No matter what we put on the internet, it’s there forever. Millennials have been told this more times than we can count. It’s usually tagged as a warning for younger people to be careful with what they post and how that can affect them with things like job searches and even legal cases if what was depicted in said internet post was a felony. However, the idea can also come with a much deeper and almost literary meaning.

Whatever we post on the internet is there forever. It seems that it gives what we write about, or post videos or photos or artwork about, a sense of immortality. The internet provides for people a chance at somewhat lasting recognition. And with the rise in the attention of fan labor, we are seeing mythology thrive on the internet through derivative and collaborative work. Fan labor is any kind of artistic work created by fans that uses characters, settings, ideas, etc. from an already existing, fictional universe. This kind of work builds on “canon,” which, as a fandom term, is anything that’s accepted as part of the original story.

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Fandom has existed long before the internet. With sci-fi conventions increasing in popularity throughout the latter half of the 20th century and the coinciding with the rise of STAR TREK and STAR WARS, fans could congregate and share in the media they enjoyed. Artwork made by fans, dubbed “fanart,” used existing universes created by other people. Particularly popular during this time was STAR TREK fanart and its emerging fanfiction base. As a TV series, the show was one of the most progressive shows on TV. It had Uhura, a Black woman, in a respected position on the spacecraft; Spock, who acted as a stand-in for multi-cultural people as he had a Vulcan father and a human mother; Chekov, whose presence stressed the need for international relations as he was Russian and the Cold War was ongoing; and Sulu, a Japanese-American character who challenged the trend to treat Asian characters as unemotional antagonists.

Yet, the show was still limited by what the producers and channel would allow on screen. For instance, the creator of the show, Gene Roddenberry, regretted not being able to have an openly gay character on the show. Fans of the show sought to correct this. Spearheaded mainly by young, female, amateur writers, these fans created works of fiction that used the narrative universe of STAR TREK often to create non-canonical romantic situations between Captain Kirk and Spock, laying the groundwork for future waves of fanfiction.

Romantic space tension you can cut with a knife, done by the talented DeviantArtist, TechnoRanma

However, this future of fan labor would not have taken off so dramatically if it weren’t for the Internet. Conventions are expensive. And even when they weren’t expensive before the comparatively recent explosion of convention ticket prices, traveling to such conventions would also figure into the cost of attending. With the Internet, fans of any piece of media could meet with relative ease and less expense. It brought new ways to continue enjoying the things we love.

And one of those things is patron-backed artwork. The Internet makes it easier for artists to not only display some of their art but to also sell it more easily. Like other fans who didn’t participate in fan labor, fan artists could find solace in conventions where they could, and can, sell their art.

With the Internet and rise of artistic websites like DeviantArt and, more recently, social media websites like Facebook or Tumblr, artists could publicize their artwork to not just the convention-goer but to anyone who happened to stumble on their artwork. The internet provides for artists a much larger audience and a lot more exposure, essential building blocks to being able to make commissions and earn some money.

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Commission artwork has, of course, also existed before the Internet. Some more famous examples are the Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo, who was hired to paint the cathedral’s ceiling by Pope Julius II, and the Roman Coliseum, which was commissioned by Emperor Vespasian. Oftentimes, before contemporary views of art, commissioned artwork was sought out for its status symbol. Art was, and is, expensive. The more grand and showy it was, the better the powers that be would look.

Some art was also commissioned for celebrating the culture at the time, like this painting by Jacopo del Sellaio.

Jacopo del Sellaio — Saint John the Baptist – c. 1480

Like many other Renaissance paintings, this painting portrays Christian mythology. In it, John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus, is seen outside of Florence, Italy, a city he is the patron saint of. Surrounding him are details of different Christian symbols and legends. The bowl, for example, recalls a story in which John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The goldfinch, on the other hand, is said to have been given the red mark on its head by the iconic crown of thorns Jesus was given during his crucifixion. This painting blends the traditional, Biblical account of Christian history with the bowl and the more legendary with the inclusion of the bird.

In a more modern example, here is an oil painting done by Donato Giancola who was commissioned to make this for the Science Fiction Book Club’s combined edition of THE LORD OF THE RINGS:

“THE LORD OF THE RINGS” Cover commission for the novels by J.R.R. Tolkien. 55″ x 33″ Oil on Paper on Panel; © 1999 Donato Giancola collection of Chris Huntley

He was tasked to create an image that would encompass the entire trilogy of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and in this painting, he chose to depict the battle in Moria during the first novel in which we see the rare event where all three main protagonists, Frodo, Gandalf, and Aragorn, are together. He, like Sellaio in his John the Baptist painting, depicts more than what meets the eye in the image.

Giancola directs the audience’s eye in a circular pattern, starting with the glint of the sword in the top left corner, through the faces of the heroes, until we land at the most important part of the piece: the two hands reaching for the Ring of Power. As described on his website, one of the hands belongs to Frodo and is easily distinguishable from the other, more gnarled and straining hand. While Frodo is constantly running from dark forces who try to take the Ring, this other hand reaching for the Ring doesn’t happen in Moria. The artist is using a common occurrence throughout the story to invoke symbolism of struggle, but internal and external.

