Mining the Public Domain, OR Why Wonder Woman Should Be Better

Posted by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio
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1908/14/10Mining the Public Domain, OR Why Wonder Woman Should Be Better(Blog) (Forum)Public Domain Characters(Back) (Next)

A definite trend in comics now is to revamp public domain characters for one's own use. I'm going to start with a blanket statement, and say: Alan Moore does it the most, Alex Ross does it most noticably, Erik Larsen does it most faithfully, Mike Mignola and Bill Willingham do it best, and most superhero universes have barely scratched the surface of it. That said, let's pick that blanket apart, piece by piece...

First, Alan Moore does it the most. He took public domain characters (hereafter: PDC) from British literature, and put them in the shared universe of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (While I thought Tom Sawyer was a brilliant addition to the movie, from American literature, it went against Moore's vision for the book.) He used PDC again, for the superhero universe of Terra Obscura and Terra Obscura II.

Alex Ross does it most noticably, with his Project Superpowers - bringing PDC into the harder, shinier modern day. As with any blanket statement, I here find a flaw, because technically, with all the separate books that encompass Project Superpowers, Ross has technically done more PDC revamp books than Moore.

Erik Larsen does it the most faithfully, because the PDC he uses - particularly the original Daredevil, in Savage Dragon - he bases off of the original material. Basically, he found a way to bring all these characters into the present day, similar to Ross' book. Unlike Ross' work though, which changes all of their personalities to suit his storyline, Larsen is working with the personalities established in the original works, but bringing the change about more organically, through the new situations they encounter. In similar fashion, the PDC he approached in the short-lived Next Issue Project picked up from the last published issue the PDC were in, and attempted to write the next issue of that book. That's pretty cool, as they inevitably get classic Larsen twists. It's just too bad his Image partners weren't as on board as was originally claimed.

Mike Mignola and Bill Willingham do it best, with Hellboy and Fables, respectively. Hellboy is mining mythology and folklore of all kinds, and Fables is mining primarily the Grimm's Fairy Tales - all PDC. They have both found ways to make these excessively used stories uniquely their own, and are writing acclaimed books as a result. Mainly, it's Hellboy that I look at and ask myself, "Why isn't Wonder Woman better?"

I read so many message board threads claiming that Wonder Woman (and Shazam/Captain Marvel) are too mired down in mythological connections, and I look at Hellboy, and think they're not connected enough. People always want to point at the Perez versions of the Greek gods in the DCU, and say that they're too hard to work with. I say change 'em. New versions of some of these mythological entities were introduced in Trials of Shazam, but were explained as avatars of magic, or something like that, not the actual gods. Why, for crying out loud? DC gave new forms to the New Gods towards the end of Final Crisis, so why can't they change the forms of the old gods? The mythology even supports that idea, as the gods frequently took other forms in dealing with mortals. These guys and gals are immortals, for pete's sake - it would make sense that they might get bored every few hundred years (at least) and change their form like humans change a hairstyle. It should be easy to revamp the mythological gods of the DCU, and turn them into something usable for Wonder Woman and Shazam. They should be in some awesome epics of mythological scope, or perhaps darker arcs, similar to Hellboy. Is that different? Oh yeah, but geez, it's a direction to go in, rather than constantly trying to figure out what to do with them, and with research, it's a huge cache of characters to choose from, with only redesign to worry about.

Marvel has made great use of the Norse mythology in Thor, pretty decent use of Hercules, and scattered use of other gods here and there. Erik Larsen has utilized all mythologies, but fused them into the "Allgod," similar to the way the Eternals fuse into the Uni-Mind, but permanent. He's got his own Thor and Heracles running around, but he's still barely scratched the surface. Liefeld had his own Thor also. Jesus Christ is even public domain, and has been used to different effects, in titles like Battle Pope and Loaded Bible.

Bottom line: with public domain characters existing in old comics, classic literature, fables, mythologies and folklore, there is an absolute wealth of "new" material to be had. I would think this would be especially attractive to Marvel and DC, where creator-ownership has stymied the influx of new characters of any value. If they can develop PDC to make interesting stories for top tier characters, why not make use of it?

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#1 Posted by Nova`Prime` (4157 posts) - - Show Bio

The biggest reason Marvel and DC won't use PDC is because if they make a popular character every comic company out there can use the same character and they would be able to do nothing about it, they are looking at it as if it would hurt their bottom line. Now which is obviously the exact opposite of say what Ross and the guys over at Dynamite are doing. But they did change the characters enough to make them their own, for as much as you can "own" a character in public domain.
 
