Now You See What You Should
Essay and Artwork by Lily Bickers
As a Classics student, I often notice how many jokes are made about Vergil or the tragedians writing ‘Homer fanficion’, or artists painting ‘fanart’ of ancient literature. Although an amusing point to make, it exemplifies the common bias that fanart or fiction is the marked category here. By this same logic, however, ‘derivative’ works are the oldest form of storytelling and creative production.
The literary landscape of the ancient Greek and Roman world was largely different to our own in the western mainstream. Most narrative texts took their stories and characters from a mythology which was known almost universally and owned by none. Any tale could be retold with liberties in characterisation, focus, or plot itself – a variety which stems partly from the fluid nature of the oral mythological tradition, and partly from deliberate innovations by writers. The stories of Echo and Narcissus, for instance, were unrelated until Ovid merged them in his Metamorphoses. This ubiquity of subject matter lead to a literature wherein texts alluded and responded to one another through different interpretations of the same material.
Rather than being so culturally prominent, modern derivative work in the category of fanfiction or fanart is beholden to the idea that it is not ‘canon’ – that what fan creators make of the stories they engage with is less true and authoritative than the original text. Derivative work can be mainstream when it comes to reworkings of myth, fairy tale, or older books, but nothing may be published which uses the same characters or world as a copyrighted piece of media. We can retell obliquely – by taking popular tropes and exploring or subverting them, but it is often the iconography and personal journeys of well-known characters which attract fanartists and writers. The characters and stories of movies, TV series, books, and games influence the way we think about ourselves and the world, just as those of mythology did for the ancient Greeks. Consider how pervasive and recognisable the imagery of characters from Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Marvel is, and how often these franchises are invoked by the media in reference to current affairs. Issues such as the call for better LGBT+ representation in popular media highlight the fact that fictional characters are integral to the construction of human identity.
The concept of ‘canon’ comes from the language of the church - the instantiation of one ‘correct’ religious doctrine. In fandom it has come to mean ‘that which actually happened or is true in the text’. The ease of communication which social media brings between some creators and their audience makes the original author increasingly prominent as the arbiter of this truth – think of JK Rowling and the titbits she reveals on twitter about the Harry Potter universe. But beyond individual authors, massive corporate interests are at stake over the control of certain franchises. Remember the dispute between Disney and Sony over Spiderman? Or the link between Disney’s live action remakes and the expiring copyrights of the original films? Rather than that of religion, control of canon has become the concern of capitalism. And controlling who gets to tell the most widely known stories means controlling international culture to a significant degree.
As long as we only value works which come from an official source of authority over the franchise they connect to, we allow cultural production to be monopolised by companies like Disney, effacing the nature of storytelling as a living organ of human creativity to which everyone can contribute. The abundance of fanfiction and art despite their inability to contribute to peoples’ livelihoods attests to the desire inherent in humans to think creatively about the things which interest them – by reproducing them on their own terms. Such a desire is stifled in a mainstream culture in which the mythological language ingrained into our thought and perception is becoming increasingly connected to popular media - media owned and arbitrated by companies, rather than existing as a fluid and malleable mythos.
I am not calling for an immediate dissolution of copyright law – such regulation still prevents independent creators from having their work exploited by larger companies, but these creators engage more closely with fandom than their richer counterparts. A change in attitude needs to come first. Fanart and fiction have a reputation for being ‘bad’, but so is much of all other media. If the medium was widely treated (and by intellectual and creative circles) with more respect and attention, it would encourage creators to develop their work, experiment with new forms and styles, and produce a much more varied and exciting cultural landscape.