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December 19, 2006


z ryan

---I don't normally comment on comics blogs and sites but yours is one I read regularly (I even kept it on my blogroll during your recent hiatus).---

How would this Open Source universe be any different from a universe developed using the "organic method?" Because the whole idea of a shared universe is CONTINUITY between the characters and stories in it (right?). To ensure continuity there needs to be someone in charge, an editor. That editor has to decide what stays and what goes, who creates and who doesn't to ensure continuity. Otherwise you don't have an open source shared universe, but rather a bunch of properties with no continuity but a lot of similarity. But then, would that still be open source?

The Marvel superhero universe and the DC universe were developed the same way then, right? It's the same as the organic. Someone is in charge who decides who does and who doesn't write their contuity, or create new characters and aspects. And that person has to be there otherwise there is no shared universe.

Am I missing something? Is your idea really open source? Can there possibly be a truely open source shared universe?


First, I greatly appreciate your continued readership. Hopefully there won’t be another hiatus for a while.

As to the differences, the Open Source idea would most certainly entail a great deal of organic growth just as DC and Marvel’s universes did at one time. These days the big two are really more holistic, although it’s mostly ex post facto holism. As with all systems of classification, the reality is that there aren’t clean lines between holistic and organic, there are elements of both in pretty much everyone’s universe. But it’s more fun to draw these neat little boxes and plug things into them.

With an open source universe there would certainly need to be a person or group of persons with a certain amount of control over the core of the universe, that doesn’t preclude it from being open source. To this day, Linus Torvalds maintains final say over the Linux kernel and yet there are dozens, maybe hundreds of valuable contributors to it. The real trick is to create a foundation from which creators can write stories that help build the open source universe, hopefully creating unique mythologies and a great deal of energy in the process.

A big difference is that creators CAN create these things without signing a contract or paying royalties to the keymaster(s) of this little universe. Try publishing a Batman or Captain America story even in webcomic form. It’d get yanked out of the either faster than you can say, “cease and desist”. In my post I probably overstated the notion of restricting someone from writing “The Dark Tool” stories. In practice they would probably get written and either accepted as canon or cast aside as unnecessary, inappropriate or something else. Or maybe they’d be great and adopted as a core piece of Gadgetguy’s history.

The idea of an Open Source universe is likely a difficult one for people to accept because we’re so grounded in the ideas of creative rights, trademarks, copyrights…but when you get down to it we’re talking about archetypes and while I’m sure there are some original heroes out there yet to be born, most of what we see is pretty derivative. Launching something like this would take an initial group of creators who were willing to accept that their product is likely not the next X-men, Matrix, or even Astro City. I think the idea would not be to create fully formed characters with intricate backstories and relationships, but to provide the tapestry on which others can paint - to get overly flowery about it.

I certainly don’t have all the details here but it’s a method that I could see working with the right people behind it. It could fall flat on it’s face just as easily.

z ryan

My blogroll is fickle. If it displeases me, I cut it from the list. I'm harsh like that. But if you're on my blogroll it means you're doing something right, not just not doing things wrong. I am a demand-to-be-pleased capitalist. You even got me to comment. Keep up the good work. Sell some ad space and make a profit while you're here!

I think what you'd end up with is not a single shared universe, but rather a bunch of different continuities with a shared holistic base.

1. (Person 0) creates Gadget Guy. This is the holistic base.

2. (Person 1) and (Person 2) each add to the Gadget Guy mythos with their own conflicting Gadget Guy stories. One has to be rejected. But not everyone will agree on which is the better Gadget Guy story.

3. (Person 4) and (Person 5) liked (Person 1)'s Gadget Guy's story and continue with that as their continuity, each writing their own, possibly conflicting follow up stories. Meanwhile (Person 6) and (Person 7) liked (Person 2)'s Gadget Guy story and continue with that as their continuity.

Suddenly we have a bunch of different Gadget Guy continuities, not a single shared universe, all with the same holistic base: (Person 0)'s Gadget Guy. Maybe there is a top editor from the beginning who decides "(Person 1)'s Gadget Guy story is the official continuity." Since it's free-to-all, the other continuity could still be carried on, maybe just as big and popular as the official story.

I don't want to just tear down the idea. I just wonder if a shared universe or single continuity can be open source. Are they mutually exclusive? (is that rhetorical?)


