"Back to School"
So I was reading some old Western comics, as one does, and I came upon this Strobl-drawn 1960 story written by the well-regarded ?. And I thought, huh. This seems...better than your average non-Barks Western- produced duck story. Good show. And then, I looked again and realized that there's a very good reason for that feeling. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.
(I don't know that it's actually called "Back to School"--that's what appears on the title page, sure, but the same seems to be the case with the first story in all of these "Back to School" Dell Giants. It could just be referring to the book itself. It's certainly not the world's most relevant name.)
Okay, so it starts about like this. You'd think that under the circumstances, the other kids would be suspect nepotism, but whatever. Tonally, it's not too unusual, as far as non-Barks Western stuff goes. Nothing that's going to make you raise your eyebrows.
However, it does seem like the story's going to be a fairly interesting treasure hunt; this isn't the kind of thing you normally see in stories like this. A little more "realistic," less silliness, "Kracken-Blowa" notwithstanding. So that's fine.
Oh, just come out and say it: all the flimsy, silly stuff is ?'s own; all the GOOD stuff is shamelessly plagiarized from Barks' "Seven Cities of Cibola." Like:
Sheesh, dude. The thing is, you don't necessarily notice all this pilfering at first, because the story's context is so different…
…but then you get to the part where the solid emerald idol is preventing the gold city from collapsing, and you can't HELP seeing what's going on. Pah! And it's not even always clear why our writer bothers; you wouldn't think, for instance, that the image of two nephews banging their heads together would seem consequential enough to steal. And yet, here we are.
You also wonder whether, with effort, ? couldn't have done better, because, in the midst of all the lameness, there's the above, which is quite cool and (notwithstanding the river crossing in "Cibola") as far as I can tell basically original. That's about all, though. Seems like there might actually be a glimmer of lost potential here.
I distinctly remember when, as a graduate student teaching composition to hapless college freshmen, I first came across an instance of student plagiarism. I was filled with a sort of rage that, in retrospect, is hard to fathom. I felt insulted and betrayed, and I was all for kicking this poor kid out of school entirely (a power which, fortuitously, I did not possess). Pretty quickly, though, I became totally blasé about it--nothing more than a rolled eye and an irritated sigh. Obviously it's unfortunate that the practice is so widespread that you get that way, but you'd die of a rage aneurysm if you didn't.
So how big a deal ought we to consider this kind of plagiarism? Well, first we should acknowledge that this is a long-forgotten story that nobody today would know anything about if some asshole blogger hadn't dredged it up for his own inscrutable reasons. So in that sense, it's not any kind of deal at all. It's about as nothing as things get. And from ?'s perspective…well, all these stories were being published anonymously, so there probably wasn't much of a sense of ownership (especially among the lesser writers; ie, most of them). Also, he no doubt assumed, probably quite rightly, that very few people reading "his" story would be familiar with the original, which was, after all, six years old--a veritable eternity for a little kid. Hell, maybe he even saw some of Barks' own self-borrowings and assumed it was A-okay.
Counterpoint: it's spectacularly lame, and in the unlikely event that ? lives on, I hope he's heartily ashamed. Is plagiarism common in old Western comics? I've never encountered it before, but that proves little.
Labels: Tony Strobl