Episode 100: Authorship Inc.

The complexities of defining authorship increased exponentially once it expanded beyond one person or a small group being responsible for the overall narrative. Publishing houses and editors often take on the role of supervisors and even taskmasters during the course of narrative production and publication but the writer is still considered to be the one with final authority towards every decision. Corporate authorship reverses that structure by establishing that a company is the one that owns all the rights to a particular character and now employs different writers and artists so that they write a story with the higher ups still having the final word and creative control. Massive projects like films, television programs, and even video games have expanded to the point that such higher ups are almost expected. However, the best example of corporate authorship can be found within the realm of the comic book industry as the overall control of hundreds of serialized titles is done entirely by two companies, DC and Marvel.

For the sake of this study, I will limit my  analysis of corporate authorship to DC, not to vilify or sanctify either company, but rather because their massive crossover events and narrative restructuring provides incredible examples for my analysis of authorial functions in this format. Corporate authorship revolves heavily around the idea of ownership, not of stories but rather of characters. You see, one particular authorial function that is mostly prevalent in serial fiction is the idea behind owning the rights to a character, usually one’s own creation, through copyright law. However, this ownership can be sold to other people, thus having the original author still be the creator but losing all control as to what happens to his/her character from thereon out. Small publishing houses that distributed comics slowly became the  subsidiaries and authors became employees as DC and Marvel rose to become “The Big Two” of comic books. The unification process allowed for narrative to extend beyond the original author as new writers and artists could be put in charge of different incarnations of the same character. Superman, considered by many as the original superhero, was no longer the property of Joe Shuster and Jerry Sieger after many years of working together when they sold the rights of the Man of Steel to DC, after years of working together. Ongoing serialization now had primacy over individual authorship as new writers and artists were employed to design new stories, which now encompassed multiple titles. Superman at one point in the late 50s had six titles were he was one of the main characters, all done by different writers and artists that had little to no narrative overlap when it came to continuity. Eco’s Myth of Superman was written during this moment of narrative production as more and as storytelling did not have to fit within an overarching style.

Corporate authorship soon changed its focus of ownership to one of control, as the desire to have an overall continuity for their titles during the so called Bronze Age of comics during the 70s. This becomes an ambitious endeavor once one recognizes that all characters owned by DC technically exist simultaneously in the same world, which becomes even more complex thanks to the multiverse that contains different versions of Earth, each with slightly different but still unique versions of each of them. The idea that comics now had to keep all their stories straight turned editors almost into a type of narrative continuity police. This made it nearly impossible for individual titles of characters to exist alongside group titles, ie Batman cannot be tirelessly defending Gotham City in his own comic and simultaneously go on missions with the Justice League. In addition, characters had to stick more or less to their own jurisdictions so to speak, as it is hard to believe that Superman would be fighting a colossal sea monster threatening massive destruction to the general populace without Aquaman getting involved. The goal of a company wide universal continuity allowed for more believability to the storylines but also kept a tight leash on creative control towards the stories.

Most importantly when it came to overall serialization is that not only was the present under heavy scrutiny, but also the future. Every storyline had to be approved by the higher ups with the knowledge that it could not permanently affect how future writers would deal with the character. For example, one writer could not get a run of issues were Superman overcomes his weakness to kryptonite in order to defeat a powerful nemesis, as this would clearly wreak havoc on any future stories involving said character. Any and all events were now considered canon for these characters, and now permanent facts within the overall story. Publication cemented information as true, so the authorial function  of narrative production was expanded to make sure no contradictions occurred and avoid encroaching on any other author’s story. Still, with so many writers and artists working on multiple narratives being simultaneously published, errors in narrative continuity would eventually slip.

