I promise we’ll resume our discussion of mental illness in popular music soon enough. But before that, I want to talk about some a remarkable development that occurred last week in the realm of crowd-sourced funding.
Kickstarter’s been in the news quite a bit lately. Just last week, Forbes magazine reported that two major projects both passed the $1 million mark in donations. But I’m not here to talk about the Double Fine Adventure, an initiative by the creators of the head-tripping Xbox cult hit Psychonauts to fund their next adventure game outside the constraints of the game industry. Nor to talk about the Elevation Dock, an iPod doohickey that I guess people liked because it raised almost twice its 75K goal. Nor even Fucking James Franco, an successful endeavor by Portland’s Social Malpractice Publishing to archive the finest Franco-related erotica (now yours for $15.00 plus shipping and handling!).
No. Let’s talk about Order of the Stick.
Order of the Stick is a popular webcomic by writer-artist Richard Burlew, currently squeaking in just over $1.2 million in the final hours of its Kickstarter reprint drive. Order of the Stick is a parody strip, gently poking fun at the conventions of Dungeons and Dragons-style role-playing games over the course of an epic adventure. No understand: while the Venn diagram of “stuff Fletcher likes” and “stuff geeks like” has a very very large overlap, Dungeons and Dragons is one of the few items (along with Dr. Who and Final Fantasy VII) to land squarely in the right-most circle. But despite unfamiliarity with the source material I read through the archives of Order of the Stick a few years back, and liked it a lot. Mind, only one out of five jokes lands the way it’s supposed to, and a few of the apparent fan-favorite characters are hair-pullingly irritating. But the story also works as a light-hearted fantasy adventure that manages occasional gravity and pathos despite its simplistic art. There’s also a really impressive siege storyline that juggles twice as many characters as The Two Towers without sacrificing clarity, scope, or impact; it’s a must-read if you’re interested in graphic or serialized storytelling.
But I’m not writing this to recommend Order of the Stick.
I’m writing this because Order of the Stick, an amusing but crudely illustrated stick-figure Dungeons and Dragons parody, made over a MILLION FUCKING DOLLARS BY FUCKING ASKING NICELY FOR IT.
THIS IS A BIG FUCKING DEAL.
There are a couple of lessons to be learned from this:
1) Geeks are passionate, and, like Ludacris, will express their passion with their wallets. Someone apparently spent $5,000 to have his personal RPG character featured in an upcoming strip. With our money, perhaps, we love not wisely but too well.
2) Order of the Stick is a work that would have absolutely no chance whatsoever of even being published before the dawn of the internet age. What would the venue for a work like this have been? A back-page feature for a biannual D and D fanzine? A photocopied pamphlet on the counter of your comics shop? Thanks to the internet, artists like Burlew can publish, find an audience, and eventually profit from their highly idiosyncratic work. This is great news for the artist, and for society, which can only profit from a wider variety of creative output outside the purview of the entertainment industry.
3) In defiance of the frenzied lobbying of the music and film industries, Burlew made this really impressive amount of money despite the vast majority of his opus being available to everyone, for free, over the internet. You can make money without draconian copyright legislation. Scarce goods like books and custom sketches, donor perks, interaction with an engaged audience: these are all ways, apparently, to make not just money but a shit-ton of money, even when your product is being distributed for free over the entire net.
So in the end, I think the success of The Order of the Stick is great news for the future of the arts. It points to the viability of a new model of producing and distributing content, removed from intellectual property law and the entertainment industry. Congratulations to Burlew, and to his audience for making this happen.
Some of you may be aware of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, a bill making the rounds in the House of Representatives. The bill imposes drastic new procedures to empower content creators to fight piracy by imposing stricter penalties on copyright infringers. The bill has attracted its share of controversy among internet advocates, especially for its policy that any posting or linking to infringing material would be classified as a felony and punishable by up to five years in prison. They insist that criminalizing every mashup, every illegally reproduced photograph, every crappy VHS rip of The Worst Witch, would basically “break the internet.”
Needless to say, as a creator of sexy original content, I stand in solidarity with the titans of industry against the pirate army of teenagers posting music videos of their favorite sitcom stars. It is of critical importance to the vitality of our culture that the Rolling Stones be allowed to sell compact disc recordings of their music at Tower Records for 18.99 plus tax. But I’m concerned that the bill doesn’t go far enough. I’ve conducted some research and I’ve discovered a troubling conspiracy dedicated to the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted content, literally going back centuries.
