There’s an interesting aspect to the thing referred to by fans as “Canon” with regards to the individual creations. Its forms a life raft, if you will, of information, upon which the imaginations of both the creator and fan (viewer, reader, player, etc) stays afloat. Without the idea of “canon” material, a creation cannot have its own fundamental identity.

Wikipedia defines the term “canon” as:

In fiction, canon is the conceptual material accepted as “official” in a fictional universe’s fan base.

By default, this is the set of information defined by the author(s), creators and other people working creatively on a specific. When writer Jimmy Joe describes his character smoking Indonesian Kretek cigarettes, that’s canon. When fanfic author Jammy Johns suggests he smokes Camels, its not.

Canon is what keeps the wolves and bears at bay. But it can also be a hazy, vague and infuriating thing to define properly and protect. Yet it is also the first thing to lay by the wayside when popularity hits and more and more people want to share in it.

Creators of Fiction

Gentlemen_Broncos_movie_imageAs far as authors go, what is canon is quite simple and straight forward. Only what is sandwiched between the covers of a novel is canon. Even the cover, at the mercy of publisher art directors and the glistening hordes of artists champing at their palettes/easels, cannot be part of the canon material. Quite simply, what is published as a short story, novel, novella and so on, forms the backbone of that creation’s canon.

Its a very rare case for an author to go back and redefine their own work, but it does happen. A publisher offers to reprint an omnibus edition of these stories, etc. and the author is given the chance to clean up some bad sentences, perhaps even rework a story for a more modern audience. So then, if a major alteration is performed, which of these versions is canon? The original, the new one, or both?  Chances are, the changes aren’t that major and fans of the creator will probably brush it off as minor.

An author might retcon something in the general course of developing their fictional universes. Retconning, or retro-continuity, is the act of redefining details or statements from past works and  like most things can be done well and poorly.  The poor craftsman will simply introduce new details that override what was said before, not caring for the integrity of previous works. The adept craftsman will introduce a reason for why the original details were wrong and piggy-back it on a situation that arises naturally from the new works.  Probably the most famous poor retcon of recent SF/F memory is the redefinition of the Force in the Phantom Menace. Its redefinition serves no purpose and appears to be in conflict with the rest of the works in the series: at the time of Phantom Menace, the Force is used by the very people who keep peace and order in the galaxy, and has a well known technical definition, proven out by tangible evidence and devices to sense it. Forty years later in that worldspace, no one has heard of it, no one believes in it aside from a very few (maybe 3-4 in a galaxy of hundreds of billions) and even the people who do know of it (Yoda) describe it in a completely different fashion (a force that binds all living things, rather than the presence of tiny creatures.) Sure, if you look at the wording and the ideas at precisely the right, contrived angles, it might make sense, but more likely the viewer will process these new statements as details that don’t dovetail with other aspects of the work in question.  An example of a good retcon, might be the re-working of the appearance of Klingons between the Original Star Trek series and the Next Generation, which has been generally accepted as the Klingons creating a genetically modified subset of Klingons minus forehead ridges to infiltrate human society or to present a more affable appearance to human space-farers. The explanation isn’t so far fetched for an SF work, dovetails nicely with the tendencies of the Klingons (but perhaps better for Romulans) and doesn’t tear down any previous works of Star Trek.

All this is well and good for a single creator who has almost complete control over their work. As a god within their own world, they rarely see the need to tear it all down and reinvent anything. They should be thankful for this, because it all goes down the tubes when…

Two or more people create something!

Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles

The TMNT when they got big…

Unless the creators are Siamese twins sharing a single brain, it is unlikely they will have the same vision as each other. Since most creators of fictional works aren’t twins, Siamese or otherwise, and come from diverging backgrounds and thus creative stimuli, they ain’t gonna see eye to eye with every idea.  But they will share credit on something.  When they work together, their process might contribute to the same idea, but I’ll guarantee they have a different view of the work they’ve done: what they think they’ve put into it, what its about, or how it was done. Jimmy Joe and Jammy Johns, working to make a single character, will be something different to everyone. And that’s where the problems start.