One of the authorial performances surrounding the production of serial fiction is making sure that the story remains consistent with whatever was previously published but almost more importantly and one of the signs of great work is how one deals when any mistakes do appear. The simplest way for many writers is to deal with it outside of the story by acknowledging the mishap and retracting it through a message in the next installment. In forms where the enforced interruption between installments is not very long, this is certainly doable though forms like long novels or films might require a press release or interview stating the change. The method that the comics industry is most well known for involves retroactive continuity, in which the mistake is dealt with directly in the actual narrative, often by contradicting what had originally happened or putting it in a new light. This particular narrative strategy became so common that its abbreviation, “retcon” has become a verb for many readers of contemporary serial fiction and almost every event in comics has been retconned at one point or another over the last 40 years or so. In other forms of serialization, the use of retcons was a personal choice by the author, usually at the behest of readers that cried out over a mistake in the story or for other changes to occur. Perhaps the most famous retcon in literary history belongs to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who after having officially killed the eponymous detective of his Sherlock Holmes series in the second book of his adventures, decided to have him survive the fatal flaw and come back to solving crimes. Holmes’s death was no accident by the author, but rather a deliberate choice that he felt should be reversed. In all of my research on serials, I have found the story remains in narrative flux until the final installment is published, and retcons illustrate that anything written in stone can still be carved for something else, or even have the rock changed altogether.

Within the realms of corporate authorship, retcons involve various people outside of writers and artists to allow the change to occur. Interestingly enough, there are recorded cases where the authorial function of making such changes in a plausible enough manner are relegated to the readership. When Stan Lee was Editor in Chief for Marvel Comics in the mid 1960s, he established the “No Prize” a fictitious award given out to people who spotted errors in the writing or art, like miscolored pieces of clothing or typos. Reader demand for an actual physical award turned to Stan lee sending out empty envelopes stating that there was “a genuine No Prize inside” but only to readers that spotted actual errors in narrative continuity and provided reasons as to how it was not an actual error. Reasons for sending out No Prizes over the years have changed from something very serious given to the few, to almost a gag response for the many. They are now being sent out digitally for such services in narrative reconstruction and for further services towards “Marveldom” like giving comic books to charities. One actual physical No Prize was recently given to Norb Rozek for identifying and resolving one particular problem of narrative continuity regarding Nick Fury, famous for his eye patch.

“Rozek pointed out that in a recent issue of New Avengers, Nick Fury is shown wearing an eye-patch in a story set in 1959. According to Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #27 (Feb. 1966), Fury would not lose sight in his eye and start wearing an eye-patch until 1963. The Nick Fury character started out as an army sergeant in stories set during World War II, and had no eyepatch. When Marvel put Fury in stories based in the then-present, in 1965, they gave him an eye-patch and made him a secret agent. However, before they made him a secret agent, there was one story where he guest-starred with the Fantastic Four in a story set in the then-present, and he did not have the eye-patch. So, basically, in Sgt. Fury #27, they created a ludicrous back-story where Fury refuses an eye operation (during World War II) even though he knows it will cost him the vision in his eye one day; which, according to the story, does not happen until 1963 (in other words, after his one appearance in Fantastic Four but before he got the eyepatch in 1965). By this logic, Fury’s eye would have still been functional in 1959; it would not fail for four more years. Norb “explained” that perhaps Fury’s eye started failing intermittently during the late 1950s-early 1960s, which is why he had an eye-patch in 1959.”

Authorship through a company level has the ability to continue multiple narratives in serialization through the use of various writers and artists that continue the work of the original authors and creators of many characters. However, the idea behind an almost revolving door of personnel limits the relationship between authors and readers that one finds in different media, or even in the early days comic book publication. Also, there are many moments when narrative control is taken away from the writers and artists as the higher ups have the last call on any storyline and disagreements over “creative differences” leads to people being fired from their position as new people are hired to replace them. Ideas are quickly judged more on their economic potential, rather than their artistic or narrative ones. Just recently, DC was criticized for their executive decision to not allow the people working on the newest iteration of Batwoman from marrying her fiancée, which would have made for the first lesbian wedding in comic books. The company states that it is not because of an anti-gay marriage stance but rather that this is not what they want for the character, which prompted the writers and artists of that title to quit. The authorial act of protest is marked but it is not one that ceases the narrative production as someone else will take the reins until the higher ups eventually decide to end the title.

