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.