Just like in I believe 30 or so years if the copyright laws aren't changed, again, characters like Captain America will fall into public domain and then anyone can make a Captain America comic book. Which I wouldn't have a problem with because I would find it interesting to see someone else take on the classic character that doesn't impact the original.

#2 Posted by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio
@Nova`Prime`: Yeah, I thought of that, but with PDC, the rule is anyone can use it, as long as Person A's version isn't like Person B's version.  I think Marvel's done a pretty definitive job on Thor, and people aren't using him left and right.  There are other Thors out there, but it's not a money making proliferation or anything.  Fables doesn't have everyone rushing to stripmine Grimm's Fairy Tales.  I don't think it would be that detrimental to their bottom line.  Thanks for your comment, NP.
#3 Posted by SumoSlamMan (69 posts) - - Show Bio

Dude, so I just wrote this amazing comment on this blog, and the fucking Vine ate it.  It was FUCKING long and brilliant!  Sigh...  Ok, I'll try to do it again.  Basically I was geeking out over this blog because I'm interning for a writer who has adapted The Art of War into a graphic novel to be published by HarperCollins.  Not only that but he's got a panel at New York Comic Con this year: Adapting Public Domain Work for Graphic Novels.  SUPER PSYCHED.  I made him read Alan Moore's LEG books and Fables.  Mignola and Willingham do it best, no question about it, however I've read Grimm's Fairy Tales and Fables definitely doesn't draw primarily from it.  Heck, I even saw Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser helping the Dark Man in some recent issues.  Interesting side note, they were created by Fritz Leiber, and their adventures were made into a graphic novel.  Guess who the artist was?  MIKE MIGNOLA!!! 
 
Anyway, seeing as this was a big ass long comment I'm too frustrated and beleaguered to go on much longer.  Basically I was saying that it's a really cool idea, adapting work from the public domain, and it isn't done enough, with the exception of adapting H.P. Lovecraft's work.  I swear, every week there's a new Cthulu book on the shelves.  But I'll read Alan Moore's :)  I'm not too sure about the mainstream super hero public work stuff, but I do commend Marvel and DC for their integration of mythologies into their respective universes, even if it isn't always completely comprehensible.  I thought the God Squad stuff during Secret Invasion was amazing though! 
 
I think my major point was that working in the public domain is just plain smart.  It's less of an intellectual leap for your audience if you're giving them characters they already believe themselves to be familiar with ala LEG, Fables, etc.  That way, once they start reading, it's less out of familiarity and more out of a sense of curiosity.  They're intrigued at how you're going to take this character they thought they knew and change them into something completely (or not so much) different.  That's a major reason why MMORPG's based on medieval worlds fare so much better than any other genre.  We've been brought up on that stuff, it's practically a part of the collective human subconscious. 
 
To conclude, bitterly, friggin vine, I think that your blog post is awesome, but it's a bit too narrow minded.  Sure, the major publishers should try to use public domain stuff to strengthen their characters, but I don't think they'll ever do so in a truly meaningful way.  They're too mired down in their own continuity and mythology.  I want new writers and artists to breathe new life into classic works, best example out there?  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Hope this makes sense. 
 
PEACE!

#4 Posted by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio
@SumoSlamMan said:
"Dude, so I just wrote this amazing comment on this blog, and the fucking Vine ate it.  It was FUCKING long and brilliant!  Sigh...  Ok, I'll try to do it again.  Basically I was geeking out over this blog because I'm interning for a writer who has adapted The Art of War into a graphic novel to be published by HarperCollins.  Not only that but he's got a panel at New York Comic Con this year: Adapting Public Domain Work for Graphic Novels.  SUPER PSYCHED.  I made him read Alan Moore's LEG books and Fables.  Mignola and Willingham do it best, no question about it, however I've read Grimm's Fairy Tales and Fables definitely doesn't draw primarily from it.  Heck, I even saw Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser helping the Dark Man in some recent issues.  Interesting side note, they were created by Fritz Leiber, and their adventures were made into a graphic novel.  Guess who the artist was?  MIKE MIGNOLA!!!"
 
That happened to me on Facebook one time, just as I was finishing.  I try to remember now, when typing into these web forms, to stop at intervals and copy my text, so I can paste it back in, if it gets eaten.  Aside from that... I would LOVE to see that panel!  I really think Public Domain is the next goldmine for comics, or at least for the Big Two.  I think it's the only way they're going to breathe any new life of consequence into their book lines. 
 
