The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Save Spidey! Into the Spider-Verse's Failure and Promise

Can Spider-Man matter outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Sony, Disney, #SaveSpidey, and Into the Spider-Verse.

If a story you loved was imperiled and you could save it, if you could elevate one perfect reality above all others, how much would you be willing to destroy to get it? How many other stories would you crush, collapse into garbled static noise, or overlay in layer upon layer of printed ink to get what you want?

If you could destroy all other possibilities in the multiverse to get the one version of the truth you desire, would you?

What would give you the right?



I didn't get Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse when the first trailers dropped. Oh, I loved the idea of a Miles Morales movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe opting to tell a Peter Parker story instead of a Miles story disappointed me greatly--the more so since they freely pilfered Miles's friends and transplanted them into Peter Parker's narrative. Seeing Sony reveal an animated Spider-Man film starring Miles instantly got me pretty hype. 

Then I found out that it was going to focus on a whole multiverse of Spidermen.

Huh, I thought. That's sort of a cop-out, I thought.

You give Miles, a black and latino superhero, a film finally, and he has to share billing with a bunch of other people, including TWO Peter Parkers? It seemed like a bit of a dodge, like Miles couldn't carry a film on his own. On top of that, I found the choppy framerate of the animation befuddling, like a weird error, and mentally slipped it into the same category as the limited release or straight to video cartoons DC periodically puts out. It felt like they weren't taking the character seriously, and maybe neither should I.

That was my conscious reaction. Deep down, though, maybe my objection came from something else: this was "just" an animated movie from Sony, not part of the MCU canon. It would not have the reach and the power of a film backed by the Walt Disney Corporation. Peter Parker seemed once again to hog the spotlight while other, more daring versions of Spider-Man had to exist in the sidelines.

My fears about the MCU's dominance seem well founded now. Sony, which owns the film rights to Spider-Man and his cast of characters, had a financial falling out with Disney, which owns the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney wanted a bigger cut of the profits in return for, I guess, deigning to let Sony play in their shared universe. Sony didn't want to give away half of their money for the privilege of that relevance. For the time being, Spider-Man is out of the MCU. Fans reacted with much wailing and rending of garments, and quickly a #SaveSpidey hashtag emerged. How, after all, could Spider-Man exist outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

Well, it turns out that Spider-Man can thrive in not just one but six other universes, all in the same film.

What I didn't understand, watching that first trailer, was that both the choppy animation and the multiversal story are essential to the themes of Spider-Verse: namely, that anyone can be Spider-Man, and see themselves in the character. Miles straight up announces this to the audience in the end of the movie: "Anyone can wear the mask. You could wear the mask," he states confidently. "If you didn't know that before, I hope you do now." 

Even if you're not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you can still wear the mask.

That metatextual stuff is not all there is to the film, of course, and part of what makes the overarching story of inclusivity so powerful is the specifics of Miles and his journey. Miles is not a blank slate but a fully realized character with a bunch of fully realized family members and friends around him in the specific environment of Brooklyn. In fact, Peter Parker is also not a blank slate but drawn very directly from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films of the 2000s. And when they show up, the other Spider-heroes have their own histories, worlds, and, importantly, in-world comic books to tell their stories. This context and characterization is what drives the film, making moments like the death of Prowler or Miles's Dad's monologue to him hit hard.

That's all character work, though, and while absolutely critical to the film's emotional arc and effectiveness, you don't primarily come to Storming the Ivory Tower for character analysis. No, I'm here to dig into the themes in the most cosmic brained way imaginable.

One way into this interpretive cosmos is through comics. That's convenient, because it's textually the way Miles enters into the world of superheroes after he gets bitten by a radioactive spider. Miles makes sense of his transformation by comparing it to the story of Peter Parker. That makes for an interesting parallel: each of the Spider team tells their story visually through the medium of comics, and stylistically the film uses printing dot patterns, 2 dimensional rendering, and that lowered framerate to create a graphical, gold and silver age comic derived aesthetic.

