note: this is the only image i use that is not in the public domain for this article
Welcome to the pool of public domain! Here I wanted to highlight some interesting characters from the public domain given this is apparently a new hyperfixation of mine. These are all characters you can use in your stories or whatever you work on as an artist, writer, musician or more. Like Greek myths, Wonderland, Oz, Pinocchio, and Dracula, these are source materials you can bend and twist in any way and nobody has the legal right to come after you. I find that a lot of public domain talk kind of gets excited about the general concepts and such that are on display but ultimately a lot of it gets kind of twisted up in seeing it more as a hypothetical than actually wanting to do much with it, and I kind of think that's a shame. So this is going to be more of a general overview of these characters and what I find interesting about them, but ultimately what you end up doing with this source material is entirely up to you. There's still pride to making original characters and concepts, after all- see these more as baseboards for your own future creations much in the way you'd use elements from Oz or Norse mythology for character building.
Ghost is incredible. A lot of old age World War II superheroes are in the Public Domain (although not all of them) and this comes from the fact that really only the cropping from that time that still sort of survived under the changes to copyright law over the years that got "saved" from public domain was not cared about. It was on cheap newsprint comics which the medium was only just being figured out. That being said, Ghost is from this era where comic companies just threw a bunch of crazy concepts at the wall and Ghost in particular comes from a subset of heroes who flew in planes and shot down Nazis. Ghost doesn't have any particular superpowers, but they do have this skull jet. They could also fly, without a jet, at least in their first appearance.
Ghost is one of those characters that really stands out due to imagery alone. And... well, that's kind of lot that he has, really. Ghost isn't really one of those characters with a deep inner life, a lot of these Golden Age characters don't really have a cast that encompasses them and pushes them to be biggest characters. Ghost is just kind of a mystery for a lot of his first appearances- a humble skeleton man who has to constantly tell people to not be afraid and that he's really a nice guy.
A lot of Ghost is mainly fighting the Claw, an alien with some unfortunate yellow peril overtones. Yellow skin, long hooked nails, works with Hitler... yeah. A lot of what Claw is can be divorced from that context given the backstory and design aren't exactly something you need to stick with, but Ghost is one of those characters that I feel maybe works as just a character to toss in there and develop as a supporting character in a multitude of contexts. He's a aerial ace, he's a costumed fighter, and he's got a real strong sense of justice with the power to back it up. In your hands, he can be a lot more.
I feel like the meme boom around the Dover Boys short kind of glossed over how it blew up- that it was in the public domain and uploads of the cartoon couldn't be taken down by the original holder, who neglected to renew it in any way. Dan Backslide is a purposely sort of generic fiend who wants to steal the money of "Dainty" Dora Standpipe, a subversion of the usual damsel in distress who takes out the villain simply through her overtly animated swings of desperation and pleas for help. Dan Backslide is a incredibly funny character who yells out loud to everyone in town that he's gonna steal a car and yet is far too pathetic of a villain that even his nemesises don't have to touch him to defeat him.
And given Dan Backslide's somewhat memetic rise in popularity, I feel like it's not inherently obvious that you can just. Include him in your stories or whatever else you're doing. He's in the Hazbin Hotel pilot. The whole Dover Boys short is free to take from. I feel like Dan Backslide in particular is a great inclusion as a gag villain and given that excellent foundation, it's worth considering and building off. I feel like he's really quite neglected as a copyright free character in discussions.
Stardust the Super Wizard is maybe one of my favorite public domain characters ever, namely for just how absurd he is. He's this incredibly brawny superhero who shows up after mass destruction and punishes a villain in maybe the most twisted and demented fashions ever. He'll shrink a dude's body until he's just a head and then punt him into space all the way to a planet with headless aliens who grab the villain and try to make him into a head, getting sucked into their bodies as they absorb him while he lives out every second. He sometimes sends people to a ice prison, which has no context and maybe he owns. Stardust has this really absurd list of powers, mostly operating as rays, which allows him to basically do whatever he wants as punishment.
There is no inner life for Stardust. He shows up when the story needs him, and then he vanishes almost as quickly as he came- often people can't even thank him before he leaves. He's got a real demented sense of power and is a borderline psychopath in terms of how he operates- and this seems almost entirely incidental. Stardust's comic. has a lot of imagery that is just bizarre and haunting in it's own right- whether it's people floating up in the air like limp bodies or watching them crump up like paper in Stardust's hands.
I tend to highlight more absurd characters that really stand out, but as part of the first three I feel like he's just bizarre in the best way. His comics aren't great
but that's kind of almost the appeal of it. The reading you get off Stardust kind of has to be a less charitable one than the creator intended mostly because of everything that's come out since regarding the superhero idea- and I think he works as the sort of absurdly overpowered hero that's mad with power and everyone has to kind of bend to his whim.
