April 17, 2010 by Eddy Webb
One of the things I’ve always had kicking around in the back of my head was doing a story or series of stories using characters in the public domain.
I think some of this comes from the incredible League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the comics, not the movie), but it goes back further than that. I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was a kid, and I’ve always been interested in other people’s take on the character. Many are pretty bad, but some are interesting, and a few actually add new textures to the character that I didn’t realize before. I’ve always wanted to play around in someone else’s universe and add my own spin on an established character.
With the rise of the Internet, it’s all “open source” and “remixing,” and I’m surprised that it hasn’t happened more often with fiction and public domain characters. For example, the radio serial Box 13 is pretty obscure, but there’s been an iPhone comic of a complete rewrite of Box 13 that has been pretty entertaining (and certainly worth the free download if you have an iPhone). As opposed to League where the characters are decently close analogues to their original inspirations, though, the Box 13 comic only shares a few points of similarity, but otherwise goes in a completely different direction. To me, this is more of a remix of the original fiction (taking the original pieces and moving them around to make a new story), instead of a serious pastiche (keeping the original pieces in place and putting them in a different story).
My first exposure to a character that was intentionally put into the public domain (or at least, opened up for other people to use in their own work) was Agent Patriot. I was so blown away by the idea that I immediately jumped on the bandwagon, and even wrote a few episodes myself. I also used him when I was using Inform 7 to create a text adventure when I was first learning how to write for video games. It’s been six years, but I still have ideas for him rattling around in my head. But recently I found out about another intentionally open source character: Jenny Everywhere. While it looks like Jenny’s heyday was 2001-2003, it seems she had a resurgence a few years back. Within moments, I had ideas for a story title1 (“Everywhere and Nowhere”) and was thinking of ways to insert Jenny Everywhere into the Agent Patriot universe.
I thought that there might be a couple of superheroes that have fallen into the public domain as well – maybe I could do an entirely public domain/open source superhero team? I honestly was expecting maybe a handful, but there are hundreds. Many are really terrible, and some have been picked up and reinvented by other comic companies, making their copyright status a little weird, but it’s really not just 19th century fiction that can be remixed.
Interestingly, some authors experimented with this idea long before the Internet age. H.P. Lovecraft encouraged other writers that he corresponded with to use pieces of his Cthulhu Mythos in their own stories. Michael Moorcock did the same with Jerry Cornelius. And even comic book characters like Octobriana appear to have been created to be usable by everyone.
The point of this post isn’t to go into the complex wilderness of creative copyright, or to champion that “all fiction must be free” or anything like that. Mostly, I just think that there’s something creatively entertaining about playing around in someone else’s backyard in a way that extends beyond fan fiction and into a totally new experience, and there are some intriguing bits floating around on the Internet that could be put together into some intriguing shapes. I’d rather do that with bits that I have legal permission to use.
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- And I am shit at coming up with titles, so this is a big thing ↩