Grimm's isn't the primary source for Fables?  I thought Snow White, Rose Red, and Jack were from there?  Were they Andersen's Fairy Tales?  I guess it is much more of a mix though.  Three Little Pigs is Mother Goose, Sher Khan is Jungle Book, Big Bad Wolf... I don't recall at the moment.  Hm... you got me. ;) 

@SumoSlamMan said:
"Anyway, seeing as this was a big ass long comment I'm too frustrated and beleaguered to go on much longer.  Basically I was saying that it's a really cool idea, adapting work from the public domain, and it isn't done enough, with the exception of adapting H.P. Lovecraft's work.  I swear, every week there's a new Cthulu book on the shelves.  But I'll read Alan Moore's :)  I'm not too sure about the mainstream super hero public work stuff, but I do commend Marvel and DC for their integration of mythologies into their respective universes, even if it isn't always completely comprehensible.  I thought the God Squad stuff during Secret Invasion was amazing though!"
 
Not a big Cthulu fan - probably because I have difficulty pronouncing the name. lol    The mythologies in DC and Marvel are pretty well integrated, but still far underused, IMO. 

@SumoSlamMan said:
"I think my major point was that working in the public domain is just plain smart.  It's less of an intellectual leap for your audience if you're giving them characters they already believe themselves to be familiar with ala LEG, Fables, etc.  That way, once they start reading, it's less out of familiarity and more out of a sense of curiosity.  They're intrigued at how you're going to take this character they thought they knew and change them into something completely (or not so much) different.  That's a major reason why MMORPG's based on medieval worlds fare so much better than any other genre.  We've been brought up on that stuff, it's practically a part of the collective human subconscious."
 
THIS - so much this!  This blog really focused on PDC as "new" material for DC and Marvel, but the truth is, they sort of create an artificial Golden Age for newer comic lines.  Larsen did a smart thing with his use of Daredevil (Death Defyin' Devil, on CV) - he reprinted the origin story from the original comics.  Bam - instant history for his character, and he didn't have to make it up.  Mythology is the same way - most superhero readers are going to have a fair knowledge of mythology.  It's just something that sort of goes together.  You put mythological characters in the story, and there's your artificial Golden Age.  Plus, you can tweak them however you need to, in order to suit your stories.  I think it's a no-brainer.

@SumoSlamMan said:
"To conclude, bitterly, friggin vine, I think that your blog post is awesome, but it's a bit too narrow minded.  Sure, the major publishers should try to use public domain stuff to strengthen their characters, but I don't think they'll ever do so in a truly meaningful way.  They're too mired down in their own continuity and mythology.  I want new writers and artists to breathe new life into classic works, best example out there?  Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.   Hope this makes sense.  PEACE! "

Oh, the suggested uses of PDC for Marvel and DC are certainly not the only uses, but that was the focus of this blog - how PDC could help these two companies.  I would definitely rather see PDC in indy books though, where Hercules (for instance) isn't going to have to take a backseat to Superman, because he's the company icon.  Michael Chiklis (the Thing, in the Fantastic Four movie, and co-star of the upcoming No Ordinary Family on ABC) has a comic from IDW, called Pantheon, that I am very interested to see.  I haven't been able to pick it up yet.  Griot (I think) had a book called Horsemen, that dealt with African (I think again; it's been awhile) mythology figures as superheroes.  Those are dealing directly with mythology figures as main characters, but I don't think they necessarily have to be the main characters.  There's a wealth of PDC out there, and I want to see some use made of it.  ...I'd like to use it myself, but I've been a bit slow to move on it.  I am working on it though. 
 
I haven't read PPZ, but I've heard it's great.  There's another one or two out there like that...  One of them is [Something] and Sea Monsters, I think.  And you made total sense (to me, anyway) - no worries. ;)
#5 Posted by Iron Apollo (2191 posts) - - Show Bio

nice blog post!

#6 Posted by LP (673 posts) - - Show Bio

Actually I've been thinking about this for weeks, as I recently discovered a huge list/database of PDCs on the net. This is a great article!

#7 Posted by turoksonofstone (13199 posts) - - Show Bio
@LP said:
" Actually I've been thinking about this for weeks, as I recently discovered a huge list/database of PDCs on the net. This is a great article! "
Where?
#8 Edited by LP (673 posts) - - Show Bio
@turoksonofstone: 
Here. Have fun!
#9 Posted by J1ml33 (518 posts) - - Show Bio
@LP: 
now this should be interesting ...
#10 Posted by turoksonofstone (13199 posts) - - Show Bio
@LP: Thnx.
#11 Posted by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio
@Iron Apollo said:
"nice blog post! "
 
Thanks. 

@LP said:
"Actually I've been thinking about this for weeks, as I recently discovered a huge list/database of PDCs on the net. This is a great article!"

