One of my favorite jokes:
A little man walks into a tavern, sits at the bar, and orders a shot ofwhiskey. The bartender brings him the shot. The little man downs it inone gulp, stands up, wipes his mouth, announces "I'm not going to payfor that whiskey, because I can beat any man in the house!" Then heturns and walks out.
The sight is so comical that all the bartender can do is laugh. But the nextnight the same little man comes in again, sits at the bar, and orders a shot.He downs it in one gulp, stands up wipes his mouth, and announces "I'mnot going to pay for that whiskey, because I can beat any man in thehouse!" Then he turns and walks out.
Now the bartender's a little irritated, because he sees a pattern forming.He calls up a boxer he knows, a huge musclebound mankiller, and askshim to come by the next night in case the little man shows up again.
Sure enough, the little man walks in the next night, sits at the bar, andorders a shot. While the bartender's pouring it, the boxer saunters overand sits next to the little man. The boxer says, "I hear you can beat anyman in the house."
The little man looks him up and down, swallows hard, then says, "That's right."
The boxer puts his face right in the little man's face and says, "I can beat any man in the house too!"
"In that case," says the little man, "Bartender! Make that two shots of whiskey!"
Variations on that joke have been around forever. Lemmy Caution tells itin Jean-Luc Godard's film Alphaville (1964), where I first heard it. Ididn't get it until years later. The moral of this story is that no joke is anold joke to someone who hasn't heard it.
But even old jokes aren't necessarily funny.
When I started writing for Marvel c. 1978, the operative philosophy incomics was that the audience turned over every four years. As thecomics industry has never been very big on market studies, I don't knowthat there was actual evidence to back that up. The theory was that thebulk of the market was boys 10-14, and after that they stopped reading.I'd spent the years prior to writing working for a bookstore and adistributor, and while my view was skewed by working in a college town,I thought they underestimated the general age of their audience. (Acurious observation from my bookstore years was that an awful lot ofpost-grad feminists loved the CONAN comic. Go figure.)
As a result of the "rollover" philosophy,it wasn't unusual for some writers to"rollover" old plots as well, revisiting oldstories in the guise of new stories. Whilepetty theft has always played a role incomics (DC sued a competitor forripping off Superman almost as soon asthe feature debuted) it wasn'tinstitutionalized until the 70s. (The concept of "homage" - basically,winking at your own theft of other people's ideas and expecting theaudience to play along with the joke - came into vogue then as well.)Now it's almost de rigueur. It's hard to even pitch a concept that doesn'tplay off someone else's pre-existing property. Publishers consider it toorisky. Many readers tell me they prefer projects more comfortable thanadventurous.
This isn't unique to comics. Derivative product runs amok on TV screensand in movie theaters. Syndicated TV shows, though cooling now, hadbecome such a hot field that producers are hunting down the rights toanything with a hint of familiarity, from Red Sonja to Amityville. I have ajoke about the pop music scene: the difference between my generationand my parents' generation is that when they heard what we werelistening to, they screamed "How can you call that music?!" but when wehear what our kids are listening to, we mumble, "Y'know, it was betterthe first time." In a bookstore the other day I discovered an anthology ofnew Philip Marlowe stories by modern authors.
But comics are a special case. Since the rise of the independentpublishers, particularly during the black and white craze of the 80s, thesheer volume of comics published burns up content at an alarming rate.When hundreds of titles appear from dozens of companies each month,many more or less covering the same ground, that's a lot of fiction spatout. While parallel developments in comics aren't unheard of - two similarconcepts, Marvel's X-MEN and DC's DOOM PATROL, debuted thesame month in 1963, while 1972 saw the near simultaneous appearanceof DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man-Thing (written, respectively, byLen Wein and Gerry Conway, who were roommates at the time andclaim never to have discussed their projects with each other) - since theearly 90s, theft has been considered a survival tool.
We're a paradoxical business. We tend toward extremes, obsessively conservativeand absolutely refusing to let go of anything, yet willing to throw away everything forwhatever handful of beans seems likeliest to make money right this instant. This happenswhen money runs a business - you see it all over Hollywood since bankers took over inthe 80s - and money has run comics since forever. (The Jim Shooter Principle: if it's notyour money, it's not your company.) While theft was popular in comics in the 80s - howmany witless variations on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did we suffer through, howmany jackass parodies of DARK KNIGHT RETURNS? - it was an era of innovation,creatively and in marketing, and there was, for a time, a sense of talentand companies competing with each other to develop new things, toexpand the field and in that way expand the market.
When truly big money came in with the 90s, innovation pretty much died;only tweaking remained, to see who could pump out the most multiplecovers or the goldest gold edition. The black-and-white boom and bust of the80s should have taught publishers a lesson: if you milk your audience withcopies of other people's ideas, the audience gets sick of it quickly. Butmoney has only one goal - make more money - so companies now operatewithout strategy, except to cash in on whatever's "hot." Except moneyalways waits to see what's hot, and, combined with goldrushrapaciousness, nothing turns a market colder than that.
