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Bring on the Queer Killer Bees: How Marvel Completely Misses the Value of Fanfiction

queer killer bees as guests at Northstar and Kyle’s wedding

Marvel doesn’t explain precisely what they mean by “alternative lifestyle advocacies” or “social issues” — both of which are prohibited in the Terms of Use for their upcoming platform for creating and sharing Marvel comics — but those two phrases give you a general idea of the kind of fan-created stories that are not welcome. Here is a non-exhaustive list of other unwelcome content: double entendres, vitamins, aliens, gossip, noises related to bodily functions, amusement parks other than Disney, killer bees, and death.

I can’t help but wonder if whoever wrote this list has ever read a comic book. No death, seriously? This part, combined with the copyright license, makes me picture a lawyer that is literally just an empty trench coat being held up by a few bags of money.

Marvel is not the first media property to create an “authorized” fanfiction platform without acknowledging that that’s what it is, or indeed acknowledging any of the actual value or history of fanfiction. Maybe this is for the best, since with rules like these, what fans could create with this platform share none of these values or history. Because here’s the thing about fan creation: it’s about creativity, it’s about community, and perhaps above all, it’s about inclusivity.

In the days when fanfiction still required staples and stamps, scholars like Camille Bacon-Smith and Henry Jenkins were already writing about how fanfiction is a way of recrafting and reclaiming representation. (My own first dabblings with fanfiction were when I decided that the female characters in Star Trek needed more to do, so I made Uhura and Christine save the world together over and over again.) Fanfiction communities have long been dominated by women, and a great many fanfiction writers identify as queer (supported by a recent fan-run census). It isn’t surprising that fanfiction often involves re-writing characters as queer, when there is such little representation in pre-existing narratives. Fanfiction can be a way of amplifying marginalized voices.

One of my current PhD students has been examining videogame fanfiction on the site Archive of Our Own (AO3), exploring how writers recraft the identities of characters both as a way of seeing themselves in the narrative and as a way of reacting to narrative choices. Fan creators explore the things they love, but can also use their rewritings as a way to lovingly critique. Oh really, that Mass Effect character isn’t bisexual after all? He is in MY story! What, my Dragon Age Inquisitor can’t tell Krem that he’s trans, too? Look there, he just did! And no, canon narratives don’t have to be perfect when it comes to representation (even though there seem to be a lot of people who are concerned that queer people and women are invading their games!!!); this is why fanfiction is so great. When creators like Bioware leave the door open juuuuuust a little, fans can step through and open it up even wider for others.

We can only assume that phrases like “alternative lifestyles” and “social issues” are code for “don’t use our characters to explore the things you might find most important.” But the irony is that comics, though sometimes shy and sometimes slow, have dealt with “social issues” in their pages for decades. In the 70s, Green Lantern tackled Speedy’s drug addiction. In the 90s, a character in The Incredible Hulk died from AIDS. The creator of the character Northstar has stated that he was meant to be gay from his introduction in 1979 (though wasn’t revealed to be until 1992), and he was married in mainstream comics’ first same-sex wedding in 2012. Runaways heroine Karolina also comes out in the comics, and the new Hulu show has Marvel’s first on-screen same-sex relationship. And one of my personal favorite stories from Marvel lore is that of same-sex couple Hulkling and Wiccan of Young Avengers. Hulkling, a shapeshifter, was originally intended to be a girl posing as a boy, but in part due to the positive reception of the blossoming romance between the two, the storyline shifted (though it took many years before we saw a kiss between the two).

As Stan Lee himself wrote in 1970, “None of us lives in a vacuum — none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us — events which shape our stories as they shape our lives.” Social issues, death, and maybe even killer bees, cannot simply be erased from Marvel’s world anymore than they can be erased from our own.

To be fair, Marvel (and indeed most other major media properties) have not tried to crack down on noncommercial fanworks — and their new platform shouldn’t have any effect on the fan creativity that’s been happening for decades, including the over TWO MILLION Marvel works currently on AO3. In fact, the insane restrictions around “authorized” fan creativity is exactly why AO3 (and its umbrella organization, the Organization for Transformative Works) exist. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper about the inception and design of AO3, and how it began in part as a reaction to the ill-fated (and ill-considered) commercial site FanLib. Fan creation is about community — not about commerciality, and it doesn’t require permission.

And so Marvel’s platform won’t hurt the fan community. But it also can’t help in all the ways that fanfiction should. It won’t let queer teens re-imagine their favorite characters to be more like them. It won’t let people work through issues of death, or drug use, or… killer bees, and share these stories to help others.

I’m sure that (some of) Marvel’s prohibitions can be explained by wanting to avoid controversy, keep things family friendly, etc. etc. And lawyers of course (even empty trench coats) tend to err on the side of caution. But I feel like there’s a lost opportunity to nurture the kinds of creativity and support that makes fan communities great.

In the meantime, should you want to write that story about the Avengers battling queer killer bees while protesting for LGBT rights at Six Flags (with a few fart jokes and a death scene), you’re welcome to share it on AO3 instead!