Ultimately, corporate authorship is one that has powers and narrative control over multiple stories that were once unfathomable for early authors. The move to concatenate storylines amongst all characters minimalizes narrative redundancy but in the process editorial power became an overall limiter to the creative process. Perhaps the best way to encompass what corporate authorship is all about is through the response that Jim Lee, Editor in Chief or DC, recently gave towards criticism that the company was being unfair to some of its writers and artists.

“To me it’s the normal course of business in that not everyone’s going to agree creatively what to do with a book. The company has to reserve the right to control the destiny and the futures of the characters, and the creators have to decide if they’re willing to work in an environment where they’re telling their story but in the framework of a universe that has continuity and you have to work with all of these other different creators and editors that would want to control the directions of the characters.” Jim Lee http://guttersandpanels.com/gutters-and-panels/2013/3/23/the-new-52-timeline-of-departures by John Gholson

Advertisements

Episode 99: Writers, Artists, and Stan Lee

The concept of an author is one that generally evokes the image of a person at his or her desk writing something that will eventually be further scrutinized by an editor before being sent off to print. The idea of authorship being ascribed to one person or group of people for a specific mode of narrative production became altered in the 20th century with the rise of graphic narratives as a common form of storytelling. Film and later television would blur the lines of authorship with multiple roles that shaped the narrative in specific manners, like the writers, directors, actors, editors, and other personnel, but most readers were unable to ascertain whose individual contributions led to the final product. Comics and other forms of print graphic narratives are far more specific as to who is charge of what part, with the primary roles of writer and artist receiving the most attention.

While both the writer and the artist are the main people responsible for creating a graphic narrative, authorship is primarily assigned to the former of the two. In a formal sense, this is known by the fact that the MLA citation format, among other systems, has the writer’s name be the first one to be presented. Perhaps this is due to the perception of the importance of written language when it comes to storytelling that the primacy of authorship is given to the writer. The artist is considered to be in charge of adding the visual elements to the story, usually at the behest of the writer, much like how others are tasked with turning the scenes from a screenplay into the visual elements of the play or film. Some of the most iconic authors in comics like Charles Shultz and Bill Waterson of Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes fame, respectively, did both jobs under the title of cartoonist but they were in charge of newspaper comic strips, which have relatively much less material than a standard 32 page comic book. The constant serialization of comic books regularly requires an artist and a writer, but they also might include inkers, colorists, and leterers (those in charge of making sure words are legible and fit well into their appropriate speech bubbles. While the end product is the culmination of the work of various people; ultimately, it is the responsibility of the writer to create and develop the story.

The dynamic and complex relationship between writers and artists can be found back as early as works of serial fiction in the Victorian era. Charles Dickens worked with various artists during his career as a writer so that each installment of his serialized novels would have a distinctive image through a wood cut or engraving. The separation of individual panels in contemporary graphic novels means that the artist needs to work side by side with the writer to make sure the stories visual elements work well with the print ones. The relationship between writer and artist would be further complicated through what later would be known as the “Stan Lee” method of writing. You see, DC Comics employed a more traditional method, with writers and artists working together one on one during the authorial process.  Marvel comics (DC’s main competitor tried to do something completely different during the 50s and 60s. During that time, Stan Lee was asked to write multiple scripts for different titles. He had several artists under him and was in charge of them. He would give each artist a different script so each one had clear guidelines as to what to draw, but were given relative freedoms as to how each scene would be portrayed. Stan Lee would then edit this almost finished comic, lacking only the dialogue boxes and its content. Later, Stan Lee would fill in the comic with the dialogue as he saw fit and then send it down the pipeline. This was Marvel’s business model for several years with Stan as the head and pretty much only writer under their employment. This practice, while now unseen, illustrates the authorial performance of maintaining proper communication with the artist in charge of making one’s narrative creation come to life, so to speak.

