Hip-hop started out in the Bronx as a way for young black and brown kids to escape a life of gang violence, to have fun, to demonstrate their skills, to show their creativity, to build a community. Innovation followed in the wake of creation, as the originators figured out ways to make the parties even more jumping, the bass deeper, the songs more complex, and the rhymes even more evocative. As rap music spread across the globe, it absorbed everything it came into contact with, from traditional pop music to jazz to experimental German rock. Rather than overcoming or taking away from these genres, rap music added to them and was added to in the process, providing new angles on established concepts and refreshing old classics by making them ever-present instead of just existing “then”.
A few short decades later, hip-hop enjoys a position of global prominence, bordering on dominance. Young Silicon Valley start-up CEOs listen to Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard In Da Paint” to get into the right state of mind for business negotiation. “Fresh Off The Boat,” a new and clever primetime sitcom, features a theme song by the debauched-and-amazing Detroit emcee Danny Brown, and was the highest-rated comedy premiere this season. Las Vegas casinos and hotels advertise their wares with b-sides from the work of Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, a longtime industry figure, co-founded the music-streaming service Beats Music, which later sold to Apple for three billion dollars. ESPN has taken to delivering subliminal messages via music cue, as when they played Notorious BIG’s “Unbelievable,” itself anchored by a sample twenty years its senior, over a replay of the Memphis Grizzlies battling the Golden State Warriors and winning. Hip-hop, as a culture and art form and genre, is inescapable, a constant fixture from New York to Los Angeles to Paris to Johannesburg to Tokyo to the Gaza Strip.
Rap became such a global phenomenon in part because it absorbed and incorporated so many disparate influences into its whole, without ever losing sight of its heart. No matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, there’s a song for you. There’s a lyric, a beat, an approach, an expression that will hit you in your heart. Hip-hop music is so relatable because it’s so diverse. If you don’t like what’s on the radio, there are thousands of artists spread across Youtube and Bandcamp and Soundcloud who are right up your alley. When faced with the future, the Other, rap looked at it and discovered that we are stronger together than we are when we stand alone.
The same is true of comics. The history of American comics is punctuated with creators bringing in new ideas and concepts and forever altering the landscape of comics. Marvel Comics as we know it doesn’t exist without the contributions of Jack Kirby, a man who did an incredible amount of work and defined the language of cape comics. Without Kirby, there’s no Marvel Cinematic Universe, a series of films with a combined gross in the billions. Spider-Man was not just a teen hero, but a sad and petty teen, at that, opening the gates for the legions of young heroes who followed in his wake.
We don’t get the Frank Miller of Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil: Man Without Fear and Sin City without Lone Wolf & Cub, a Japanese comic created by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Miller got hold of those comics and incorporated what he saw into his own work, merging it with his own personal worldview. What followed was an explosion of creativity and possibly the best winning streak any creator has enjoyed, as Miller and his collaborators—legends all, from Lynn Varley to Klaus Janson—crafted Ronin, Dark Knight Returns, Elektra Assassin, Batman: Year One, and more in quick succession. Something in Koike and Kojima’s work lit a fire under Miller, and his art was both never the same and exciting to an audience who hadn’t seen something quite like it before. The New was what people wanted.
This didn’t just happen to one artist once. It happens every day. Creators to this day speak on outside influences making their own comic creating better. Brian Michael Bendis looked to David Mamet. Nick Dragotta has spoken fondly of discovering the artist Tsutomu Nihei and realizing just how far he could push his idea of “comics.” Raina Telgemeier is one of the best-selling creators in comics, having dominated the New York Times bestseller list singlehandedly for years, and she was influenced by people like Lynn Johnston, creator of the comic strip For Better Or For Worse. You can find dozens of successful and aspiring artists who were influenced by Akira Toriyama, Moebius, Kehinde Wiley, Rumiko Takahashi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Naoko Takeuchi, Guido Crepax, and more.
Comics is better for these influences. This is unquestionable. This is true. Kirby pushed comics forward, but if we all stopped with Kirby, comics would still be stuck in the 1970s. Every generation learns from the previous and incorporates new influences of their own into the shambling, uncoordinated monster we call “comics,” turning comics as a whole into a glorious exquisite corpse of two-way influence and innovation.
Comics needs new blood. New blood is what keeps the engines running and the people interested. Comics can provide things to our shared culture that they can’t get from music, novels, movies, and video games, but if we focus strictly on one type of story, or one type of voice, or even one specific genre, we’re piloting our plane straight into the ground.
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