20 October 2004

Listening to the soundtrack of The Nightmare Before Christmas, I think about the meaning of 'originality'. Both Tim Burton and Danny Elfman have a very, very specific style of approximately visualising and composing. How many times haven't these distinct styles been copied? How many artists -professional artists- haven't been inspired by the things these gentlemen made?

There is an age-old battle raging in the mind of every artist. He is fueled by the will to create something original, but bound by the contradictory reality of living in a sensory world where his every move is inspired by something that's already made. Disregarding the insoluble and tiring discussion whether true originality exists or not, I'd rather examine the ramifications of the impact of this conundrum on said artist. What happens if he knowingly takes inspiration from a source and uses it in his own work? How does his public react to this? What are his fears about defacing himself in front of being called a copycat?

I speak of course from my own example. It is by no means a secret that Captain August came to me after a nightly marathon viewing of Invader Zim: the much-lauded cartoon series designed by Jhonen Vasquez (indeed a series so wonderful and genuinely inspiring that is was bestowed with the ultimate sign of its irreproachable genius: being canned by a network that just can't get its tunnelvisioned mind around it). After seeing it, or rather, being indoctrinated and saturated by it, my sleep-deprived and dehydrated brain decided I wanted to do exactly the same thing. Exactly, precisely, minutely the same, with the same voices, the same jokes, the same visuals, the same length and the same timing.

Then I discovered that there already was something like that, and I fell asleep for three weeks.

Some time after this I came to my senses, and this is the interesting bit: even though I usually feel ridiculously strong about making something 'unique', I had absolutely no misgivings this time about drawing inspiration directly from Zim and the rest of the Vasquez catalogue. Because I had realised a revelatory couple of things.

Firstly, the themes and motivations that lie underneath Jhonen's work were already inherent to myself. Long before I was soaked in blissful pop culture heaven I made stories about hysterical characters vying for world domination. Long before I saw my first Cronenberg movie or its influences in Jhonen's artistry, I was intoxicated by the transmogrification of the human body and radical fluxes in the psyche of unstable men. My point here being: Zim may have served as a catalyst to trigger my webcomic thematically; but the roots lay far deeper within me. The themes I use are mine, I understand them and play with them, because I want it, because they are part of me. Not just because I saw something and went ,,Huh-huh, that's cool. I'll take it!'.

Secondly, there's the style. There are undeniable elements of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac in the graphic portraying of the world I lay bear. From the raunchy sketchiness of the lining to the expressive abstraction of the characters. Blatant copying? Believe it or not; there is actually a method to this madness. Do you think Jhonen Vasquez drew Johnny the way he did because he was unable to draw it elsewise? Any comic, web or not, takes planning and preparation, and any comic artist worth his pennies carefully philosophies about the strip's every detail. The graphic style being a very important thing to consider. What I'm saying here is that my choice to draw Captain August this way was made because it fits the story, the themes and the characters. Besides it being a radical and welcome departure from my usual, cleaner style of drawing, it was also a conscious decision based on reasons that were not ,,Huh-huh, that's cool. I'll take it!'.

In this little defence I've written you'll notice a recurring theme. It is that everything was handled with much consideration, and not just slapped together because the artist was pepped up by a nightly marathon. The two realisations I made took away every concern I had about my not being original. For in a way, I was being original; original to myself, because all the things in the strip, although roused by external forces, had always been inside me.

The second part of my little thesis will come with the next strip. Sit tight!