This could just be written off as style over substance, partly because it IS stylish as hell, but Miles's direct relationship to comic books as a source of knowledge about himself suggests that the film's actually calling deliberate attention to itself as a work of fiction, one that we might relate to in parallel to Miles. After all, "you could wear the mask."

This relationship is complicated, though. In the wake of Peter Parker's death and a promise to stop the timespace portal machine bringing multiple universes together, Miles takes lessons from this fiction. Those lessons lead him to immediately failing, falling off a building and crushing the "goober" used to control and shut down the universe ray. Whoops.

So, the comic isn't a straightforward guide to how to be. It tells the story of Peter Parker, not Miles Morales. Moreover, it tells the story of just ONE Peter Parker. There are, as Miles quickly finds out, other Petes than these. Interestingly, the story of these characters DOES follow a template, a kind of hyperflexible mythology that uses repeated beats (radioactive spider, call to heroic action, tragic loss of a loved one...) while modifying them to fit each character's aesthetic and thematic touchstones.

These separate stories begin to sketch a more complicated picture of our relationship to Spider-Man than just one of consumption and inspiration. It's not enough to just put on the mask... the mask requires customization. So, Miles signposts his moment of transformation, when he becomes Spider-Man, by adopting Peter's suit and spraypainting it black. This is the functionality of the repeated comic intros: it nods to the audience and acknowledges that we all know the story of Spider-Man by now, but then also demonstrates that actually there are countless variations possible within the Spider-Man mythos.

This can only happen in the context of the Spider-Verse. Adding the other Spider heroes doesn't devalue Miles's story but instead contextualizes it, and affirms the unique qualities of Miles--his race, his hobbies, his family, his city, his class--as meaningful differences. The film is fascinated by kinship and difference: the first thing we hear the Spider heroes repeatedly say, in stunned tones, upon meeting one of the other characters is "...So I'm not the only one." But with recognition comes the tension of not being the same, not always relating to one another.

This exposes a weird contradiction in contemporary superhero media, though. Let's say we take seriously the idea in Spider-Verse that the characters become heroes not just through consumption and emulation of the Spider-Man story but through their own transformative work. And let's take seriously that we're supposed to emulate this, use our unique qualities to define our own Spidersonas.

Don't the stifling limits placed upon the character by corporate copyright law seem strange, in that context?

Spider-Man was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee in 1962. Under the copyright laws that the US had until the 1970s, works had a natural copyright protection--a monopoly over whether copies of a work, or derivatives of the work using characters or remixed materials, could be made--for just 28 years. That could be extended for another 28 years, and realistically it almost certainly would have been for Spider-Man. 

Nonetheless, it's 2019 now, 57 years after the original creation of Spider-Man. Under the old laws, Spider-Man would be in the public domain, and we could all do whatever we want with our own Spider-Sonas. In fact, a year later we would also get access to the Chameleon, the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, The Lizard--hey, wait a minute, Spider-Man's rogues gallery is just a bunch of furries! I sniff the zoosmell of an AU! Except, I don't, because while fanfiction is legally protected under Fair Use, it can never enjoy the same equal status, the basic ability for artists to survive off of their art, that corporate-owned productions do.

Oh, and don't get it twisted, the defenders of this system love to go on and on about how they're just protecting artists. I didn't actually ask for their protection, personally, but I'm going to get it whether I like it or not, apparently. What kind of protection and regard do companies like Disney and Sony have for artists, though? Well, in the wake of the spat over the Spider-Man film profits, JC Lee, Stan Lee's daughter, accused Disney of seeking monopoly control over her father's characters, and commodifying both Lee's characters and Lee's image without regard for the man, not even sending condolences after Lee's death. So that's not great. Any cursory look at comics history reveals a parade of such stories of the artists everyone loves so much to trot out when defending copyright terms that last a century dying in poverty while large companies profit from their ideas. Honestly, I find it difficult to see how the current law, which extends copyright for the life of an author plus a dizzying 70 years, or in the case of work for hire to 95 to 120 years, helps artists more than it helps a small group of companies that own large rights libraries, or handful of dynastic offspring of great artists. It's unclear to me how my art creation today would be incentivized by the unilateral right of my great great grandchild to determine whether or not my work remains in print. If I really gave a shit about that question, surely I would prefer my artwork fall into the public domain rather than relying on three generations of people who haven't even been conceived yet to maintain my legacy.

