It happens every few months. A new storyline or new direction gets announced, and some fans will inevitably say something to the effect of, “Hey! Company M copied that from Company D!” or vice versa. Granted, there are probably going to be times at any level of entertainment when one story or real-life event inspires another. Several, even. However, there’s a certain point surrounding these kinds of assessments that fails to take one basic fact into account: it takes a loooong time from conception to execution before any issue of any comic hits the stands. We’re going to take a look at the notion of the Copycat Myth, including speaking with creators regarding their take on the idea.
The Copycat Myth actually boasts quite a few layers. Stretching over the top is a pair of related notions: the zeitgeist and “Ideaspace”. Zeitgeist itself is a German word, meaning “spirit of the age” or “spirit of the times”, depending on whom you ask. While the phrase really arose during the Romanticism movement, most people in modern Western culture seem to be familiar with it due to its invocation in the works of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, notably his philosophies of history.
Hegel’s take is fully explored in his “Lectures on the Philosophy of History”, first collected as book in 1837 after several years of addressing the topic at the University of Berlin. In those lectures and the subsequent book, Hegel talks about “The Geist” as the spirit of the people, and that it frequently reinvents itself to keep pace with society’s changes, even as it causes change itself.
In reference to popular culture and entertainment, zeitgeist more or less refers to “something in the air”; that is, the word recognizes and denotes a confluence of circumstances that arise to make one entity (book/film/character/property, etc.) particularly popular at a particular time. A great example of this would be the renewed popularity of somber or inspirational songs after a tragic event, such as the surge in popularity for both Enya’s “Only Time” and Diamond Rio’s “One More Day” after 9/11. (As an aside, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” would NOT be an example of the phenomenon, as it was written in response to the event, not prior). So, then, in many ways, the zeitgeist is the overall feeling or prevailing attitude. It can be said that certain works “seize the zeitgeist”, and arrive at precisely the right time to achieve maximum effect or popularity.
Ideaspace is sort of an inversion of this. If zeitgeist is the collective feeling, the collective reaction, then ideaspace is the collective wellspring that all creative people access. The first time I saw this was in a Bad Signal email from Warren Ellis several years ago, and he attributed it to Alan Moore. Ellis wrote, “Alan Moore has this notion that inspiration lives in an ethereal morphogenic field he terms “ideaspace”, and that we all have access to it. The field has its own weather, and predominant conditions in the field affect the culture. This is why bunches of similar ideas appear at the same time—it’s the weather of ideaspace.”
Obviously, both things have some pieces in common. It all matters here because: sometimes, call it coincidence or zeitgeist or ideaspace, more than one creator will come up with something that is essentially the same thing that another creator is doing. There’s no malicious intent there, and there’s no calculation, necessarily; it’s something that just . . .happens.
Divorced from those two ideas is homage, the deliberate invocation of earlier works in the creation of a new work. The majority of homage comes across as pretty obvious, such as all of the various comic covers that reference Action Comics #1 (like the new “Buffy” variant). Others are more subtle, such as the weaving in of “imaginary stories” that Grant Morrison employed in his “Batman R.I.P.” arc.
Nevertheless, even if someone’s doing a tip of the hat with an obvious nod and a wink, creators often find themselves on the receiving end of “copying!” calls. Granted, there’s a big difference between the homage and the “art swipe”. It’s fair to say that Alan Moore’s run on “Supereme” was a terrifically executed homage to the Superman mythos. Similarly, Scott Morse’s “The Barefoot Serpent” counterpoints his tribute to Akira Kurosawa with a second story that also maps to “Yojimbo”. Those are totally intentional, and most readers do recognize that.
The Current Copycat Myth
These days, the major thing that generates any of these accusations is generally the event marketing of the Big Two. One particularly hilarious example was calls of “copying!” last week when DC announced “Brightest Day”. A tiny number of protestors cried foul, believing that DC had instigated a major series in response to the announcement of Marvel’s “The Heroic Age” a mere three weeks earlier. More than anything, this reveals that some readers have no basic idea of how comics, PR, and things like “lead time” all function.
When you read the new monthly solicitations for a project, it means that it’s still two months away from arriving in your local shop. That also means that to meet the deadline for Previews, the information, creative team names, art, etc. all had to be turned in to Previews over a month before THAT. That, of course, means that everything would have had to have been discussed, planned, approved, and at least partially executed at the comic company on a timetable that puts everything three months ahead of actual arrival date. And that’s just for solicits.
