In Praise of Originality


Back Originally for Elder Gods' Rave 19
I attended a party thrown by some artist in the run-down section of Oakland a few weeks ago, and it made me realize a number of things. In America, one can life an "artist’s lifestyle" regardless of artistic merit, talent, or intelligence. It seems that you can talk the talk and smoke dope (or eat the brownies), you get to be an artist.

I like my art accessible. If that’s a failing, then I claim it gladly. There is more revelation about the human condition in a book of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips than in any of the art I saw at the Oakland party. I don’t need to know about some obscure comment by Salvador Dali to understand Calvin and Hobbes. The simple line drawings and carefully written dialog reveal much about ourselves. Art is supposed to hold a mirror up to nature, giving us some sort of insight into the world or ourselves.

I'm not some sort of art-nazi who believes that everything I don’t understand is trash. I understand loads of people find van Gough insightful, but I don’t get it myself. Akira Kurosawa did, and the praise of the praiseworthy is high esteem indeed. However, I fail to see how ‘performance art,’ especially the garbage that’s in the local San Francisco scene, holds a mirror up to nature, or tells us about ourselves.

The people I was at the party with seemed to think that they merely need to live "arty" lives to be interesting. In fact, they all seem to live the same arty life. Booooooring. Maybe I’m just jealous, because a writer’s success is measured in a single way: can the writer support themself on their writing? I call myself a perspiring writer with a clear conscience, but until I live for a year on I income from my writing, I won’t leave off the adjective. But it seems like anyone who is mildly disaffected, and has ever touched ink to paper can consider themselves an artist. If you are unsuccessful as an artist, you’re misunderstood; a writer on the other hand, hasn’t mastered the craft yet.

Perhaps this is because I see a real dearth of original ideas in modern American culture. We’ve been down this road before, the thought that we’ve grown culturally anaemic with the advent of television. Spending four or five hours a day with the great glass nipple, we never get up the time or energy to actually think for ourselves. As anyone can see from today’s mass media--books, comics, films, and television shows, all repeat themselves. It’s most apparent in films. Recently, most films that get released seem to be imitations, or imitated. Meteor films, apocalyptic films, volcano films: all with the same cookie-cutter concept, but slightly different details.

There are good ideas out there. There are a lot of good ideas out there, some of which will continue to cycle through this society for another hundred years at least. Alien was a brilliant idea. It is a pure, masterfully executed nightmare captured on film. Aliens is a wholly different, and almost wholly derivative film. From a writer’s perspective, James Cameron combined the Alien concept with the classic World War II film. Watch the film carefully, and you will see that the only thing Cameron introduced to the Alien film was girl power. Ellen Ripley became a tough alpha female, and the Aliens run by a tremendous Queen. The next two sequels are attempts to recapture that original fear, the shiver you felt while you watched that first film. Being further from the source material, they are reflections and echoes. But we are gluttons. We remember the thrill, and want to recapture it if we can.

Look at the many adventures of poor, exhausted Count Dracula. There are more than forty films, and hundreds of books riding on Bram Stoker’s coat-tails, attempting to recapture the original chill of the Count. Imitations from Count Yorga to Lestat de Liocourt and Strahd von Zarovich have lit their own candles from the flame of Bram Stoker’s dark, powerful count.

In comics, the same goes for the work of Neil Gaiman. We have three monthly comic series spinning off Sandman already, and another from Books of Magic. We buy them hoping for some echo of the rich depths of Sandman, but we seldom get it. It could be worse, they could be spin-offs from a mediocre series. But the key to a quality book always has been and remains a quality writer. Hellblazer, itself a spin-off from Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, has survived a hundred and fifty issues, not because the character is inherently fascinating, but because DC has consistently put writers of talent and merit on the series. As soon as they put a clumsy or inept writer on the series, it will fold.

When J. Michael Straczynski called Harlan Ellison to ask him what he could to so that his writing would sell, Harlan responded with three words: "Stop writing crap." If we want to see any art form flourish, from comics to novels to films, we have to be willing to not accept crap. If it sucks, don’t pick it up. Don’t go to see the copycat films just because they’re wildly popular--use your own judgement. If the current writer has an uninteresting take on your favorite character, drop it. Brand loyalty is what got the cigarette companies where they are today. Don’t settle. You don’t have to.