Homage Or Rip-Off?

By | Thursday, October 24, 2013 3 comments
Bill Watterson's been getting a bit of attention lately as we're closing in on twenty years since his beloved Calvin & Hobbes ended. By pretty much all accounts, it was a fantastic strip and very influential in many ways. And since it was influetial, it should come as no surprise that other cartoonists pay homage to Watterson and his creation periodically. Sometimes through a series of unusual snowman comics or showing Calvin passing along Hobbes to his children or mash-ups with other genres and/or properties. Typically, these are pretty short-lived and just show an appreciation of the original.

I came across one this week, though, that has got me thinking. Like several others, the strip focuses on a 30-something Calvin and his family. He's married Susie, of course, and passed Hobbes along to his two kids, Camus and Simone. The art style follows after Watterson's; though it's not quite as polished, Watterson's illustrative influence is obvious. The comedy doesn't provide quite the social commentary Watterson did in his best strips, but it does follow the style of his gag comedy. Not quite as poignant, but not a bad effort either.

But here's the thing: it's an ongoing strip. He's done 75 of them so far and has a crowd-funding campaign out there to help to more.

He's actually done an okay job of trying to avoid crossing a legal line into copyright infringement. With the exception of Hobbes (who shows up very sporadically), the character designs are all new. They're done in the same style as Watterson, but this new guy's Calvin looks about as much like Watterson's as Frazz does by Jef Mallett. He also never expressly mentions "Calvin and Hobbes" as the inspiration, just saying that the strip is an unofficial and unauthorized sequel to "one of the most beloved comic strips of our time." It's abundantly obvious where his inspiration is coming from, but I think he's making a sincere effort to not trample over Watterson's intellectual property rights. (I'm pretty sure he is, but neither of us are copyright lawyers. I can see his thinking here in that he's trying to avoid the specifics of what makes "Calvin and Hobbes" Watterson's property, but I think he's applying too narrow a definition of "derivative works" to be completely clear of potential legal issues.)

But that's not what really sits poorly with me.

The part that I don't care for is this guy's artistic integrity. When you're young, it makes sense to copy from others' work to help you learn. As you get older, though, your artistic expression needs to find its own voice. That can, and certainlly will, be influenced by other artists. But if you try so intently to replicate someone else's style and voice, then you can't really find your own.

Those one-shots that I alluded to earlier, I think, are fine. While the artist is trying to emulate another's voice, it's for a specific purpose and extremely limited time. An ongoing effort like this, especially one that he seems to be trying to make some money at, seems... mechanical. Which I suppose is okay for readers if that's something they're looking for, but it strikes me as tedious and uninspiring as the creative person doing the work.

I suppose in that sense, it's not all that different than Jeff Parker taking over "The Wizard of Id" from his father. But those, too, seem fairly mechanical. As do all the other newspaper strips where the current creators are following in the artistic footsteps of the originators. But at least in those cases, there's a long-term monetary incentive. The strip was already a money-maker, and these newcomers just need to keep the momentum going to earn a living. So there's at least a financial motivation, if not an artistic one.

But trying to revive a strip 20 years after the last installment with no marketing support? I would think you'd have to have a lot passion for your work to do that. And how much passion can you have for your work, when it's really not even your own?
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Matt K said...

I am always kind of split on questions like these.

On one hand, in general, I find our culture's increasing preference for adaptations, sequels, remakes, reboots and other re-heated leftovers execrable.

On the other hand, it's a bit awkward for me to roll my eyes at two prime-time Sherlock Holmes series following closely on the beginnings of a rubbish new film franchise when I, y'know, collect other products of the Sherlock Holmes Canon Extension and Embellishment Industry. (Recently added item 38!)

How, then, can I say with any real conviction "hey, come on already, doesn't the world have enough Spider-Man / Star Wars / Transformers stuff at this point? Shouldn't you go get a life and try something new?" It's tough. Even when it comes to Calvin and Hobbes, which is almost a proof-of-concept for our culture's insatiability for a good thing. Here was a guy who Did It Right, introduced something new and inspired, produced a finite body of work, met with success, and drew a line under it. No licensed toys, no animated series, no video games, no movies, no theme-park rides, no breakfast cereal, and no extensions.

And how have people responded? By all-but casting gold idols of the series' lead characters as the objects of cult worship. I get so bloody tired of not only the endless fawning over #@$% Calvin and Hobbes, but the invariable assumption that everyone shares the same infinite-warm-fuzzy group-rapture delight at reading "let's remember Calvin & Hobbes once again" time after time after time after time.

