City of Litigation!

*Well, obviously we know what the hot news of the day is. I’ve gotta say I’m fascinated by the implications of the suit, particularly a theory forwarded by Tom Spurgeon that Marvel may be inching toward defending their rights to their characters as based on collections of unique attributes, rather than proper names and instant visual characteristics. I’m not sure if that will come out in this case, as much of what I’ve read (very little) on the matter indicates that Marvel is angry that the potential exists for the creation and display of characters indistinguishable from Marvel properties. I suppose from first glance that Marvel’s arguments won’t be so broad as to really push the ‘collective characteristics’ angle, leaving the potential of ‘virtual copies’, a narrower argument, to be carried forward. And given the unique status of the online gaming technology at issue here, I would think that this case, if decided in Marvel’s favor at a level high enough to become persuasive (or even binding) precedent across a wide area, would be distinguishable should certain ‘collective characteristics’ arguments be offered in a comics-centric controversy, particularly given that Marvel is complaining of limitations on their own video gaming licensing. But hey, wide rulings and generous affirmations by courts in semi-related matters are always a possibility.

I think the matter will have a far more immediate effect on the extent of tolerable customization in online community gaming; I wonder if companies will become far more conservative in determining which sort of characters will be allowed. Actually I wonder if this will result in stricter supervision over online gaming communities in general. It’s different now than it was when those Star Wars maps came out for “Doom”, with a wider potential audience and a formal community located on company-owned servers, which is why I‘d say that this matter is not like suing Kinko‘s or pencil manufacturers for providing the tools of infringement, because the results of the character creation are broadcast on a server maintained by (I think) the same company providing the tools, which is furthermore involved in a business which the complaining company feels its interests is limited in. The question of exactly how much moderation of online communities will be necessary in the future may well be engaged with this case. Should this go to trial, it’ll be fascinating to see exactly what the verdict is made on, as all sorts of potential limitations are possible. Is it just the matter of the game itself providing the character alteration tools? Is it the moderation of the community? Is it limited to online communities? There are many ways this may go.

But I’m not a lawyer, so take all of that with a grain of salt. I get the feeling that the impact this will have on comics is only potential, and a mild potential at that, and particularly dim in regards to the possible impact this could well have on online gaming.

Challengers of the Unknown #6 (of 6)

I laughed out loud twice during this final installment of Howard Chaykin’s flawed but compelling miniseries, and that’s more than I usually do with proper humor books. Taken as the whole, the series looks to me like a particularly vigorous integration of style and theme, with Chaykin’s layouts and character designs broadcasting and commenting upon his message of a humanity made indistinguishable before immense wealth. The comedy doesn't get lost underneath the technical skill though, which is no small feat considering the breadth of that skill.

It sort of started to get to me, midway through the series, how the heroes sound and look so similar. I suspected that this may have been at least partially intentional, and now I’m sure of it. Hegemony, that ultra-conspiratorial congregation of financial elites, only see average persons as toys, entertainment. In one potent bit of narration early in the issue, we’re told of wealthy captains of industry mocking the moon landing of the late-60’s from their top-secret moon base, “In a real life, real time, real world version of Mystery Science Theater 3000,” and hey, why not if you’ve already surpassed any concern for the unsuccessful? The wicked Mae Nash Price, queen of the Moon, gloats that she can always just grow more bodyguards, more human incubators for her heirs. Earlier in the series, Ms. Price crowed about Hegemony’s interest in utilizing racial matters to maintain control; Ms. Price might be personally a monster bigot but there’s no real need to segregate the workforce when the non-elite is simply a mass to be manipulated. Manipulated by television and pop culture and politics. Just more sheep to herd. And it thus also no surprise that Chaykin’s heroes dress alike, speak similarly, and even share similar head shapes, because they are indistinguishable under the watch of those whom the fight. Interestingly, in earlier issues, we’ve even seen a former Hegemony operative turned amoral terrorist who looks remarkably like one of our current heroes, the very one who’s struck from the classic Chaykin hero mold, giving us two alternate typical Chaykin protagonists, one who gloats of bringing down a Center, and one who hasen’t had the chance yet, and maybe won’t in the future.

Repeating layouts have been used throughout the book to further emphasize the shared experience of this mass proletariat (the true bourgeois having mostly left the planet itself). Sure the pictures filling the panels are different, but the beat, the placement, and the thrust of the content repeat, to establish and maintain the unconscious community inhabited by the heroic cast. The repeating layouts return in this final issue, and I honestly felt a leap in my belly as I realized that this cross-racial cross-gender cross-sexuality joining would now be used to effectuate an awakening. And directly after that awakening, literally on the next two pages, Chaykin uses exactly the same layouts again, only with both of the core villains made the focus rather than the surviving heroes, and the decision made to either betray or fight in the place of the panels that once offered support from beyond eternity. And then on the next page after that, we have all of the remaining heroes pictured in panels running across the top, all eyes of the faithful turned toward a betrayer. It’s really a superb use of panel breakdowns, some of the best work of the type I’ve seen in recent comics, and it deserves and rewards attention and study. Oh, speaking of study, did you catch the secret spoiler on the cover? Very cute.

But what of the satire, you ask? That’s a little more questionable. The story’s recurring Ann Coulter caricature gets what initially appears to be a hilariously absurd role in the plot, but it comes to a fizzling, tired end (although we do get a great line out of it; ’unfit mother’ indeed). There’s not a lot of immediate political engagement anyway, at least not on a party level. Chaykin really wants to talk about the cultural domination of the wealthiest one or two percent, who in Chaykin’s world have attained a higher level of power than mere total political control anyway. Sure, the story could be read as ‘don’t trust what the current government says’ but I think the crux of the theme lies in how much Chaykin sees the current cultural climate as being tinkered with by those moneyed people of privilege. Consolidation of media, funding of politics, selection of trends and release of backlash. Chaykin just takes this to the nth degree, with the jolly staging of genocide and international conflict, all pieces ultimately held by the same parties, of course, with the only things broken being the toys: us. But Chaykin doen't really propose any long lasting solution, no overthrow or perfect government or anything. He only wants to situation to be properly read; it is now necessary to merely establish the need for a solution, not the solution itself, hence the 'waking up' aspect.

So even when Chaykin awkwardly mixes a parody of “The Reagans” across party lines, or becomes somewhat repetitious in his desire to clearly explain everything when mere visuals will do (though this might just be a useful means of padding out that necessary six-issue length), or loses clarity at the very end (I got the feeling that the explosion at the end was set off from within, since the secrets have now been compromised and certain parties seemed to be hustling away to somewhere at final glance), it’s not too distracting for me. Because what’s really asked by the book is for the people to see how close they all really are, and question how so much is held my so few. Then, presumably, as the people always do in the early works of Eisenstein, we challenge the unknown.