Imagine a secret brotherhood, with roots in ancient Athens, sworn to the illegal distribution of literature, music, and scratched-up DVDs. This cabal purchases content en masse, legally, but sadly their agenda does not end there. Rather, they make this content available to their fellow pirates entirely free of charge. Indeed, once a book has been used they demand its return, sometimes allowing a single copy to be read by hundreds of pirates without a single cent going to the artist. And if you don’t return this material at an arbitrarily assigned due date, this organization has the authority to charge you fees of up to dozens of dollars, without compensating the publishers or creators for their work.
As if that weren’t appalling enough these dens of iniquity receive government funding, presumably through extensive lobbying using their lucrative book sharing/repossessing scheme. And even worse, they have dedicated themselves to indoctrinating the young, brainwashing our children with publicly financed propaganda asserting their organization’s indispensability:
I’m conducting additional research into a similar “shadow economy” that acquires used copies of material and then literally resells them at a substantial profit… but frankly I’m sure I must be missing something. There’s no way such an industry could infringe for so long, so blatantly, without being brought to justice.
But this is a point we can address later. For now, it’s critical that SOPA is passed. Without it, pirates might continue to post decade-old musical sequences from the PBS “Arthur” cartoon without consequence. These degenerate freaks need to be branded as felons and tossed in prison as quickly as possible. I can’t keep writing like this without throwing up in my mouth, so imagine a picture of the Statue of Liberty crying, or something.
(The first three paragraphs of this post are about a videogame, and will be of little interest to readers other than the virginal or terminally nerdy. Everything after is about the viability of free internet content as a sales model , so that might be of interest.)
I’ve been playing Valve Software’s bullet-shooting videothing simulator Team Fortress 2 recently. Team Fortress 2 was released in 2007 as part of the company’s “Orange Box” compilation; it’s currently available for Windows and Mac on the Steam videogame streaming service. Team Fortress 2 is unusual among shooters in that you choose a unique character to play. You can’t grab a sniper rifle on the battlefield and now you’re a sniper guy. Instead you pick the Sniper – a sensible Australian careerist with disapproving parents and a secret attack that involves throwing jars of what may be collected urine. A team will consist of up to a dozen players, shuffling and swapping among the available classes; it is pleasantly chaotic and offers you the opportunity to choose and master a favorite character.
I’ve discovered a talent for playing the Engineer, an amiable Texan who is weak in direct combat but can construct turrets or health-restoring dispensers. Best thing about playing the Engineer: waddling around the front lines, brandishing my peashooter pistol, luring an enemy to follow me with the promise of an easy kill and then leading them directly in to the sights of my machine-gun sentry with attached missile battery. It’s a hoot. But although I am called to Engineering, it is not the class I prefer.
That would be the Spy, or as they call him in the French, le Spy. The Spy! So dashing and flamboyant! Scaramouch of death! Tiptoeing behind enemy lines, frolicking among the enemy in his ingenious disguises and then shiving a fool. Sadly 1) I am not very good as the Spy, and frequently find myself assassinating the open air about 90 degrees away from a Heavy Weapons Guy’s shoulders just as he turns to introduce me to his Heavy Weapon, and 2) everyone else also thinks the Spy is awesome. In a worst-case scenario, you might have 5 incompetent spies on the same team, using their predator-style optic camouflage to run into walls or fail repeatedly to jump onto a windowsill. It sort of ruins the character’s mystique.
ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THINGS IN THE REAL WORLD WITH SIGNIFICANCE AND NOT JUST VIDJAGAMES:
I did my duty for my country today. I am a writer, and despite my absolute lack of qualifications sometimes when I am in the bathtub I like to pretend that I am a journalist (“Stop the presses!” I shout to my rubberduck assistant, and “Bring me pictures of Spider-Man!” because as I understand it these are things that serious journalists frequently shout). And when you are a journalist, sometimes you need to do things for The People, and The Truth, and America. Today I took a bullet: a delicious, sugar-frosted star-shaped 290-calorie bullet. Today I ate the Captain America donut at the Dunkin’ Donuts in Davis Square in Somerville. I ate it not because I was hungry, or because I particularly like donuts, but because it was there and I could not in good conscience neglect to report on it for my audience. Also I didn’t have lunch today and I’m kind of buzzing on sugar and caffeine right now so this post may be a little weird, Christ guys I am sweating so much my arms are bleaching out the finish on the table at the coffeehouse where I am writing about Captain America: The Donut.
