Sunday, January 13, 2013

Possibly Interesting Question

Currently, copyright law in Britain puts the expiration date of copyright at 70 years from the death of the author. (The same holds true in America, although it's 120 years from creation/95 years from first publication for works for hire, although that isn't germane in this particular case for reasons that should become obvious shortly.)

Sax Rohmer, creator of Fu Manchu, perished in 1959. This means that in 2029, a relatively short sixteen years from now, Fu Manchu will go into the public domain. (unless his Fu Manchu novels were done as work for hire, which means that the copyright wouldn't expire any later than 95 years from 1913, date of publication of the first Fu Manchu novel. Since Fu Manchu didn't go into public domain five years ago, I think we can assume that it wasn't work for hire.)

My possibly interesting question is: Do you think that people will make use of Fu Manchu once the character becomes public domain? On the one hand, the "Yellow Peril" stereotype, which Fu Manchu exemplifies and arguably created, is at this point an embarrassing legacy of an era in which racial stereotypes were common and accepted. Pretty much any story involving Fu Manchu, in any medium, is going to be analyzed with a very skeptical eye by anyone who has any interest in racial sensitivity. These days, that's a lot of people (which is something I'm tremendously heartened by, honestly.)

On the other hand, modern sci-fi/fantasy is a descendant of the pulp novels like the Fu Manchu series, and in some ways is inextricably linked to them right at the roots. Anyone trying to make a serious exploration of the racial politics of cult fiction has to take the Yellow Peril stereotype into account, and if you're going to do that, what better symbol to use than the original Yellow Peril himself? (To say nothing of those people who just can't resist making use of an iconic character simply because he is an iconic character. There's already been at least one "Fu Manchu Versus Sherlock Holmes" novel, and I can imagine that it might be hard to resist the temptation to do a Fu Manchu/Dracula team-up, or a "Fu Manchu and the Cult of Cthulhu" story.)

I do believe there will be some use of the character starting in 2029; but given the problematic nature of the character, I'll be very interested to find out how much.


comixkid2099 said...

I've never actually read a Fu Manchu story, though I've read some pastiches in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Planetary. So this may sound foolish to someone who is very knowledgable about this character and genre. Why can't Fu Manchu be used as a villain, who just HAPPENS to be Asian? Like Lex Luthor HAPPENS to be white? I think this would work best, as it isn't really a given that people who want to work on a Fu Manchu story or use him in their story are going to want to do a story about racial insensitivity. Sometimes a pulp adventure story is just a pulp adventure story, and I think him being a character first, and having a certain racial feature second is the way to do that.

Anonymous said...

The drawback to that is it's like saying "Well, why can't you have terrorists who just happen to be Islamic?"--when you're using a stereotype, it's hard to argue the stereotype isn't relevant.
That being said, I don't think the Yellow Peril stereotype defines Asian characters the way it did a century ago, so maybe it's not that crazy. Many of the stories make clear he's a Chinese patriot who wants to reverse Western imperialism and make China the world's dominant nation. That was inherently horrifying back in the day (in one book his adversary announces that Fu Manchu's triumph will "end the domination of the white race") so you could play the character as the polar opposite of the Kiplingesque British types conquering the East and taking up the White Man's Burden rather than an innately evil fiend.
Would that work? I don't know, but we'll see. I do believe he's a strong enough symbol someone's bound to make use of him (if I'm still around, I certainly would).-Fraser

Dylan said...

So does that mean that by 2029 we can finally get the Essential Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu?

Fakefaux said...

Well, we're about to find out how effectively the model can be redesigned for the modern day in Iron Man 3. I suspect the answer will be "with copious editing."

Sean Tait Bircher said...

By the time of the later Fu Manchu novels -- like the one where HE KILLS HITLER -- I'd say it's pretty clear Rohmer is treating him more like a Byronic hero than a villain, so a revisionist take is inevitable. And it will probably come from Wold Newton fans. Will there ever be a glut of Fu Manchu pastiches in the vein of Sherlock Holmes? Doubtful.

But we'll finally get the MoKF omnibus.

Anonymous said...

I think the "kill Hitler" plot was more about the political problems of a Chinese super-patriot villain in the 1930s: Nayland Smith specifically asks Fu Manchu at one point why he's not fighting the Japanese in Manchuria and the reply is that he's adopted a "cut off the head and the body dies" strategy. But I agree, Rohmer emphasized his noble side (never breaking his word, for instance) more as he went along.-Fraser

Beachfox said...

The obvious answer is: Fu Manchu is the hero. Trying to protect his country and people from fiendish foreign invaders however he can.

Anonymous said...

"Do you think that people will make use of Fu Manchu once the character becomes public domain? On the one hand, the 'Yellow Peril' stereotype, which Fu Manchu exemplifies and arguably created, is at this point an embarrassing legacy"

There's a serious problem with this quibble -- recent studies have shown that the majority of Asian-Americans under the age of 40 have no idea what the Yellow Peril stereotype is except a vague memory of falling asleep while their boring elders complained about it; recent studies have shown that the majority of Asian-Americans under the age of 40 do not recognize a Yellow Peril stereotype as a racial stereotype when they are actually shown one; and recent studies have shown that the majority of Asian-Americans under the age of 40 look at Yellow Peril characters as amusing, harmless caricatures of eccentric members of their culture that no sane human being would generalize as being represented of all Asian-Americans.

Teen-and-twenties age Asian-Americans have no problem with how Mr. Miyagi talks in Karate Kid and consider complaining about "wax on, wax off" as something that irrelevant old fogies complain about when they want to harrass the young. They have no problem with the "We are Siamese if you please!" song in Disney's Lady and The Tramp, finding it amusing and treating it as, at worst, a parody of their elders when their elders are yelling at them to turn down their loud music and keep off their lawns. They take no offense from Kato knowing karate, from Charlie Chan's constant aphorisms, or from having Caucasian actors playing Asian roles, and they associate complaining about such things as a sign of getting old, stick in the mud, curmudgeonly, cranky, persnickety, and obsolete.

So, while White Guilt might compel many Caucasians of any age to worry about the Yellow Peril aspect of Fu Manchu, and while elderly Asian-Americans might complain about it, the generations that are inheriting the earth from us have no problem with Fu Manchu and would be genuinely shocked to meet any intelligent human being who might mistake Fu Manchu for being a representative of Asian-Americans, Asians, or any culture in the world for that matter.

That is the flaw in your quibble. On the surface it may appear progressive, but it's really nothing more than a White Guilt enshrined vestige of a civic rights battle that we already won two decades ago and which therefore holds no relevance for the majority of Asian-Americans under the age of 40 (if the recent studies can be trusted).

Anonymous said...

I think Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston or Ted Chiang could write an excellent series of stories about Fu Manchu as a criminal mastermind without once having their stories misread as racist and, because they are Asian-American writers, without once having their stories hobbled by self-serving White Guilt (i.e. that it is easier to feel guilty for historic and current racism than it is to actually do something about it).