Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants: With Great Fans Comes Great Fanfiction

T. Gautham Shenoy

October 1, 2018

Earlier in the year, when I heard that Marvel would be teaming up with Tap Tap Comics for a create-your-own-comics digital platform, I was quite excited. Did this mean that one of the biggest comics publishers on the planet was not just embracing – but would be encouraging – fanfiction?

Fanfiction (one word) – or ‘fanfic’ for short, or just ‘fic’ – is simply fiction written by a fan of, and featuring characters from, a particular comic, TV series, film, etc. New stories about established characters, taking them in directions the creators hadn’t, making new connections, giving characters new identities, filling in the gaps left open by canon, crossing them with other characters from another world – all out of love. Because fanfic is ultimately about writing one’s own stories, albeit using a character already created by someone else, to live a little while longer in a world one likes, and most of all, to write the kind of stories one would love to read. Fanfic is a way of finding the overlaps between yourself and the character you love and exploring it further, of writing your own self into a new story that connects your personal experiences and hopes with the superheroes you like. And it looked like Marvel was officially giving fans sanction to write fanfic, along with the tools required to create a proper webcomic out of it.

Called ‘Marvel: Create Your Own’, the platform would allow fans to use Marvel’s characters to create their own stories. Spider-Man. Thor. Black Panther. The expectation was that you could use any of these characters and more to tell your own tales, the way you want it. But it wasn’t to be. Setting aside the online comic creation tool itself that seems to have taken a leaf out of IRCTC’s website when it comes to ease of use, it is the terms (read restrictions) that will ensure that Marvel: Create Your Own will remain no more than a one-time novelty, if it ever gets out of beta that is. Here are just some of the no-nos: No death. No contraceptives. No controversial social issues. No politics. No alternative lifestyle advocacy. Not even noises related to bodily functions. The list goes on. So much for my hopes of Marvel actively embracing fanfic. Because restrictions such as these go against the very fabric of what makes fanfic, comics or otherwise, so enjoyable. And this fanfic needn’t even be all romantic fanfiction or slash fiction, though there’s a lot of that especially in the fandoms of Star Trek, The Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, and, of course, comic fandom (A love story involving Captain America and Iron Man anyone?).

Going by the simplest definition of what fanfiction is, one could argue that you’d be writing fanfiction if you wrote a story involving a character you haven’t created yourself. So unless your name is Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster, you’d be writing Superman fanfic if you’re writing a Superman story. The difference is that some people get paid for doing it and are officially sanctioned and DC-approved. Unlike say, the science fiction author Larry Niven’s essay, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex that explores the problems Superman would face in his romantic encounters with a human woman, a hypothetical lady called ‘LL’. Or The Guardian series’ author, Meljean Brook’s story, In Darkest Light about Batman and Wonder Woman.

If Neil Gaiman’s original proposal for The Sandman – of reviving The Sandman series, written by Joe Simon & Michael Fleisher and illustrated by Jack Kirby & Ernie Chua – had gone through that would have been fanfiction. When asked if an established author who writes something based on another author’s work is participating in fanfiction or if it is a different phenomenon, Neil Gaiman would answer, ‘…I’m not sure where the line gets drawn — you could say that any Batman fan writing a Batman comic is writing fan fiction’. In the words of SF author Seanan McGuire, “Fuzzy Nation? Fanfic. Wicked? Fanfic. Every X-Men comic written since Claremont stopped? Fanfic.” And speaking of Fuzzy Nation, the Hugo Award-winning Redshirts by its author, John Scalzi is nothing but Star Trek fanfiction.

Another piece of Hugo-winning fanfiction that readily springs to mind is Gaiman’s own A Study In Emerald, which is Sherlock Holmes fanfic against the backdrop of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. What about Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a comic that won an Eisner Award and continues to feature in many ‘Best Graphic Novels’ lists? The original concept behind it was ‘Justice League in Victorian England’ until Moore decided to use the opportunity to populate the team with existing characters from literature.

The reason I bring up these examples is to dispel the commonplace myth that the writers of fanfiction are ‘lesser writers’ or that they write derivative works. The best way to look at fanfiction is that it is written by writers. Period. And that good fanfic is transformational. If E.L. James’ Fifty Shades Of Grey started off as Twilight fanfic, then Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series began as Master And Commander fic. Marjorie Liu, the writer of the epic fantasy comic book Monstress, wrote X-Men fanfic and credits the fanfic writing part of her career for helping her develop a voice as a writer and giving her the skills to write and publish her first novel. In fact, it was Meljean Brook’s X-Men fanfic that drew the attention of an editor, and which in turn led to her first novella being published.

It is against this backdrop that fanfiction should be encouraged and who knows where it will lead. The next Naomi Novik, Marjorie Liu or Meljean Brook could be a fanfiction writer from India. Meanwhile, we can hope that someday Marvel will – in the spirit of fandom – remove some of the more baffling restrictions and truly open its universe to fanfic.

T. Gautham Shenoy is an advertising professional and a lifelong reader who enjoys geeking out on comics and science fiction. Shenoy is also the writer of India’s longest-running weekly SF column ‘New Worlds Weekly’ at FactorDaily. Follow him on Twitter.

You can read his articles here.