Building a Better Batman

Author Hugh Howey has an interesting approach to fan-fiction: he encourages it.  For those who don’t know, Howey is the author of “Wool”, a self-published sci-fi series turned breakout mega-hit, the buzz around which is changing a lot of minds about self-publishing.  His book and his success were what inspired me to try self-publishing “Deep Sounding”, and I’ve been stalking him ever since.

But to the subject at-hand: Howey encourages fan-fiction.  Even more radically, he encourages authors to PUBLISH these works, for money, and he doesn’t ask a cut.  He considers it free publicity, and he’s rightfully jazzed at the idea of fellow artists who love his sandbox enough to come play in it.  It’s a notion so common-sense that of course no one has ever tried it before, and it’s got me thinking about communal storytelling.

Howey writes, “Now, I get a lot of questions about this fan fiction stuff, and one of the things people seem most wary of is the idea of having something written that conflicts with “canon.” This has never been a concern for me, and I think it’s because I grew up on comics, where origin stories are rewritten, comics rebooted, alternate universes explored, and nothing is set in stone.”

I find that interesting: the idea of a shared DNA which legions of writers and artists take it in turn to monkey with.  I thought I’d do some exploring.

Now here’s a secret comic fans have known for a while: most of the “canon” staple series from DC/Marvel (ie, the monthly comics) suck.  Terribly.  Everyone knows it. And the majority of the most-memorable comics relating to any character have been one-offs, what-ifs, artsy otherworld graphic novels, limited-run trade paperbacks, etc. For example, the main Batman series is 95% godawful schlock — while the stories which have come to be known as classics (by Moore, Miller, Mignola, Morrison, Dini, Timm etc) have been these kinds of novel experiments. And what are comics and stories like these, but “professional fan-fiction”?

Hell, even Nolan’s take on Batman is a kind of Elseworld story.

But what’s REALLY interesting is when these individualistic takes are assimilated back into the source material. There’s stuff from Dark Knight Returns, Killing Joke, Arkham: Serious House, and the various animated series that winds up working its way back into ‘canon’, and goes on to become a cherished aspect of the character. Batman wouldn’t have the popularity he does today if not for guys like these taking a look at him from so many different angles — and rendering him more complex and multifaceted as a result.

I like to think of it like evolution. You take a property (a series, a setting, a single character) and you pass it hand-to-hand among hundreds of writers over the years. All of them try their own unique spins; some little tweak, some little story note, some little adjustment to the tone or core idea. The vast majority of these mutations are awful, and immediately discarded. Most are benign, lingering on for a while before quietly disappearing. But that slim .0000001% of them are beneficial, and so select themselves into the gene pool.

It’s why the Batman of today is a more interesting, compelling, and relatable character living in a more interesting/compelling/relatable world than the Batman of the 1930′s — who looks like a cardboard cut-out by comparison. They’re not even the same character; modern Batman is to 30′s Batman what modern human is to the Great Apes.  Golden Age Batman was essentially Superman in a bat costume.  But Modern Batman?  Modern Batman is a twisted Shakespearean icon, who serves as a timeless framework from which to create new stories.

But this is nothing new. It’s how human storytelling has worked historically. It’s how myths are developed, and how religious stories grow to become so iconic and powerful.  Ask a biblical scholar who wrote the bible, and he’ll respond, “Which part?”

IN FACT, this form of communal storytelling goes back even further than the comparatively-recent idea of single authorship, which only emerged strongly with the advent of the printing press. Community story-building has been going on for THOUSANDS of years; individual authorship is only a few HUNDRED years old. And certainly this notion of the writer-as-craftsman forging an austere, untouchable work is even younger than that.

It makes me think that “fan fiction” as a term–with all the stigma it carries–is more often used as a signifier of quality, rather than a categorical label. And THAT makes me think that the term “fan fiction” is ceasing to be sufficient for the many (often derogatory) forms in which it’s used.  It’s a confusion of terms; a semantic trip-up.  And if there’s anything I hate, it’s disagreement resulting from botched semantics.

