Sorry. That's what Dustin Hoffman wheezes at the beginning of Arthur Penn's forgotten LITTLE BIG MAN. I do a pretty good impression of it. I can't help but remember it when I reminisce; it keeps the stupid egoism of reminiscing into perspective.
When I was just starting out trying to write comics, I pitched a western. A short piece, maybe six pages. A vignette. A basic western gunfight, set up very quickly, stalled for pacing, then abruptly finished, with all the HIGH NOON style nonsense trimmed out. (I hate HIGH NOON, and, yeah, I know it's supposed to be some brave parable about McCarthyism, though you could interpret it as an anti-Commie tract if you like; for a real anti-McCarthy western, see Nicholas Ray's JOHNNY GUITAR.) Painfully not original, unfortunately, but I had the whole layout in mind: angles, transitions, cuts. (This was before I'd much worked with artists; the idea that an artist might view the necessity of certain things differently than I did hadn't yet occurred to me.) In other words, a matter of style. I believed I had figured out how to put impact into it via style, and this would lift the story above average. It wasn't my take on the content that was so different, it was the intended delivery. And I really wanted to do it. I'd never played in that playground before. That alone made it all new again to me, and that couldn't help but make it feel new to the readers, right?
The editor I was pitching to couldn't see it. Never did. The story was never done. Oh well. (Then, as now, there are precious few places to do westerns.)
Two lessons to take from this.
1) Unless you're a well-established moneymaker, don't ever try to sell an editor on something without suitably interesting content on the grounds you can pull it off in the style. There's a reason why most editors want to be able to see "the hook" in most material: because it's not good enough for you to sell it to them, they have to be able to sell it too. Coming out of nowhere and wanting to do a Batman vs. Joker story just because you've always wanted to do one, not so good a sales pitch. Batman vs. Joker when Joker has turned the entire population of Gotham City including Bruce Wayne into homicidally-inclined Joker look-alikes, and Batman has to do battle with his own inner Joker as well as the external one and all his duplicates, that sort of thing might get some attention. But they want the hook. You have to give them the hook, and the sooner you give it the better.
(Of course, there's a discussion to be had of how "hook-centric" storytelling is distorting popular culture and undermining writers and literature, but it'll have to wait. Only practical considerations for now.)
Probably no one who's been in comics longer than six months needs to learn #1. #2's what a lot of people who've been in the business for years, including many editors, don't seem to get.
#2) Just because you've never done it before doesn't mean it has never been done. Being new to your experience doesn't make it new, and it doesn't mean anyone else will think it's new.
Which means a) the editor I dealt with was right, and b) when you do things like that, you limit your appreciative audience to those to whom it's also new. The appreciative audience are the ones who'll come back for more. The unappreciative audience are the ones who won't. In the mid-'70s, Marvel adopted the philosophy that the audience rolled over every four years – in essence, that none of the readers from 1971 were still reading comics in 1976 – which was a strange viewpoint for a company largely being creatively controlled by a staff that had itself come up from the comics audience and stuck with the medium through thick and thin, and who were themselves usually collectors hooked into growing comics fandom. In fairness, it was hardly Marvel's philosophy; it was how much of the industry thought, a hand-me-down from the earliest days of comics, when publishers weirdly raked in money selling tens of millions of comics per month (collectively, I mean) while presuming their audience had next to no attention span. What this meant to '70s Marvel, then generating far more comics than the company had since the heyday of Atlas in the '50s, was that readers wouldn't remember, oh, TALES TO ASTONISH #63, so elements of that story could be lifted and retrofitted for this month's story, because all the readers who'd read that story were long gone. And who knows? It might've been true. It might've worked. Except.
Marvel comics also developed, in the '70s, a terrible habit of late books. (Perhaps not coincidentally, this corresponded to a rising belief among incoming comics talent, and not terribly widespread before that, that comics were supposed to be a vehicle of self-expression – Art – and commercial considerations were no longer the be-all and end-all in the field.) I swear someone very perverse worked in Marvel's production department, because it seemed that every time a reprint issue was needed as a fill-in during some serial, what they'd run would be whatever old story the current storyline most resembled. It had the effect of making Marvel look absolutely ridiculous, and led, eventually, to the policy of making sure there were new fill-in issues available for all titles (subsequently providing me with an income in the early days). Maybe their audience did roll over, but they made sure that audience read the source material anyway. I should mention the new stories were rarely straight swipes of the old ones, but they'd repeat motifs and story arcs. It was the same effect as me wanting to do a western showdown story, though everyone was thoroughly familiar with western showdowns; they read like whoever really loved the old Dr. Doom stories and couldn't wait to do one of those classic stories themselves. Doing those stories was new to them... but it didn't make their stories new, even if no outright theft was involved.
Now we're in a business that glorifies that sort of behavior, in twisted ways. The swipe is part of our vocabulary, story swipes as much as art swipes. It's not only expected that incoming talent will want to "put their spin" on old concepts, the mainstream companies (and many of the lesser companies) depend on it. Look at the "big summer events" this year: even the admirers of DC's IDENTITY CRISIS and Marvel's "Avengers Dissembled" include in their reviews lists of all the old storylines being duplicated – and these are a couple books with terrific talents behind them. Likewise, it's no accident Marvel followed up Grant Morrison's visionary run on NEW X-MEN by undermining everything he'd done and essentially returning to old territory. That's their comfort zone, and, not coincidentally, what Joss Whedon, himself no slouch as either a writer or creator, but that's obviously what he views as the "real" X-Men. Morrison's version went beyond familiar territory that obviated anyone's need to do "their" take on the Lee-Kirby-Thomas-Wein-Cockrum-Claremont-Byrne version but that's what most writers who come onto the characters seem to want to do, and Marvel, obviously, encourages it. What's funny about this is that there will inevitably, now, be a generation that grew up reading Morrison's version, and that's what they'll be out to "recapture" when their turn to write comics comes around.
