Hicksville was named a ‘book of the year’ by Comics Journal and features in Auckland University Press’s Anthology of New Zealand Literature, alongside canonical New Zealand writers James K Baxter, Maurice Gee and Katherine Mansfield.
Dylan is also a long-time supporter of Creative Commons. In fact, since 2009, Dylan has been releasing his work on his website under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial 3.0 New Zealand licence. Users can find finished stories and ongoing serials, including Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen.
Dylan first became interested in the the relation between copyright and culture when, as a young comics reader, he saw how many authors had lost the rights to their works—including Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman, who sold their work to National Periodicals (later, DC comics).
As Dylan relates, “When freelancers got paid in the early comics industry, they had to sign the back of the cheque to cash it. On the back of the cheque, though, was a printed statement, which basically said ‘all rights to this story and the characters contained therein are hereby handed in perpetuity to the publisher.’
“The key lesson was: never sell your copyright to a company. For a long time, my view of copyright was that it was very, very important for the artist and that you must hold on to it, no matter what.”
Dylan’s view of copyright changed when, in the process of researching a guest lecture for Auckland University, he realised the potential effects of the Internet on the production and distribution of culture.
“I kind of had this revelation: The ease with which media can be copied when it’s digital, and the ease with which it can be distributed through the Internet, offers us an extraordinary historic opportunity.
“Surely we’ve always dreamed of a civilisation in which everyone has access to ideas, without the constraint of shipping piles of paper around the world. As an afterthought, I considered how that would affect the economics of distribution. Having thought about that, I concluded that it might mean the end of royalties. I think it took me two minutes to decide that I was fine with that.”
Dylan realised that the Internet had the potential to expand public access to our rich cultural heritage, including comics. “I’ve spent much of my life hearing rumours of a really interesting comics project, or catching a glimpse of it in some history book about comics, and thinking, I wish I could get my hands on that, and then working so hard looking for ways to access it.”
Dylan talks about Finnish writer and cartoonist Tove Jansson, best known as the inventor of the Moomins. For years, Dylan was unaware that Jannson had drawn a comic strip, until he came across a reference to her in German history of comics. After receiving a photocopy of the comic from historian Paul Gravett, Dylan decided to run off thirty more copies and give them away to other cartoonists around the world.
“Eventually, a few years later, my publisher Drawn and Quarterly started republishing those comics. They’re selling really well and it’s rewriting the history of comics.”
With the Internet, these practices of sharing and reuse are becoming increasingly common. As Dylan puts it, this is “a fantastic gift to the whole culture. I have access to a vastly greater landscape of recorded culture than any previous generation, and that’s going to change the way artists work. I already see it in the work of younger artists.”
By using a Creative Commons licence on his own work, Dylan hopes that younger artists will be encouraged to remix and adapt their own version of The American Dream or Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen.
As Dylan puts it, “I don’t object to people sharing my work and I don’t object to people using my work as an inspiration for new work, because both for me are really gratifying. It shows that people are engaging with my work and they’re excited by it.
“If people are sharing it around, more people are reading it. The idea that it’s inspiring other people to do new work is gratifying, especially because my work in turn is inspired by other people.”
Creative Commons provides Dylan with an alternative to what he sees as a narrow—but dominant—vision of culture and art. “When I make a piece of art, it’s me responding to a whole lot of art and the world around me. When I finish it, I want it to go back into that flow of art and ideas, and be shared and responded to by people. Treating it as a single piece of property seems wrong. Lots of people have a relationship to that piece of art.”
Dylan decided to apply a Non-Commercial licence, to ensure that commercial publishers wouldn’t distribute his work without his express permission.
“Part of what appeals to me about CC is that the CC licences that I prefer—which tends to be Attribution-Non-Commercial—far more accurately reflect my preference as an author about how my work is used. The idea of some 14 year old getting to read their work and not paying them really doesn’t bug most writers. We don’t want to put walls up around our work. We just don’t want people getting rich off it, without us.
“Creative Commons doesn’t actually take any of the rights I care about as an author. If someone wants to make a big Hollywood film or sell tee-shirts, they can get in touch, just as they can under copyright. And if there is going to be money changing hands, then some of that money should be coming to me.”
Currently, Dylan’s printed comics are not released under a Creative Commons licence. While acknowledging that open licensing could actually increase sales, he notes that many publishers continue to be cautious about copyright. “The fact that I’m serialising stuff online while I’m working on it does cause problems with publishers. It’s an ongoing process. That’s something for the CC community to help with—helping artists who want to use CC to find ways to bring publishers and traditional distributors on board.”
Dylan hopes that his use of Creative Commons licences on his website will encourage young artists to share and adapt his work. “If my comic is photocopied or scanned by a 14 year old and given to his girlfriend—man, I love that. Or if someone wants to make a teeshirt of my comic to give as a present for Christmas, go for it. Creative Commons reflects my own personal ethics about how my work is used.”