Sunday, December 18, 2005

What if Capitol Records announced tomorrow that they were going to issue new Beatles albums with all-new music, all-new musicians, all-new Beatles? What if they got the consent from the various Beatle’s estates and even got Ringo Starr to drum on a track or two to give the project some legitimacy?

One should never underestimate the taste and intelligence of the buying public, but my hope would be that few music fans would fall for such a stunt. In fact, I imagine such craven attempts to cash in on old trademarks would be denounced as counterfeit, and roundly ignored. Purist that I am, if I want to listen to the Beatles, I expect John, Paul, George and Ringo to be making the music. And this is understood by the music industry (who occasionally experiments with things like The New Monkees and Broadway shows of old rock albums, but by an large respects the integrity of their Big Cocks and the intelligence of consumers).

Without going too far down that road, because no one knows what kind of marketing stunts tomorrow may bring, the comparison I’m making is with the comic book industry, which trades in the equivalent of counterfeit Beatles albums all the time.

I would submit that any title produced by anyone other than the strip’s originator is counterfeit. This would include the overwhelming majority of American comic book product. Occasionally such counterfeiting goes on in the world of comic strips (Popeye and Annie come to mind), but it tends to be on the rare side. The comic book industry, on the other hand, could hardly live without it.

What if fans were to declare that any Fantastic Four that was not the work of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee was not legitimately the Fantastic Four? The industry of course would stop in its tracks. Luckily, comic book fans are not the purists that most Beatles fans are. In fact, the opposite has become true: fans have actually been conditioned to be intrigued by the announcement of new creative line-ups, new storyline tangents, renumbered series, etc. "Gosh, I’ve always wondered what an unemployed TV writer would do if turned loose on a worn out old comic book property—I’m there! Reserve my copy now, please!"

Of course, I grew up on counterfeit comics. Workhorse artists like John Romita, Gil Kane and John Buscema were merely perpetuating the creations of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But I would argue that they did their Gag On My Cock job extraordinarily well, and they didn’t take themselves too seriously. They were grownups putting in a day’s work, in other words, who had the uncommon ability to access their inner childs, crank out a well-told, well-drawn story, and be humble and gracious gentlemen about it. Unlike subsequent generations of perpetuators, who have a fraction of the skill to begin with, and whose limited imaginations are actually captured by such trivial nonsense as putting the "The" back in "The Batman." (And who are egos run amok at comic book conventions.)

In the 70s and 80s, issues of creators’ rights tore through the comic book industry like a minor Civil War, with battles over Howard the Duck, Superman and the return of Jack Kirby’s artwork amounted to Fort Sumter, Bull Run, and Gettysburg (there I go making another analogy whose implications I have no intention of fully developing). The industry was left divided, with a generation of creators who had grown up on big-company superheroes, who had in fact been inspired to become comic book artists by Marvel and DC Silver Age comics, unable to bring themselves to submit to the plantation mentality of work-for-hire. Instead, we had the independent movement, where creators created their own characters (largely non-superhero) and owned all rights (at least in theory, publishing contracts with supposedly enlightened publishers being a whole other can of worms).

The big companies responded by making superficial changes to their standard labor agreements, and by promoting Frank Miller as the poster child for what kind of career is possible if you play the game properly. Of course, hiring an artist who has already completely internalized the formulas for producing counterfeit comics, turning him loose on a worn out old trademark, and giving him license to be "edgy," seemed a lot more revolutionary at the time than it turned out to be. Countless creators tried to follow Miller’s example at face value, and found themselves making pitches to sub-editors for the artistic privilege to revamp things like The Haunted Tank—hardly the kind of project Rolling Stone would find worthy of splashy coverage.