It's also strange to be so worried about "artists" when Disney so infamously is not in the business of making art. Michael Eisner said so himself: "We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective." All right! Shall we leave this to the fans, then? Can people work to see themselves in a character like Spider-Man, if the copyright holders have no obligation to make artistic space for them? Mmm, no. Not even for a dead child will Disney budge in its absolute dominion over the images of their intellectual property.

While these lurid details make it easy to focus on Disney as the villain, though, the fact is that the system of copyright in America, expanded from lasting two generations to spanning over a century, gives them the right to crush other versions of Spider-Man. In this case, and within the context of the law as written, Sony comes out looking pretty nice, but don't forget that they have exactly the same power. The promise in their movie Into The Spider-Verse can only be actualized in reality in limited form, because of the monopoly that they hold. I'm unsure how much they would even lose if the law were different--after all, in many places James Bond is now in the public domain, and while the asinine global rules on copyright make parsing Bond's use complicated, there's still Bond movies being made, and Bond books being sold.

For corporate rights holders, though, it is not enough to lay claim to one universe. They must, like Wilson Fisk, have the ultimate universe, one in which everything falls in their favor.

Disturbingly, this attitude has infected fandom as well.

#SaveSpidey wasn't the only hashtag trending in the wake of the MCU announcement. There was also #SaveSpider-ManFromSony. Clicking on it, I encountered tons of fans deriding Sony for ripping or stealing Spider-Man away from the MCU, away from Tony, away from relevance. Countless of them disparaged the possibility of ever watching a non-MCU Spider-Man, and many hoped that Disney would solve the problem by just buying Sony outright.

In response to their one perfect ideal timeline being lost, they'd rather see every other alternative utterly destroyed in the cataclysm that is Disney's corporate warfare.

I was going to slyly but gently suggest that this behavior was more than a little reminiscent of Kingpin's plan in this movie, but honestly seeing some of these responses really disturbed me. When you're posting gifs of Thanos-as-Mickey Mouse acquiring corporations in the form of infinity stones, and positioning that as the HEROIC action, I don't know, that seems pretty much irretrievable? It's the kind of thing that makes a girl really question the whole foundation of the Expanded Universe model. Does investment in a franchise inevitably mean such slavish devotion to a single company's ability to hold a monopoly over the multiverse of creative possibilities? I don't think it used to mean that... after all, the Fix-It Fic is a well known genre designed to challenge existing stories. We used to do as Miles does: use these stories in our struggle to self actualize, redefine the characters through our own artistic practices (in his case, graffiti) and make them our own. This model of fandom where we stan corporations and petition them to give us a few crumbs here and there just feels totally alien to me. It's not my fandom.

My fandom is watching a movie like Spider-Verse and being inspired. It's going out and seeking stories and responses to the film, stuff like Harriet Moulton's incredible lesbian comic featuring Aunt May and Olivia Octavius. It's imagining other possibilities. Regardless of what Sony wants, or what Disney wants, it's clear that this is what the FILM wants. And I fucking love the film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It's that kind of imaginative fan work that will let us really #SaveSpidey, not for Disney or for Sony or for anyone else, but for ourselves. 

Spider-Man Swings Into the Public Domain!

Public Art Bulletin, August 26, 2019


When a major character enters the public domain, there's always a tussle over what creator or company has the highest PR clout, the greatest ability to lay claim to the true story of the character. We are now most of the way through a year in which many notable figures went public, and none sparked more vehement a struggle than Spider-Man. Created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee 57 years ago, Spidey remains an enduring cultural icon, and we've seen a predictable infestation of Spider-Men since January.

