Master Of The Obvious: Issue #10

Wed, October 6th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

One of my favorite jokes:

A little man walks into a tavern, sits at the bar, and orders a shot of

whiskey. The bartender brings him the shot. The little man downs it in

one gulp, stands up, wipes his mouth, announces "I'm not going to pay

for that whiskey, because I can beat any man in the house!" Then he

turns and walks out.

The sight is so comical that all the bartender can do is laugh. But the next

night 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'm

not going to pay for that whiskey, because I can beat any man in the

house!" 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 asks

him 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, and

orders a shot. While the bartender's pouring it, the boxer saunters over

and sits next to the little man. The boxer says, "I hear you can beat any

man 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 it

in Jean-Luc Godard's film Alphaville (1964), where I first heard it. I

didn't get it until years later. The moral of this story is that no joke is an

old 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 in

comics was that the audience turned over every four years. As the

comics industry has never been very big on market studies, I don't know

that there was actual evidence to back that up. The theory was that the

bulk 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 a

distributor, and while my view was skewed by working in a college town,

I thought they underestimated the general age of their audience. (A

curious observation from my bookstore years was that an awful lot of

post-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 old

stories in the guise of new stories. While

petty theft has always played a role in

comics (DC sued a competitor for

ripping off Superman almost as soon as

the feature debuted) it wasn't

institutionalized until the 70s. (The concept of "homage" - basically,

winking at your own theft of other people's ideas and expecting the

audience 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't

play off someone else's pre-existing property. Publishers consider it too

risky. Many readers tell me they prefer projects more comfortable than

adventurous.

This isn't unique to comics. Derivative product runs amok on TV screens

and in movie theaters. Syndicated TV shows, though cooling now, had

become such a hot field that producers are hunting down the rights to

anything with a hint of familiarity, from Red Sonja to Amityville. I have a

joke about the pop music scene: the difference between my generation

and my parents' generation is that when they heard what we were

listening to, they screamed "How can you call that music?!" but when we

hear what our kids are listening to, we mumble, "Y'know, it was better

the first time." In a bookstore the other day I discovered an anthology of

new Philip Marlowe stories by modern authors.

But comics are a special case. Since the rise of the independent

publishers, particularly during the black and white craze of the 80s, the

sheer 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 spat

out. While parallel developments in comics aren't unheard of - two similar

concepts, Marvel's X-MEN and DC's DOOM PATROL, debuted the

same month in 1963, while 1972 saw the near simultaneous appearance

of DC's Swamp Thing and Marvel's Man-Thing (written, respectively, by

Len Wein and Gerry Conway, who were roommates at the time and

claim never to have discussed their projects with each other) - since the

early 90s, theft has been considered a survival tool.

We're a paradoxical business. We tend toward extremes, obsessively conservative

and absolutely refusing to let go of anything, yet willing to throw away everything for

whatever handful of beans seems likeliest to make money right this instant. This happens

when money runs a business - you see it all over Hollywood since bankers took over in

the 80s - and money has run comics since forever. (The Jim Shooter Principle: if it's not

your money, it's not your company.) While theft was popular in comics in the 80s - how

many witless variations on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did we suffer through, how

many 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 talent

and companies competing with each other to develop new things, to

expand 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 multiple

covers or the goldest gold edition. The black-and-white boom and bust of the

80s should have taught publishers a lesson: if you milk your audience with

copies of other people's ideas, the audience gets sick of it quickly. But

money has only one goal - make more money - so companies now operate

without strategy, except to cash in on whatever's "hot." Except money

always waits to see what's hot, and, combined with goldrush

rapaciousness, nothing turns a market colder than that.

Not that the audience isn't complicitous. Not that the talent isn't. Both

groups adore the past far too much. While it's understandable, and in

the case of the audience forgivable, there's something creepy about the

reverence much of the talent has for old material. Talent shares the

industry's paradox: obsession with the past and the desire to grab

whatever brass ring anyone else has. One well-known artist used to

lecture that a "true" comic book was 32 pages long on cheap paper

with low-rent coloring, as when he was a boy, and all else was

pretension, but that didn't stop him from demanding equality every time

someone got a project on slick paper, in full color, in new formats or

lengths. Some writers spend their careers strip-mining the work of their

predecessors in increasingly minute and tedious detail, while some

artists' whole styles are blatantly lifted from other artists.

We beat ideas to death. Remember when it was novel to have your

character die, be replaced by a newcomer using the same name, then

return from afterlife to set everything right and reclaim his rightful place?

It was unique when Steve Englehart did it in CAPTAIN AMERICA in

the mid-70s (okay, Cap only retired, but the effect was the same),

interesting when the Superman books added death into the mix in the

90s, and bludgeoned into boredom since. Yet talent still tries to pass it

off 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 Sir

Gawain And The Green Knight. (I don't think anyone caught it but I

had the rare pleasure of seeing the issue denounced on the 700 Club.) I

purposely set out to pastiche Gardner Fox in an Adam Strange short I

did 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 context

to see what happens. It's a curious sight to watch Warren Ellis and Alan

Moore both doing variations on Doc Savage, it's interesting to witness Grant Morrison nicking Michael Moorcock. It's more

unsettling (particularly in the light of the inventive MIRACLEMAN) to watch Alan

xerox Weisinger-era Superman motifs into SUPREME. Artists? How many artists

reworked 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 glory

by mimicking it. This is particularly prevalent among Jack Kirby

worshippers, who claim his legacy is sacrosanct while busily plundering

the temple. Much of the comics style of the past 30 years is built on

Kirby's work, and whatever was vibrant and original about it has

ground to clich through endless degenerative duplication, to the point

where a lot of artists today don't even know they're ripping off Kirby's

viewpoint, 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 saw

it, in FANTASTIC FOUR #10 in a Red Owl supermarket in 1962, my

tastes in comic art had already been formed by the sleek modern ink

lines found in the Julie Schwartz comics at DC, and the clotted black

inks 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 deny

his extraordinary achievements and justified influence on the business.

When Jack died, the eulogies flew thick and meaningless, and largely

missed the point. I generally don't write eulogies, but when asked to I

wrote this for Jack:

"People like to say that Jack was a

genius. I don't think that's true. He

had as many bad ideas as good,

but that's because he tried

everything he could think of. The

lesson of Jack Kirby's life was not

that what he accomplished was

genius, but that anyone can do

what 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 stories

without Raymond Chandler? What's the point of Kirby characters without Kirby? From my few meetings

with Jack, I got the idea he would have considered it more of a tribute

had talent followed his example rather than used his creations. And this

applies across the board. It's time to stop stealing from each other, because

that's really what it comes down to, no matter what we call it. If Kirby's legacy really means anything, it means

that we should be trying not what's safe or what's expedient, not homages to what has gone before. We should be doing whatever we

can think of.

As much as I hate to sound like a broken record, it also means we have

to finally let the past be the past, and get on with the future. Endless,

repetitive theft and bowdlerization of old comics have reduced

everything 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 it

doing 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.

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