Episode 98: Author Functions in Webcomics

The path that each person undertakes on their path from narrative production to publication is a very unique one due to the many circumstances that surround each individual author. Webcomic cartoonists take on additional responsibilities that other authors outside of this medium and form rarely go through. In many cases, these are one person operations where the author not only has to write and draw each installment but also take on every other aspect to make sure the reader can access his/her work. While self-publishing writers undergo similar hardships for their authorial endeavors, the relative abundance of publishing houses makes an exception; wherein, the rarity  of such resources for webcomic cartoonists makes this extra work an all too common experience. These additional authorial performances include, but are not limited to, creating and maintaining the website where their work is published, moderating forums, developing merchandise which they must then store and ensure delivery of for each purchase, foster a sense of community with the current readership, advertise to gain new readers, stay active in social media to keep readers informed, travel to different conventions for further reader interaction and merchandise sales, among others just to keep the narrative and business  sides of their ventures viable.

These authorial performances are common practice amongst self-published authors of print and even some graphic narratives but there are clear differences between them and those in digital storytelling. The model for these kinds of publications are already familiar to readers and authors; the system for publishing is already there. The history of webcomics and web publications contains several examples of authors adapting their work to fit the molds of previous forms of media while at the same time trying to reinvent the wheel for these new digital avenues. Troy Campbell’s History of Webcomics how many webcomic cartoonists were lost when attempting to transpose their narrative production into the digital format and how to deliver these stories to the potential reader. Technological acuity for starting and keeping up the website was just as important as good storytelling and artistic ability for the early webcomic pioneers of this digital frontier.

Webcomics have existed the early days of the Internet when it was then known as the Arpanet system. This form of storytelling took off during the turn of the millennium as the technology had reached a level of accessibility for authors and readers alike. Still, the task of creating a serialization format for this medium was still experimental. Many webcomic cartoonists stuck to traditional and recognizable forms by making three or four horizontal panels, the established presentation of comic strips in newspapers. The other model of graphic narratives was that of comic books and graphic novels, but having that much content per installment did not lend itself well to the digital medium. Instead, many webcomic cartoonists adapted the style of a singular comic book page, normally containing twelve panels while still being as adaptable as need be, for delivering their content in a way that was familiar to readers and one that was simple enough for the author to compile for potential future print compilations. However, other webcomic cartoonists preferred to create new modes of storytelling. While print graphic narratives had information crammed into the confines of each page, webcomic authors could provide new dimensions through multimedia options and creative/strategic spacing between panels. The latter practice was coined by Comics Studies guru Scott McCloud as the “Infinite Canvas, which frees authors from the physical limitations of the page thanks to the ability of websites to spread out almost indefinitely into any direction while still within one’s sight through a few clicks on the mouse. Webcomics carry with them the authorial potential to explore once impractical structures of storytelling, though this is a choice that many authors use sparingly within their work.

Another choice that webcomic cartoonists need to make that is out of the hands of many authors is the publication schedule of their work. Other forms of serialization have this decision premade as part of the “industry” standards of the medium, at least when it comes to publishing in the United States of America. Newspapers come out everyday, movies are in cinemas just before the weekend, comic books have new installments every Wednesday, DVDs and other films to own are available on Tuesdays, etc. Traditional print publishing does not have a set release date for all books, though some popular authors are more likely to decide on the first Tuesday of the month, potentially to maximize initial monthly sale numbers. Webcomic cartoonists elect not only the date of publication, but also its frequency. Since most webcomics fall under the category of microserialized, wherein each installment contains less than one percent of the total finished text, these authors need to calculate how often they can provide updates. These calculations take into effect various factors; such as but not limited to, on average narrative production, current workload, narrative pacing, and the amount of content per installment. Professional webcomic cartoonists like Barg Guigar, author of “Evil Inc” and How to Make Webcomics, advocate for consistency and a strict update schedule to keep readers and authors focused delivering installments on a regular pace. On the other hand, there are those that insist that new installments should be done when they are ready and not rushed or forced for the sake of being on time. A “random system” encourages visits to occur more regularly, thus increasing views and potential advertising revenue. Besides, a strict schedule means that the majority of your readership will go to the site with each new installment as it comes out, which can potentially crash the website itself . Furthermore, webcomic cartoonists can change their publication schedule whenever they see fit, thus being able to shift between forms as they see fit, though they do so at the risk of confusing/alienating their current readership. Ultimately, the publication schedule should be one where the author can do his/her job at a desired pace. Tarol Hunt of webcomics went through a few years of determining when updates should be made. Twice a week was too much of a struggle to keep up with but once a week would slow the pacing of his narrative too much. He recently decided to forego a specific date of the week to provide an update every five days to a mostly positive reception by his readership. He even put up a countdown clock so that readers specifically know when the next installment will be available. As of the time of this writing, this new and somewhat unconventional publication schedule has not had any delays or missed updates, a not uncommon occurrence in his previous publishing formats.

