The Fan Meta Reader

“Canon Shenanigans: The Limits of Canon and the Legitimacy of Fanworks,” by tonipontificates

Curator’s note: this is the second of two meta that consider the relationship of canon to transformative fandom; here, tonipontificates considers the nature of canon in an increasingly transmediated (and transmedia fandom) context.


I’m very much a member of the generation that grew up at the rise of modern digitized fandom. What I mean by modern fandom is the time period 2000-10, during LiveJournal, Yahoo Groups, and the eventual migration to Tumblr. With that being said, the concept of “what is canon?” is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about.

What exactly is canon? Is it what happens in between the book covers, or from opening to end credits? If that, then what do interviews with creators count for? And if the text is something like BBC Sherlock or new Doctor Who, what and how do we define “fanon” as against canon?

For the sake of clarity, I’m going to earmark canon as the established text of a story, meaning what happens between the title page and the acknowledgements. But in that context, this means that any post-editorializing by the writer–J.K. Rowling saying that Dumbledore is gay in a script note, for instance–doesn’t count. This is not to say that the creator’s opinion doesn’t matter, but that means that the creator is not the last word on the matter. Their opinion still holds weight, but they’re discoursing with the text as a person with a headcanon, not the person who wrote the canon. Essentially, once you release your story into the world, it doesn’t exclusively belong to you anymore. You’re sharing your world with other people, and those people feel as enthusiastic about it as you. They may notice plot holes that you didn’t see, or they may expand your world in ways you didn’t expect. As a result, they can choose to ignore your editorializing (really, who cares that Rowling thinks that Hermione should’ve ended up with Harry? That is cute for you, but keep that to yourself, because there are many of us that are still trying to move on from fandom ship wars. Don’t dredge up that old mess) and assume their own headcanons, or fandom headcanons as their official canons.

That’s essentially what fandom is; taking a fictional, or fictionalized universe and running with it. Expanding. Making it bigger, more detailed, more everything. So, I suppose, the question becomes, when the voice of the creator is only a couple steps above that of the fan creator, who is also within the larger class of the fan consumer, then who is in charge of what gets to be capital C Canon?

I want to say the fans are, and that’s influenced by my proximity to people who love Avatar: The Last Airbender, but aren’t fans of The Legend of Korra. Their problems are firmly rooted in the mishandling of characters and plot points, but they are fans of the way that LoK expanded ATLA‘s world. As a result of this, they essentially ignore the canon of LoK and the ATLA comics (which are a minefield of mischaracterization and blatant disrespect of the emotional journeys in the original show) and instead flock to roleplaying sites like Hou Tian, which takes the promise and intrigue of the plots presented in the Avatar universe and does interesting things with it. Who is to say, with so many fan members that are interested with exploring the foreshortened promise of the show’s plots, that Hou Tian and its participants aren’t creating legitimate canon?

Perhaps this is where I’m showing my hand, because I’m starting to believe that trying to set distinct limits is self-defeating. Like genre, setting what is canon and what is fanon as rigid categories is an impossible task. To return to an earlier metaphor, BBC Sherlock, Elementary, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film series all have their own canon, but in the larger sense of things, they are all fanon of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original short stories. They’re all really expensively produced fanfiction. No one questions their validity as contributions to the legend of Sherlock Holmes (except for maybe Elementary, but that’s another conversation for another time), but they are all not part of the original ACD canon. Rather, they operate as alternate universes; alternate interpretations of the original characters and their dynamic. I think this really does explain the disparity in portrayals of Holmes and Watson. Granada Holmes, or Holmes as played by Jeremy Brett (and Watson, played by David Burke, and Edward Hardwicke), is considered the most faithful interpretation of Sherlock Holmes onscreen, for good reason. The show has an understanding and a command of ACD’s Holmes, and a vested interest in interpreting text-Holmes for the screen.

BBC Sherlock, not so much. Out of the four adaptations I’ve mentioned, this one is probably the furthest afield of a canon faithful adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a faithful adaptation in terms of the atmosphere. Elementary is a solid and earnestly good modern adaptation of the original canon. To me, it feels like what Granada Holmes was like for viewers in 1984. It’s patently easy to understand why Sherlock Holmes appeals to people, because you get a sense of the complexity and nuances of his character. The BBC adaptation stems more from the now popular legend of Sherlock, rather than his actual character and the modern trope of, as Abed of Community put it, “a man using a social disorder as a procedural device.” The writers essentially decided that Sherlock’s difference in terms of his intelligence absolves him of kindness towards other people as well as social mores. Let’s be clear; Sherlock Holmes is not an asshole. He may not see the point in observing certain social courtesies, but within the original canon, Sherlock is compassionate, empathetic, and kind. He’s not exclusively interested in solving mysteries and crimes; he does it, because he actually cares about the people affected by those crimes. The BBC adaptation very much an AU [ed: Alternate Universe]; it’s an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes as a cultural icon through the lens of a possibly mentally ill (but never actually confirmed, because that would be too much like giving mentally ill people nuanced representation) anti-hero who can do what he wants because he is brilliant. But I digress. We’re talking about canon.

The text that ignited this conversation about canon was Pacific Rim. In Pacific Rim, we have multiple sources of what could be considered Official Canon; there’s the movie, which is the main text. Then we have Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero, a graphic novel which operates as a prequel for the film, Pacific Rim: The Official Movie Novelization, which is self-explanatory, and Pacific Rim: Man, Machines, and Monsters, a gigantic compendium text of behind the scenes photos, sketches, and minutiae of the film. Now, one of the best things about Guillermo del Toro as a filmmaker is his distinct love of worldbuilding. He’s very big on visual immersion. He can see his universes so clearly, and he wants his viewers to have the same experience watching it as he did dreaming it up. So that lends itself to difficult questions about canon. His work is so detailed, that it’s damn near impossible to jam everything he creates into a 2+ hour film. But does that mean that all of the texts that aren’t part of the film proper are simply canon-adjacent? If we’re still sticking with the earlier definition of canon, how do these texts fit into the construct? These aren’t scribbled script notes from the writer, or Guillermo del Toro lamenting in a later interview about how he should’ve had Mako and Chuck get together in the end; these are actual sanctioned texts. These are books that are doing some of the footwork for the fandom. We don’t have to do the math to figure out what year Mako and Raleigh were born (Millenials save the world, suck it Baby Boomers!), we don’t have to write fic to explain who had the audacity to suggest giant robots to fight eldritch horror monsters (it was the Americans, of course), and we don’t have to write meta to explain how the Jaegers work, it’s all in the texts. This is because del Toro is a fanboy; he knows his fanbase. He gets just as excited about things like this as we do. In this sense, I do think he’s engaging in this world as a fan, not just exclusively as a creator. A scifi/fantasy film is essentially a blueprint; it gives you a sense of the world, but it doesn’t give you everything because it’s still trying to tell a story. With the canon texts that exist outside of the Canon that is established by the film, del Toro is saying “this is what I think the world looks like, check this out.” We can decide to use these texts in our own interpretations, or we can choose to establish our own sense of canon through other means.

And just for fun, let’s consider the massive universe of Star Trek. The Original Series is Canon, that is indisputable. But, for me, that’s where things get murkier. There’s TOS, then The Animated SeriesThe Next GenerationDeep Space NineVoyagerEnterprise, and then the Star Trek film franchise, which deals exclusively with the cast of characters from TOS and TNG. Then there are the games, books, novels, comics, and magazines. There seems to be a consensus amongst the fandom that everything outside the shows and the films are non canon (specifically non canon, but they can also be fanon, although a lot of them are sanctioned by The Powers That Be in the Star Trek franchise), and the Animated Series is debatable, but I posit that everything outside of TOS is not canon, but fanon. TOS was the catalyst; it is the thing that established the world of Star Trek. Although Gene Roddenberry is involved in pretty much every piece of Star Trek text up until his death in 1991, he’s still working from the things he established in the first series. I personally think Roddenberry is in a similar position to del Toro. His texts beyond the original canon aren’t necessarily canon, but that doesn’t mean they fall into the same territory as fanwork.

Star Trek is a bit difficult to talk about because not only is the world universe of it so expansive, but it is also the catalyst for the birth of fandom as we know it. The show created multiple tropes that still appear in fiction today. Parsing its texts for what’s “legitimate text”, and what is fan text does make for an interesting conversation about media consumption, but a pointless one about the legitimacy of fanworks.

This classification I’m doing is an attempt to point out the fallacies of thinking in these terms. It is also an attempt to point out that stigmas against fanfiction and fanfiction writers are destructive and problematic. In the wider context, essentially every story in existence is some form of AU fanfiction of a different story. Roddenberry modeled Star Trek as a “Western in Space”; the show’s inner blueprint was very much in the storytelling style of Gulliver’s Travels. Pacific Rim came as a result of del Toro’s love of Japanese mechs and monsters. ACD’s Sherlock, in turn, was similarly modeled on people Doyle knew in his actual life, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, a character who is like what Star Trek was to the genre of detective stories. ATLA was itself inspired by large swathes of Asian cultures–Daoism, Buddhism, as well as pan-Asian culture, art, and history. There is no story which is created in a vacuum. Artists write and create and give and take from each other all of the time. Fanfiction writers, fan creators, and fan artists? They’re just more upfront about the give and take that happens within their creative processes.


Canon Shenanigans: The Limits of Canon and the Legitimacy of Fanworks” ©tonipontificates, originally posted on September 17, 2014

One comment on ““Canon Shenanigans: The Limits of Canon and the Legitimacy of Fanworks,” by tonipontificates

  1. Pingback: The Fan Meta Reader 2014 Masterpost | The Fan Meta Reader

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