ALAN Moore’s ‘reboot’ of 20th century fiction should be hailed as a remarkable achievement.
Can you own something that doesn’t exist? In the case of fictional characters, the answer is legally yes, imaginatively maybe and in practice, no. Alan Moore, the author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta, is regularly described as the greatest living comics writers, but his latest work – the final instalment of the 20th century exploits of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – has, with typical panache, set creative cats among critical pigeons. The series – made into a truly terrible film – takes classic characters from 19th century fiction, such as Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo and Mina Harker from Dracula, and pits them against other fictional characters, such as Professor Moriarty, Fu Manchu and the Martians from HG Wells’ the War of the Worlds. It’s an entertaining and knowing romp (I particularly enjoy tracking down the hidden allusions: who, for example, was Philip Blakeney? – the answer is the real life identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel).
The third volume, Century, has brought in Somerset Maugham’s Oliver Haddo, Fotherington-Thomas from the Molesworth books, William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Karnacki, Shakespeare’s Prospero and Mack the Knife as the heroes try to prevent the birth of the anti-Christ. The final volume, 2009: Let It All Come Down, sees the child-corrupting abomination come to life – and it’s a boy wizard with a scar who goes to a magical school that can be reached through Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station. Moore never uses the words “Harry” and “Potter”, but for those with eyes to see the reference is unambiguous.
Were Inspector Rebus investigating this case, he might have gruffly said that Moore has form in such matters. The Black Dossier part of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen featured a gadget-loving, sexually predatory spy called “Jimmy”, the name Bond being omitted for fear of incurring the wrath of the estate of Ian Fleming.
For many years, Moore’s Lost Girls, which explored how the adult sexuality of figures such as Alice (from Wonderland) and Dorothy (from Kansas, via Oz) was distorted by their childhood adventures, was unavailable in Britain because the third major character was Wendy from JM Barrie’s Peter Pan – and the copyright on the book had been gifted to Great Ormond Street Hospital. When Barrie’s works left copyright in 2008, Lost Girls was allowed to be sold in the UK.
Moore is a deliberately provocative writer, and casting the hero of millions of children as the anti-Christ is partially scampish, and partially a wry and angry comment on the class politics of JK Rowling’s books. More Moore fans than Potter fans appear to be discussing it online, and most of them are more intrigued that Moore should be doing this just as DC Comics releases the contentious Before Watchmen series, which gives prequels to the characters he created for the groundbreaking series, but which are legally the property of DC Comics, not Moore.
Some fans of the Boy Who Lived are making their views known. “Prepare for the possibility of a courtroom showdown between the lovely and talented JK Rowling and the cantankerous, bearded Alan Moore,” wrote one fan, and another opined “lol the man proved he was crazy a long time ago and now this?”
Rowling has not commented – but then, she has a new book to promote soon, set in a quintessential English village where a murder reveals all sorts of shady shenanigans. Haven’t I heard that somewhere?
This is not the first time that a writer has attempted to respond creatively to the Potter phenomenon. Mike Carey has created a series called the Unwritten for DC’s Vertigo imprint, about how a man called Tom Taylor deals with his father’s series of books about a boy wizard called Tommy Taylor.
It has evolved from its initial premise to become a subtle and thorough investigation of the nature of storytelling itself, and how the ideas of narrative and imagination shape our lives. Part of the impact of the series is that it understands that readers will know who Potter is without having read it: films, Lego toys, duvet covers and theme parks have ingrained it in the culture far beyond printed words.
Whatever the personal reasons are for Moore’s decision to open this particular can of worms, the fact remains that had he called the character Harry Potter, he would have been sued. Even once Rowling has been dead for 70 years, a new comics genius would be sued for writing about Potter, since it is now a trademark – like Mickey Mouse – over and above being protected by copyright. The real irony in that is that so many of Rowling’s own creations are derivative: the estate of the poet known to posterity as Homer is unlikely to try to sue over the use of three-headed guard dogs.
Authors, of course, are allowed to feel protective of their creations, and if you were the genius who came up with Miss Marple, Bertie Wooster or Tarzan, you’d be decidedly un-chuffed if any Tom, Dick, Harriet or Stuart Kelly came along writing other stories about your characters. That is one reason why copyright exists. To trademark a character is a different proposition entirely. Copyright has a fixed duration, and if something has outlived its creator, it has done so in the minds of the reading public, and is therefore legitimately public property.
Trademarks are aspic poured over an idea, fixing it in perpetuity, rendering it static rather than dynamic.
Every genuine author knows that a book is something profoundly given to the world, and that their ownership evaporates the minute a reader’s eyes move along a sentence. In many cases, a character has survived because of readers turning into writers, adopting an orphaned creation. It happens more frequently in television – we wouldn’t have Star Trek movies or Matt Smith as Doctor Who if the hiatus in their broadcast versions hadn’t been filled with people making their own stories for these characters.
EL James, topping the Amazon charts, began her career as a “mommy porn” purveyor of cliché by writing “slash fiction”. Anastasia and Christian in her best-selling and badly-written books were originally Bella and Edward from Stephanie Meyer’s vampire novels. As an aside, it should be mentioned that since Meyer, a Mormon, turned the “true love waits” idea into the guiding ideology for her fable, it was inevitable that some fans would turn the virginity fetish into pornography.
Characters live when they are re-imagined. Shakespeare’s plays can be performed in Edwardian boaters and bio-nuclear hazard suits without detracting from their greatness; King Arthur can be read through Monty Python and Rosemary Sutcliffe and Walt Disney and Lord Tennyson. All literature is an ongoing dialogue with the past, an echo-chamber where initial voices are changed and challenged and charmed again. To put a stop to that infinite orchestra, by hoarding an idea inside a palisade of legal niceties, is not just silly, it is counter-productive. It strands a character in its time and in its place. I would happily wager – since I won’t be around to be proven correct – that Moore will inspire more creations than Potter.
What keeps a character alive is not how faithfully the story is told again but how promiscuously it can diverge from its origin.
Sherlock Holmes is a good example. There are the versions with Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jnr and Benedict Cumberbatch; he appears not just in stories by Arthur Conan Doyle but in novels by Michael Chabon, Michael Dibdin, John Dickson Carr, Stephen King and Antony Horowitz.
Scottish comics writer Mark Millar created a wonderful version of Superman, where the Last Son of Krypton crashes into a collective farm in the Ukraine rather than the American Midwest and becomes Josef Stalin’s right-hand man. It couldn’t be further from the patriotic version of the all-American good guy but he is still recognisably Superman. It seems a curious quirk of fate that Moore’s cheeky adoption of Potter might do more to preserve the character’s iconic status than the novels in which he first appeared.
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