Not that the audience isn't complicitous. Not that the talent isn't. Bothgroups adore the past far too much. While it's understandable, and inthe case of the audience forgivable, there's something creepy about thereverence much of the talent has for old material. Talent shares theindustry's paradox: obsession with the past and the desire to grabwhatever brass ring anyone else has. One well-known artist used tolecture that a "true" comic book was 32 pages long on cheap paperwith low-rent coloring, as when he was a boy, and all else waspretension, but that didn't stop him from demanding equality every timesomeone got a project on slick paper, in full color, in new formats orlengths. Some writers spend their careers strip-mining the work of theirpredecessors in increasingly minute and tedious detail, while someartists' whole styles are blatantly lifted from other artists.
We beat ideas to death. Remember when it was novel to have yourcharacter die, be replaced by a newcomer using the same name, thenreturn from afterlife to set everything right and reclaim his rightful place?It was unique when Steve Englehart did it in CAPTAIN AMERICA inthe mid-70s (okay, Cap only retired, but the effect was the same),interesting when the Superman books added death into the mix in the90s, and bludgeoned into boredom since. Yet talent still tries to pass itoff as an exciting way to resuscitate dying books, as if they just thought of it at breakfast.
Everybody steals. Everybody. I've done it. I did a THOR once that was a thinly-veiled reworking of SirGawain And The Green Knight. (I don't think anyone caught it but Ihad the rare pleasure of seeing the issue denounced on the 700 Club.) Ipurposely set out to pastiche Gardner Fox in an Adam Strange short Idid a couple years ago. Sometimes it's what the company asks for.Sometimes it's innocuous, an application of an old idea to a new contextto see what happens. It's a curious sight to watch Warren Ellis and AlanMoore both doing variations on Doc Savage, it's interesting to witness Grant Morrison nicking Michael Moorcock. It's moreunsettling (particularly in the light of the inventive MIRACLEMAN) to watch Alanxerox Weisinger-era Superman motifs into SUPREME. Artists? How many artistsreworked their styles to imitate Rob Liefeld c. 1993? How many got anywhere doing it?
And sometimes it's just fannish conceit, the sense that you can somehow latch onto gloryby mimicking it. This is particularly prevalent among Jack Kirbyworshippers, who claim his legacy is sacrosanct while busily plunderingthe temple. Much of the comics style of the past 30 years is built onKirby's work, and whatever was vibrant and original about it hasground to cliché through endless degenerative duplication, to the pointwhere a lot of artists today don't even know they're ripping off Kirby'sviewpoint, because they're working on copies of copies of copies of Kirby.
Not that I have anything against Kirby. I should say I never liked his art,though it turned out what I disliked wasn't his after all. When I first sawit, in FANTASTIC FOUR #10 in a Red Owl supermarket in 1962, mytastes in comic art had already been formed by the sleek modern inklines found in the Julie Schwartz comics at DC, and the clotted blackinks surrounding every figure in FF struck me as gross and primitive.My opinion changed in later years, but not my tastes. But I don't denyhis extraordinary achievements and justified influence on the business.When Jack died, the eulogies flew thick and meaningless, and largelymissed the point. I generally don't write eulogies, but when asked to Iwrote this for Jack:
"People like to say that Jack was agenius. I don't think that's true. Hehad as many bad ideas as good,but that's because he triedeverything he could think of. Thelesson of Jack Kirby's life was notthat what he accomplished wasgenius, but that anyone can dowhat Jack did.
But Jack did it."
Why people consider it a tribute to work and rework Kirby's characters is beyond me. What's the point of Philip Marlowe storieswithout Raymond Chandler? What's the point of Kirby characters without Kirby? From my few meetingswith Jack, I got the idea he would have considered it more of a tributehad talent followed his example rather than used his creations. And thisapplies across the board. It's time to stop stealing from each other, becausethat's really what it comes down to, no matter what we call it. If Kirby's legacy really means anything, it meansthat we should be trying not what's safe or what's expedient, not homages to what has gone before. We should be doing whatever wecan think of.
As much as I hate to sound like a broken record, it also means we haveto finally let the past be the past, and get on with the future. Endless,repetitive theft and bowdlerization of old comics have reducedeverything that was once original and entertaining about them to jokes -worse, in-jokes - and the old jokes just aren't funny anymore.
OUT FOR BLOOD #1, the first issue of my horror mini-series,co-written with creator Michael Part, and drawn by Gary Erskine,finally materialized in stores last Wednesday, and several reports have itdoing curiously brisk business for a comic with such a low print run.Check it out if you can find it.
I should have an article this week at GettingIt magazine, about wrestling comics.
And to my Italian readers, I'd like to say "grazie per lettura." And I hope I got that right.