Monday, June 26, 2006

A Rose By Any Other Name

When is a swipe not a swipe? When it's called homage.

It's a damn fine line between theft and homage. I've noticed over the years that if some artists take an existing cover idea and re-draw it in their own style then it's generally called a swipe, or theft. There used to a great site years ago called 'Swipe Of The Week'. It's long, long gone now so don't bother looking for it, but in it's day it was a damn great site. They'd put up a panel, splash page or a cover that had been done in recent times and then they'd post the original that'd been swiped. My favorite was a Captain America image that'd been swiped all the way back to Jim Steranko - it'd been used about five times by five different artists from the late 1980s onwards.

The usual culprits were the likes of Rob Liefeld and most of the so called 'new wave' artists. I've always suspected that a lot of those artists were hoping that their current audience was either ignorant or wouldn't bother reading the old stuff. They were probably right on both counts. Still it was amusing to see professionals such as Erik Larsen visiting each week and pointing out who stole what from where. But when does a swipe stop being a swipe and start being a homage?

When you're Byrning along obviously. None of the following covers are considered to be swipes because they're drawn by John Byrne - our favorite poster child. It's a nice enough theory - keep drawing the same Jack Kirby inspired cover and claim it as paying homage. That's fine for the first one, perhaps two. But after cover number four it starts to get a bit messy - it starts to smack of a limited imagination - and we know Byrne has a fairly decent imagination - or limited design skills, and again, we know Byrne has design skills. So why keep doing it?

Because the cover art to Fantastic Four #1 by Jack Kirby is iconic. Byrne has created more than his fair share of iconic covers and is capable of still creating decent cover art. But he clearly knows that if he throws together an image based on FF #1 then people will buy it, no matter what lurks inside. He's paying 'homage'. Personally I think he does it when he's up against a deadline and hasn't got an original cover idea, which is the basis of the swipe.

An artist will swipe an image if they have no clue what to draw. They come up against a deadline and in lieu of a new idea they reach back into their memory banks and steal an image. Often they go back and grab a book and steal that image straight off the paper. Occasionally an artist would get caught with their swiping and have to pay penance. One notable example of this was Keith Giffen. Back in the day Giffen emerged with a totally different, and unique, artistic style, far removed from the Jack Kirby and Curt Swan influenced style that he'd displayed earlier. Sadly for Giffen it was shown that he'd not only taken influence from an Argentine artist, Jose Munoz, but in a lot of cases he'd swiped images line for line. Giffen vanished for a while, paid his penance and re-emerged as one of the better writers for DC from the mid 1980s onwards.

What did Giffen have to say about the swiping? The following is taken from the Meanwhile Interviews site:
"KG: Jose Munoz - boy did I suffer for that one.
MW...: Was that the COMICS JOURNAL swipe file thing?
KG: Yes. You know what the funny thing is? I didn't even know the name of the book. I had gotten Xeroxes from a buddy of mine, he said, 'This'll fry your mind'.
Well, it fried my mind alright because I spent about a month where I couldn't work I was so blown away by the guys stuff. I studied it, and I parroted it. Am I guilty of the crime? Yes. Am I guilty of the motives that were attributed to me? No, because doing the Munoz oriented artwork almost killed my career. Did I sit down and do a direct swipe from this guy? No I did not. Did I parrot it on the paper? Yes. Yes I did."

So Giffen was left out to slowly swing in the breeze until he was allowed back in. Personally if all Giffen ever did was The Great Darkness Saga and his issues of the Justice League then I'd forgive him for throttling puppies. However Giffen still carries the tag of being a swipe artist, along with Liefeld and a host of others. Byrne doesn't carry that tag.

Why, you ask? I mean, clearly he swipes.