The most powerful claim remains DISCORP's, as they own iconic characters like the Green Goblin and Vulture which have yet to become public. While at the time commentators questioned DISCORP's investment in a company whose properties were largely slated to enter the public domain, DISCORP's purchase of Atlas Comics allowed them to create a juggernaut in the Atlas Cinematic Universe. The ACU retained box office success despite the public status of many characters, and used their clout and remaining monopolies to release an incredibly successful Spider-Man film this year. For an audience still reeling from the 3/14 incursion, this flight of fancy was a welcome distraction.

DISCORP does not have the only claim to Spider-Man, though, and arguably Steve Ditko's claim as creator is better. Ditko, who has spent most of his time since the 80s producing Objectivist fables within the open source Conan the Cimmerian setting, began serializing a version of Spider-Man that departs from the Atlas version. On one remarkable page, the normally timid Peter Parker dons the mask and, his identity hidden, boldly muses, "Is a man not entitled to the sweat from his brow?" The message is clear: Spider-Man belongs to his creator, Ditko, and Ditko plans to use Spider-Man to boldly explore his creative and political philosophy.

Ditko was not the only creator who influenced Spider-Man. One of the more notable releases in the current celebration comes from fetish artist Eric Stanton, who shared a studio with Steve Ditko during the creation of Spider-Man and may have contributed key ideas. In February, just in time for Valentine's Day, Stanton's estate (Stanton died in 1999) released a prestige volume of Spider-Man derived fetish art and comics, some dating all the way back to the 80s. Stanton apparently produced the work in his spare time, having fallen for the potential of the character's powers and Peter Parker's nerdy, uptight demeanor in Ditko's original design.

Stanton himself always downplayed his influence on the character in life, and the published volume of Stanton works makes no claim to own Spider-Man. In fact, Alan Moore's introductory text only obliquely references his work with Ditko, instead opting to emphasize the subversive power of Stanton's reinterpretation. In this version of the character, Spider-Man's contests are ones of dominance and submission, and frequently gender role manipulation and subversion. While it all comes off as a bit tame to a contemporary, web-informed queer and posthuman audience, it is an important part of fetish history that might have remained hidden for countless years, or not exist at all, without the strong US protections for the public domain.

Small fan and independent creators also sprung into action quickly, with the large shared universe collective the IWW (the Innovative Workers of the Worldbuilding) quickly integrating Peter Parker into their sprawling setting as a new character. They have already announced plans to introduce other major characters over the course of the next few years as they become public, adding them to their rolling serial release schedule. Spider-Man will play a reduced role in this expansive universe, but still apparently a significant one as befits his status. What's more, the Wobblies are hinting at a large crossover event in the works that may incorporate a dizzy variety of "Spidersonas" in what they're calling the "Spider-Verse." It's anyone's guess what that means, though. While the collective can usually be depended upon to accidentally leak their plans, this time everyone both inside and outside the biodome is remaining tight lipped.

Hollywood Repeater asked Trans-temporal Michael Eisner for comment on these competing works in April, and he responded that DISCORP would "let them play their silly games; what is one universe compared to the Empire of Mouse?" Despite this ominous statement, we remain confident in both public domain protections, and the ingenuity of artists across the nation and beyond. Everyone's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man won't be falling out of the public eye any time soon.


This Has Been

Save Spidey!

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Civil War is some of the biggest budget fanfiction ever to exist; maybe comic book movies always have been. But is it GOOD fanfic?

To Make An Apple Pie From Scratch: Expanded Universes 101

In movies, comics, games, tv, and books, Expanded Universes are everywhere. But these huge multi-author, multi-story projects are controlled by huge corporate monopoly holders. Isn't it time we built some universes of our own?

3 comments:

  1. Love the news article at the end, really ties everything together. and you are absolutely right, copyright systems are broken. Can't wait for these megacorps to collapse already

    ReplyDelete
  2. The news article at the end was a great touch! Lol'd at the Bioshock reference, too. :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Do you think Homestuck should be in the public domain?

    ReplyDelete

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