One Fan's Opinion: Issue #17

Thu, December 1st, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

Me again.

I thought, before I got off on another rant here, that I'd stop and explain myself a bit.

The purpose of these little tirades is not to put an end to a discussion and state my absolute, unwavering opinion on whatever topic I happen to throw out there. What I'm attempting to do here is to start a conversation-- not finish one. Too often message boards are littered with posts and comments that do nothing but insult creators and retailers and fans and badmouth various comics.

Call me crazy, but I don't think that's helping this industry, which we all profess to love so much.

And it's gratifying to see so many subjects raised here being taken up on the boards at Comic Book Resources, www.imagecomics.com and so many other sites all over the web (even if a number of folks end up calling me a nitwit). It sure beats listening to fans rake yet another book/creator/retailer/fan over the coals.

I went on a tear about swiping recently that generated a bit of debate, but it occurs to me that I was a bit lax on a few fronts so I'm going to elaborate a bit.

I made it a point of not making a huge distinction between swipes and homages and, for the most part, I think I was pretty fair-- however-- I could have been a bit more thorough (and again I'm just tossing shit out here-- I'm still sorting a lot of this out for myself so don't feel anything here is necessarily set in stone-- and at the end of the day, it's one fan's opinion, you're perfectly entitled to have your own).

The thing is-- those who swipe profit from the work of others-- period. Swiping is a shortcut, be it defined as an homage or as a swipe. And it's unlawful as well. It's not legal to plagiarize. People have gotten in serious trouble for swiping photos and any number of things. These images are protected by the laws of the land. The copyright holders own them and they're not up for grabs. Parody is protected, yes, but that doesn't mean you can feel free to rip off everybody on everything. It's unlawful and it's wrong.

I'm willing to concede that a portion of fans feel as though an "homage" is acceptable whereas a "swipe" is not. Since the law of the land makes no such distinction, however, I think this argument is pretty much pointless.

Let me toss out an analogy:

When a musician does a cover version of another artist's work and it's put on a disc, the original composer (or rights holder) gets paid. In comics, if you rip off the cover to "Fantastic Four" #1, Marvel, Jack Kirby and his heirs don't see a dime.

If musicians could simply play other people's music and reap all the rewards while the music's composer or rights holder got jack shit, people would be screaming bloody murder! How would you feel if you wrote a popular tune and had minimal success with it on your own while others that sang it gave you credit on their albums (squint hard and you just might see it)-- but no cash? You'd feel ripped off not flattered!

I do think that there is a distinction in the intent of the person perpetrating an homage instead of a swipe. Regardless of that, the law doesn't make that distinction and if I were being "homaged," I don't think I'd be all that flattered by that "tribute." I don't think the difference between straight out swiping and "homaging" is a big one. One does seem more honest, in the sense of giving credit where credit is due, I'll grant you, but beyond that both profit from the work of another person. What gives anybody the idea that the victim in this crime-- the guy whose work is being copied-- would feel "honored" because somebody stole a composition from them?

The thing is, swiping is fun! It's fun to do and it's fun to look at. It's fun to track stuff down and compare the swipe to the original. And it's especially neat looking when the guy doing the swiping makes it their own. To see Frank Miller swipe from Steranko is cool. To see Gil Kane swipe from Jack Kirby is cool. But ethically, and legally, swiping is a minefield (and again, I've perpetrated such things myself. I'm not holding myself up as a shining example of how to live your life by any means).

Parody, on the other hand, is a different animal entirely (and Miller swiping from Steranko was parody, by the way). The dictionary defines parody as a "humorous or satirical imitation of a serious piece." Parody is protected by law (although there have been cases where people, attempting humor, have had their asses handed to them. Ask Kieron Dwyer about Starbucks some time and don't forget Disney going after Dan O'Neill for his obscene Mickey Mouse parody in an underground comic "Air Pirates"-- things can get very sticky). Parody is swiping made funny and parody covers and ads can be hilarious.

Many "homages" could be considered parody and would be protected by law because of that. But tracing off a drawing of Captain America and turning him into your guy isn't really the same thing as parody unless there's some kind of discernable humor element to be found there. It's not "funny" because there's a different character involved-- it needs to be more than that.

At one point, Acclaim comics had announced that they were going to do a mess of "homage" covers on a particular month. DC told them not to use any of their covers as a basis for these "homages" and Acclaim backed down (as well they should have-- if DC ever decided to flex their legal muscle it would be wise to run for cover. These guys are loaded.). Still, much of the time, folks just let it go. Litigating these sorts of things is expensive and the money that can be gotten from it by suing is relatively meager-- especially since so many perpetrating these "homages" are guys doing it more for love than money.