So what’s a better term for “professional fan-fiction”?

I like the one the Star Wars franchise employs: the “Expanded Universe”.  What’s “The Star Wars Expanded Universe”?  Whatever you want it to be.  Where does it stop and where does “canon” begin?  Wherever the writers need it to.  It’s a safe workspace where writers and artists can go hog-wild on all notions of canon, fiddling with wild abandon to find the best versions of all ideas.  They can introduce characters, settings, and conflicts, which George Lucas and co can then cherry-pick at will.  Remember General Grevious, the cool asthmatic four-armed robot guy from Revenge of the Sith?  He’s from the Star Wars EU; he was created by Genndy Tartakovsky for a cartoon.  Lucas took a look, went “I like that” and poof, Grevious was rendered canonical.

Of course, any comic fan knows that DC and Marvel found their own versions of the EU concept a long time ago: the multiverse.  Need a world where Bruce Wayne died in Vietnam, and the Joker took up the cowl?  Why that’s Earth 4132.  Need to make a story where Superman is dating a post-op transvestite Lois Lane?  Earth 9846.  All those classic Batman stories I mentioned toward the beginning of this post have their own alternate earths where they took place.  Writers are free to tinker around in their own iteration of Batman’s universe, and if anybody complains, well, don’t worrry: it’s not “real”.  It’s not canon.

Until it is.

Sometimes I wonder if Deep Sounding will ever see fan-fiction, or achieve enough popularity and mythical strength to necessitate its own Expanded Universe.

I sure hope so.

Hey, Hugh.  Want to come play in my sandbox?

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7 thoughts on “Building a Better Batman

  1. Hugh Howey says:

    I’d be honored! Pass me that plastic rake, please.

  2. Tim Byrd says:

    Just in the interest of accuracy, General Grievous wasn’t designed by Tartakovsky for the “Clone wars” cartoon; he was designed for the films, then used in the cartoon. that was my recollection, as a largely disinterested observer, and I just looked it up to be sure.

    • Woops, you’re right. You know what I’m remembering was actually the case? Grevious was originally designed for a much smaller part. Then the Clone Wars cartoon was made–to serve as a bridger between movies–and Tartakovsky took Grevious and ran with him. Lucas saw Tartakovsky’s take on him in the cartoon, thought it was great, and decided he ought to have a bigger part in the movie.

      On that note though: holy crap is Grevious so much cooler in that cartoon than the movie. Look at this:

      He flat-out KILLS a bunch of jedi, then takes their lightsabers as trophies! And then he shows up in Revenge of the Sith just to cough a bit before Obi Wan kicks his ass and moves on with his day!

  3. Perhaps the “Expanded WOOLiverse” would be a good term. Or “Silo Alternalia”?

    You make interesting points about canon and comics, and the history of oral storytelling. We give Homer credit for the Odyssey when he was probably simply the latest in a long string of people with good memories and mellifluous voices.

    When I started writing Silo stories, I was anxious to get everything exactly as Hugh would have written it. But he’s not writing about the character that I am. And if what he writes in future books contradicts what I have imagined, I’m going to have to be okay about that, because you can’t be creative with fear hanging over your head.

    Fortunately, Hugh’s fans have been tremendously enthusiastic and encouraging. I now know how he feels when people tell him to write faster!

    And isn’t he a genius to get all of his WOOLfic minions spreading the word about Hugh Howey and his books? But then, we knew that.

  4. […] a big spike in blog visits (and book sales!) after yesterday’s post.  I presume most of the new traffic is coming from Hugh Howey’s generous link to the article […]

  5. […] historical events was stealing. I’ve already had a post about this on my blog, which led to an interesting blog post by Brandon Carbaugh on how the best Batman works were the non-canon ones. This isn’t new. It’s just taking a new […]

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