Some years ago, Alan Moore, the acclaimed author of Watchmen and Miracleman, claimed that all comics after the 1960s were fan fiction, largely for several reasons related to the massive replacement of the original writers with a younger generation.
I will argue why he is right… and why he’s wrong.
But first, let’s look at his argument closely. The reason the industry attempts to reboot its product is because it is a regressive move back towards an earlier time in the past when they sold more comics. That is admitting the industry no longer can imagine a future where they belong, a shrinking marketplace that originally was 9 to 13 year olds, but now are in their thirties to their fifites, in a nostalgic search of their childhood.
The tipping point took place in the late sixties when the writers at DC comics attempted to form a union, and the company had them replaced with a younger generation who grew up with comics. The new writers were fans and they immediately referenced their favorite stories. This incestual form of writing demonstrated a decline of imagination, due to the drying up of the talent pool.
Is this wrong? Not at all – from a historical point of view, at least. Now, what’s wrong with fan fiction in itself? First of all, what is fan fiction? It is where the writer no longer has to establish characters and make them fully realized in order to make readers care about them because the audience is already familiar with them. The fanfic writer takes this opportunity to create new and amazing stories by forcing the familiar characters into situations the canon would never allow. Gender identity. Rape recovery. Sexuality. So on and so forth. The possibilities are limitless when it comes to fanfiction!
Now, fanfiction can be extraordinary (heh) and absurd and meaningful. Take Moore’s own The League of Extra-Ordinary Gentlemen, for instance. After all, Moore has taken a page straight out of fan fiction by incorporating characters from Victorian Age pulp literature (Captain Nemo, Mr. Hyde, Quartermain, Mina Murray, and the Invisible Man) and threw them together as a band of adventurers. What he does with these characters is basically to reinforce who they are, as opposed to revise or redefine them for modern audiences.
Now, it’s easy to charge Moore with hypocrisy for doing exactly what the late sixties comic book writers were doing with properties they grew up reading. But that’s not my argument. It has to do with the notion of the author and the writer.
The author is some godlike deity that died around the same time (1968), when literary critics and post-structuralists hit on the insight that language always exceeds what the author intends. The author was a construct of the rationalist and empiricist thought that awarded central importance to the individual. That led literary studies to invoke the author as the origin and explanation of the text, as the final signified of the written work. However, this made the author into a tyrant who imprisoned the work within a single meaning. This is false, because texts are produced by intertextuality, and other texts, rather than godlike authors. That meant we could no longer evaluate the written work as the expression of the author’s thoughts. Instead, writing is a separately existing linguistic performance that does and says more than what one person ever could. Therefore, the meaning of a text is made by the reader, which is born at the cost of the death of the Author.
However, writers are very much alive, despite the death of the godlike deity. We can talk to them, ask them questions about their work, and they often talk or write back and answer or refuse to do so. We can instead choose to insult them by saying their work is utter crap, and so on so forth. Basically, the writer is part of a community. In this sense, the fanfiction writer is part of a collaborative activity, more so than the imaginary solitary author. After all, ancient epics didn’t have authors in the modern sense of word. We are all fanfiction writers – no matter what discourse or which institution we use to lie to ourselves with.