This summer, the comics world has been abuzz with the news of Marvel NOW!, a change that is reputedly not-a-relaunch of their comics line, which Marvel swears bears no resemblance to DC’s New 52 not-a-relaunch of 2011.  Internet voices have already begun complaining, sight unseen, that this move is just another case of following the leader, and that the final nail has been struck into the coffin of Originality.  It is worth remembering that a wise someone (the internet is torn on whether it was Heraclitus, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt or Dick Van Patten) once opined that there is no such thing as an original idea.  I’d take it a step further, by saying that, at least in terms of popular culture, there never have been many truly original ideas.

And that is perfectly fine…

“YOU SLOWED THE ALBUM DOWN & COPIED IT NOTE FOR NOTE!”

Every artist, from Michelangelo completing the Sistine Chapel from the hackiest hack churning out awkward erotic Family Guy/Sex And The City slash-fiction, has been influenced by previous works.  They’re affected by what they’ve read, what they’ve watched, what they’ve personally experienced and a host of other factors that actually shape what they love and what they create.  Stephen often cruelly remarks that my jokes are shaped by three comedy albums from the back in the day (Steve Martin’s “Comedy Is Not Pretty”, George Carlin’s “Occupation Foole”, and Stephen Wright’s “I Have A Pony”, in case you’re interested in checking them out) and while I will vehemently deny it, there is a grain of truth in that over-generalization.  Anyone who has ever started speaking and realized that they suddenly sound like William Shatner or Christopher Walken should understand what I mean when I say that those stories and jokes are now an intrinsic part of how I think.  They are so ingrained that sometimes I don’t even KNOW that I’m being influenced by them when I speak.  Moreover, if you’ve ever found anything I say funny, you can probably thank the entertainment experiences of those albums and the other pop culture I consumed when I was younger, and I’m sure that your enjoyment of whatever nonsense I’ve piped up with won’t be greatly diminished by that realization.

“HE’S JUST A KIRBY KNOCKOFF!”

The largest problem with the statement that “There are no original ideas anymore!” is that there’s no clear definition of what an “original idea” actually is.  The implication is that if Marvel NOW! intends to tell stories in a framework that resembles DC’s New 52 framework, then those stories are immediately derivative and bad, without any explanation of WHY that should be the case.  One of my favorite series of comics, among the thousands I’ve consumed, is John Byrne’s run on Fantastic Four from the early 1980’s.  Byrne delivered a fascinating and gripping run of stories that examined what made each member of the Fantastic Four tick, and added depth to characters like Alicia Masters and Wyatt Wingfoot, who had previously often been used solely as props.  It is truly impressive comics work, and it was only made possible by the fact that Byrne consciously scraped away a layer of barnacles from the Fantastic Four property, and went back to telling stories that were more like the Lee & Kirby Fantastic Four tales of his youth.  John’s art style has been constantly evolving, but during his FF days, there was a clear effort to pay tribute to Jack Kirby’s art style.  For my money, it is the most successful FF storytelling of the Bronze Age, and it manages to do so while not qualifying under the nebulous internet expectations of “original idea.”

“IT’S LIKE HAN SOLO MEETS COLONEL SANDERS WITH HATS!”

The common wisdom these days is that pop culture, and movies specifically, will never get made if they can’t be boiled down to a familiar-sounding “elevator pitch,” to convince the people who pay for things that the concept will convince OTHER people to buy tickets.  Our most recent Major Spoilers Podcast has an in-depth discussion of why we keep seeing the same concepts rehashed and reworked and remade, but what it really boils down to can often be summarized thusly:  Large audiences don’t always respond to a truly original idea, because a truly original idea may not be accessible to everyone.  Some years ago, I began reading Grant Morrison’s magnus opus, The Filth, but eventually had to give up when the multiple levels of metatextuality finally became too much for my mind to comprehend.  The work was challenging, it was intellectual, it was entertaining, but it was also exhausting to follow.  It’s easy to dismiss “the average person” as the reason that pop culture has seemingly been dumbed down, but in our own way, each of us is that average person, and each of us has made decisions in our consumption of pop culture, intentionally or unintentionally, that have shaped the movie studios expectations that all audiences are stupid.

“MORE RELATIVE TO THIS–  THE PLAY’S THE THING!”

