Alternate Cover: A Creator’s Legacy

News of a Hitchhiker's sequel has set James thinking about character ownership in the land of comics...

As a big fan of the Hitchiker’s Guide books, I was fairly upset at the idea of someone who isn’t Douglas Adams writing a new one – especially since there are a few other choices who I think would’ve been far more legitimate than the guy who wrote Artemis Fowl. One of those people would’ve been noted comic-writer and novelist, Neil Gaiman, who acted as both friend and biographer to Douglas Adams. Gaiman has responded directly to the idea of a new Guide book on his journal, stating:

Douglas asked me if I’d like to adapt Life, The Universe and Everything for radio I said no, and that was with Douglas alive and asking. (Dirk Maggs did it, and did an excellent job.) It seemed a thankless task.

Which clears up that idea. “Thankless” is right, though. We can’t know how Adams would’ve felt about having someone else write another Hitchiker’s book, though Gaiman goes immediately on to suggest that he wouldn’t like to see sequels to his own books by anyone else after he’s dead. Which made me glad that we were safe from someone else’s attempt at “Sandman 2” – and that thought made me pause for a moment.

In the medium of comics, it not unusual to see one character being tackled by hundreds of different writers of their lifespan. No-one gets too upset when their original creators stop telling the story and hand the reins over to someone else – it’s simply the natural order of a periodical medium.

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The idea of character “ownership” (and I mean in the emotional sense, rather than the financial one) is a tricky one. In the case of Hitchiker’s Guide, the characters and world seem so personal to Adams that there don’t appear to be any stories worth telling with the characters unless Adams is involved. Sandman’s arc was fully conceived and executed by Gaiman, and again, it seems both unnecessary and undesirable to continue it without his involvement. Spider-Man, on the other hand, was launched by Lee and Ditko, but when they left, the stories continued and decades later, no-one seems especially outraged – it’s simply the Way Things Are.

Perhaps the main difference is that characters like Spider-Man and other “Work for Hire” properties don’t belong to the creator, but to the company. Thus anything authorised by them can technically be seen to be the work of the “official” author. It seems that Lee was content to have simply helped create Spider-Man – the stories then told with the character existed in an open-ended setting, allowing other writers to all give their own take. Lee’s Spider-Man stories weren’t, ultimately, quite so important as the character who starred in them.

In any case, the decision of whether something is “official” or not ultimately comes down to the fans. Should DC ever see fit to sequelise Sandman, they may be in their legal right to do so, but only the fans could make it a success.

The same, then, is true of the forthcoming Hitchiker’s book. If we want Adams’ legacy to be the characters of Arthur, Trillian and Ford, much like how Stan Lee’s legacy is Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men, then we need to do nothing but buy the book when it comes out. However, if we want Adams’ legacy to be the stories he told, rather than the characters he created – much like Gaiman’s run on Sandman – then it’s down to those that might be expected to buy Colfer’s Hitchiker’s book to instead leave it on the shelf.

James writes Alternate Cover every Monday at Den Of Geek. His previous column can be found here.


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