Blurring Lines

By | Monday, April 20, 2009 Leave a Comment
Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was a actually a fan of superheroes as a kid and not comic books. I had a few issues of Justice League but my knowledge and familiarity with the team came more from watching Super Friends on Saturday mornings. (Superman will ALWAYS be voiced by Danny Dark for me, regardless of how many other actors have taken on the role because that's the version I grew up with.) I loved comics because that was where superheroes could be predominantly found but, given my limited budget, I was as much a fan of superheroes on television as I was the ones in comics.

So I watched with eagerness The Kid Super Power Hour just as readily as The New Adventures of Batman. And heroes that didn't even have their own show caught my attention. My favorite segments on Electric Company were the Spidey stories and the adventures of Letter-Man. My favorite Schoolhouse Rock videos were "Electricty, Electricity" ("If we only had a superhero who could stand here and turn the generator real fast...") and "Verb! That's What's Happening!"

For me, as a kid, there effectively was no difference between Marvel and DC and whatever spandex-wearing athlete my eyes came across. Indeed, even Captain Klutz and Superhost (who were by NO means athletes) still garnered my attention. A superhero was a superhero was a superhero regardless if they were created expressly for a TV show or a comic book or whathaveyou. It was all the same to me.

I also failed to notice distinctions between iterations. Oh, I could tell that Spider-Man was drawn without webbing all over his costume in the original cartoon, and that Nicholas Hammond's eye coverings were silver instead of white, but the differences in continuity and/or characterizations were irrelevant. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider, which gave him super powers, and he fought crime. That's all I needed to know. I wanted to see villains vanquished and it didn't matter if it was the Green Goblin or the Can Crusher. And, when I got my Mego figures out, it could just as easily be General Ursus or a Klingon.

Back in the 1970s, I was unintentionally blurring the lines between media and essentially created my own internal narrative of the lives of superheroes.

It's an interesting prospect, I think, given the nature of where society has gone in the past thirty years. These days, a company is all about it's brand and generally makes it abundantly clear whose product you're dealing with. You don't just drink Coca-Cola any more -- you wear Coke t-shirts and have Coke beach towels and have framed Coke advertisements on your walls. Indeed, it's gone so far that any number of individuals (myself included) cultivate our own personal brand in much the same way that companies do (although, admittedly, on a much smaller scale). My mother even initiated a discussion recently because she was concerned about my girlfriend's online brand -- she (my girlfriend) used to use a handle that has since been adopted by a porn star, which has led to some interesting Google searches!

And yet, technology has improved to the point where it's infinitely easier to deliberately blur those branding lines, and propagate those blurrings to an increasingly wider audience. I recently created my own musical mashup (and video) featuring Beyonce and Moby (who themselves were already blurring lines with their cover of a Schoolhouse Rock song) to share online...

Further making things interesting, some folks are creating their own brands specifically by appropriating and repurposing already existing brands. Jason Yungbluth's Weapon Brown is a prime example; he's taken famous comic strip characters (Charlie Brown, Garfield, BC, etc.) and put them to his own use, making a unique product. Similarly, Ross Nover's The System uses existing iconography (see above) to create his online comic.

The question then becomes one of use. Does creation of the new brand infringe on that of the old? In the cases of Yungbluth and Nover, I don't think so. The new pieces are significantly different from the originals, so there's little overlap. In my case with the mashup, I'm not infringing on anyone there either since it's not really part of my personal brand identity. (If anyone wants to question that, just ask yourself if I'm known in any circles as a DJ?)

On the flip side of the coin are those with original brands that want to maintain their integrity. I've heard several people suggest in the past year that part of one's online branding strategy should include tracking down what OTHER people are doing to affect your brand. Garfield Minus Garfield is a prime example, and Paws, Inc. (who owns Garfield) took a deliberate approach to handling it. The actual book, for those of you who don't know, is NOT the product of the site creator, Dan Walsh. It is exclusively the work of Jim Davis utilizing Walsh's basic setup. In effect Paws, Inc. decided that Walsh's site had a valid concept behind it, but published the book under their own copyright entirely independent of Walsh, thereby granting personal acceptance of the strip's creativity but legally keeping it well within their control. It's rather a brilliant move, if you asked me.

So, where am I going with this?

I'm saying that, as a successful creator, you will likely have people creating derivative works off your own. Some will be more clever than others, some will be more derivative than others. You need to keep your eye out for them all (a daunting task, I'll admit) and embrace the good ideas while halting only the ones that might truly damage your brand.
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