For some reason-- in comics-- it has been deemed acceptable to swipe something as long as you put a little disclaimer on it-- if it says "after Jack Kirby (or whoever)" it's all good. In the real world, things don't work that way. If Patrick Nagel did a drawing of a saucy brunette and some other artist copied the drawing, made her blonde and put a little "after Patrick Nagel" on it and sold a million prints-- Patrick Nagel's estate isn't going to feel as though it was a lovely tribute to Patrick Nagel. They're going to sue the thief's pants off.

But we're talking comics.

There were a few folks that took me to task for not mentioning any of a number of current creators that have swiped from time to time. I really wasn't looking to make anybody's prospect of getting work in the future any more problematic or "outing" any working professionals as swipe artists. These folks have enough trouble being "creatively challenged." There's no point in me making their lives any more difficult. They've got families to feed, after all.

Another thing that has been brought up to me is the subject of clones.

Clones don't necessarily swipe, but what clones do is figure out or approximate an artist's style and simply draw the way they do.

There are comic book artists who are so influenced by a single source that they barely have an identity of their own-- and they can be terrific-- but nobody really looks to them for innovation. If these guys stay in the shadow of another artist, they will forever be a "poor man's" Todd McFarlane, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Art Adams, George Perez, John Byrne, Frank Miller, Neal Adams, Bart Sears, Michael Golden, Marc Silvestri, Jim Lee, Michael Turner or even (gasp) Erik Larsen. These artists will always play second fiddle to the originals from which their styles were derived.

If you can't have new Joe Madureira, you'll settle for a Joe Madureira imitator. But what does any Joe Madureira clone really have to offer that wasn't pinched from Joe Madureira? What does a Joe Madureira clone have to offer which is wholly theirs? Why would anybody choose a Joe Madureira clone when they could have Joe Madureira?

The Starbucks logo and Kieron Dwyer's parody logo.
It's one thing for an artist to show you-- for a panel or a page or even an issue-- that they can pull off a decent impersonation of Joe Madureira. It's something else entirely to make a career out of imitating Joe Madureira.

On the other hand, Joe Madureira isn't doing a lot of work these days and Jack Kirby is doing even less.

This is akin to a singer sounding like John Lennon, but never playing any John Lennon songs. And that's different from sampling or doing cover versions of other songs-- which, is more akin to swiping and homaging. And again, in music, if you sound like the Beatles, but sing your own songs, that's okay (although you're likely to be accused of being derivative or unoriginal) but if you sample songs or do cover versions of other songs, there is a system in place where the artist whose work is being pinched gets paid. In comics, they don't get paid. In comics, they get the shaft (but it's an "honor" to be "homaged," right?)!

I don't know of a case where a clone became more popular or successful than the original. Some clones have had success, but generally it's come after they've moved on and found their own voice. And finding your own voice really is the best option.

Barry Winsor-Smith started out as a Jack Kirby clone-- hell, so did John Byrne, but he didn't get steady work until he'd moved on. Denys Cowan's first job was almost entirely Gil Kane swipes, but he found his own voice in pretty short order. Bill Sienkiewicz started out as a Neal Adams clone, as did Tom Grindberg. A lot of artists start off as a poor man's version of another guy. Joe Madureira started off as an Art Adams clone and now there are Joe Madureira clones. Brian Hitch started off as an Alan Davis clone and now there are Brian Hitch clones. Travis Charest started off as a Jim Lee clone and now there are Travis Charest clones.

Everybody starts somewhere and the best of those that start out imitating others use that as a jumping off point to find their own style. A lot of artists' styles are amalgams of their influences. A foot from this guy, a face from that guy, rocks from another and explosions from another still. That's fine. That's how styles develop. Dave Sim started out imitating Barry Smith and then one day he had to draw something that Barry hadn't drawn before and he ended up doing something else and found that he was free-- that he could do things however he wanted to-- that he didn't have to draw like Barry Smith.

It's like that sometimes.

And as usual, I've said a lot without saying much of anything or coming to a real point.

I suppose if I had to sum it all up I'd have to say-- guys, if you can, find your own way. Don't feel as though you need a crutch, be it copying a pose or cloning a style. You can do anything you want. Anything. There's no reason that you have to sponge off of others. You can be the trendsetter. You can blaze a new trail.

Or not.

It's entirely up to you.

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