Category Archives: jenny_everywhere

in search of jenny everywhere

It’s mainly the literary world that assumes fictional work to be best when the creation of only one person. Most TV shows, movies, games and comics are created by teams. But though creativity here is not bound by the Romantic conception of the individual Artist, neither is it free for all. Fan fiction notwithstanding, as the property of publisher, broadcast company or studio, fictional universes are strictly controlled.
In the comics world, there are a handful of characters that could be described as explicitly ‘open-source’. Mythic characters are no-one’s property. Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius was created with the intention that he be available for use as an open character. And Octobriana, a kind of socialist Barbarella, is Communist in both origin and legal status. Allegedly – though the story is somewhat murky – the creation of a 1960s Soviet underground group, her genesis outside Western comics publishing has meant that Octobriana has always existed in the public domain, and she has appeared in numerous different universes.

Inspired partly by Octobriana, in 2001 Barbelith founder and Web commentator Tom Coates and comic artist Steven Wintle led a community discussion about open-source narrative figures. As a result of these discussions, the group decided to create their own: in discussions over the next few months, Jenny Everywhere, aka ‘The Shifter’ was born.

Wintle’s original sketch for Jenny (Source: The Shifter Archive)

Jenny has certain core characteristics. She is a multidimensional person able to appear anywhere, in any universe, at any time. She can be in more than one place at a time. Her favorite food is toast, she wears goggles on her forehead, she is usually depicted with short dark hair and comfortable clothing. (The discussion threads where these characteristics were agreed make intriguing reading). But though she as some distinguishing features, she is explicitly available for any artist to use, providing the following text (first associated with Jenny in 2002) appears alongside:
The character of Jenny Everywhere is available for use by anyone, with only one condition. This paragraph must be included in any publication involving Jenny Everywhere, in order that others may use this property as they wish. All rights reversed.
I wasn’t part of Jenny’s genesis. I came across her only recently, while hunting for something else, and was fascinated. An explicitly open-source character: neither a proprietary figure repurposed on the fringes of legality by fan communities, nor a mythic and hence uncopyrightable figure, nor one whose copyright has simply lapsed, but a set of narrative opportunities co-created and available for everyone to use. As much a political gesture as an artistic framework. I wanted evidence that she’d grown beyond that initial idea.
A bit of Web archaeology turned up a cluster of excitement and creative activity between 2001 and 2003 centering on the Barbelith community. She made appearances in numerous webcomics, turned up on blogs, popped up on Boing Boing. But then it all went quiet again.
I’d had hopes that Jenny might be, as the NYT article suggested, a herald of cultures to come. And there’s nothing more dispiriting than to read past predictions for phenomena that never came to be. But websites become flavor of the month so swiftly, and fade just as swiftly: it seemed that Jenny Everywhere just a transient moment in the hyperaccelerated maelstrom of geek subcultures.
But it seems I was wrong. Jenny is making a comeback. A 2007 Jenny competition on Stripfight saw a rash of new appearances; around the same time The Shifter Archive was launched, a new attempt by US comic artist David ‘Fesworks’ Leyk (to whom I’m hugely indebted for the information in this article) to collate and make available all extant Jenny Everywhere work. And new comics are beginning to appear.

A common pattern of relatively self-organizing co-creation sees a notionally ‘flat’ structure in fact driven by a self-selecting ‘core’ that gives the whole collective focus and drives creative energy. When this core steps back, the entire project often falters. I’ve found myself speculating: did Jenny’s initial core creators find their open-source character, unprotected by the corporate interests of a publisher or distributor, mutating to a point where she ceased to interest them? Or was it just a case of people moving on to new projects?
Either way, it points to the fact that for an open-source idea to reproduce, it must be able to outgrow its pioneers. After the initial enthusiasm died down, Jenny is still going strong: not harbored and protected by a close group in the bosom of a web community, but at large and self-reproducing. As ‘Fesworks’ puts it:
“There is no “official” site for Jenny Everywhere. Since she is Public Domain, and open-source […], technically every single Jenny Everywhere comic and story out there is “Fan Fiction”. They only connect to other people’s stories and comic if they choose to connect them.”

Jenny is a tantalizing glimpse of how collaborative, open creativity can be accelerated by the Web. Compared to her print prototype Octobriana, her spread in just seven years is phenomenal. But she raises many questions. For one thing, it is hard to see how a character not possessing quantum superpowers could survive the narrative vicissitudes of starring in the creations of multiple writers without disintegrating to meaninglessness – which in turn may mean that Jenny is a one-off. Then, her genesis and (still short) history is an intriguing case study of the difficulties of balancing creative vision with open collaboration – a problem, arguably, that also faced the Million Penguins wiki-novel and is at the core of the complicated relationship between artists and the Web.
And finally, it’s also about archiving, the fragility of Web history and – Wayback Machine notwithstanding – the rapid decay of old digital artefacts. 2003 is not a long time ago, but many of the old Jenny links are broken. Without the efforts of ‘Fes’, Jenny might be little more than a memory by now. Does any of this matter? If the Web is to become a meaningful locus for creative work, then these are indeed questions to take seriously.