Captain America: The Movie is coming out on Friday. It features Chris Evans, Second Evil Ex of Ramona Flowers, as the protagonist. The film takes place the 40s, dude punches some Nazis, this is not a premise that requires extensive explanation. This isn’t X-Men where there’s a complex web of shifting allegiances and ridiculous superpowers. There is a man named Captain America, and he fights Hugo Weaving who is a Nazi without skin on his face, and this is like maybe one tenth of a standard deviation away from Superman in terms of purity of concept.
I think they really missed the ball not releasing the film on July 4th, but that would have required they go toe-to-toe with Transformers 3, and that’s how much of an institution Michael Bay is in our culture, guys: the greasy-haired motherfucker can stare CAPTAIN AMERICA, PUNCHER OF NAZIS down on the Fourth of July and not even blink. But while Cap missed the opportune tie-in date, he has something better. He’s got this monster:
This beast is fiercely American in so many ways I need to enumerate them. We will begin with the straightforward ways and proceed through increasing levels of irony:
1) It is a donut. Americans love donuts.
2) This donut is covered with Stars, Stripes, Frosting, America, etc.
3) It was created in honor of Captain America, a superhero created by Jack “King of Comics” Kirby and Joe Simon, who punched Hitler in the face before it was cool or even socially acceptable (it was a year before Pearl Harbor, Hitler was just this disreputable racist guy we were tangentially aware of, imagine a comic book today where Hellboy or Scott Pilgrim punches Silvio Berlusconi in the face and you’re like “damn, I didn’t even know I wanted to see that guy get punched, but now that I have I am so into it!”).
4) It is also a donut produced by Dunkin’ Donuts, and everyone loves Dunkin Donuts.
5) Furthermore Dunkin Donuts is a major corporation, which is also pretty American according to some political literature I have read.
6) Even better: the donut is the sexy baby of corporate synergy, part of the multimedia campaign to promote like the fiftieth goddamn summer blockbuster this year. The donut based on intellectual property that became wildly profitable without compensating its authors, and that is currently stewarded by subsidiaries of the Disney Corporation seventy years after its original publication.
7) This donut contains HELL OF preservatives, which is how we like our junk food, and in another bit of brilliant synergy many of these ingredients sound like they could be supervillain names: Enzyme, Dextrose, Xanthan Gum, Maltodextrin and Carrageenan. Fatty Acid and the Yeast are in there too and they sound they could be supervillains but goofy supervillains, like from Dr. Horrible or The Venture Brothers. (Fatty Acids could also be a hip-hop group, now that I think about it.)
So this donut is America in so many ways. It is multifaceted, like a gem. I think everyone can get behind this thing. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy it earnestly or ironically or post-ironically because you’re still shoving that sugary donut down your gullet, son. I can’t even quantify my own reaction to this donut, I’d need like a hipster PhD in irony algebra to sort through the complex emotions stirring in my soul, because all I knew was that I saw that sweet treat and every cell in my body was like OM NOM NOM harmoniously.
So I went into Dunkin’ Donuts to ask for it, and let me tell you it’s a bit of a trip to say the words “Captain America” in that sequence outside of a comic shop – I was ready to start discussing Ed Brubaker and Bucky Barnes and the “Fear Itself” crossover right there with the Indian mom-aged cashier lady, just from reflex. The Captain America Donut was a jelly donut which I’m not usually so into, but this object has a tasty ace up its sleeve which is thick frosting, and that made it work for me in a big way. Sadly, my particular Captain America donut only had a single blue star sprinkle, but considering the entire damn thing is just a giant fucking star of donut that’s still a much higher ration of star-derived calories then you find in your everyday American donut.
As you can probably tell, this whole thing was sort of an ordeal for me. There were many complex emotional reactions, and I need some time to sort through them. Also I think I need to eat some actual nutritive food because otherwise I might pass out soon. But it was definitely a unique experience, and one I recommend, if only for the opportunity to reflect on patriotism and consumerism and intellectual property while enjoying a tasty snack. I can state with some certainty that Captain America: The Donut will prove more memorable than Captain America: The Movie.
As I will tell you if I ever have the opportunity to spend more than 15 seconds in conversation with you, I have a book coming out next March. But I’ve had a book coming out for a very, very long time, because it apparently takes a very long time to get something published. In a state of cheerful denial, I have persisted in believing my book’s release to be a perpetual six months away, always receding; a discontinuity I could approach but never reach. I’ve scrambled on the publishing hamsterwheel, convinced that eventually my frantic little paws would shake the thing from its axel and send it flying through the glass to fame and fortune.