Excellent, and thanks for the link to it.
#12 Edited by Decept-O (7274 posts) - - Show Bio

Have to agree, there are so many PD characters, myths, concepts, etc. available.  Any creator or potential creator can "tweak" things around, too, with a few exceptions.  I've discussed this on another Forum elsewhere but I have had interesting convos concerning Phantom Lady.   
 
Her earlier appearances are PD.  Her later ones are not, as DC claims they own Sandra Knight now.  So hardly anyone ever "touches" that character.   Supposedly, you can use the Golden Age Phantom Lady "if" the stories take place during the Golden Age. ( 1940's).  Supposedly.  This is just one of those characters whose status is questionable.   
 
I know that  AC Comics, had tried using Phantom Lady in the past but DC told them to cease and desist.  So Bill Black changed her to the Blue Bulleteer, and then again changed her to Nightveil.  Now, however, it is questionable if all that was necessary.   
 
To tie back to Wonder Woman, you have a point.  Why not tie more mythology to the character?  I don't mind magic.  I know some writers use it as a "cop out" and such characters can be "too easy" or not have enough substance.  Not science based.  Not believable.  Any more believable than a humanoid who looks like a human from another planet with powers beyond normal men?   
 
I've used some PD concepts for my  rendition of ICARUSFLIES in my "Red L.A.M.P.  Up To No Good" strip here on the Vine.   
 
There are so many superheroes, villains, ideas, objects, etc. available.  I've seen these listed on other sites, and here on CV.  I think for all the users who are thinking about creating something, either for role play, or even a comic book, or what have you, should dig into that mine.  A lot of fun, too, reading about all these long forgotten characters!   
 
Nice blog post, a subject I like to talk about.
#13 Posted by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio
@Decept-O: I think the main problem with mythology and Wonder Woman is they are afraid of WW becoming too much like Thor.  There's a basic problem with Thor, in that he has all these grand Asgardian adventures in his title, but is only a hammer-weilding Superman when he's with the Avengers.  Not only do you not want to pigeonhole Diana's adventures to her own title, but the DC Greek pantheon is nowhere near as developed and well characterized as the Marvel Norse pantheon.  In fact, IMO, the DC Greek pantheon is actually pretty vague.  Ares' face is always hidden inside of a helmet, and it makes it difficult to emote him.  Hermes was featured in WW for awhile (years ago) but beyond that, not too many of the pantheon have been characterized outside of War of the Gods.
 
My thing with Wonder Woman though is: so what?  Her solo title adventures very rarely spill out of that book, until the recent Amazons Attack.  So basically, her adventures are already pigeonholed to her own title, so why not explore the mythology?  JLA: A League of One was a great Wonder Woman story - to me, her solo title should feel like that. 
 
Back to PDC though, I definitely like reading about forgotten and/or older characters.  I can be a bit of a ho for continuity/ explain-this-to-me, but there's a great charm to older stories that just say, "This is how it is," and go from there.  I learned to appreciate that reading Ray Bradbury.  In one story, humans live on Mars, and rockets come and go like city buses, bringing visitors and new settlers.  In another, Mars explorers are using sonic cannons to shatter crystal cities, in search of one little, all-powerful bottle.  Whatever pushes the story along is just how it is. 
 
With older superheroes, it's: a guy gets struck by lightning, now he has power over electricity, and away we go.  I think that's great.  I like the meatier continuity stories of today too, but they get restrictive sometimes, or frustrating, when they aren't able to keep the continuity.  Verotik put out a small Phantom Lady collection, several years ago, and a Valkyrie collection around the same time.  Those were great!  I've been enjoying some other old stuff too, like some of DC's Showcase Presents volumes.  The War That Time Forgot is awesome, because it's like reading an exercise in "how many times can we tell the same story?" lol
#14 Posted by Metatron_Da_Don (1037 posts) - - Show Bio

dont forget Marvel's "Fu Manchu" and Prince of Orphans

#15 Posted by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio
@Metatron_Da_Don: "Prince of Orphans" I'm not familiar with.  "Fu Manchu" wasn't public domain, was he?  Isn't that why Marvel hasn't reprinted the Master of Kung-Fu series, and why they skipped the Master of Kung-Fu issue in their What If Classic trades? (Someone correct me on that if I have that wrong, because I don't know for sure.)
#16 Posted by No_Name_ (17403 posts) - - Show Bio

This is a great blog.

#17 Edited by cbishop (7080 posts) - - Show Bio

@Babs: Thanks much, Babs! I wrote this mid-2010, so was very surprised to see DC's 2011 Wonder Woman title actually doing the things suggested here. I am loving the redesigns on the DC Greek gods, and I am super geeked about Wonder Woman again. :)

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