Joe Alterio's blog on illustration, comix, design, animation, and other bouts of total awesomeness.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Remixology 101

There’s an apologetic reflex I think, the happens in the mind of all but the most arrogant artists when they take up their weapon of choice again after seeing something wonderful and inspiring created by someone else. After the initial thrill of imbibing that heady elixir of admiration, self-consciousness, jealousy, and inspiration that always leaves me a bit woozy, there’s a very natural fear that comes back up like a bad tequila burp. It’s the fear that you have now been ruined forever, that your mind has been permanently scarred by someone else’s superior vision, and your life will be nothing more than common retreads of other’s themes for the rest of your life. Those of normal psyches quickly banish this thought and charge ahead, confident in their own abilities. Those that don’t, blog about it.

There was an outstanding Harper’s article a few weeks ago by the untouchable Jonathan Lethem about the innate quality of appropriation in art: I read Joey “Yeah, I seen that shit” Campbell as closely as the next film student, but I have to admit, it paradoxically made my heart both lighter and heavier to find out that one of my most favorite books, Lolita, had been possibly plagarized. The article, among other examples, asserts that, consciously or not, Nabakov essentially strip-mined a story he most very likely read 20 years before. However, instead of waving the flag of crime in his face, Lethem asserts what many have deduced, and then rolled with, long ago: there ain’t nuthin’ new underneath the sun.

I don’t mull this over for unreasonable means: I’m not usually in the habit of just repeating what an article said and passing it off as my own (though, considering the topic, might be just what the doctor ordered). Last week, I was suddenly reminded of the anime film Metropolis , a cartoon released in 2002 by Tezuka that was essentially a remake of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

The path of sly reference, unwitting allusion, accidental cop, and outright stealing is sticky one. Before seeing the film, I had loved the Fritz Lang film since I first saw it at 16. With the addition of M, Lang was one of the twin giants that informed my narrative aspirations (along with Hitch, or course). Plus, it had totally awesome robots and cool models of a futuristic city.

I have kept the film so near and dear to me, that, in the back of mind, I always harbored a secret to desire to remake it, but my way: a production design project in school resulted in The Wizard of Oz, re-imagined as a Langian shiny future dystopia of Art Deco buildings, an evil newspaper magnate moll as the Wicked Witch of Western Publishing, and a robotic Prometheus as the Tinman, It was as strange and brooding day then, when, shocked at my discovery of the Tezuka release, I made the even-more shocking discovery that, after renting the film and watching it, I HAD in fact seen it, in 2002 when it came out. My robot poster series, which the comic is based on, came out in 2004. Infer what you will.

I don’t really know what to make of all of this. (The fact that the Tezuka movie, much to my disappointment, is a sub par affair is besides the point). A few points in my defense is that my conceit takes a wholly different tact than either version of the film, and I’m exploring (or plan to explore) a lot of issues that aren’t raised in the movies. However, I am writing a comic about an uprising of robots. I did name my city Cosmopolis as an intentional nod to Lang. And I do stay up late worrying as to whether people will take one look at my comic and see me as an also-ran.

On an even greater intellectual level, though, the whole thing has left me befuddled. The brain is apparently a very strange thing. Did I mean to skip over the 2002 version in my allusions? How much did the 2002 version influence me, considering that I seemingly removed the movie from my mind for a while, always going back to the Lang version? To that end, would my intended allusions to Lang (which I desire), be even stronger had not I seen the 2002 version? Are readers, especially those not familiar with Lang, put off by my apparent band-wagoneering? And in the ultimate question, in the art world, who is to say the art world is nothing but appropriation?

I’m always flattered when someone cites my work as an inspiration for theirs, so I guess I shouldn’t think on any of this too much. It sure makes it easier to pass the time at work, though.


Kevin O said...

I agree with Johnnie Lethem 100%. The whole idea of copyright is a 20th century construction - product of the industrial revolution no doubt.

The only question in my mind is whether the idea of copyright will outlive the totalitarian corporate capitalism that we're living under right now... it is Disney, after all, that's progressively extending copyright protections decade after decade, for the express purpose of keeping Mickey Mouse safe from vulgar appropriations.

But I think that Google and Apple see the writing on the wall - mp3s, youtube and online libraries are ultimately unstoppable forces - even the most massive corporation can't afford to sue thousands of poor college students.

You can only put so many heads on pikes on the city wall to "set an example" before the barbarian hordes overwhelm your brigades of lawyers and storm the gates anyway. The treasure being the content itself - which they have no moral right to anyway, since it's been plundered in distant conquests anyway.

(I'm not willing to try to extend that metaphor any further...)

I believe that examples of artists suffering greatly because their work has been appropriated are few and far between... and I'll take those odds, anyway, over my chances of being screwed in a "legitimate" deal by Viacom or Sony or Disney.

And anyway, every great artist has stolen and borrowed ideas. All of western literature, for starters, can be traced to the Greeks, the Bible, and Shakespeare.

So as far as I'm concerned, you should go right ahead and take what you need, pilgrim.

Matty G said...

As an avowed intellectual-property anarchist, I can say without a doubt that the kinds of ideas or images that you might be appropriating for your work fall under a much different category than someone downloading "The Complete Butthole Surfers" to listen to while smoking hash out of a zucchini in their dorm. While I agree wholeheartedly that your own work transcends any hint of infringement, intentional or otherwise, it does so by the originality of your own creations, and by your contributions to the ideas you've celebrated.

Let's not get carried away. Expanding this argument too far beyond its real value only dilutes the things you've accomplished through your own hard work and exposure to those who came before you. That is to say, influence is a great thing that exists independently from theft, and the nebulous realm of intellectual property as it stands today obviously has very little to do with either.

If there was nothing new under the sun when Bill Shakespeare was around, there sure as hell isn't much of a chance finding anything new today. It's when we go where the sun isn't--in those dark places where we have only our own voice and the incredible stuff we read 15 years ago--that we get to create something nobody's ever seen before.

Keep up the great work on the comic, but for Christ's sake don't keep your influences too close. Remember what happened to Ray Parker Jr. and Huey Lewis over that bass line for "Ghostbusters." I guess bustin' makes him feel good.

Kevin O said...

yum, hash zucchini...