Fan-Fiction Is Good, And Here Is Why

Originally written for the Your Stories Podcast, recorded on 2/21/16 at the Cards Against Humanity office.

In mid-December 2015 the biggest event of all-time occurred. Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens hit theatres, and it was actually (according to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes) good. An 81% Metascore and a 92% Fresh rating typically means the consensus is that that piece of art is good, objectively. Because the world needs even more think-pieces, the Internet was overrun with opinions on what Star Wars is, was, and will be, almost immediately. People I know either loved, hated, or felt moderately unaffected by the film.

Dat Rey tho.

The most damning thing I’d heard about The Force Awakens was this:

“It was nothing more than fan-fiction because it wasn’t written by George Lucas.”

Let’s take that statement try to separate a few things from the points I am about to posit.

  • This is not about Rey.
  • This is not about Finn.
  • This is not about Poe Dameron, badass of Rogue Squadron and who I will dream about becoming when I grow up.
  • This is about looking at a piece of art and claiming it is fan fiction and seeing that as a fault.

Before we dive into a galaxy far far away, let’s pivot for a moment.

Spider-Man (that is Spider-Man with a dash in-between the words “Spider” and “Man” for those wondering) was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in 1962. In the years since, Peter Parker and his companions have seen dozens of new writers and artists who have taken the webhead’s idea and theming and extrapolated it into new areas. This has occurred for better and for worse. For every “Kraven’s Last Hunt” we have a “Clone War.” For every “Spider-Man: BLUE” we get a “Spider-Man: Reign.”

A panel from Spider-Man: BLUE. Written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale.

[NOTE: Seriously though, Spider-Man: BLUE is amazing. Sensational. Spectacular. Other Spider-terms. GO READ IT.]

“Kraven’s Last Hunt” and “BLUE” are considered some of the very best Spider-Man stories ever to grace the history of Marvel, and they were not written by Stan Lee or Steve Ditko. For those of you who might be trying to speak up to defend The Clone Wars, Ben Reilly, Reign, or parts of the One More Day/Brand New Day storylines, we can speak afterwards. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko played an incredibly important role with Spider-Man: CREATION. It would be incredibly belittling to say they didn’t play a gigantic role in the character’s history.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens was written by J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt. NOT George Lucas. I’m not up here to debate whether or not Episode VII is equal to and/or better than Lucas’s stories that were filmed in Episodes 1–6, but popular opinion and critical reviews would say that the overwhelming majority states the movie is enjoyable, fun, and a worthy successor to The Return Of The Jedi.

So why put an asterisk next to the film and try to label it as Fan-Fiction? I’ve laid out Spider-Man as an example of a property that has flourished in other artists’ hands, but that’s just an easy one.

  • Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster in 1933. Grant Morrison’s “All-Star Superman” was published in 2006 and is widely considered to be one of the best, if not THE best, standalone Supes story.
  • Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween” was released in 1996, and is cited as one of the premier Batman storylines.
  • Black Widow was conceived by Stan Lee, Don Rico, & Don Heck in 1964. Marjorie Liu and Daniel Acuna’s “Name Of The Rose” wasn’t released until 2010, and you guessed it, is often looked at as the very best Black Widow story ever published. (Personally I like the most recent run that Marvel comics has produced, but that’s just me! Holy crow, Phil Noto’s art is impeccable.)

There’s really a thrilling amount of examples here. Even Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo had a slightly different writing team.

People often argue that James Cameron’s “Aliens” is better than Ridley Scott’s original tale of Ellen Ripley in “Alien.” “Skyfall” currently holds a much higher review score than nearly every other James Bond 007 tale written by Ian Fleming. “The Wrath Of Khan” was not written by Gene Roddenberry.

[Insert “KHAAAAAAAN” scream here.]

It isn’t the fate of every creator to see their original works be taken and improved upon by a new generation. It’s a GIFT for creators to see their characters be interpreted, challenged, and deciphered into new mediums when they pass away or retire.

The world changes every single day, and the time and place where George Lucas shaped these characters is infinitely different than the world we live in now. Fan Fiction does not take the place of writing an original piece of art. I’ll never argue that churning out another story from a long-established character is more interesting than a new idea. However, for many, Fan Fiction-esque works are often a gateway to keep people into other things. I never would’ve read the original Batman origin had it not been for Scott Snyder’s “The Black Mirror.” I never would have been into Buffy The Vampire Slayer had I not watched “The Zeppo” episode, which was not written by Joss Whedon. (Before people groan: YES. I am ashamed I once thought that Xander was the coolest. He is most definitely not the coolest.)

Here’s a more esoteric example. In grade school I was a terrible student. I was the one kid who listened to emo music, was labeled “different” by my peers, and spent two day every week getting pummeled on the playground.

It’s fine.

My grades began to suffer. I just didn’t care. I had gone from getting straight A’s and high marks to actually worrying about getting into high schools. At the age of 14 I saw “The Matrix” and felt inspired in a way I hadn’t been before. My declining English grade was eating away at me so I threw a hail mary to my teacher and asked her if I could write something for extra credit. So yes, at the age of 14 I wrote a ten-page fan fiction story that boosted my grade from a C- to a B+. Evidently my tale of being a Gary-Sue in the world of Neo, Morpheus, & Trinity, wasn’t so good that I could squeak out an A, BUT, I got a B+. This work of fan fiction eventually led to me writing original things. Longer things. Better things. Movies. Music. Lots of things. And guess what? Academically and creatively I’ve done pretty OK for myself.

Fan Fiction should not be a pejorative term, or an asterisk to place alongside a review. It is a gateway. And sure, 99% of it is pure shit. I’ll never say every piece of it is good, but every now and then someone from that 99% shit-pile writes something truly amazing and it falls into the 1%. Even if you don’t have faith, I encourage you to try.

Listen to the spoken-word version of this piece here.

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