Because authorship within the digital platform can be done at a potentially large scale without the need of editors or publishing houses, there are less barriers in this medium preventing one from publication. This allows for a freedom when it comes to the actual content of one’s work, especially towards what can be considered “mature” or “adult” material. There is no FCC policing the Internet and most content is protected under the First Amendment for writers and artists of the US and many other countries have similar stances. And yet, these freedoms do not equate to all material found on the Web to be hyper violent and/or sexual in nature. Each author produces his/her work as he/she sees fit and they do not necessarily need to fit their stories into age appropriate categories like rating system in place for movies and television programs. The authorial function of censorship gives way to one of overall consistency in tone. The author is free to choose how to best convey the story through each of the installments but the first one that contains something outside the expected tone can cause a backlash for the readers. For example, imagine that one installment of a webcomic that can be considered to be within the “PG 13” rating suddenly contains a scene with graphic nudity. The author technically has done nothing wrong but the reaction by the readership beyond the initial surprise can vary wildly. In general, content that is generally perceived as “adult” or something that could be found in an R rated film is accompanied by a warning of such, mostly by indicating that the material in question is “Not Safe for Work” (NSFW). Authors are in no way obligated to provide the NSFW label for their work but it is considered a common courtesy and almost a standard practice within digital publishing.

It is also worth noting that since there are generally no editors or publishing houses for webcomics, there is no real way to ensure that the serialization process continues. If webcomic cartoonists are indeed running a one person operation, then the only incentive to keep going is a personal motivation and the desire to keep the readership happy. Still, no one is going to fire a particular author for falling back on the publication schedule or if the writing and/or art become lower in quality. One might a few angry emails and lose some readers, which translate into a loss of revenue but the digital author can still continue to do shoddy work or even stop altogether, which ultimately makes the narrative suffer. There is no physical contract that forces the webcomic cartoonist to write the story. It is not like in the case of corporate authorship where other writers and artists can be employed to replace unproductive ones. If the author chooses to go on hiatus or quit, then the story becomes frozen until the serialization continues at some point in the future. In fact, many webcomic cartoonists start with an interesting concept but later realize that the amount of work necessary to run their work is just more than what they expected and/or can handle. Thus, one of the authorial functions for webcomic cartoonists is that of discipline in order to continue to provide installments at a regular pace with a consistent overall quality to your readership, however big or small.

Episode 97: Dissertating Bullets

Perhaps the scariest part about dissertation writing is the sheer magnitude of writing such a massive piece of academic power. For a while this will become your calling card to the world of academia, one of your first publications, and a critical corner stone of your standing as an academic. All of my friends and professors who have/are going through this process say that you need to be realistic and think of the dissertation, not as a magnum opus, but rather as a really long paper that needs to be good enough for five people with PhDs to live with it. Still, on average the standard dissertation for something literary is close to 200 pages and even with the bibliography taking up about 10% of that, the quantity is daunting. Upon facing such an endeavor I find myself unable to make much progress when it comes to actual pounding away on the keyboard to write.  Even the separation of chapters keeps me at an awe inducing distance from actual dissertating.

