Lifted: The Story of Swiping, Cloning, and Homage in Comic Books Pt. 1 by Emma Caterine

Friday, October 12, 2012

This idea sprang from a conversation I had not too long ago:


“Oh you should really pick it up sometime,” I said, setting League of Extraordinary Gentlemen on the shelf, “it’s probably one of my favorite things he has done.”

            “Well, I don’t really think Alan Moore is a great writer,” they replied.

            “Woah,” I said, turning so abruptly I almost lost my balance on the ladder, “Watch what you say about my boy…”

            “Don’t get me wrong; he’s a good writer, but he’s never had any original characters. League, Promethea, Watchmen, they’re all based off of other peoples’ stuff.”

Originality is a contentious issue in any art form; because comic books are the meeting of the visual arts with the written word, the medium is particularly prone to extreme interpretations of what constitutes original content. These two views could be summed up as:

-Originality is a rare, valuable characteristic which distinguishes good comic creators from great comic creators.

-Originality is a farcical concept, as all creations have distinguishable influences and precedents, and thus it should have no bearing whatsoever on a subjective evaluation of the talent of a comic creator.

As is often the case in such conceptual oppositions, thorough analysis supports a position that is more moderate than either of these two. While the presupposition which the second position’s conclusion is founded upon is true (all creations have distinguishable influences and precedents), the conclusion itself is false because originality is not an absolute but a characteristic of variant magnitude. Literary scholars often use the phrase “Literature does not exist in a vacuum” to summarize this point[1]. In analyzing comic books, originality must not be discounted entirely but properly understood as the degree of departure from its influences and precedents, which can be a remarkable achievement on the author’s part or completely irrelevant to the evaluation of the author’s abilities. This article will be the first of four where I will examine originality of comics through the originality of comic writers’ characters and the originality of comic artists’ cover illustrations.
            
Comic illustrations are notorious for often being “swiped” from the work of predecessors[2]. Much like many aspects of the world of comic books, criticism of the art is most often spoken and written by the readers-at-large. The appeal of “catching” someone in this act of artistic larceny is akin to the righteous joy of stopping a burglary: you can see how people who worship super heroes might be expected to give into this urge. And although, as I will get to, certain artists must be taken to task for blatant plagiarism of the works of others, many “swipings” are tributary, innocent, improvements, or concepts too good to be used only once. My first example embodies all these aspects and is also a recent illustration done by an amazingly talented artist, Humberto Ramos: the cover art for Amazing Spider-Man #694. If you at all question this man’s respect for and ability to pay tribute to past artist with his art, check out the variant covers he did for Amazing Spider-Man #692[3]. The Amazing Spider-Man #694 is a “swipe” from Superman vs. The Amazing Spiderman.

This comic was posted to the internet with the sardonic caption “This new Amazing Spider-Man looks familiar…” I am a little curious as to whether or not that poster actually saw the comic outside of a low resolution picture like the one above, because written on the tower is “Homage to Master Andru.”[5] Thus this cover is in tribute to, rather than a theft of, its predecessor. It is also a genuine tribute rather than a half-hearted cop-out for plagiarism: AS-M #694 makes deliberate departures from the older cover to distinguish itself. Notice how Alpha can mirror Spider-Man as Superman does in the older cover without having to buff up Spider-Man. The cityscape is more restrained and it is less polychromatic. The tower’s shadow gives the reader a sense of orientation, or more specifically disorientation at the mid-air postures of the two characters. Lastly, this situation and setting is too iconic to only be used once. Spider-Man is a New York City hero: though the tower is not specified, cultural representations of New York City are rife with conflict occurring up in the high reaches of its skyscrapers.
            
There are many examples of such illustration “swipes” that lack the malicious intent of plagiarism but rather exhibit the constructive sampling seen in jazz music or collage art. That is why I am hesitant from using the word “swipe” to describe art like the cover of AS-M #694: aside from the notorious reputation it has gotten, the word itself has explicit negative connotations. I would instead suggest the term I have seen used in other art forms: “lifted.” Not only does it accurately describe the technique, it reinforces the idea that the intention is not to steal from the predecessor but rather to take the art to a new level. Swiping can be reserved for poorly conceived or ill intentioned plagiarism.
            
Check in next week to hear about the history of lifting and swiping in comic book illustration. You may be surprised to hear that some of the greatest names of the industry were practitioners of the lifting technique. Comic fans are notorious for having strong opinions, so if you disagree with this article, or think it is great, let me hear from you! Comment below or e-mail me at emmacaterine@gmail.com



[1] This phrase is attributed to the poet Ezra Pound (Literature_does_not_exist_in_a_vacuum_Writers. Dictionary.com. Columbia World of Quotations. Columbia University Press, 1996. http://quotes.dictionary.com/Literature_does_not_exist_in_a_vacuum_Writers accessed: September 27, 2012).
[2] Notoriously documented both while in print and now on the internet by The Comics Journal: http://www.tcj.com/?s=%22swipe+file%22&image.x=0&image.y=0
[3] These covers are an example of what the industry terms “cloning,” when a style of an era or particular artist is intentionally duplicated.
[4] http://i.imgur.com/daVbJ
[5] Ross Andru, penciller for the Superman Vs. Spider-Man comic.

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