Part I briefly lays out the premise that the world of comic books could use another superhero comic book universe. In Part II I explain to Bob and Jerry Comicreator why the two most likely paths to creating a universe from whole clothe wouldn’t likely work for them, setting the stage for Part III…
Bob, Jerry, I know you’re asking what this mysterious Third Way is. Or maybe after reading the title of this little series you’ve sort of figured it out. The idea is simply to create a new superhero universe using well-established Open Source methodology.
The Open Source culture finds its roots in the software industry, not unlike myself. A lot of people get credit for helping the movement reach its current lofty status, but for my money the guy you have to give the lifetime achievement award to is Linus Torvalds, the driving force behind the Linux operating system, arguably the most prominent and successful Open Source project to date.
Don’t nod off here boys, I promise not to lapse into a droning discourse on the relative merits of various operating systems. Just know that in the mid ‘90’s as Linux was picking up steam very few people on the corporate side of the OS aisle gave it much heed and certainly no chance for ever finding foothold with paying customers. The damn thing was written by a bunch of hobbyists, who in their right mind was going to trust mission critical applications to that? Lo and behold, by 1999 Linux had scooted past Novell to become number two in server OS share behind this little mom and pop operation out of Redmond, Washington. While it hasn’t necessarily gone on to world domination (don't tell them that), it’s still in wide use across companies of all shapes and sizes. And it’s still largely free. Unless you need competent help maintaining it, but that’s another story.
How might this translate to the world of comic books? First, let’s define the goal: You want to create a whole new universe of superheroes; superheroes that interact, form teams, share a common world history and most importantly, tell fun and interesting stories. You want this universe to take on a life of its own where other creators can easily step in and add to the lore. You want to be able to take advantage of all the familiar archetypes but check the baggage on a one-way flight to Latveria. And you’d preferably like to do all this without putting your lawyer’s kids through college. You don’t even want to know if your lawyer has kids. Truly, you don’t really want to know a lawyer period.
Now the two of you could probably create this universe all by yourselves between shifts at Costco, but then it would be the Bob and Jerry Show, with your limited influences and biases smelling up the joint. And that’s probably okay to start but if you want this thing to take off you’ll need more people involved and quickly. Now here comes the tricky part, this new universe needs to be foundationally strong, yet flexible, it needs to be tightly coupled, but loosely bound. It needs to be attractive to creators of all influence yet structured in a way that stories emanating from it are recognizable as such. A tall order, to be sure, too tall to adequately elaborate on here.
Okay, that’s the 10,000 foot view. That’s the pie-in-the-sky discussion you have after plowing another $40 into Marvel and DC’s respective continuity bandwagons. Sure that stuff is okay, but wouldn’t it be cool if… For a moment, let’s come back down to Earth, let’s sort out some particulars. I’m not much of a details guy, but let’s see what we can do with this. First, you need to decide how you’re going to “publish”. Remember, we’re talking about a universe of titles here not a four issue Gadgetguy miniseries so let’s be honest, floppies are pretty much out of the question at this stage. I shouldn’t have to explain the slippery slope of direct market distribution and marketing but if you need a primer head over to this archive of Brian Hibbs’ Tilting at Windmills columns. The short story is that if you were actually able to produce say six or seven monthly comics there is little chance you’d be able to get them in front of the your best initial demographic. You might have better luck with the graphic novel format but those take time to produce. It could take years to cobble together the few books which will big bang your universe. May I suggest the web?
There are certainly sites which could host your webcomics for free or at least on the very cheap, but it might be to your advantage to carve out your own domain and host everything related to your universe in one, focused location. You can simultaneously build universe specific secondary services (advertising, forums, licensed underwear sales) and content (backstories, forums, a universe bible) around the comics themselves while creating a little separation from the plethora of existing webcomics. If you were going to create a single ongoing title I wouldn’t recommend this, but we’re talking a universe here, right? Of course you also divorce yourself from built-in traffic an existing webcomics hosts might provide, but that’s okay because you are going to overcome that with aggressive, tireless self-promotion. (Hey, did I mention I own a software and application hosting company? Under the right circumstances I might even be persuaded to provide some free bandwidth and tools to facilitate this effort.) This will also give you the opportunity to get your print act together as you build your audience.
Next up you are going to need some talent beyond the two of you. Your best shot at pulling this off is to engender support from a group of like-minded creators. Likely you’re all going to be starting out -- don’t count on Kurt Busiek or Bryan Hitch showing up at the first meeting -- and that’s okay. If you set your web platform up correctly you can draw from widely dispersed talent, maybe even use the site to connect artists and writers. It might take a bit of time, but since nearly everyone who reads comics thinks they’re a writer or an artist, maybe not. If the initial infrastructure is solid, from both a technical and creative standpoint, you’ll probably be surprised at the response. But dig your well first and line up four or five creative teams to get things going. And let’s hope there’s an editor somewhere in the bunch.
One final note on trademarks, copyrights and the like. Open Source doesn’t necessarily mean free. Sure you’d love for other creators to expand on the Gadgetguy mythology, maybe add a clever sidekick, Wrench, or his secret lair, the GadgetGarage, but the fact that you open up Gadgetguy to other creators doesn’t necessarily mean some schmuck can run off and publish Gadgetguy, The Dark Tool, without your permission. To this end I encourage you to become familiar with Creative Commons, particularly the licenses page. Done right, you can have your cake and share it too.
Now, let me be clear, this is only one possible alternative mechanism for producing an alternative universe, and I haven’t the time or inclination to
think about explain all the nitty, gritty details. The basic concept is fairly simple, the execution, not so much. As with any creative effort much depends on your own passion and determination - remember, I’m just the ideas man.