Friday, October 03, 2014

The Difference Between Pastiche and Parody

An interesting issue from a legal perspective is the question of pastiche versus parody. The problem, from a writer's perspective, is that a pastiche can be grounds for a legitimate lawsuit while a parody is protected by law. Knowing the difference between them and an actual standalone character can save a lot of potential frustration.

Let's pick on Superman, who is arguably the most copied character out there. While it's not exactly a unique set of powers, there are a number of other characteristics that identify him as "Superman": He is usually the alpha male in his universe, and represents that universe's perspective regarding what makes for a noble fighter. From the perspective of DC's perspective, there are a large number of different characters that could qualify as a trademark infringement on that particular character. Although DC has backed off a bit from their defense of the character, it is still within their right to defend their copyright.

Image's Supreme is arguably the best example for a straight parody, as is Marvel's Hyperion. A parody does not need to be funny; it just needs to be an honest exploration of what makes the character tick and how that character works within society as a whole. There is some allowance for critique within the definition of parody. Supreme explores Superman as if he was more divorced from his humanity, but was still interested in defending Earth from threats. Suffice to say that he is more violent and less likely to let the villains escape or merely let them return to jail; he acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Although Hyperion is now a bad guy, he was part of the social commentary that was the Squadron Supreme.

On the other hand, a pastiche is a loving tribute of the character in question, a celebration of what makes the character cool and an exploration of why the character is important. Astro City's Samaritan is a good example of this, and all of the details are there, from the job as a reporter to his heroics. As Astro City is look at superheroes and how we look at them, it is a fun look at the stories as they develop. It avoids being a commentary because it has some fun with the idea, developing a world that is unique on its own. Yeah, there is some carry-over, but in general the idea is to mimic the stories rather than make any sort of actual commentary, but to do so in such a way as to add to the mythology rather than merely mimicking it.

From a legal perspective, parodies are fair use and therefore acceptable, while pastiches can be legitimately prosecuted. The issue is that there is no social commentary in a pastiche; while it can be an otherwise fun exercise, the goal is to celebrate the concept while at the same time taking it in a different direction than the creators may have wished. Although comic book companies are less likely to go after pastiches, this should not be seen as permission; comic companies are just less likely to go after them as long as they don't threaten their trademarks and copyrights. There are some groups trying to include pastiches under protected speech, but they have yet to have any luck.

So where does this leave you as a comicker? Have fun, and try to include some social commentary. This may not really protect you, but at least it can make it harder to prosecute you. So get in there and get in some good licks while you can!

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