Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Clint: The Hamster Triumphant #1

Clint: The Hamster Triumphant #1, September 1986, Eclipse Comics
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!)


Don C said...

Hi ya!

I just saw this post reviewing CLINT #1 and feel redeemed! :)

If you want, I'd happily send you Clint #2 to complete your cliff-hanger ending. ARBBH 3D #1 with art by Ty Templeton might give you a chuckle as well.

By the way, most of the ARBBH books, including the CLINT mini-series will be available for download for free on wowio.com, which also features a lot of other assorted independent books.

ARBBH will be coming back as a new series written by Keith Champagne and drawn by Tom Nguyen from Dynamite Comics in 2008. Don't say I didn't warn ya!

Don Chin
(travelling somewhere in Boston)

BEN TORRES said...

Came across this a few days ago, Knight Watchman was inspired the Dark Knight Returns. Regarding the Knight Watchman re-release cover for Image. When conceived as Gary and I handled it way back in the mid 90's, KW was a mixture of DK/DD. Since the gist of Big Bang were homage’s, using iconic images from the characters they were inspired by, the KW cover was indeed a homage to the great Romita Jr. double page spread. The original cover should have read (BT after JRJR) to give him the proper nod as the inspiration. Somehow that portion of it was modified for some reason when published. However the interior work for KW with the pose you compared to Savage Dragon was just pure Kirbyesque coincidence. You mention Frank Miller (whose work I admire greatly) if you go back and look at his early work you can clearly see Gil Kane and Neal Adams in his work. Bill Sienkiewicz was heavily influence by Neal Adams, Herb Trimpe, Barry Winsdor Smith by Kirby ( as was everyone else who has ever wanted to draw comics for that matter), Joe MAD by Arthur Adams, Arthur Adams by Michael Golden, Todd McFarlane by Michael Golden, Steve Rude by Jack Kirby, etc. All of these artists especially in their early work have similar panel compositions, line work, etc. of artists they were inspired by. It is only natural since that was their original source. All creatives are influenced by varying sources and those sources can be obviously seen especially at an early stage in the artist’s evolution, not just in visual graphics but in music, film direction, etc. It is just part of the process. I do admit certain individuals do swipe, but many times a swipe it is because to meet a deadline, an homage or that particular person may not have the technical skills to execute what they want to communicate. In Big Bang’s case this was not so. When we did homage’s they were very deliberate and usually we did a few per issue. The intention was to generate a connection with the reader on a subconscious level and maybe they would pick up the book because it reminded them of one of their favorite characters. Such was Big Bang, we had fun doing it, and it was not meant to offend any creative but rather pay respects to the people who influenced us. Being in the design community and working in motion picture and entertainment business for twenty years you do not get a chance to do that very often, when provided with the opportunity to have a little fun and pay respect to the people who have influenced your approach, anyone should do it. I appreciate your tenacity for reading a comic book a day.
Best to you
Ben Torres

BEN TORRES said...

My apologies. I emant to address you as Karoake Fanboy.

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