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The real TMNT… from the first issue.

So long as they keep working together, putting out material consistent with what’s gone before, there’s still not a problem. But what happens when one creator gives up the rights, or steps aside because of personal issues, or is tragically killed, etc. The idea of what is canon to the produced work suddenly changes. Fans of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can relate to this. Originally created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, the comic flourished and eventually the two separated, with Laird selling the rights to Kevin Eastman, who had a desire to license the characters out.  The TV series, movies and everything that followed created new ranks of fans – but the creation had changed in its canon. The turtles were not hard done by, hard bitten characters, they were suddenly surfers, eating pizza and shouting “Cowabunga.”  That’s all well and good, but its different. Now there were different creators, different inputs – different products; written for a very new audience, with new inspiration, ideas, talents.  Isn’t it ironic then, that 20 years later, legions of TMNT fans are up in arms when Michael Bay is reworking the material of their beloved canon to make a movie – without the turtle bits (the new chars are aliens, rather than Earth-born turtles), or ninjas (they’re aliens, so how can they know Earthborn martial arts?). Regardless, this franchise is on the cusp of a huge change.

Franchises

Franchises may have started as a single short story written by a single creator with ideas, hard work and integrity, but for whatever reason they have been bestowed life by their popularity and money earning power. Someone has seen their value and wants to make a sequel, a movie, a line of toys, a comic book, whatever, and use the original’s reputation to make more money, or sometimes, to create other things like it.

SW fans 1977

The first wave of Star Wars fans, opening day May 25th 1977

Once again, all well and good. There’s some amazing multi-creator franchises out there – shared universes churning out all manner of awesome sauce. But add enough versions of something, add enough creators, or even people with perhaps too much imagination and before you know it you’ve got one strange, oddly shaped creation that has no apparent direction or intent. The canon, if you will, is… lost, usually beneath a thick veneer of spackling paste.

Going back to Star Wars: the content here is stratified in terms of its material, primarily where it lies on the timeline. So, we have the Classic Era, The Prequel Era, the Old Republic (from Tales of the Jedi, through to the Old Republic MMO) and of course, the catch all – the Expanded Universe, or EU. The EU revitalized interest in the Star Wars franchise in the 1990s and started an unending avalanche of great work. It brought many new ideas to the Star Wars universe – double bladed lightsabers (Exar Kun, not Darth Maul!) and the origins of the Sith, force resistant animals, clone characters, life stories of bit-part characters in the movies. It was the wild west of the franchise and brought a lot of excitement with it. Lucasfilm eventually created a sort of committee to consider additions entries into Star Wars canon and exclude the crap, but even today there is a fierce split between what is actually canon and what fans consider to be.

To drive this point even further, with the Prequel Star Wars movies (1999 to 2005), Lucas overwrote, or rather redefined and ret-conned, much of what was considered canon, not only within the EU but also the original movies. Lucas in essence peeing in the collective punch bowl we were all enjoying. One might say that as the “Creator” of the franchise, he is well within his rights, but when so much of Star War’s popularity is because of other creators such as concept designer Ralph McQuarrie, director Irwin Kirshner and pretty much everyone else who worked on the movies, as well as the contributions to the EU, there are factions who say otherwise.  This attitude goes forward as well, with regards to the material that Disney is now having created on their behalf.

Disney-Star-Wars

The Star Wars fan of the future…?

But this is to be expected, as no franchise is a self-contained thing. They grow, they evolve, sometimes for the best, sometimes for the worst…

Endless Recursion

A franchise is created, it is developed, it reaches new heights of popularity and at each of these levels, new content must be created. This might not add to the canon- commercials, adaptations of books to comics to movies, toys, etc, but new content is created. It either adds to the canon, or is held to it. Eventually, popularity will fade if there is no new content and eventually, that content is going to add to the canon, or the franchise will begin to fade. Once again, this happened with the Star Wars franchise and the EU, then later with the Prequels, etc.  So long as a franchise is believed to have marketing potential, or on the creator’s side, artistic potential, then someone will dream of adding to its canon.

