Thursday, December 13, 2007

‘The League’ faces its greatest threat: copyright

After nearly a year of delays, the third installment of Alan Moore and illustrator Kevin O’Neill’s graphic novel “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” has finally arrived on bookstore shelves.

For those of you just coming in, the first two volumes followed a team of Victorian-era “superheroes” brought together by the British government to fight such dastardly evildoers as Dr. Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Professor Moriarty, as well as a Martian invasion.

Hollywood turned the first volume into a dreadful movie, but the less said about that, the better.

Picking up about 60 years after the second volume, the third installment, “The Black Dossier,” follows rejuvenated League members Mina Murray (from “Dracula”) and Allan Quatermain as they sneak into 1950s England to steal a top-secret history of the League’s various incarnations throughout the years.

Whereas the first two volumes feature numerous out-of-copyright characters drawn from Victorian literature — notably, in addition to Murray and Quatermain, the Invisible Man, Capt. Nemo and Mr. Hyde — “The Black Dossier” includes thinly veiled versions of characters still owned by various corporations and estates.

Some are fairly obscure, especially if, unlike Moore, you didn’t grow up watching British television and reading British adventure magazines. Others, like James Bond and Emma Peel (“The Avengers”), while not named as such, are impossible to miss. And, it’s putting it mildly to say this is probably the most unflattering portrayal you’ll ever see of Ian Fleming’s bruising, boozing, womanizing super spy.

It’s the presence of Bond and other fairly recently literary, film and TV characters that has gotten this installment into trouble. DC Comics refuses to publish it outside the U.S. because of differences in international copyright laws — not to mention fear of litigious copyright lawyers. And that has led to the most recent dust-up in Moore’s long-running feud with DC. So, Moore is taking his next volume of “The League,” scheduled for release next year, to Top Shelf Productions.

Of course, if copyright law had been as expansive 100 years ago as it is today, a series like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” wouldn’t have been possible at all, and writers like Moore wouldn’t be able to draw upon our shared literary heritage in order to tell new stories.

Whenever the copyright term on characters like Mickey Mouse and Superman comes close to running out, companies like Disney and Time Warner, which owns DC Comics, rush to Congress for an extension. Characters and works that should enter the public domain — long after their creators have died — remain under copyright, where the rest of us can’t touch them.

A century from now, a future Alan Moore won’t have the option of creating his own league composed of, for example, Jack Ryan, Anita Blake and Hannibal Lecter. That will be a major loss for popular culture. Meanwhile, Moore is far from the only author to find new stories for old characters.

British novelist Kim Newman draws upon Sherlock Holmes and Victorian novels like “Dracula” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau” in his 1992 novel “Anno Dracula” and its sequels. And no one gets more miles from Victorian literature and early 20th century pulp magazines than science fiction writer Philip Jose Farmer.

Through numerous books and short stories, Farmer has crafted a fictional universe that includes Tarzan, Doc Savage and, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Everyone loves Sherlock.

But unless Congress finally says no to Disney and the rest, the worlds of Moore, Newman and Farmer may be the last in which fictional characters from all over can get together for one big literary party.

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