1.) A series of events that are generally accepted to define the story of a fictional world or character.
2.) A thing to fire superhero comic editors out of when reboot season comes to call.
So this Christmas, people started complaining that a cartoon mouse was dictating reality – like some trademarked, anthropomorphic LSD tab with a sadist’s streak.
I’m talking about Disney dropping the “Expanded Universe” from the Star Wars canon. Basically saying,”these stories are no longer “real”, we don’t consider them part of the linear sequence of events that make up our freshly purchased tin-foil Kurosawa adventures. So move on”.
And some fans didn’t and one started threatening spoilers over Twitter, which at least offered us the joyous imagery of a member of The Eltingville Club huffing and puffing through a hostage drama in an Odeon, with a buggered smartphone as a weapon and a shareholder busy counting money somewhere else.
The reaction beggars a question, who gets authority over a canon and why do we give it?
Look to Superhero comics, if you’re reading this (haha – yer fucked), odds are you have a long running relationship with that mythology, be it the 90s cartoons or yellowed comics you plucked from a car boot. (Not a car boot sale, I’m actively accusing you of stealing from a car – YOU KNOW YOU DID IT YOU LIMEY SONOFA–*)
More than any other storytelling platform, by a massive length, Superheroes have the most nebulous, messed up, contradictory, nonsensical canons around. The kind of thing where you could say “well Superman is actually his own grandmother” and it could make sense.
It’s a genre where every 5 or so years, there’s a reboot. A universe implodes, a bad guy cackles through a summer of niche relevance, and we get a press release from San Diego explaining:
“editor in chief XYZ heard saw a pink piece of paper on the desk of Media Conglomerate head 00101010, assumed it was a pink slip, panicked, and decided that in the new canon Spider-Man actually killed Uncle Ben before having an affair with Aunt May, feeling that this new mature and emotionally realistic interpretation of Oedipus offers an insane plot that will get him enough confused book sales to save his job for the next 8-12 months. He plans to take up drinking again and is looking for budget conscious suggestions.”
So say that happens (it will) and the editor in chief stays manages to keep it going for a while. For the next 3-5 years, Spider-Man is an uncle killing, auntie lover. Is it canon because the editor says so?
That’s up to you.
You can choose to pick up, read and remember stories that make sense about the character you love; or you can try to keep up with what a writer, oft dictated to by editors authorised by IP rightsholders employees, of corporate entities owned by other corporate entities, themselves dictated to by pension and hedge funds that look at numbers not stories has to say.
The head honchos at DC and Marvel have auteurial authority over the works they publish, sure. The editors and writers of the day can say “in this story Jean Grey hooks up with Howard the Duck” (Your welcome Alonso) but it doesn’t get to dictate what the canon is. No mega event or movie or gin-addled Tumblr rant can do that.
Superhero canon is something that emerged out of the complete void of auteurs authority over them, Bill Finger has as much say as Frank Miller and Paul Dini do. They have as much say as the people who consume the stories because, frankly, those guys tend to be the next set of writers and they’re bringing the stories they love with them to the table. And even if they’re not – they’re the ones who give enough of a damn to remember them.
To say Warner Bros and Disney get final say over a narrative “canon” is to admit the stories I and maybe you grew up with are just IP rights, a corporate mythology that does or dies by a powerpoint in some far off boardroom…
It’s a shared mythology, that belongs to everyone who wants in. The canon is what we remember and what a writer brings to the table when they get a turn at writing them. An infinite number of crises cannot undo that tide. We tell the stories we tell off the back of the stories we fell in love with. Issue 212 can be retconned away, but if it is still more cherished than Issue 213, it’ll outlast the edict of any editorial team. The retcons and the rewrites don’t last, they don’t make it past Hollywood development hell and they don’t make it to the public zeitgeist.
The editorial edict of superhero houses have always had a use, a filtration mechanism, to try and find the most exciting stories possible (okay there’s an endless list of diversity and stupidity and sexuality problems there I know), without them, who knows if our favourite stories would have come to pass. Would Miller have actively bothered finishing up The Dark Knight Returns? Would Conway give Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker that devastating a finish? Or would they be finished and forgotten in some obscure NY comix meetup? As editors, they act as oft brilliant gate keepers on the continuation of these super steroided myths but youve got to ask – in an era where i can reach as many people as i want for free with pen, paper and key click, why would I want to write about my favourite characters for someone else?
(…turns out the answer is money)
It got a bunch of online press when it came out and fans who read it, loved it. It told a bitter, bleak and honest final battle story between Batman and the Joker and people petitioned DC to let them make comics. (DC of course decided not to – booooo).
Now suppose that pair say, fuck you DC, we’re making our own Batman comics, and they put them online and fans gobble them up. They’re all “Holy shit this is better than the stuff DC are doing” and choose to talk about those adventures instead. Say you choose to ignore DC and follow these fan comics.
Does DC, by merit of Intellectual Property right get to say “uh-uh, our fictional stories are more real than yours, we have this piece of paper that says we own the copyright”. Or do the public, by merit of engagement and passion and the money they spendget to say “well…we liked the story where Catwoman does stuff other than play latex whore #3456 and we’re going to buy the next story where she does stuff other than purr at a dudes crotch” determine that the stories they like and remember are the canon?
If there has to be an objective canon for a character or a world, which seems to be the better way to go about it?
Or, hell, is it better just to say “Man I love this goddamned story, this is my Star Wars and these Expanded Universe books are my fucking canon, come hell or high water” and have that be your Star Wars canon, regardless of a boardroom with an Intellectual Property right or the nebulous metric of the public zeitgeist telling you that their fictional stories in a land far, far away are more real than your fictional stories?
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go write a SW fan fiction where Luke tells Rey that “this is not the backdated child support money you are looking for”.
THAT is the true canon.