ECCC 2015 Day 1: Exploring Key Aspects of Creating Comics

It’s Emerald City Comicon (ECCC) time again, and that can only mean one thing to thousands of comic book and pop culture fans: It’s time to get your geek on. Despite unfortunately timed weekend road closures, more than 80,000 fans are expected to descend on the Washington State Convention Center March 27 – 29. For us, the first day of ECCC 2015 was noteworthy for the great insights that two panels in particular yielded on different aspects of creating comics.

Comics, Creativity and the Law

By Fritz Kessler – @HelloFritzCom

Be original. Always ask permission to use photos. And, above all (as one panelist put it), “Don’t f*** with Disney.”

Those recommendations, and many, many more, came out of the  “Comics, Creativity and the Law” session on Friday, featuring two instructors with the UW Communication Leadership graduate program (moderator and transmedia expert Rob Salkowitz and attorney Kraig Baker) and attorney, author and Golden Gate University of Law professor Marc Greenberg. The lively session highlighted the myriad ways in which the law impacts the creative process in the world of comics and entertainment.

Salkowitz kicked things off by asking the two attorneys why the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is blatantly missing so many core characters from the comics. According to Greenberg, Marvel essentially the sold the rights to its many stories and characters well before anyone had any idea how popular a shared universe would later become, thereby scattering its characters across multiple rights-holding movie studios.

Kraig Baker Rob Salkowitz Marc Greenberg Emerald City Comicon

Kraig Baker, Marc Greenberg, and Rob Salkowitz at Emerald City Comicon 2015: Image by Fritz Kessler

Take, for example, Spider-Man. Marvel sold the rights to Sony in 1999, for what must now look like a paltry sum of $7 million, while the “primary” MCU lived with Marvel. Now, for as “masterfully” as Marvel Studios has weaved together the characters they have the rights to (which, as of February, again includes Spider-Man), “They’re stuck with the decision that they don’t have rights to their own universe,” Greenberg said.

For those more concerned with how the law affects the little guy in comics, Baker and Greenberg had many sage words of advice. Recognizing the massive culture around fanfiction, and building original works of fiction, art and film around copyrighted characters, they moved into a discussion of how that work is potentially protected under the fair use doctrine. “Don’t think that just because you get to create the fanfiction, that you have a say in whether or not that’s OK,” Baker said.

Works deemed as “transformative” of the property they’re based on are protected, but what qualifies as transformative? As Baker pointed out, parody is protected under fair use and satire isn’t – but doesn’t some satire qualify as parody? Salkowitz also noted that it’s likely not the best business for big media companies to sue the pants off their most passionate fan-fiction writers (even the aforementioned Disney, whom Greenberg mentioned as particularly litigious), but that’s hardly a guarantee of protection. In the end, all the complexities already mentioned meant that the panel’s best advice for aspiring creators is to seek counsel early and often when it comes to tricky legal issues.

Or, as Greenberg said, “Make your own, original work” for the best protection of all.

Worldbuilding in Comics

By Samantha Hautea – @MannerMinded

The room was packed for this panel, moderated by Professor Ben Saunders and featuring Even Dahm (Rice Boy), Greg Rucka (Batman and Wonder Woman), and Carla Speed McNeil (Finder). While each of these authors had a strong grasp of storytelling in his or her own right, the panel specifically focused on how each approaches worldbuilding, or creates a believable, living environment for their characters.

Evan Dahm, Carla Speed McNeil and Greg Rucka at ECCC 2015

Evan Dahm, Carla Speed McNeil and Greg Rucka at ECCC 2015: Image by Samantha Hautea

Generally, the writers agreed that there tends to be two extremes to worldbuilding: those focused on “rivet counting,” or making sure that every detail and technical aspect is in place before they begin writing, or, in contrast, making things up on the fly. Although the latter approach can be problematic for reasons of consistency and believability, too much emphasis on the former can result in dry writing with excessive amounts of information. Comic creators, who can use visuals to convey multiple pieces of information at once, have an advantage over writers, who must describe the intricacies of their worlds by using words alone, and film, which is still limited to showing information in a chronological way.

The panelists mentioned Star Wars as an example of a fictional universe in which the suggested world beyond what was portrayed in the movies was not fleshed out in detail at first. Instead, this world was expanded upon as time and fans’ demand for detail allowed. In fact, even today, most comics are still written in a similar way: While authors have some control or a general idea of where they want their story to head, connections and details can appear that they may not have thought of when they first began writing.

“The challenge,” Dahm noted, “Is to suggest a lot of detail that isn’t really there.” In doing so, creators can make their worlds seem much larger than what their comic necessarily shows.

As for good examples of worldbuilding? When asked to acknowledge a piece of work or author that has significantly influenced his or her own approach to worldbuilding, McNeil cited Alan Moore’s From Hell and Joan Slonczewski’s A Door Into Ocean. Dahm elected to stick with Ursula K. Le Guin and Greg Rucka recommended The Black Company series by Glen Cook as an excellent example of the kind of organic worldbuilding that he enjoys seeing.

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