Not according to Byrne. He pays homage. Now to use the literal sense of the word Byrne isn't conducting ceremonial acknowledgment by a vassal of allegiance to his lord under feudal law. That'd require a lot more than just stealing a cover image. I suspect that Byrne and his sycophants are more likely looking at this definition of homage: a special honor or respect shown or expressed publicly. That's all well and good, but if what Byrne has been doing since the 1980s, and has done repeatedly is called homage, then why is it swiping when Rob Liefeld or Keith Giffen 'borrow' images, layouts and designs from artists that have influenced them? Clearly Byrne is heavily influenced by Jack Kirby, after all he's stolen enough from Kirby over the years at Marvel and is still raking the embers of Kirby over at DC, so why is one a swipe and the other homage?

Swiping in comic books is nothing new. Talk to any Golden Age artist and the odds are that they'll tell you they had a swipe file. Even the masters, Milton Caniff, Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, they all had swipe files and used to swipe from each other. There's a great story about how a famous artist was watching Alex Raymond swiping an image of a horse and pointing out that the image he was swiping was swiped originally from Raymond himself - in effect he was swiping himself. Classic stuff. Many an artist I've spoken to have told me of their art files, where they'd store damn good panels, photos, movie stills - you name it, they'd use it. It's now coming to light that Bob Kane not only used a swipe file for his iconic Detective Comics #27 cover, but also swiped images wholesale for the first Batman story. BRILLIANT! It was an accepted practice and I doubt you'd find an artist alive who draws everything from memory, no matter how good, or bad they are. It's just human nature. It's no different to hearing a song and going, "Hmmm, that's the same chord progression, or the same chorus from an old song." People take stuff all the time and put it into their own words, so to speak.

However there is a huge difference.

If I write a song that goes:
"One man come, in the name of fear,
One man come and he goes,
One man comes washed up on an empty beach,
One man wants to overthrow."
Then I can count the number of seconds before U2 issue a writ against me and shut me down (other than it'd be a crap song). You could argue as to why, after all by altering the lyrics and copping the musical feel (which I'd obviously do) then aren't I paying homage to Bono and Co? Nope, I'm swiping, pure and simple. If you think I'm joking then just ask Negativland. Back in the early 1990s they issued a song titled 'The Letter U And The Numeral 2" and had U2, their management and their record company sue them into bankruptcy. Part of the lawsuit revolved around the cover image to the 12" single. The cover for the single was intended as a homage and as such it used an image that had never appeared on any official U2 single. However it looked close enough to an official U2 single to get the record companies involved. Better still, just ask Vanilla Ice how much money he had to cough up (and still does) to Queen and David Bowie for Ice Ice Baby. With other mediums there's no blurred line, swiping is stealing and stealing gets you into trouble. With the comic book industry there's a very hazy line, it's only stealing if you're a certain artist with a poor reputation. Otherwise it's homage.

In my eyes what Byrne has done over the years isn't homage anymore - it's swiping. Trick people once then more fool them, trick them seven times, well you get the idea. Back in the Swipe Of The Week days people were very quick to point out where Liefeld had swiped Byrne, as he indeed did, along with George Perez and Frank Miller (only poorly), yet nobody points out where Byrne has swiped Jack Kirby. The Byrne sycophants will strongly argue that their overlord has done nothing wrong, he's bring the world's attention to that damn fine original cover. To my eyes Jack Kirby's original cover needs no-one and nothing to draw attention to it, indeed I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen it reprinted by other artists as a cover or interior image. However Byrne has swiped it more times than anyone else.

Swipe a movie, swipe a song, steal a photo, plagiarise some text and you end up with zero credibility and a huge bill to pay - both legal and to the original artist. I see no reason why Byrne shouldn't be paying the Kirby estate for the continued use of one of Jack Kirby's enduring images.

And let's not get started on the biggest Kirby thief of them all - Roy Lichtenstein. That man's head was as devoid of originality as any other hack artist out there. Marketing genius, yes. Original artist, nope. Human photocopier? Absolutely. The man made more selling one swiped image of Jack Kirby's art than Kirby probably made in his entire career - and all without any sense of decency or shame at all.

And Rob Liefeld, if you're reading this, which you're not, but if anyone reading this knows the guy then get in touch. Rob is a fairly unique individual and I'd love to interview him - we'd even talk about swipes! Same thing applies if you're Keith Giffen.

No comments: