Cans of Soup

I started to write up a post about how this page of Casanova Avaritia no. 3 calls back to the opening sequence of The Prisoner (as noted by writer Matt Fraction on Twitter), but then there was another page that had all sorts of other references to David Bowie and other stuff and I was going to do a little exegesis of that, too, but then my mind flew off on a tangent about referential art in general… so here goes.

I think we’re in the age of reference. Andy Warhol obviously did a bit with this with his Campbel’s Soup. Hip-hop has been doing reference and remixes since the beginning, more or less (can I get an “Amen.”) Parody movies were really big in the 80s and came back hard with the Scary Movie franchise. For TV I think we owe a lot of it to The Simpsons. (Obviously Family Guy made an entire show out of it, Seth MacFarlane eventually realizing he didn’t even have to write jokes, just do a straight recreation of the thing being referred to and kill some time and collect a check.) It’s all Quentin Tarantino’s bread and butter, of course, and his stuff came about right when The Simpsons was taking off. Now Community has tons of fun with a fantastic combination of both external references to other works and internal references to previous episodes. And Arrested Development was full of great foreshadowing a few years ago.

I love all of this, of course. Part of it’s that neat auto-attaboy you get to do when you pick up on something. Nowaways you can flock to Reddit or elsewhere to make sure other people understand how smart/culturally-aware you are and you can all pat each other on the back. And when a work imports another work via reference it gets to bring along all of the connotations associated with that work without having to build those itself. The Prisoner is a pretty particular thing, so Fraction and artist Gabriel Bá bringing that in bring with it the 60s surrealism, coolness of that era of spy flicks, how it plays off of what Ian Fleming built into Bond, what Sean Connery added to it, how The Prisoner turns that all around, suggests a bizarre punishment for Suki if she does quit the firm, etc. etc. It’s done all the time, obviously. Cast Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and you get instant spray-on cool. You know who Sam Jackson is so you don’t need to be told who Fury is.

Not to say that all of this referring is lazy. It’s not like the Beastie Boys sampled Afrika Bambataa because they just didn’t feel like recording their own stuff. A deft remix is good precisely because it understands how importing one work into another will provide commentary. And of course it can go too far. Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen started with the clever idea of “what if these Victorian-era science fiction characters all worked together” and descended into “look at how many books I’ve read! You’ll never get all these references!” (Though even Grant Morrison, the anti-Moore, says that he expects people will just take to the internet for annotations and doesn’t bother explaining stuff that doesn’t matter to the plot.)

I keep thinking about a scene in The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolff. The book is set in the far distant future. Early on, the protagonist is sent to a library that contains so many books that no one will ever be able to find many of them ever again. As the required canon of popular culture continues to extend, how can we possibly hope to keep up? Are things like Casanova sitting right on the edge of this, at a time where it’s still possible to have read/seen/listened to most of the works that are going to be referenced? Are sitcoms in ten more years going to be impenetrable to me because I’m not listening to the right kind of pop music being released today, and not tracking the right memes on sites I maybe don’t even know about? Or is there another thing coming that discards reference in favor of something new (hopefully coming up with a better name than “modern” and “postmodern”)?