I think you’ve identified a potentially big pothole in this model. I guess my answer is that in the beginning this cannot be a one man or one character effort. I think the universe needs to have a number (6, 8, 12 ?) of creators or creative teams working jointly across a number of characters and maybe the universe as a whole. I think it would be very difficult for a universe that was founded on one basic character or even a set of characters, but one creator/creative team, to be anything but holistic. I suppose over a long enough time they could grow beyond that (like maybe Hellboy) but I don’t see open source being of much use. Part of my premise is that we’re creating a whole universe not just Gadgetguy or Infinityman.

I also think it would be a mistake to get grounded too hard and fast in continuity. Some elements would have to be established but there’s an awful lot of story telling that can go on without running afoul of the continuity police. Using your scenario, maybe Person 1 has Gadgetguy’s sidekick, Wrench get killed by his archnemesis, Oilslick. (I’m working this Gadgetguy analogy to the bone.) But in Person 2’s continuity Wrench grows up to be the new Gadgetguy after the original is killed by Oilslick. That might require some decisions as to what stays and goes or maybe some clever introduction of an alternate reality. Or you get Kurt Busiek to clean the whole mess up. But it isn’t of itself enough to muck up the whole universe.

I’m not sure there’s any real protection against splitting the universe into multiple continuities. Not to overuse the Linux comparison, but certain amount of splitting off has happened with it as well. There have long been multiple Linux flavors, although the kernel is the same. Of course in function Linux serves a more technical, utilitarian purpose – getting there, however, is a very creative process – so at some point the analogy breaks down. (And that’s enough about Linux. I’m not really a Linux guy, it just seems to work decently enough for this comparison.) Maybe multiple continuities is part of the charm. Earth-1, Earth-2, Earth-S, Earth X, Ultimates are essentially just that and it’s worked pretty well for the big two.

I don’t want to act as though I’ve really thought this out end-to-end. I’m making a lot of this up as a I go…

z ryan

I don't mean to imply a one-character effort. Gadget Guy could just be called "aspect A" of this universe. And, of course there's going to be more than a single aspect to the universe. So it would be like my example multiplied many times over.

An open source superhero universe is an interesting idea that, in the end, may or may not be worth the hassle. I bet you could get more yield for your time, more bang for your buck, using the holistic approach with a group of creators. Open source would probably be a lot more work for less product that's also more volitile and higher risk.


What you’re describing is very much the Platinum Studios model. Scott Rosenberg did exactly what you described – got a bunch of creators together and master planned a universe. We haven’t seen the results of that on the outside as yet, but I suspect we will. And I would 100% agree that’s the less volatile, and likely successful path. You can do the same thing using open source as your business model, the big difference being the organizational structure. Scott did what he did for the express purposes of Platinum Studios which is fine, if you can afford to go that route. If Platinum never goes to market with anything from the Macroverse they’ll be out whatever financial investment they made in the initial development (and there was some), conversely, they own all the IP should any characters from the Macroverse take off. One thing you can say about the open source model is that the only real risk is the creators time – depending on the distribution model. Anybody who wants to go right to floppies should probably have their head examined.

As I said, I think properly executed the open source model would require a great deal of holistic planning. As to the end, well, you kind of hope there is no end, right? But more reasonably, what you’d really hope would happen is that a platform would be created from which a thousand great stories could be told. Could they have been told somewhere else in some other universe? Sure. But with open source creators could dabble in the mythology and continuity as they saw fit without violating somebody’s copyright.

To me the real roadblock is not the structure of the model but the execution. Something like this could easily devolve into badly derivative fan-fic or be written off as just a bunch of wanna-bes who couldn’t get work in the real comic book world. Equally, getting a group of creators together who would be willing to place their creations, their ideas into the public domain, with little hope for remuneration doesn’t seem like it would have a great chance for success.

Truth is, this isn’t something I would do. And not just because I have no particular interest in writing superhero stories or creating universes. It’s also because like you, I’m a capitalist. I own a business and it would be hard for me to put a truckload of energy into something with so little promise of a financial return. But I’m not driven along those creative lines, some people are and I would certainly read their output and I think others would as well. Remember, there was no financial reason for Linus Torvald’s to create Linux in the fashion he did, or for all those other developers to further his efforts. Why bother? But he did and years later we have an OS that’s in wide use across all levels of business.

In the beginning you and I don’t have to believe in the model or even like the output. Maybe the stories and art are incredibly amateur and lack any semblance of originality, but if the creators are passionate about it the product will improve and eventually, maybe, we start hearing about these guys who are telling some really cool stories that we’d want to read. Maybe we’re even willing to pay to read those stories.

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