The only way that I have been able to climb this Everest of mine is to make pitons and footholds at a slow but steady pace, not looking at the vertical horizon of the summit but rather at the next point of ascending. To make it plausible even under my slow typing skills I have subdivided my dissertation proposal into bullet points with the bare essentials of what each chapter will strive to achieve. Like a bitter pill, each bullet point will now be part of my nightly medication until I have ended this illness known as a PhD. So to you my handful of readers, I declare that each night as much as I am capable of, I will face a different bullet and show you my work. Midnight Snack Serial is going into overdrive. Editing will be a mission for another day but for now, things need to be plastered on the digital canvas. With a few pages every night, the drip of blogging will weather stone of academia . Direct quotations of everything will be added later but I will attempt to keep everything with a serious tone so expect a lot of fancy words along the way. 

Here are the bullet points, wish me luck.

  • Chapter 1: Intro
  • Start with Barthes and Foucault, establish distinction between author and authorship
    • Author as entity vs corporate vs single person
  • Equate author functions with authorial performances
  • Go through each literary theory
    • Why Textual criticism, specifically the Tanselle/Shillingsburg method.
    • Throw in dash of other theories, like narratology and reader response to show how narrative production is an active process of proper story telling for an active audience
    • Explain why media studies is an important distinction, which is why chapters are done through each medium
  • Limit scope of reading to serialization because it shows a more active process of authorship through a single story, easier to follow and analyze as opposed to writing single books over time.
  • Further limit with contemporary texts because emphasis of dissertation is how authorship is alive and well post the declaration of its supposed death.
  • Make sure to include copyright law, because an important function of authorship is establishing/defending your literary creations from others. Apply to rest of chapters.

Chapter 2: Print 

  • Quick overview of history and context of print serialization.
    • Victorian serials. Transition from literary magazines to books. The issue of page count.
    • Establish the chain of editors, publishers, and other people between author and readers. Mostly done for good reasons but ultimately alter narrative production, Tanselle’s explanations.
  • Begin praising JK Rowling at every possible level.
    • How she established her narrative world while doing the first book because narrative consistency/continuity is important.
    • Can control quantity of content (rising page count) and publication (world release dates).
    • Influence over adaptations *note: tread carefully when explaining this
    • Continues to talk to readers though interviews and Pottermore website. Any extra info given can be considered canon.
    • Celebrity authorship. Accio quote website.
    • Lawsuit about the Potter wiki when it was becoming a book, something that she even used but used copyright to stop its publication.
  • Print incurs the concept of profit when compared to web publishing

 

Chapter 3: Comics 

  • Use McCloud and Eisner to explain how comics work.
  • Provide quick history, include Eco’s Myth of Superman to show difference between episodic and serialized storytelling.
  • Debate how authorship is weird between writers and artists. Briefly showcase standard comic book writing versus the Stan Lee method.
  • History of authorship of Superman from Shuster and Seigel to corporate property of DC and their extended legal battles.
  • Too many authors leads to continuity issues. Explain Crisis event as fusion of narratives and of authorships.
  • *Note: tread carefully around remakes, rewrites and other things that are technically adaptations.
  • Different levels of corporate authorship and trickle down effect in Death and Return of Superman series. Socio cultural effects at onset and ending of series.
    • Make sure to include the following: Made national news. Killed death.
  • Offer Atomic Robo as contemporary alternative to superhero comic outside of DC and Marvel
    • How Clevinger and Wegna are both authors and creators rather than standard writer and artist.
    • Authorship is more personal thanks to social media, like Twitter as a backstage pass.
      • Accessibility to authors as people and to narrative.

Chapter 4: Webcomics 

  • Overview of digital media and history of webcomics
  • Explain in detail how author functions have expanded considerably in “true” one person operations. Provide examples of companies like Topatoco that help with extra stuff.
  • Begin praise of Rich Burlew and OOTS at all levels
  • Similar Praise to Thunt as an e-maginary friend of his.
  • Crowdfunding and kickstarter, how readers are taking on author functions, like getting seed money for projects.
    • Ascended readership through those that become forum moderators and even artists. Include fan art and examples like Xin Ye of Erfworld
    • Throw in stuff from Webcomics Weekly Podcast and interviews I did in 2010.