But that's just scratching the surface. Independent comics are rife with similar things, usually masquerading them as "parody" so they can claim intellectual distance while wallowing in comfortable riffs. Various websites delight in showing where art is swiped from, but there are also some very good comics writers who regularly lift bits from movies or books or other media that they think are obscure, and they're rarely called on it. (I don't have to name names; you know who you are.) But nothing's obscure anymore. It's been a long time since comics were associated with the uneducated; my guess is a lot of people reading comics are better educated than many.
Afflicting American comics more than anything else these days is the "Neal Adams syndrome." I use Neal as an example not because he was ever a bad artist, but because he was nearly always a great one. Here's a guy who not only revolutionized dynamics in comics but almost literally created a "school," something that just doesn't happen anymore. Through The Crusty Bunkers and Continuity Studios his tricks and his style got handed down to numerous other artists, some nearly as influential. Some were more overt Neal Adams clones; others, like Michael Golden, absorbed his lessons and applied them to his own work. Golden inspired Art Adams, who become a major influence on what would be known as "The Image Style." There are other "spinoffs" from Neal, but what it comes down to is this: Neal's style is now so ingrained in American comics that all his brilliant innovations are now clichés, repeated over and over and over by generations – and they're still being repeated. And poor Neal, who's still pretty much as good as he ever was, he now finds himself in a milieu where his natural style is so imitated, bowdlerized and commonized that when Neal draws something now, he looks like the world's best Neal Adams tribute band. Because it can only get that good now, because we're saturated with him whether any of us likes it or not.
And when you get to pop culture in general, things are worse. Something I noticed several years ago was the difference between our generation and our kids' generation when it comes to pop music: when our parents heard our music, they said, "Oh, that's terrible, how can you even call that music?" but when we hear our kids' music, we just say, "Y'know, it was better the first time." We live in an era where pop culture is oversaturated on itself, so it's easy for lifted riffs to provoke contempt over familiarity. Comics are double-trapped in that regard, since much of the non-manga audience are college students, so even the obscure academia stuff doesn't go unrecognized, though college students are more likely to think that cool rather than clumsy.
Some argument can be made for playing off old riffs, of course. Warren Ellis has done wonders with PLANETARY, which pretty much exists to play on old riffs. But, as a review I read recently pointed out (sorry, but I don't recall which one), the point of the book is to take those riffs, burned out through overexposure in decade after decade of self-devouring, self-referencing media, and reinstill them with sense of wonder. That's hard to do, and there's some question as to whether it can be done more than once. (As with the great "decompressed" storytelling Warren used in THE AUTHORITY that inspired gobs of bad "decompressed" stories, technique and method are only useful if you're doing them right.
Meanwhile, alerts were issued for possible eventual attacks on New York, Washington and... Newark?! (That's almost a zen riddle: if a terrorist bomb goes off in Newark, how can you tell the difference?) This wasn't your garden variety vague terror alert, no sir! While no specific date for the attack was suggested, it was strongly emphasized that their information was very credible, and clearly demonstrated that our Office Of Homeland Security was Doing Its Job.
What they weren't telling us was that the "intelligence" dated back to well before 9-11, and they've known about it for four years. Lots of hemming and hawing when that was revealed, and they're still insisting it's credible just the way they keep insisting Saddam Hussein really does – or did – have weapons of masked destruction, honest! This at the time when the Hand Puppet is "acting" on Congressional recommendations following the 9-11 study by creating a central clearing house for intelligence – inside the White House. Part of the problem all along has been that the CIA has been – I can't believe I'm saying this – too influenced by administration foreign policy objectives (it really doesn't matter which administration); a major reason we're in Iraq today is that the CIA, courtesy of George Tenet, tailored their "intelligence" to what the White House wanted to hear. And we have a president who prides himself on not listening to anyone outside his inner circle, which the new intelligence chief wouldn't be part of. The president's opponents are already accusing him of politicizing the situation, but intelligence agencies in America have always been politicized. But this only increases the cult of secrecy the current administration has instilled in the White House; having all intelligence information routed through the White House would only give them even more of the control they want over what information reaches the American public and what doesn't. It certainly doesn't increase the odds that information contradicting planned foreign policy objectives would get heard.
Maybe you think I'm just some crazy leftist trying to smear the White House with that "cult of secrecy" stuff, and if that's the case, you probably missed Attorney General John Ashcroft's latest attempt to seal up the flow of "unauthorized" information. No, he's not going after foreign spies. Last week, he sent out orders to the Government Printing Office's Superintendent of Documents to order libraries to destroy some government documents now available to the public. Not illegal documents, not classified documents. These are texts of statutes covering how you and I, average Americans, can get back things the government confiscates if they investigate you. Apparently, Ashcroft thinks only law offices can be trusted with this information. For now.
Makes you wonder just what he's got in mind for the next four years. Nothing's been removed from any libraries yet, but get copies of the Civil And Criminal Forfeiture Procedure, the Select Criminal Forfeiture Forms, the Select Federal Asset Forfeiture Statutes, the Asset Forfeiture And Money Laundering Resource Directory, and the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act Of 2000 while you can.