And yet, what's my basis for criticism? Even if I could ignore the problem of hypocrisy, I struggle to see the harm. I'm skeptical of intellectual property restrictions. And while our culture may be in decay, I don't know that diversion of creativity away from New Ideas and into nostalgic mimicry is a significant component; audiences may demonstrate an excessive preference for the latter but I don't believe the flow of the former is drying up as a result. The New Ideas are, I believe, flourishing.

At most, one might propose that we need some kind of cap on consumption of franchise works for people's own good--"okay, you've hit your RDA of derivative works, your devices won't show you any more until tomorrow, in the meantime perhaps try one of these New concepts"--but in addition to impracticality I can't really endorse the level of prescriptivism inherent in the concept.

The best practical solution is probably just a combination of being the change one wants to see, in one's own life, plus encouraging people toward original ideas by pushing them forward.

KP said...

Thanks for writing this, Sean!

These Watterson homages across the board have really stuck in my craw over the past few years – to a somewhat comical degree, if you ask my friends.

I understand the proclivity to copy in young artists, but a lot of the projects that get made (the brief Calvin animation which was making the rounds recently comes to mind) are made by professional or long-standing web cartoonists. So not only does the rehashing of the same played ideas (the Calvin/Susie marriage, passing Hobbes along, etc) make the work seem extremely flat and boring in comparison to the original strip, I think it's kind of unconscionable for any grown artist who knows how Watterson fought to keep his strip completely in his hands to crank this stuff out. I think it shows a pretty basic lack of respect for him as a fellow artist in general, let alone as an artist these people profess to love. How anyone can look at his strip and his life and take the lesson of "Someone needs to make MORE of this" is beyond me.

I was heartened to see that in the recent Watterson interview that appeared at MentalFloss he responded to all this stuff in a much classier (though still snarky) way than I've typically been able to muster when I see it. Hopefully before long, people will realize it's a better use of their time and creativity to draw something from their own lives rather than attempt to wrestle authorial control away from someone who worked hard never to lose that.

Matt K said...

Hm. Again, I'm torn. On one hand, I respect the idea of respect for a creator's wishes; on the other hand I think the expectation that an author can (never mind should) have the final word on his or her creation is missing something fundamental about how culture and ideas work.

Without getting sidetracked into arguments about copyright law, I'm against outright ripping someone off. But I also feel like complaints of people "taking" an idea are often, on some level, just willfully ignoring the fact that when you publish your idea you are in a very fundamental sense releasing it to the public. Yeah, we have laws providing for some degree of "ownership" to persist, and while I think they need overhauled I don't support throwing out the entire concept (in the absence of much larger reforms, anyway).

But at the end of the day, if you want to keep your idea and maintain total control over it and prevent any use of which you disapprove, ever, then you shouldn't publish it. Once you share the idea, you're sharing the idea.

Admittedly, I still sympathize in some instances of a creator's work being debased. I find the basic concept of "Before Watchmen" fairly repugnant. But then "Watchmen" was basically (yes, I know about the game) created as a complete story with beginning, middle and end. "Calvin and Hobbes," by contrast, rather like the Sherlock Holmes canon, was episodic fiction; in both cases the authors basically stopped adding new episodes and said "okay, this is Complete," but there was no Grand Story-Arc Ending to be marred by the addition of more episodes by others.

More to the point, though, at the end of the day, while I find "Before Watchmen" distasteful, I find a lot of things distasteful; in this instance I consider it better and in fact fairly easy to ignore it. As I like to quote, "someone asked Raymond Chandler once what he thought of Hollywood ruining all of his books. And he took them into his study and pointed up to the shelf where they all were, and he said, 'Look, they're there. They're fine. They're okay.'" I think that's the best response, and if Alan Moore finds it inadequate consolation then (setting aside the various other abuses bundled up with DC and "Watchmen"), too bad.

Culture is made from borrowed ideas, and such is not just the proclivity of the young apprentice. Shakespeare is a great example, but I submit that it's more difficult to find a good counter-example. "Watchmen" itself was based on older characters (being by no means unique among Moore's work, in that sense), and it is not as though the concept of boy-and-his-stuffed-pal was invented by Watterson. If you say that they added enough "new" creativity to avoid being merely cranked-out "more of the same," where do you draw the line? If the stuffed tiger were a wooden horse, would that do it? Does the drawing style need to be different--is no one ever allowed to draw in that style again? Would it be okay if the main characters were an Asian family?

I think when one gets down to it, any attempt to define a firm "line" between derivative copying and inspired invention is going to seem fairly arbitrary. There is no line; it's just a gradation, and any line we draw upon it is going to be informed by our individual instinct and aesthetic preferences.