Hell-Rider is one of those characters that I feel like has a lot of potential to expand out as a mythology mainly due to how interesting the surrounding characters are. Hell-Rider himself is mostly just kind of a take it or leave it character- the arsonic motorcycle has a lot of cool imagery and it makes for a great t-shirt, but he's kind of your standard male hero. Brick Reese is the Hell-Rider and he fought in the army, he took a bullet to the head and got honorably discharged and to save his life they tried an experimental drug on him that makes him strong on ocassion. It seems like a flucating thing and honestly- it seems like the main thing about Hell-Rider is the motorcycle. It's got napalm, it's got flamethrowers, it's even got oil slicks.
Julie Storm stands out as a character for me mainly because she introduces a lot more seedy aspects to the Hell-Rider universe. She's a former drug addict who's a female rock star talent and she has a really stick-it-to-them attitude that Brick Reese almost seems to see a little bit of himself in her. There's sort of a deeper relationship between the two that's kind of quickly dispensed and while both have hedonistic tendacies, Brick realizes it's not healthy for him or her and has to kind of keep her in check. But her past catches up to her- and the Claw gang comes running about some heroin-sewn boots.
Julie Storm may not have the deepest inner life in her source material, but there's quite a bit there that you can expound on and do with a public character like this. She's sort of the link between Hell-Rider and Butterly, who happens to be the first black woman super hero in comics. Butterfly too, is one of the more interesting characters that kind of gets expanded out- she's a lounge singer that ends up with these heroin-lined boots from Julie and the Claw wants it for that reason. She has her own supersuit, with wings that vibrantly blind crooks and a jetpack, as well as suction cup fingers. These characters have history with each other that gets played with in the first issue as they ping pong information to each other regarding these "lucky" boots and ultimately defeat the Claw.
The designs are nice too. They are very classical comic in a way but they feel grounded in the Vegas crime vibe that this is going for and have a good basis to play off on expanding or using the material. I say it's worth looking into if you want some seedier stuff to work with as opposed to wholy goofy.
So this may be surprising to learn, especially if you're familiar with Epic Mickey, but the Mad Doctor has been in the public domain for a while and Disney can't do shit about it. That's right, this character from a Disney short is in the Public Domain! Known as Dr. XXX (don't google that), the Mad Doctor is from a old Mickey cartoon that was deemed too dark for Disney's liking and they swept it under the rug, forgetting that they didn't renew the copyright and thus, we have this mad scientist in the public domain.
I will be honest in saying that he is pretty straight forward in terms of being an evil mad scientist. He wants to fuse Pluto with a chicken to see if it barks or clucks- he's just doing mad science for the sake of it. Yet you could flesh him out and there's obviously some meta commentary to be made given he is one of the few characters to escape Disney's clutches in terms of being owned by them. Word of advice though- don't pull anything from his future appearances in Epic Mickey or the comics, because those are Disney's iteration that they own and they will probably sue you if you get too close. Designwise though, they haven't really done anything drastic with his appearance.
Cookie Carnival is a bit unique in that it's a self-contained cartoon in the Silly Symphonies line that Disney just kind of let lapse and as such everything in it is free to use. This includes a lot of candy people imagery but the short is... fairly bizarre to say the least and I wouldn't say there's too much of a plot in it... it is mostly in service to showing this confectionary world and its characters. And you have to imagine there's a lot more you can do in this setting or pluck designs you like from it.
I feel like Cookie Carnival in of itself has become sort of a metaphor for public domain material. The plot is kind of honest with it's heart. Two sentient cookies show kindess to each other and see value in each other that the community sees later as a result of their love. You put in something to a thinner idea and make it your own much like Disney did with Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, etc and you'd have something that is very much your own but built off the bones of something else.
So this is actually something that happened literally the day I decided to write this article. Indepedent thinking about public domain. And this one is a really unique case- I recommend trying to find out more of the background that the creator disclosed regarding this about how this came about, how he managed to retain rights over it, and ultimately just letting it go. Although I haven't been a fan of this as the ending of the game, it is rather fitting and much like the music it encompasses more of a mood than just telling you how to feel or what's really going on. It feels like a answer yet nothing is actually revealed and brings up more questions in the game it's attached to. It's probably been skipped a fair bit by most players who have even made it this far in Minecraft- but for some people it really holds a lot of value. And now it's free.
A poem is not necessarily something you'd think would lead to much creative thought or introspection, but the Minecraft End Poem is unique in that it seems to hail from two narrators talking about the player and it's actually fairly open ended in how you can interpert it. You can sample and remix it however you please and you can build a mythos around it. As a piece of poetry, disconnected from the game it's written from, it might be fun to reinterpert the material in new ways much like how we do with Wonderland or the Bible.
- Page started. Hightlighted Ghost, Dan Backslide, Stardust the Super Wizard, Hell-Rider, Julie Storm, Butterfly, the Mad Doctor, Cookie Carnival, and the End Poem.