August 24, 2007

The Perils of Public Domain

It's an almost universal maxim: just because you can do something does not mandate that you should do something.

Case in point: while perusing the internet, I came across this news item about Todd McFarlane and Josh Olson doing a "revision" of The Wizard of Oz. Fortunately, it has nothing to do with the oversexualized Dorothy action figure McFarlane Toys released some time ago...but it does seem to be part of a growing trend in the comics industry.

Recently, not one, but two projects dealing with "public domain" comic characters have been announced as being, essentially, the return of the Golden Age of Comics. (It doesn't help that Alan Moore's already done it somewhat with Terra Obscura, and...well, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls both have sources can be traced back to Librivox.

What's distressing to me? No, not the fact that they're using unused and uncopyrighted properties - if my understanding of how public domain and derivative works function, anyone can do anything with these characters so long as they don't plagiarize each other. (This frequently linked-to comic discusses fair use...which is why, Lefty, I can use snippets of songs in the "Record You Should Own" podcasts)

But anyway...what is troubling and frustrating is the lack of creativity surrounding all of these projects. McFarlane's wish to revisit Oz is not to, say, revisit the themes that L. Frank Baum might have intended (for example, the importance of friends, courage, or as one motivational speaker puts it, having brains, courage, heart...and a plan). It seems more about making Dorothy "kewl" (or as Olson puts it, "Harry Potter dark, not Seven dark") and creating a sequel which...well, really isn't needed. Both the Image/Dynamite projects seem to hint at "creating" a universe out of whole cloth, although (in fairness) it seems more like a kind of creative shortcut - using characters to get the same buzz rather than cherry pick traits.

(One side note about Lost Girls - I'm not a prude, and believe in free speech. But it seems rather sloppy and exploitive for Alan Moore to have taken familiar children's characters and, all of a sudden, imposed sexual themes into the works. I'm all for smut, but if Alan Moore really wanted to explore those themes of sexuality in a positive manner, wouldn't it have made more sense to create new characters? Using familiar characters is slightly provocative, and can unintentionally push buttons that do not allow for mature discussion. Just a thought).

I know, public domain characters have been "adapted" by the big two - however, there's always seemed to be some creative "tweaking", which (I assume) public domain allows for...but which current projects are not doing. Although having multiple takes on a character is good, it is hopeful that anyone else using public domain characters is able to do so without legal challenges from comics companies. Yes, companies are able to adapt public domain characters...but hopefully, not at the expense of keeping those characters available for others.

Or else, the Fighting Yank/Spy Smasher/Tarzan Nanowrimo project I'm working on is a waste of time.

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