The Cultural Chokehold
or a lot of angst over Luke Skywalker growing a bad mustache
So, last week I was talking to a friend online and they asked me if I was watching the Obi-Wan Kenobi tv show that just started. I replied that we don’t have Disney+, and aren’t likely to get it any time soon, so I haven’t seen any of the Star Wars TV shows. And more, I said, even though I’m really fond of the original three movies and like a couple of the newer ones, I’m just a little weary of this new model where there is always #StarWarsContent (or #MarvelContent, or #StarTrekContent) that you must be paying attention to.
And then, I said, the one Star Wars show that I’d be 1000% on board for would be one that was just about the mundane adventures of Luke Skywalker, Teenage Space Hick. Just think of the possibilities! Luke goes into Anchorhead to try to score tickets to see Space Van Halen! Luke and his uncle get drunk on fermented blue milk on the day after Space Thanksgiving and go out in their space truck to shoot whomp rats! Luke starts a terrible metal band! Luke tries to grow a mustache! The ideas are endless!
As you can see, this is an idea that really resonates with me. Probably because the whole “teenage hick who lives with relatives who aren’t his parents” is a situation that, uh, really resonates with me; also because, no matter how vaguely tired I am of Star Wars the 21st century cultural juggernaut, I was a little kid in the 1970s and the first movie is what my head was marinating in as my brain was forming. Being wired the way I am, this quickly moved in my head from “this is a fun TV show to pretend existed as a joke” to “this would be really fun to draw as a series of comics.”
And here things get sticky! Because, of course, no matter how good an idea it is, and no matter how fun I think it’d be, Luke Skywalker isn’t my character to mess around with. He’s Disney’s. And that means that 1) theoretically, Disney could crack down on anything I did with him; 2) supposing I did make a few comics and they gained some traction, I wouldn’t be able to do anything to capitalize on it; 3) as far as that goes, what I really would have done is add a tiny bit of value to an already very valuable piece of intellectual property owned by a gigantic corporation that owns a terrifying amount of our culture; 4) and anyway, wasn’t I just complaining that we’re already marinating in too much mandatory Star Wars?
Let’s set item 4) aside for a second, because it’s really items 1-3 that I wanted to talk about. I really don’t think that we as a society think enough about how weird it is that the combination of copyright law and the resources of gigantic corporations mean that our shared culture is a bunch of jealously-guarded financial assets. In the scope of human history, that’s weird and unusual.
Like, humans have always told stories. It’s wired deeply into us; it’s one of the central parts of how we make sense of the world. Those stories have characters. For most of our experience as a species, no one has *owned* those characters (although I think there’s an—admittedly very reductive!—angle where you could look at organized religion as a process where a body asserts control and ownership over mythic characters). If you had a good idea for a Paul Bunyan story (or a Coyote story, or a Hercules story, or so on), you could just start telling it and maybe it’d catch on, maybe it wouldn’t. The body of stories evolved over time as some stuff stuck and some didn’t.
This is a far cry from the current situation of character-as-intellectual-property-asset, where there are literally meetings about whether it’s OK for this or that character to do this or that thing because it might tarnish the brand. This is a big part of why so much corporate entertainment comes off as so bloodless and bland.
I’m not saying that copyright law is inherently bad. I think it’s a good thing that we have a framework in place now where people who write stories have some ownership of them and can use that ownership to make a living! But good laws can have bad emergent systemic effects. A creator being able to make a living is a great thing. A handful of corporations using their immense resources to concentrate ownership of the stories that resonate through the culture, well, that ain’t so great. I can’t pretend to know exactly where the line between “good” and “bad” is, although I do know that Disney’s decades of making movies based on public domain stories, using the money generated from that to lobby for more extensive copyright laws, then using the money generated by that to go around buying existing intellectual properties is, in aggregate, a big part of the problem.* **
*Not really gonna examine here the recent threats by high-profile Republicans to strip back some of Disney’s copyright protections; those threats aren’t offered in anything resembling good faith, and anyway the Republicans involved are so odious that no conceivable “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” stretch could be made here.
**Also, I should acknowledge here that I’m ignoring the existence of fan fiction and the frequent-but-not-universal blind eye turned towards it by corporations. Really, the “frequent-but-not-universal” bit is the only part that matters there.
That’s a lot to think about for just making some dumb comics. But I guess that’s part of my point! It’s exhausting that there’s this much *to* think about here when the issue should just be making some dumb comics.
Anyway, in the end, I decided to go ahead and make some dumb Teen Hick Luke comics. Yeah, I’m wasting my time on Disney’s IP, and yeah, theoretically Disney could come and tell me to take them down, and yeah, there’s wayyyy too much Star Wars right now (although at least this is fun and silly, and not grim “THIS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS! LEARN THE LORE!” content). One of the central creative rules that I know is that you have to follow your interest and excitement. Making stuff is a crucial source of the fun that keeps us (well, me at least) alive and sane. And if chasing that fun means drawing Luke Skywalker getting drunk on blue milk, well, so be it, I guess.
Right on. Stay safe.
ALSO: I mentioned last time that I’m teaching a Mpls Community Ed class on making comics this fall. And that’s still on, and I’ll share more details when I have them.
But in the meantime, there’s another quick announcement on a thing I’m doing: On Thursday, June 16, I’m doing a set for Kingfield PorchFest, a great event my neighborhood does every year where musicians around the neighborhood play little shows on people’s porches. I’ll be going on around 6 at 3929 Pillsbury Ave, and I expect to be on for about an hour. It’ll be just me and a guitar, playing about a 50:50 mix of my own stuff and old country songs (or newer rock songs rearranged and alt-countrified). It should be a lot of fun! Even if I stink, there’ll be a lot of other musicians around the neighborhood.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
If you have any thoughts/reactions/what have you about this, I’d love to hear about it, either by email or on Twitter. And if you know anybody who might dig this, please forward it on to them, or send ‘em the signup link! And thanks!