writers: Don Chin & Ken Meyer, Jr.
penciller: Ken Meyer, Jr.
inker: Mike Drigenberg
letterer: Kurt Hathaway
The old adage, "Don't judge a book by its cover," is an ironic one regarding the comic book medium. The cover of a comic book, more so than the cover of any other book or magazine, is intended to draw in (pardon the pun) an audience with a single, dynamic image, to represent its issue's contents while restraining itself just enough to encourage potential readers to actually open it. The cover of yesterday's subject, Knight Watchman #1, had such an effect on me, but most notably because of a glitch in the matrix, if you will. Frankly, the cover looked familiar, perhaps from when you first saw this issue on the shelves back in '98, I thought:
However, the nagging in my gut pulled me less toward the character and more toward Ben Torres' technique. Sure enough, a brief Google search led me to this image:
(This is the best quality I could find.) This image is a John Romita, Jr. lithograph offered through Dynamic Forces, though the illustration could've been used in another capacity, as well. Looks familiar, doesn't it? This beautiful piece was the victim of swiping.
I mentioned the phenomenon yesterday, particularly when I noticed specific panels in Knight Watchman #1 that resonated with my inner fanboy, that again instilled that matrix ripple effect. Here's one such example:
When Erik Larsen drew that page in Savage Dragon #4 five years before the release of Knight Watchman #1, did he know he was offering future artists an action pose template? Did Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane know that their respective styles would become the subject of such mimicry for decades to come? While the comic book artist community may have varied opinions on the subject, as a fan shelling out my hard-earned money for all of these issues, I think swiping is a lazy rip-off. It's like buying an album you think is full of ten new tracks only to discover ten cover songs -- speaking of covers. Artists that swipe, especially so blatantly, without even that "after so-and-so" signature that implies homage nowadays, are literally tracers, and I don't mean in the way that Kevin Smith mused. They present the equivalent of those weird Spider-man coloring books you can find at Big Lots or the 99 Cents Store; in fact, they utilize some of the same McFarlane/Larsen material! Heck, Knight Watchman was black and white . . .
And is "Knight Watchman" just a riff on The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen, both well respected comics that came out around the same time and changed our generation's appreciation of the medium?
But I digress. Speaking of derivative covers, need I even post the original inspiration for today's issue? Man, do I feel sorry for far-sighted fans that might've accidentally picked this one up back in the day!
In my opinion, my review of the Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters last month was one of the most harsh I'd ever written. Excited for the release of TMNT, I was embittered by my late introduction to the slew of titles from the mid-'80s that tried to capitalize off of the half-shell heroes' success, and the ARBBH seemed to best epitomize that trend. I tore their jam issue Lost Treasures apart, but writer Don Chin was nice enough to respond appreciatively and in fact refer a few of the Hamsters' other adventures so I can garner a broader perspective of their lore. So, when I found Clint #1 at a hobby shop in Glendale, Arizona during the Easter weekend, I thought it a sign.
Of course, when I saw this cover, I also thought, "Here we go again. Can't this guy come up with any ideas of his own?"
Then I opened the issue. Like the first story from the Lost Treasures issue, I was instantly captured by the art, in this case offered by Meyer and Drigenberg, whose cooperatively scratchy style best suits the personified animal-meets-pseudo political satire genre of the Hamsters. (Yeah, the humans in this issue look like something you'd find in a newspaper's Opinions page, with a twist of Bill Plimpton, all meant in a good way.) While Clint and his rodent brothers still have that beak-grimace indicative of the Turtles, their expressions are unique and characteristic, establishing these wayward heroes as potential icons in their own right. Seriously, just flipping through this book was a delight, even on the page that actually credits an Elektra-like image as "Blatant Miller Swipe." Hey, at least they're honest.
What surprised me most about this issue was Chin's crisp storytelling. He had a right to mention it in his response to my last post about his work; The Hamster Triumphant is embarrassingly compelling, appealing to almost every guilty pleasure my inner fanboy clamors for in a humorous comic book. The plot: Clint, the proverbial Leonardo of the Hamsters I reckon, decides to pursue the transvestite "Queenpin of Crime" when the mob boss claims 50 of his monk warrior brethren -- I don't mean he/she killed them, but rather turned them into he/she's, too! It's a funny premise for revenge, heightened when Clint is captured by the 'Pin's goons and a Curly-looking mouse (complete with condescending Larry and Moe rodent siblings) helps him escape and attack the cross-dressing empire. Alas, (spoiler alert), Curly bites the big one and Clint is enraged to the point of aerial pursuit, which is where this issue ends. While the death of a mouse would seem as minuscule as the animal itself, the emotional impact actually tricks the reader into making an investment in the story. Yes . . . Chin got me.
Of course, a few of Chin's gags fall flat with me, especially when he breaks the fourth wall on more than one occasional to reference the dynamics of the comic book medium. Do the Hamsters know they're just comic book characters, or is this dynamic a ploy to wiggle out of potential plot holes? Also, to match the source material of this issue's cover I presume, David Letterman and Paul Shaffaer make a cameo appearance here, and while I was initially amused by their splash page, their subsequent sequence as commentating eavesdroppers took the joke too far. Still, while Lost Treasures was an anthology of sorts, the linear nature of this story allows for more diverse attempts at lingual and visual humor, and while the connections to other comics propel the plot, they maintain a sense of satire in the big picture scope of Chin's Hamsters' character development. Unlike my initial impression, I actually forgot that these heroes are just rip-offs of a much more successful franchise. Its cover and concept aside, I enjoyed The Hamster Triumphant as a comic in itself.
I suppose swiping will always be a topic of controversy in the comic book medium, just as creators will continue to draw conflict about the originality of their work. (As I'm typing this, I hear a story on talk radio about Ghost Rider's original scribe suing Marvel over some ownership rights.) I suppose the trend is more confusing than anything. When McFarlane and Larsen and the rest founded Image in the early '90s, they did so on the basis of creator integrity and originality. Don't their successors realize that, while imitation is the greatest form of flattery, it's also everything that their mentors rose against? (Hey, let's not argue that Youngblood was just a gang of Wolverine and Cable clones, okay?) If you want to follow in their tradition, I imagine that you'd want to find your own voice, as, Wolvie haircuts aside, those artists unarguably did. Ultimately, when I see images that remind me of previously published panels, especially when those images are so brazenly on the cover of an issue, I perceive that the responsible artist is essentially revealing to his audience that he's a struggling talent at best. That his lack of skill is the victim of a poorly implemented cover up.
(Hey, Don, if you're still reading, let me know what you think!)