Though we could spend time arguing about the word “idea” (noting that, while Mal Reynolds is a different character with different motivations, he wouldn’t exist in his current form without their first having been a Han Solo, for instance), the simplest fact is that the best stories and fictions are the ones that have resonance, a sense of truth that appeals to those reading and watching.  Neil Gaiman’s ‘Sandman’ drew that resonance from classic literary sources, ancient philosophies and the works of Jack Kirby all at once, achieving a status where it has now become a major influence on how to write comics well.  The Hulk was, according to Stan Lee, a riff on ‘Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde’ with visual nods to Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster make-up.  Notably, most of the works of William Shakespeare, the most durable stories of the modern world, were adapted from (or, in some cases, lifted wholesale) from older poems and tales.

“I DO NOT THINK THAT WORD MEANS WHAT YOU THINK IT MEANS.”

It is not whether something is “original” that makes it successful/interesting/sales-worthy, but in the execution of the work itself, as even the silliest and most derivative of ideas can play out successfully in the hands of the right creators, actors and artists.  Nothing is more frustrating for me than someone refusing to even sample a work based on a perceived resemblance to something else (usually something they already love!) and the belief that it will naturally always suck because of that resemblance.  The irony of that position is that, without actually going to the trouble of reading/watching/listening to the actual product, our opinions are themselves uninformed and entirely defined by someone else’s take; in short, they’re unoriginal.

In fact, even saying that “There are no original ideas anymore!” is no longer an original idea, nor is it original for me to tell you that it’s no longer an original idea to say there are no more original ideas, which leads us into a recursive loop and eventual psychological trauma…  We, as an informed audience, need to play fair with the creators of our pop culture.  Just because the idea of a superhero team coming together against all odds, or a cowboy story in space, or the wiggly, undeniable feeling that your whole life is a dream aren’t “original,” doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the finished products of Joss Whedon’s “Avengers,” “Star Trek,” or “That One Uncle Scrooge Story That They Totally Ripped Inception Off From.”

Mileage, as always, may vary.

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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15 Comments

  1. Dan
    August 10, 2012 at 1:31 pm — Reply

    If you are going to put it in bold, your grammar should at least be correct.

    • August 10, 2012 at 2:04 pm — Reply

      Thank you for catching that. Thought process got ahead of itself…

  2. Frank
    August 10, 2012 at 1:48 pm — Reply

    Lack of originality is why I can’t stand modern sitcoms. Pretty much every plot and character is a retread of comedies from the 50’s like “I Love Lucy”. Granted, there are exceptions like Sergent Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes and Kramer from Sienfeld.

    • Slappy
      August 10, 2012 at 3:23 pm — Reply

      The sitcom lack of Originality is not out of laziness unfortunately but due to the fact that studio execs don’t want anything that hasn’t been tried yet. <I:)

    • February 21, 2013 at 8:59 am — Reply

      But the Kramer/Schultz framework, the arch-type of quirky, off-beat character was based on quirky, off-beat characters that came before. Hogan’s Heroes is, after all, based on the movie- and was given a green light because of said movie’s success- STALAG 17, which Billy Wilder adapted from a play written by a former POW about his experiences in a POW camp.
      Kramer= Horshack of Welcome Back Kotter, Squiggy of Laverne and Shirley, or Andy Kaufman’s Latka…and later Christopher Llyod’s character who filled that role…on Taxi.

  3. Gary
    August 10, 2012 at 3:04 pm — Reply

    I think “The Princess Bride” is the perfect illustration for what you are describing. At it’s core, it’s a rather banal plot that has been told in fairy tales, plays, poetry, songs, comics, etc etc since the dawn of time. But it’s the execution of that story that really makes it shine.

  4. johnny
    August 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm — Reply

    As a counterpoint, I believe we do not need to see a hero’s origin every year or so. If you’ve somehow missed the fact that peter parke got bit by a spider, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the character. Find the back issues or reissues– the first number one, not the tenth. Read the continuity that modern critics and bloggers hate so much if you find a story confusing. Is the New 52 all bad? No. But every time I read a story from the New 52, my first thought is not “wow, this is so original,” but, “wow this was so much better the first time, 5/15/25 years ago!”

  5. Spider lover
    August 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm — Reply

    Original content yes we crave that right? I’m not so sure we as people cry out mainly for more of what we’ve already seen and then complain when it’s not original. It’s a silly notion if you really break things down stories have been retold masquerading as original ideas. Take hit shows like how I met your mother. Stars a group of friends and their life while one character is telling his children how he met their mother. Break it down further a group of friends living in new York having funny adventures. Sound familiar? It should it’s friends or Seinfeld. It just has nuances that are different enough to make it seem original.

