Mining the Public Domain, OR Why Wonder Woman Should Be Better

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08/14/10Mining the Public Domain, OR Why Wonder Woman Should Be Better(Blog) (Forum)Public Domain Characters(Back) (Next)
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A definite trend in comics now is to revamp public domain characters for one's own use. I'm going to start with a blanket statement, and say: Alan Moore does it the most, Alex Ross does it most noticably, Erik Larsen does it most faithfully, Mike Mignola and Bill Willingham do it best, and most superhero universes have barely scratched the surface of it. That said, let's pick that blanket apart, piece by piece...

First, Alan Moore does it the most. He took public domain characters (hereafter: PDC) from British literature, and put them in the shared universe of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. (While I thought Tom Sawyer was a brilliant addition to the movie from American literature it went against Moore's vision for the book.) He used PDC again for the superhero universe of Terra Obscura and Terra Obscura II.

Alex Ross does it most noticably with his Project Superpowers - bringing PDC into the harder, shinier modern day. As with any blanket statement I here find a flaw, because technically with all the separate books that encompass Project Superpowers, Ross has done more PDC revamp books than Moore.

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Erik Larsen does it the most faithfully, because the PDC he uses - particularly the original Daredevil in Savage Dragon - he bases off of the original material. Basically he found a way to bring all these characters into the present day, similar to Ross' book. Unlike Ross' work though which changes all of their personalities to suit his storyline, Larsen is working with the personalities established in the original works, but bringing the change about more organically through the new situations they encounter. In similar fashion, the PDC he approached in the short-lived Next Issue Project picked up from the last published issue the PDC were in, and attempted to write the next issue of that book. That's pretty cool as they inevitably get classic Larsen twists. It's just too bad his Image partners weren't as on board as was originally claimed.

Mike Mignola and Bill Willingham do it best with Hellboy and Fables, respectively. Hellboy is mining mythology and folklore of all kinds, and Fables is mining primarily the Grimm's Fairy Tales* - all PDC. They have both found ways to make these excessively used stories uniquely their own, and are writing acclaimed books as a result. Mainly, it's Hellboy that I look at and ask myself, "Why isn't Wonder Woman better?" [*see the comments for a correction from a reader ;) ]

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I read so many message board threads claiming that Wonder Woman (and Shazam/Captain Marvel) are too mired down in mythological connections, and I look at Hellboy, and think they're not connected enough. People always want to point at the Perez versions of the Greek gods in the DCU, and say that they're too hard to work with. I say change 'em. New versions of some of these mythological entities were introduced in Trials of Shazam, but were explained as avatars of magic, or something like that, not the actual gods. Why, for crying out loud? DC gave new forms to the New Gods towards the end of Final Crisis, so why can't they change the forms of the old gods? The mythology even supports that idea, as the gods frequently took other forms in dealing with mortals. These guys and gals are immortals, for pete's sake - it would make sense that they might get bored every few hundred years (at least) and change their form like humans change a hairstyle. It should be easy to revamp the mythological gods of the DCU, and turn them into something usable for Wonder Woman and Shazam. They should be in some awesome epics of mythological scope, or perhaps darker arcs, similar to Hellboy. Is that different? Oh yeah, but geez, it's a direction to go in rather than constantly trying to figure out what to do with them, and with research it's a huge cache of characters to choose from with only redesign to worry about.

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Marvel has made great use of the Norse mythology in Thor, pretty decent use of Hercules, and scattered use of other gods here and there. Erik Larsen has utilized all mythologies, but fused them into the "Allgod," similar to the way the Eternals fuse into the Uni-Mind, but permanent. He's got his own Thor and Heracles running around, but he's still barely scratched the surface. Liefeld had his own Thor also. Jesus Christ is even public domain, and has been used to different effects in titles like Battle Pope and Loaded Bible.

Bottom line: with public domain characters existing in old comics, classic literature, fables, mythologies and folklore, there is an absolute wealth of "new" material to be had. I would think this would be especially attractive to Marvel and DC where creator-ownership has stymied the influx of new characters of any value. If they can develop PDC to make interesting stories for top tier characters, why not make use of it?

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