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With fanart and more “traditional” art, we get relatively similar experiences. In both categories, we see artists manifest their own image of popular stories. There are many images of John the Baptist and other Christian mythological people and characters just as different artists have created their own image of Middle-earth characters. Each image adds to the general consensus of what we as an audience and as participants of these mythologies believe these characters to look like.

Through the internet, we are able to share these images faster than ever before and discuss what certain elements of characters’ appearance may mean. For example, in recent years, the idea that Hermione from the HARRY POTTER series is Black has become increasingly popular with fanartists reimagining and drawing her as such. Because of the internet, the idea, while not new, got more attention. This, along with Noma Dumezweni playing an older Hermione in the West End play HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD and Rowling defending the casting choice by stating the only canon physical attributes of Hermione are her brown eyes and frizzy hair, has solidified the possibility and theory of Hermione as a Black woman.

One such example is this digital painting by the artist Tuffuny at tuffuny.tumblr.com

As previously mentioned, fanfiction has also taken off due to the Internet. Websites like Archive of Our Own and FanFiction.net opened the doors for fanfiction writers to publish their work online with direct feedback from readers. The interaction between fanfiction author and audience furthers the idea of “collaborative” work in mythology, where the mythologies of different cultures share elements of their stories with each other.

In a more classic sense, a lot of Arthurian legend uses Christian mythology as a base for its stories, particularly with the search for the Holy Grail that Jesus drank out of during the Last Supper. And in a more modern sense, a TV show can inspire a spin-off series, like in the case of AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER and THE LEGEND OF KORRA. Now, these instances of building upon existing universes may not have happened on the Internet but it nevertheless draws parallels between older and newer systems of collaboration and derivative work.

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In the 2000s, the HARRY POTTER franchise ruled the Internet. And if you grew up with a computer in the house with Internet access during this time, you probably came across at least one piece of fanfiction of some non-canon pairing of various Hogwarts regulars. One popular pairing is, of course, “Drarry,” in which we get a battle of angst in relationship form between Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter. However, how many of them can you name off the top of your head? If you answered none, you’re probably lying because there is one infamous Harry Potter-based fanfic that nearly every young person with Internet access in 2007 has heard of: MY IMMORTAL.

MY IMMORTAL distinguishes itself as one of the few pieces of fanfiction that has gained notoriety well outside the walls of its original source on FanFiction.net. It has provided the backdrop to conversations about the concept of Mary Sue, it’s place in fanfiction as the character who is “just too perfect” and its place in fanfiction, and the tendency to dismiss idealized female characters as such while ignoring the same traits in male characters. It has been named the worst piece of dramatic fanfiction in the world and the best comedic fanfic, depending on who you talk to. Essentially, it features an original character of arguably self-insertion origin named Ebony Darkness Dementia Way (the spelling of which varies from chapter to chapter), and her interactions with various Harry Potter characters, most notably Draco Malfoy.

Surprisingly, his name is spelled correctly throughout most of the fic, the exception of the occasional “Drako.”

It’s chock full of questionable grammar style, plotlines that are at times nonsensical, and constant breaking of the fourth wall where the author directly responds to some readers who “flame” her story in the comments. It’s safe to say that if the author of this story, who is believed to be have had the username “XXXbloddyrists666XXX”, had tried to publish this story in a traditional publishing house, not only would it have been rejected for copyright reasons but it probably wouldn’t have even garnered a response letter, given the unconventional writing style. But it found a home on the Internet where it wasn’t just discarded as a bad example of fanfiction. It became its own namesake. MY IMMORTAL has inspired several derivative works by other fans such as fanart, dramatic readings, and even a fifteen-episode web series about it.

This is one of the more wholesome pieces of fanart for MY IMMORTAL.

The story of MY IMMORTAL goes beyond just the writing of it; there’s also the history of it to consider. Internet legend has it that the original author of MY IMMORTAL had her account hacked by another writer on the website who started to continue writing the fanfic. This break is noted in the difference of style, where the supposed newcomer had a more conventional flow and sense of spelling and grammar.

However, it’s believed that the original author did gain control of her account and finished writing the story herself. Adding to this, there’s also the argument of whether the author meant the story to be serious or if it was a work of satire. MY IMMORTAL provides not just a derivative work of the Harry Potter universe, but a testament to the culture of fan labor on the internet, however positive or negative. Fanfiction as a whole provides to audiences expansions on the universe of their chosen work. It breathes life into the mythology of the original creative work by continuing down roads not taken by the source author.

And then you’ve got your modern idea of fanfiction based on classical mythology in the PERCY JACKSON series

And so, given the fact that derivative work is not by any means something new, it’s odd that there is a negative stereotype associated with fan labor. Sure, there are some questionable and downright bad pieces of fanart and fanfiction. But since this is a matter of taste it shouldn’t contribute to the dismissive attitude of fan labor as a whole. Fan labor stands on the shoulders of giants.

Where would we be if Homer never recorded Greek mythology, or if the Grimm brothers never collaborated and recorded German folklore with their own twists and turns? And where would we be if Disney never told their own versions of fairytales? Mythology is alive and well and sometimes it has the face of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in a loving embrace.

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