'The Big Giveback' Signifies What?

By | Wednesday, December 01, 2010 3 comments
As you may or may not be aware, last month there was a challenge going around for every creator willing to take it up to come up with 30 new characters in 30 days. I didn't follow it very closely, to be honest, so I'm not exactly sure what the purpose was -- I suppose mostly to exercise one's creative muscles. Kind of a variation on 24-Hour-Comic-Day. But my Twitter stream had more than a few updates from comic creators who joined in, and busted out a number of characters. (As I said, I wasn't really paying attention, so I don't know how many were actually successful in getting to 30 characters.)

So, now we're in December and the challenge is done. And what's going to happen to all those characters that have been created? By and large, probably nothing. Most of these folks have bills to pay and whatnot, so they're largely using their time for paying gigs and I for one am not about to begrudge them for that!

But Mark Waid pointed out that Vito Delsante is doing something a little different with his 30 new characters: he's giving them away. Here is what he actually said...
Beginning today, YOU, the comic reading/comic creating public, can create comics or other similar works (film, prose, etc.) using the characters I created for the 30 Characters/30 Days Challenge. Using the Creative Commons license you see below and on the character designs, you can write, draw, compose a comic book, whatever, using one of…or more than one…of these characters.
(Emphasis his. Also a quick side note to point out that Mr. Sunday up there is one of Delsante's creations.)

He elaborated by citing Waid's keynote from the Harvey Awards -- specifically his line about “culture is more important than copyright” hitting a soft spot -- and also noted that, frankly, he won't have a chance to work on the characters himself any time soon, which would be a disservice to the characters. He does recognize that it's "probably not a great moment in comics" but still thinks it's of some significance. As does Waid, who quickly weighed in with a very positive approval and endorsement of the idea.

So the question is: what does this actually mean?

Well, from a short-term perspective, not much. After all, there ARE quite a lot of characters out there already and they're in production and have stories already in the works about them. So I don't think we're going to see Spider-Man battling Tuo, the Alligator Man any time soon. Also, there are public domain comic characters that have been available for some time and, in fact, have been used. The Golden Age Daredevil showed up in Savage Dragon last year, I think, and Dynamite Entertainment is still running Project Superpowers. Delsante's new characters aren't, in and of themselves, likely to start showing up all over the place. After all, they're new characters and have no nostalgia attached to them.

From a long-term perspective, it's hard to say what the impact will be. If the idea catches on, and creators start regularly releasing their characters with Creative Commons licenses, then we could see a cultural shift in how comics operate. Creators working for larger publishers could well start bringing in some of these "open" characters rather than create ones for themselves that would then be owned by the publisher. Of course, that's assuming the publishers would allow that type of thing! I know I've read about instances in the music industry where public domain/Creative Commons material was actively rejected precisely because it could not be owned by the corporation putting out the other material it accompanied. Similarly I can easily see editorial decisions at Marvel and DC dictating that creators cannot use Delsante's characters because, even though they don't need to pay to use them, they can't own them either. Despite still being able to earn profits from them.

See, the issue at hand really boils down to control. The executives in board rooms really don't give a rat's patootie about Alicia Masters or Perry White. They just know that they can charge a toy company X amount of money for the license to make an action figure based on that character. Because they own (i.e. control) those characters. But if the character is in the public domain, they really don't have control over him/her. Sure, they can put the character in their books and do whatever they like there, but they can't control whether or not somebody else does something different with the same character.

Remember when Jack Kirby worked on Jimmy Olsen? DC had Al Plastino and Murphy Anderson go through all of Kirby's artwork and redraw Superman's heads so that it matched the DC house style. That was about control. They wanted to ensure that Superman looked like THEIR version of Superman, not Kirby's.

Of course, Marvel and DC aren't the end-all-be-all of comics by themselves. So it's entirely possible that some smaller publishers or even independent webcomics might pick up some characters and run with them. But to what end? I'm not trying to sound pessimistic or cynical here; I really don't know. Why would they use those characters? What would that accomplish that hiring a new creator who could create (and own) his own characters wouldn't? The best I can think of is that it might provide some background fodder characters? I'm open to hearing other thoughts.

Don't get me wrong here. I like what Waid said at the Harveys and I have a lot of respect for Delsante for releasing his characters to the world. Maybe it's because it's late, but I'm having trouble seeing the real significance here. I think it's something that can and should be discussed -- which is why I'm bringing it up -- but I'm genuinely just not sure what can be said beyond the basic facts. If you've got some thoughts, please feel free to weigh in.
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Matt K said...

Wasn't the character Octobriana intentionally released for all to use in a kind of similar way? Brian Talbot employed her in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, and I think that's about it.

I would add to what you've observed that it's probably more than a lack of nostalgia which makes a "new character, free to all!" a non-event. There's probably also the fact that the term "character" encompasses everything from someone with a one-panel non-speaking appearance to, say, Batman, with several decades' worth of stories providing a more richly-detailed being than quite a few real people have, really. :-)

With some exceptions, I think "characterization" is generally more interesting than "character." A brand-new character is largely a blank canvas; sure, that can be great, but then why not just make your own?

Releasing "into the wild" a character with some actual history behind him/her would, I think, be a much more interesting. You still might only get blogosophere/media/whatever attention with the release of a well-known character, of course, but in most cases that would mean a valuable corporate property and would therefore be even more significant.

(Because it's completely unlikely to ever happen. Though it might create so much of a stir, I can almost see someone like Quesada trying it just to "crack the internet in half." Offer up some B-list but known-and-loved Marvel hero to the creative commons... I think the idea would have to be very tempting whenever Joe starts thinking wistfully of all the attention which the "death of Captain America" got.)

Octobriana is kind of a weird case, legally. She was created by Peter Sadecký in the early 1970s, but Sadecký gave the character's creation a backstory that placed her creation by a loose-knit political group about a decade earlier. That story was widely believed for several years (and often still is) and other people began using the character under the impression it was PD. Since Sadecký didn't pursue legal avenues to retain his copyright, she effectively has become PD. She's PD not because she was "given" to the public, but because Sadecký was simply willfully negligent about enforcing his copyright in order to give credence to the contrived backstory.

Of course, that doesn't even begin to touch on the some of the other legal issues around the character!

I like your idea about somebody big opening the rights on a larger name character that has some history. It would DEFINITELY make some news headlines. And I bet if Marvel or DC would do that, there'd be a bunch of folks jumping on crossover potential to boost their own sales too.

Mark Waid said...

You're also overlooking Cerebus, a character Sim allowed anyone to use under what were basically Creative Commons rules before CC existed. But this is the first time I can recall it being done as an active act of rebellion against "the system," and to me, that's what makes it exciting. Vito is not only actively encouraging other creators to follow suit but holding their hands and helping them understand Creative Commoms. The significance isn't in the size of the step--first steps are always baby steps--it's in the fact that someone thought to take it. Again, I wish to hell I'D thought of doing it first!