When this plateau is reached, time has inevitably passed. The people who made the franchise – creator and consumer – are older and different and view the world with different eyes and sensibilities. The things that made that creation special to its creator are no longer the same as they are now. Even if the creator has stayed the same, more or less, the consumer will have changed. In this case, the consumer is many people – a demographic of people who are interested in spending $$$ to get more content – and through marketing trends and shared ideas, that demographic will have changed.  Or perhaps, the people controlling the franchise – because by the nature of things, its rarely the person creating it – believe that the target consumer is different to the one who made it famous. Either way, the new content is aimed at different people and needs to be created to fuel different desires and trends. Sometimes, the format of the content is different, but more likely, the franchise is demolished and recreated in a new form:  the New Avengers, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Muppet Babies, All New X-Men, CSI: Miami, you get the point. If the franchise has one of these annexed to it, then all is well and good, since it will likely expand upon the old, rather than overwrite it.

Comics see a great amount of reboots and resets. In the case of Batman, the franchise was overturned with Frank Miller’s apocryphal “The Dark Knight Returns” and forever changed how that franchise was perceived. But that didn’t stop it from being redefined several times since, most recently with Christopher Nolan’s film trilogy.  The comics industry routinely demolishes titles to adjust a title to meet with the expectations of an audience, or to find a new audience and revenue along with it.  Some characters, like Aquaman, are seemingly continually adjusted to combat public perception and remain as a vital property.

Movie adaptations of comics also see this upheaval. Batman has had several versions, going from the campy 1960s film, through the Tim Burton years, resulting in the hideous Batman and Robin movie, before finding experimentation with Darren Aronofsky with the failed production of Batman: Year One, until finally the Christopher Nolan trilogy. There were two versions of Fantastic Four, with the Roger Corman production being completely unreleased. Spiderman saw three connected movies, then a reboot with a whole new cast, and sensibility for the character. Same with the Incredible Hulk and Superman. The idea being, if people will go to see it once, they’ll go see if again, if its different….

The franchise redefinition route applies to everything from comics to video games, music, even politics.

But where do all these spin-offs and versions lie with the idea of canon?

The Brand is King

One could say that the smaller the franchise, the more rigid the idea of canon is. One creator makes a small work of fiction, one book. The canon is simply contained. At the other end of the scale is the multimillion (or in the case of Star Wars, billion) with their many offshoots and versions, by a myriad of contributors, even fan-works that find popularity and later inclusion in the canon. The mega-franchise’s canon is graded in such a way that it is compartmentalized, keeping contaminated content by new contributors away from the good bits. In this way, the canon is protected, yet can still evolve and thrive to keep up with the times and the demanding interests of customers. It can even change the nature of its artistic integrity, since the originals aren’t altered by the inclusion of new content – their audience isn’t lost, but new audiences might not be as interested in it as the old guard are. Note that this does NOT apply to Star Wars, as the creator has revisited the original films and altered them, alienating a lot of the original’s fans.

Its a very rare franchise that can survive generations of fans, that is finding a fan base in many successive generations without needing to change – I can think of only one, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien – and yet reaches stunning levels of popularity and money-making without undermining its own artistic integrity.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that the fans really care about what is canon and isn’t, at least, not all of them for any given franchise. Clearly, there is always a hardcore group that does care, almost religiously, but a fanbase is, thankfully, more varied than that. There are folks who love this bit, or that bit and some maybe both, some like the 1980s versions, or the 90s, and not the newer stuff. The fanbase in general will consume any kind of new content, so long as it is connected to the franchise. But one thing that keeps them all coming back is the promise for potential of the franchise they adore and that’s what will keep them as fans and as the franchise protectors, all at the same time.

 

Image Credits: All works, their respective owners.