We asked Dan Jurgens, writer and penciler of “Booster Gold”, about how long it takes for him, essentially doing two of the biggest jobs, to complete an issue of the book. Just his part, mind you; that doesn’t cover inking, coloring and lettering. He said, “In general, the process of drawing the cover, writing the script and drawing a book takes about three weeks, sometimes four. Anytime a crossover or something similar is part of the mix it takes a little more logistical work and planning time.”
Now, bear in mind that the part of the job that Jurgens is doing above comes after things like group discussions, editorial approvals, and the creation and approval of the plot. Only after all of that would you get to the actual writing and drawing, which, again, happens before the production work continues with the other creative personnel. And again, that’s with one guy doing both. If you had a separate writer and artist, which is far more frequent for the big two, then you’d of course require more time for the completion of the script, followed by the completion of the art (even if the artist started working on early pages before the script was finished). In short, plots, scripts, art, approvals, and, well, comics, don’t happen overnight.
What does that mean? Well, even if Marvel put a “Heroic Age” ad out there, do you think that DC would greenlight a 26-issue bi-weekly series with a superstar writer, get the plot together, generate a cover, announce a release date, and be ready with press two weeks later, irrespective of the fact that “Brightest Day” following “Blackest Night” is the most logical event title EVER, JUST so that they could “copy” Marvel? Seems absolutely ridiculous, doesn’t it?
And Now, Some Words from Christopher Yost
We asked Christopher Yost, one of the architects of Marvel’s back-from-the-dead storyline “Necrosha”, about lead-time and the space in which it takes to set up anything from a single story to a creative event. He had a lot to offer on the subject. We specifically asked about the notion of the Copycat Myth as it applies to his event and “Blackest Night”.
Yost replied, “ . . . the Necrosha/Blackest Night thing really is just a case of bad timing. Once we knew they were going to fall about about the same time, we were bummed - but there really wasn't much we could do about it, as it led right into 'Second Coming,' which is our last story on the book. So if we didn't do it now, we pretty much weren't doing it. And of course, we wanted to do it.
Craig [Kyle, Yost’s writing partner] knows Geoff, and has for years. We're big fans of Geoff, but don't talk to him about comics so much as the TV and film stuff. Although we both loved his run on Avengers.
But if you want the full story, we started New X-Men with issue 20, probably came out four years ago? I think our first issue, we had the character Wither maim another character with his 'death touch.' Then, I think a year later, he's recruited by Selene. We'd always been fans of the long running sub-plots, and this was one of them.
We loved Selene, and knew we wanted to have her recruit her own 'Inner Circle' of death mutants, some of whom were going to be kids that the New X-Men knew. When we switched over to X-Force, we took that story with it and it got a lot bigger.
This was a little over two years ago now. In our first issue of X-Force, we introduced the character Eli Bard, and he was tied to Selene from moment one. By that time, I'd say the planning stages of X-Force, around the same time that “Messiah Complex” was coming out, that's when we nailed down the idea for “Necrosha”.
So what was that, two years ago? The thing is, Geoff was probably thinking about “Blackest Night” from birth. But barring some subconscious psychic connection we're not aware of, as far as I know we didn't rip off Geoff.
If I were to rip off Geoff, though, I'd rip off Francis Manapul. That guy's amazing.”
Many Happy Returns
As you can see, the groundwork for big events gets set many months in advance. Another coincidental moment within the past year occurred with two “returns”. Both Captain America and Batman appeared to be dead, but were in fact lost in time. This isn’t exactly a new concept, as it’s something that’s been used in comics, science fiction novels, television (last season of “Lost”, anyone?), and other sources. Each character having a big “return” mini isn’t shocking either; we more or less expect that anyone “dead” in comics comes back, and that any major “dead” character will get a special, event, or mini-series built around said return. It just seems to be part of the fabric of what comprises mainstream comics.
But if it’s fairly easy to disprove many of these assertions, then why do such assertions persist? Maybe it’s because that there are people that simply choose to believe what they wish to believe, despite evidence to the contrary. Certainly, company, character, and creator loyalties all factor into the reactions given to similarly-themed stories. Of course, this being the internet, there’s always going to be someone that’s willing to pretend to be ignorant just to cause controversy. Then again, there will also be those that aren’t pretending.
Let’s face it. With as many pieces of entertainment produced a month across all forms of media, something is going to end up resembling something else at one time or another. One novel may seem like another, one film may echo one you saw, and one comic may cover the same ground. It could be zeitgeist, it could be ideaspace, and it could be something else entirely. Creators remain products of influence and environment, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they’ve unconsciously delved into familiar territory without ever knowing it.
Except Kings of Leon. That undercurrent guitar part in “Use Somebody”? Totally bit that from “Glycerine” by Bush. At least that’s what I heard.