Once upon an idea...A column article by: Regie Rigby
It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that there is nothing new under the sun.* Ideas are strangely self replicating, and the really good ones keep resurfacing. Once, people told each other stories about gods and heroes doing battle across the heavens. Now we tell each other stories about, well, about gods and heroes doing battle across the heavens, if you think about it - that's all the Spandex Brigade are, after all, just modern versions of the gods and magical heroes our ancestors invented.
Comics are full of examples of this recycling of ideas. Not only do the "official" versions of the great characters constantly find themselves being reinvented** for new audiences with new ideas, but they also appear under different guises as "new" characters. Sometimes this doesn't work, of course, and you end up with characters that are obviously pale, inferior imitations of characters like Batman or Superman, written by inferior writers and drawn by inferior artists. There will always be pointless rip-offs of any good idea in any medium and the low financial entry point to basic comics production means that comics are more prone to this than most.***
But when it's done well, that's a different thing altogether. Take Apollo and The Midnighter from The Authority, for example. They are, for all intents and purposes, Superman and Batman, but reinvented to answer the question "what if Superman and Batman were lovers?"**** Of course, they were reinvented by a storytelling genius, so there was an awful lot more to it than that, but they prove beyond all doubt that taking an existing idea and recycling it into something new can produce interesting, exciting and above all worthwhile things.*****
So, yes. I'm fine with the whole "ideas recycling" thing.
Except, of course, when TV steals from comics and nobody knows that's where they got the ideas from. That bothers me a lot.
I think it was probably the show Heroes that first annoyed me. I remember a colleague telling me that there was this amazing new show on BBC2******, that was "taking superheroes and like, making them real". So I watched it. And discovered that they were doing things with superheroes that hadn't been innovative in comics for two decades. Recycled ideas that the mainstream audience didn't know were recycled. I remember that people who wouldn't have ever considered picking up a comic just lapped up on TV. It was, I have to say, more than a mite irksome.
Then, there was the TV incarnation of The Walking Dead. Now, I'm not a big fan of zombies, and I confess I'm not a regular reader of the Walking Dead comic. I read a few of the early ones though, and I have to say, if zombie stories are your thing, well, in that case, The Walking Dead is a pretty good comic. Then, somebody brought it to TV, and it became a sensation. Just as with Heroes, people who would never think to pick up a comic were again lapping it up. Some surprise was evident when I explained to them that this "highly original" TV show they were raving about was lifted from a comic series that had been running for years.
And then, a couple of weeks ago I saw a trailer for something called Once Upon a Time. A "modern take" on fairytale characters, all living together in an American town, whole a great evil lurks just beyond the veil of reality.
And I thought "now where have I seen this before?"
Apparently I'm not the only one, according to the internet (which is always right, right?) some Fables fans have gotten a little hot under the collar about it. I know, a row on the internet. Who'da thunk it?
So is Once Upon a Time a rip off of Fables? Well, no. There are some ideas in common, just as Neil Gaiman's The Books of Magic and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter have some ideas in common. That doesn't mean that one is a copy of the other. Rowling certainly claims to have been totally unaware of Gaiman's creation when she was working on Potter, and I have no reason to doubt her word - indeed, much as I enjoyed the Potter books, I can't help thinking that if she had been aware of Gaiman's young wizard, and she had stolen some of his ideas, the Potter series would actually have been a bit better...
I have no idea if the minds behind Once Upon a Time were aware of Bill Willingham's work when they put their TV show together - although again if any of them are reading this, I'd advise them to give Fables a look, they'll likely learn something - but even if they were, it's not necessarily a steal. Taking characters that are familiar to the audience (not to mention out of copyright) and doing your own thing with them is such a great idea it's frankly amazing that more people don't do it more often.*******
The same little voice continues to mutter darkly at the back of my brain though. I haven't seen Once Upon a Time. The truth is that I watch so little TV that it's quite likely I never will. If it turns out to be rubbish it'll be forgotten pretty quickly, which is fair enough and the just fate of all crap entertainment. But if it turns out to be good, and given the fact that Robert Carlisle appears to be in the cast that would seem likely, then there's also the chance that it will be popular.********
If it's popular, that means that, at some point, I'm going to have to deal with somebody picking up a Fables trade paperback collection and saying "Oh, so it's a sort of Once Upon a Time rip off?" and I'm going to get irked again.
Ah well. I guess that's not a new thing either...
*The sharp eyed and cultured amongst you will notice that I've proved my point by nicking the first part of that sentence from Jane Austen.
**Or, "reimagined", as the too clever by half marketing types would have it...
***If you want to produce a TV show that rips off a successful format, you need access to a TV network. If you want to produce a comic that rips off a successful format you need access to a photocopier and a laptop. It's a much lower entry point. How long this will remain true is anybody's guess - I teach kids who carry phones with Hi definition cameras built in that can do everything a pretty well equipped TV studio could do twenty years ago. Couple that with the ability to upload content to YouTube and we're probably only a very short step away from something for TV that would resemble the Small Press comics scene. Which now I type that out loud sounds like fun...
****From the evidence of the Authority the answer would appear to be "They'd be seriously badass".
*****Because if you haven't read the early Authority stuff, you really should. It's better than awesome. It's some of the best, no holds barred, kick ass, superhero action that has ever been written. It's also funny, shocking and thought provoking. Comics as it should be.
******This was back when the BBC only had two channels. Seems like the dark ages now...
*******My favourite example of the "fairytales reimagined" genre is Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples", which tells the story of Snow White from the point of view of the "Wicked Queen". Suffice to say that Snow is neither the heroine or the victim...
********That's not a foregone conclusion, of course. The TV graveyards are littered with the bones of great TV shows that died because nobody watched them. Firefly, Defying Gravity, hell even Star Trek the Original Series. I'm sure there are some non SciFi shows too...