If you’re going to read a comic co-written by Brian Michael Bendis and Kelly Sue DeConnick and edited by Sana Amanat, you probably want them all to be pretending to adapt a novel written by a fictional character from a television show. Right? Isn’t that what people want? That’s what happened in 2011, when Marvel published Castle: Richard Castle’s Deadly Storm: A Derrick Storm Mystery. The book purports to be a graphic novelization of a novel written by Richard Castle, a character played by Nathan Fillion on the long-running ABC show, Castle. On the TV show, Richard Castle is a mystery writer who works with the NYPD to solve cases and get inspiration for his bestselling novels. Thus, the novelization deals for the series were not for adaptations of the television show itself, but rather to write the novels that the character on the show was writing, and the graphic novel published by Marvel is one step beyond that. Richard Castle has an Amazon author page. It’s Nathan Fillion’s picture there.
This level of fictionalization inception must have implications for the Women Write about Comics 2018 theme, The Year of the Knockoff. The premise of the TV show is that Castle, a writer, is inspired by his police partner Kate Beckett in his creation of the character Nikki Heat. Castle is inherently a fiction about the creation of fiction. But then, in the creation of actual Nikki Heat novels that you can buy in the real world, things start to get weird. Fiction and facts start to merge. And who is getting paychecks and credit for which ideas and what labor, here? Clearly the businesses involved are happy to consider this a bit of merchandising, but for those readers and viewers and consumers who are engaging in a particularly weird kind of world-mushing transmedia storytelling, what does it mean to us? Do we experience it as a knockoff? A version? An adaptation? A continuation or expansion of the universe? In a 2011 interview about this graphic novel with mtv.com, Kelly Sue DeConnick responded to the question “Is this a wholly original work?” with, “I’m lost in levels of meta. How am I supposed to answer this?” What a good question, DeConnick!
Due to the change in form, comics that are licensed to expand the world of television shows and movies evoke the original without pretending to be it. That might just take the form of interstitial adventures for characters you already love, as many licensed comics do, but it is also possible to theme products to make you feel like you are in a fictional world. Like eating Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans can make you feel like you exist in Harry Potter’s wizarding world (which I am literally doing right now; I just had a sausage one and it was surprisingly pleasant), reading a book “written by” Richard Castle can make you feel like you are in his world.
The graphic novel Castle: Richard Castle’s Deadly Storm: A Derrick Storm Mystery takes this a step further, by pretending that the novel exists and has been adapted for the graphic novel form. It opens with a one-page “Introduction” signed “Richard Castle, New York, 2011” in which the “author” discusses his trepidation at having any of his work adapted and then commends Bendis and DeConnick for the remarkable job they have done. Fictional Castle gives “them, and everyone at the Marvel organization” his “heartfelt thanks.” It’s possible this page was written by Andrew Marlowe, the creator of Castle, who is offered “special thanks” on the copyright page. But it also possible that Bendis and DeConnick wrote that themselves, and enjoyed thanking themselves.
DeConnick and Bendis were already big names in comics in 2011, but this licensing deal would theoretically bring them even more readers as fans of the show who wouldn’t necessarily buy comics otherwise would seek out the book. The two authors went on to adapt a sequel the next year, Castle: Richard Castle’s Storm Season: A Derrick Storm Mystery, so it must have been worth people’s while.
The graphic novel itself is fun. It introduces Derrick Storm as a private investigator down on his luck who gets sucked into a search for a federal agent gone rogue. Not only are the characters not supposed to be those from the television show, this story predates the ones that the character of Castle was writing during the events of the TV show. Derrick Storm can be kind of like Richard Castle, but none of the women should explicitly be like the character of Kate Beckett. Instead of the actual characters, the graphic novel delivers the tone of the show with serious violence handled lightly, flirty interactions, and overall quick pacing.
The graphic novel succeeds in that. It is on-brand for the spirit of the character on the show.
I’m writing about this for the Year of the Knockoff because there is a common element between knockoffs and licensed properties like this one. You can’t have either one without branding. Something unbranded, generic, can exist in several versions, like a chair. But then, when a branded version arises, it is possible to have knockoffs of that branded thing. You can have dozens of different chairs, but you can also have knockoffs of the Eames chair lounger, specifically. Where this gets murky, I think, is when the subject of licensing comes up. Consider the $795.00 Vitra Miniature Collections Eames chair. It’s not a knockoff, but it’s not the real thing, either. They don’t market themselves as an alternative to the real thing.
Rather, it is meant to evoke the thing itself. As Claire Napier tweeted about another transmedia storytelling universe, “Don’t regular people want attractive, non-disruptive, casually pleasant bonus stories for their Star Wars faves?” While knockoffs might offer a less authentic version of something in the same form, licensed comics are instead like supplements, bonuses. They expand the ways to experience the thing . . . officially.