story about that. The good news is that even if a particular trope can be traced back, it’s probably now in the public domain so no one is going to sue you. What you can own is a specific form of language, which normally has to be something more than a few sentences and proving it is damn hard, of something a bit more iconic, the characters. Obviously you can’t claim copyright on certain kinds of characters like the orphaned hero, the greedy villain, the damsel in distress, or even something like the magical negro (it’s a thing, trust me). But what you can do is make them specific enough, through back story, physical details, personalities, and even a name. Think of every character in fantasy and comics whose whole shtick is that they can run really really fast. Somewhere between Quicksilver vs Flash (any of the 4) vs Professor Zoom (pretty much anti Flash) vs the Road Runner vs Speedy Gonzalez and so many other examples that you can imagine (again, just super speed) you see that you need something more to make a character stand out. Even with as much as a carbon copy as you can make them to each other (even with clones that are literal carbon copies) each character has enough information to make them unique even before you take into account all their crazy adventures over the years. Characters become iconic and recognizable even at their most basic points, so much so that readers can still recognize them even after a lot of time has elapsed and many events taken place (look at my previous post where I explain the whole issue with Robin when he died).

Now let’s put all this in the context of serialization. Let’s take your average character for example, for simplicity’s sake lets say its Superman. Supes is closest to a global iconic hero you can find and he’s been around since the 30s. He has gone through countless adventures during that time in different multiverses, realities, and timelines. Backstories have been retconned, movies have been rebooted, and we have seen him go through some craziness over the decades in several different media. But for the most part, Superman has remained pretty much the same person over the years (obviously not counting “post return Mullet Supes, or the time he was made out of electricity). Diehard readers can give me examples of how post crisis Superman can do X, while the Silver Age one could do Y, and his power levels are pretty variable but the character stays the same. Literary critic Umberto Eco explains pretty well in his Myth of Superman essay where he basically goes into saying that he and his world do not really change. Just imagine that in one issue from the good old days, Superman faces Lex Luthor who has some crazy “inator” like Doofenshmirtz creates in every Phineas and Ferb episode. Supes saves the day and the bad guy goes to jail, good times for all, and end of that comic. Next installment rolls around Lex has another crazy scheme. Keep in mind that this was while Lex was just a crazy scientist, he was changed into an evil CEO during the 80s because Reaganomics. Eco refers to this phenomenon of changes having no further effect beyond the current installment as “narrative redundancy” and it’s something that I love to quote in all my discussions about serial fiction. It’s pretty much a big reset button that paradoxically keeps the story from going forward but somehow still keeps it fresh. Narratively, I have discussed before that this has some interesting potential. From an authorial perspective, this makes it so that each installment is always freestanding, which makes it so that the cartoonist doesn’t have to extend any story for more than 22ish pages but also that he/she can’t extend the story beyond 22ish pages.

For corporate authorship, this means that you can have multiple Superman stories, done by different writers and artists, running simultaneously without having to even acknowledge the other ones (and yes, did this happen for a while in the 50s and 60s with six different titles going on at the same time where Supes was the protagonist or one of the big stars). Once maintaining an overall continuity became an issue, the entire mindset changed. With multiple authors on board, they now had to plan stories almost a year in advance with fancy meetings to make sure no one stepped on anyone’s creative toes. However, the key with all things is that the character had to remain mostly unchanged, which usually meant that other characters around him/her could not change either. The biggest exception and surprise came in 1993 when they did the Death of Superman, where everyone was shocked to think that the Big Blue Boy Scout was gone for good (I’ll do a future post about the omnibus edition of this but that Max Landis video that I posted a long time ago is still really good for understanding what happened).

So whether or not you prefer your serial fiction light on the continuity (often referred to as episodic) or paying more attention to detail than everyone working on How I Met Your Mother, characters are the central point of the narrative. The fact that DC had to rewrite their entire realities of their properties because the stories had become too complicated but wanted to keep most of their all star characters really says something. Sure, Supergirl and a few others phase in and out of existence every so often but that’s more of a character never really getting a stable enough identity. In a previous post I mentioned that Marvel has not had an event like Crisis but that they modify their existing characters depending on different contexts (like real life) so that it becomes like a play: “same characters, different actors, settings, etc.”

As much as I may toot the horn of the primacy of the primacy of characters over any other element, I am more than aware that a lot of other critics for years and right now have some damn good arguments that say I’m wrong. There are also several that have a similar viewpoint (and I need to quote the crap out of them for dissertating purposes.) It is a subjective academic endeavor, just like pretty much all of them, but I think I’ve got something interesting that can help my point of view at least get acknowledged before getting demolished by intellectuals at some point down the line. I’ve been looking into American Copyright Law over the last few days to try and figure a few things out. The basic thing that I am trying to explain is that one of the author functions/authorial performances is that of maintaining ownership over the narrative. However, Section 102 of the 1976 Copyright Law (pretty much the foundation for how we understand it today) states, and I quote: “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery, regardless of the form in which it is described, explained, illustrated, or embodied in such work.” I’m not an expert in legalese but it seems to me like you can’t really claim copyright on anything regarding plot. However, you can legally own a character, who has their own background and bio that you can sue other people over if they try to use it. Obviously, there are a few things you can’t do once you make a particular character. Perhaps the most egregious and humorous example I can think of comes from this one weird webcomic. I can’t find it for the life of me but I swear it once existed. Basically, some guy wanted to make a webcomic where his two main characters would be a single red pixel and a single blue pixel, which would converse about whatever. By making this webcomic and then copyrighting it, he could then claim that everything else in existence that used pixels was infringing in his intellectual property. Thus he could sue all of them and he would start with Penny Arcade. Obviously the whole thing was written as a joke but the potential for this kind of thing is scary to think about as an academic, authors and legal people will have their own issues to consider. (if anyone finds this comic and can put the link in the comments, then you win one Internets)

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