Shared universes! So hot right now. The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU as the cool/uncool kids are calling it) has put blood in the water and now studios are scrabbling for their own universe to mine into barren nothingness (there was a part of my brain that died when they announced the creation of a Transformers shared universe as that is a four movie franchise that contains four too many movies.)
Don’t get me wrong I love the Marvel movies but even the most loyal fan must be able to see the rot beginning to set in. Age of Ultron was great but strained under the weight of cameos and continuity that detracted from robot smashing. Every day they seem to announce a new cast member for Captain America: Civil War, which has me worried that we’re going to lose the tight focused awesomeness of Winter Soldier in favour of ‘Look it’s Ant Man! And Vision! And Red Hulk (rumoured)!’
But there is a shared universe that actually benefits from more characters, in fact it thrives upon filling the screen with recognisable names. That is the shared universe of the public domain.
Due to the nature of copyright laws there are an awful lot of very cool characters and stories that belong to no one, so therefore they belong to everyone.
Public domain characters abound in two fantastic comics series’, Fables (in which every fairy tale character lives as a refugee in New York) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (more about this later). The nature of public domain being, well, in the public is that the same ideas come up again and again which is why you also have TV shows that are fairly similar to the these two comics. Once Upon a Time has a cast of fairy tale characters in it’s leads and Penny Dreadful focuses upon gothic Victoriana (much like Extraordinary Gentlemen). I will admit more of a liking to the latter.
A misspent youth of reading Gothic horror has meant that when I watched the first episode of Penny Dreadful I nearly peed a little when a character introduced himself as Doctor Victor Frankenstein before he was asked to help perform an autopsy on a vampire. The great thing about Penny Dreadful is that at any second there is the chance that a new character will appear and introduce himself as Doctor Jekyll or Doctor Moreau or Captain Nemo, and we’ll get to see what new adventures these characters will engage in.
Another series which is spawned from public domain literature is Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula series of novels. The first book tells the story of an England in which Queen Victoria, heartbroken after the death of Albert marries a dashing Romanian prince, Vlad Tepes (aka Dracula), and vampirism spreads across England. Characters from all kinds of literature and film appear throughout the series and part of the fun of reading them is spotting the references you understand, and getting a little look how smart I am buzz as well.
The same applies very much so for Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen books which began as a sort of Victorian X-Men and gradually evolved into a vast epic in which public domain ceased to matter and characters like James Bond, Harry Potter, and Charles Foster Kane became (without being named) main characters and villains. Throughout the nine books in the series there are so many cameos and references it is hard to keep up but when you do get something that is a little obscure it adds to your enjoyment of the book greatly.
The best thing about this shared universe is that it is boundless. It is not held in check by whether or not the characters are owned by Marvel or DC or which movies they are contracted to appear in. All manner of character and story combinations can occur and help these character retain their immortality long after their creation.