    • Frank
      August 10, 2012 at 8:23 pm — Reply

      “Break it down further a group of friends living in new York having funny adventures. Sound familiar?” — How about the “Honeymooners”. Two friends and their wives.
      Thinking of it, I can see a bit of parallels between between Ed Norton from Honeymooners and Kramer from Sienfeld….

  6. August 10, 2012 at 4:32 pm — Reply

    There is a wonderful video series and project called ‘Everything is a Remix’:
    http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/

    All of science and technology, literature, film and of course comics are evolutionary in their development. We all steal our ideas from the things we love, take the things that work for us, mash them together, paint it with some thick coats of paint and call them our own.

    I think a lot of frustration of pop culture fans today stems from the fact that there seems to be less ‘remixing’ and more of the note for note ‘cover versions’. All the ingredients are there but they somehow ring hollow.

    There is an art to remixing. Some are such masters of that art that the remixed elements are completely transparent and only after deep analysis can we figure out where all the pieces came from.

    Others, not so much.

    Corporate owned superhero comics face a few problems that that make fresh approaches difficult. Much of modern, shared universe superhero fandom exercises such slavish devotion to tradition, and what has gone before that it has become difficult to create even the illusion of change in those stories. Couple that with the corporate view that characters are properties to be exploited outside comics, and thus can’t be changed TOO MUCH and you have a very stagnant environment where new ideas (or even clever, fresh or cool new remixes) don’t have the air to breathe.

    • August 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm — Reply

      I’ve seen these before. Really good thought is put into his argument.

  7. August 10, 2012 at 6:22 pm — Reply

    I gave the new 52 a shot, but I quit. It’s too confusing, and the new Justice League has no plotline. If MarvelNOW! goes the same way, I’m gonna take their crap off my Pull List, too, and put IDW and DH stuff in their place.

  8. Oldcomicfan
    August 10, 2012 at 11:20 pm — Reply

    I am one of those who voiced their skepticism about Marvel NOW just as I voiced skepticism about The NEW 52. It’s my opinion that it’s just the same old thing repackaged, like microwaveable mule muffins. If you want a mule muffin, it’s probably some pretty good stuff and easier than buying a mule, feeding it, and shoveling up the muffins off the stable floor yourself. What I do object to is being lied to time and time again. Crisis on Infinite Earths was supposed to fix the mess that the DC universe had gotten itself into. This lasted only as long at it look one writer to decide the Stuporman that survived wasn’t the Stuporman he wanted to write about… The New 52 not only failed to clean up resulting mess, it made it worse by bringing the incomprehensable multi-verse back, but also attempted to dredge up dead genres like monster comics, western comics and war comics (which had died out in the first place, oh geniuses on the DC editorical board because nobody was interested in those genres enough anymore to buy them in the first place). Good call. I see nothing up in the idiotic hype leading up to Marvel NOW that makes believe it won’t be more of the same – they’ll probably just give the Hulk a crew-cut (because they can’t give him a mohawk without him looking like the Savage Dragon) – and change the shape of spidey’s eyepieces yet again – and try to pass it off as something new and different. Let me give you a clew, Big Two – I do want to read something new and different! That’s why I buy manga, stuff by Roman Dirge or Dave Stevens, and things like Courtney Crumrin, because these things truly ARE different, not the same old mule muffins in a new package. I do occasionally buy a DC or Marvel book on those rare instances where the Major Spoilers people let me know that somebody at Marvel or DC screwed up and let an exceptionally good story out the door.

    • litanyofthieves
      August 11, 2012 at 8:17 pm — Reply

      You’re still not really disagreeing with Matthew’s central idea, which is that the EXECUTION is what makes the difference. Your dislike of Marvel NOW and the New 52 is about the way DC and Marvel are approaching reboots, which is a method of execution.

      Courtney Crumrin is a perfect example. Ultimately what you have is a coming of age story where the growing pains of being a teenager are explored through the use of fantasy tropes and ideas. That’s been done before – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teen Wolf, etc.. Heck, you could ultimately say that Courtney Crumrin is “Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Addams Family” in the X meets Y style. There’s nothing new about the TYPE of tale Courtney Crumrin is, but it’s the specific setting and characters that make it “new” and “interesting”

    • Ron
      August 11, 2012 at 8:49 pm — Reply

      I always thought the Savage Dragon looked like Triton of the Inhumans on steroids.

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