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My Maker Mantras: ‘Original Is Better Than Good.’

My Maker Mantras

‘Original Is Better Than Good.’

Nerdvana presents Small Press Saturday – aka, Lessons Learned Self-Publishing Comics

You probably don’t know who James Harvey was. James Harvey was the commercial artist and expressionist painter that created, among other things, the original Brillo Pad box. Yeah, you’ve never heard of HIM — but you know who Andy Warhol is.

The Brillo Pad box was among the many food label designs Warhol stole to become a “pioneer” in “pop art.” Long before artists feared AI’s theft and manipulation of their work, they praised Warhol as a genius for doing the EXACT SAME THING. 

How easily we forget, or ignore, that those labels were originated by SOMEONE, very likely arduously by hand, in a pre-Photoshop age. And that someone, like Harvey, walked by an art gallery one day and saw their work swiped and celebrated, as someone else’s. AI isn’t a new threat; it’s pop culture history repeating itself.

In an interview about his commercial art thefts, Warhol explained that he recreated those food labels because it was simply easier than thinking of something new. He rang the death knell for originality — with style. If only AI could eat a Whopper on TV, maybe we’d forgive its mining of artists’ original works as avante garde.

I know I’m one to talk. Hey, I’m a cartoonist — worse, a COMIC BOOK CREATOR. We’re notorious thieves. The lead character of my comic is a fast-running hero — just like the Silver Streak, or the Flash, or Quicksilver, or a dozen other super speedsters throughout comics history. What makes ANYTHING original anymore?

One of the best interviews I ever heard was between celebrity chefs Alton Brown and Jet Tila. Tila asks about the inspirations for “Good Eats,” Brown’s ’90s TV show about the science of food. Frustrated with his commercial career, Alton dreamt of what his ideal food show would be, and on a post-it he wrote: “Julia Child. Mr. Wizard. Monty Python.” When you watch “Good Eats,” you can see those ingredients, but the final product is something fresh — something original.

In that interview, Alton coins one of my maker mantras — and I paraphrase —

Original is better than good.

Unfortunately, the world doesn’t always remember the originators, but my creative satisfaction doesn’t come from doing something well. It comes from making something I’ve never seen before. He may be derivative, but Speed Cameron is among a roster of characters inhabiting Arizona, because I couldn’t find an Arizona-centric superhero team comic. Now, I’ve self-published over 50 issues. By pursuing a semblance of originality, I’ve created a body of work to fill the void that inspired it.

“Original” isn’t easy, and it’s scary. My cartooning peers are lamenting the future of AI behind stacks of their latest Deadpool prints, because we’re all looking in a mirror darkly, here. It’s personal, now. AI doesn’t have to use Batman fan art to draw attention to its own work. It isn’t embarrassed not to have any of “its own work” at all.

If Warhol had used the food labels of his day as an inspiration to create something seemingly new, I wouldn’t be a harsh critic of his legacy — but the food parody stickers in gumball machines are more original. I’ll take a Dr. Pepper-style “Dr. Pooper” sticker over a pastel-hued Campbell’s Soup litho, any time. Okay, I’ll concede that Warhol accomplished some original creative feats, but a broken clock is right twice a day — and he’d probably hang that broken clock in a gallery and call it art. Hack.  

Originality may be our greatest weapon against AI’s hostile takeover of the arts, even if originality simply means mixing the same ingredients at AI’s disposal, but in less obvious, distinctly personal ways. If I didn’t think it was possible, I’d be throwing in the towel now. James Harvey didn’t. He continued painting, even when confronted with the art world’s changing trends — even in the face of obsolescence and obscurity . . .

. . . because an artist comfortable with the risk of obscurity may be the last original idea of all.

My Maker Mantras aka Small Press Saturday: Lessons Learned Self-Publishing Comics

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