But yeah, it takes a long time to get something published, and all sorts of terrible things can happen to a manuscript on its journey. I’m very grateful, for instance, that my memoir TRIGGERED was not abducted en route by entrepreneurial editors and reedited into a supernatural romance about sexy, mentally ill teen UFOs. I’m not sure if that happens but I am still grateful it didn’t.
Apparently the biggest bullet I dodged was legal. Memoirs are especially vulnerable to this kind of thing. It’s standard procedure to change minor details to protect the innocent and the potentially litigious; brown hair becomes blonde, Steve becomes Evets, everyone is rewritten as a sexy teenage alien.
But thankfully my editors requested only two changes that I objected to, both involving song lyrics I’d used as introductions to two of the chapters. Apparently, although neither of these was more than a line (and neither was more than 10% of the work, so my borrowing should have been permitted under fair use), I could not quote without risking a lawsuit. Apparently I could offer to pay the rightsholders in advance (anywhere from a hundred to a thousand dollars), but this was not recommended, because it would invite further legal scrutiny of the work which we were already slipping though the gates under the cover of darkness. If I refused to pay I would be sued, and if I agreed to pay I would be sued by someone else.
This is stupid. This is stupid in a staggering number of ways that I will now elaborate for you.
First, this is all in spite of the fact that, in the glorious age of the internet, I can find the not only the complete unauthorized lyrics to both of these songs but also pirated music concert videos, mp3s, and Youtube music vids with spliced-together footage of Troy and Abed from Community exchanging sexy glances. If people want your song, there isn’t a thing you or I can do to prevent them from taking it and doing what they like with it. Denying an author access to lyrics does nothing to change this.
And aside from its fundamental uselessness, this legal barricade me as an absurd perversion of the intent of copyright. It’s generally accepted that the purpose of copyright is to prevent bootlegs from being produced, so that no one buys an illegal copy instead of the original and cheats the artist out of a buck. That’s an admirable and just notion. But in what insane parallel universe is someone going to skip buying a song because I quote part of the chorus? Who is going to read a memoir, glance over a dozen words, and decide they’ve somehow illicitly derived the essence of a rock song they no longer need to purchase? Does my quoting lyrics in some way decrease the value of the music?
Fer chrissakes, if anything, I’m recommending your song. I’m telling my reader that I loved this music, that it meant so much to me that I used it to encapsulate a chapter of my life. If it was Diet Coke or something instead of music, you’d pay me to mention your product.
And this all ignores that the current rightsholders were probably, at best, only tangentially involved in the creation of the original work. Mark Bolan is dead, son. If I flip EMI two hundo, that still isn’t going to him, unless they tear up and scatter the bills like roses petals over his grave. Maybe it will go to his producers or bandmates, or maybe it will go to his record label. In any case, I cannot fathom a legitimate moral justification that bars me from sharing even a line of a song, to protect the rights of a man who is dead, and to ensure his corpse continues to profit from it until (by my calculations) 2047.
Instead, I’d like to posit an alternate explanation for this series of events: the RIAA are creative vampires, not sexy sparkly vampires but old-school widow’s peak and overbite-style vampires, who feed on the liquid assets of the young and vital. They are enemies of art. They are madmen indiscriminately wielding a sawed-off shotgun that shoots lawsuits, and although you may have a legitimate grievance with a shotgun-wielding madman, it is not necessarily in your best interest to address him directly. Because as the madman tells you, one of his veiny eyes bulging and the other squinted shut, a thin trickle of drool and malt liquor winding through his thatchlike beard: he has no problem lawsuiting small children and little old Irish grandmothers, so don’t think yer snobby hipster ass will get treated any different, boy.
Look, I know it’s not a big deal. I found other quotes to use instead, and they work fine. I’m getting a book published at 25 and that’s incredible, and I’m unbelievably grateful to my publisher for all the guidance and publicity they’ve given me. But still: this is my memoir, this is my attempt to tell the reader the story of my life as wholly and honestly as I can. And when someone tells you no, you can’t do that, you need to change this little bit for utterly stupid reasons so someone doesn’t use the courts to steal money from us: that’s really frustrating. Isn’t the purpose of art to reflect life? In our media-saturated age, when we spend every day flooded by songs and shows and memes and games, how are we supposed to make art that cannot acknowledge these experiences?
So, yeah, sometimes I think the world would be a better place if we were all just pirating streaming bitfiles from the cloud, or whatever you kids do.
 This is what I want done with any and all royalties for my work after I die.
 Please do not pirate Fletcher Wortmann’s memoir TRIGGERED, and also buy multiple copies and tell friends to do the same, so that he can eat food.