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

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