A History of Foreign Blockbuster Knockoffs: Part 1 - Pre-1700
The historical record now makes it quite clear that the history of low-quality foreign knock-offs of popular franchises and characters vastly predates what was previously thought. For every so-called Turkish Star Wars or Panamanian Ghostbusters, most of which do have original titles in their native languages despite what they borrow from their mainstream equivalents, there is an older, even ancient work that plays in similar space.
As recently as a decade ago, we naturally assumed that the vaunted “Cradle of Infringement” was the Turkish city now called Batman, named of course for the costumed crimefighter who despite his seemingly modern origins has existed in various forms since at least the Iron Age (the hypothesis that the Egyptian Anubis was a sort of “proto-Batman” is extant, but not roundly accepted). However, reevaluations of some ancient texts have made it clear that blockbuster knockoffs are as old, perhaps, as written language.
While the title Mesopotamian ET is something of a misnomer, the true title of this sequel to the Epic of Gilgamesh literally translates to “Further Enkidu Hijinks Record,” or more colloquially, Enkidu is at it again!? It’s easy to see the comparison, though. The prominent subplot where the goddess Ishtar leaves behind her beloved hairless sloth near the home of a widower farmer and his two young sons is certainly reminiscent of the story we previously attributed to Spielberg, who it now seems only updated an ancient theme, the “alien and telephone-home” narrative that would later be seen in Moorish Spain in texts like Foreign Large Eyes Monster Unchained, et al (Spooner, 2010). Whether he was aware of these then-obscure tales is not known. Enkidu also gives us the first known occurrence of the long-standing “Bicycle and the Moon” motif, although “bicycle” is a very modern term for the kind of crude two-wheeled wagon present in older sources.
After the Classical period, blockbusters fell out of fashion in the Old World. The Greeks and Romans favored their own inventions, stories like the Iliad, or the Odyssey, or Pretty Woman. But miles away, another pocket of cheap foreign knockoffs was taking root that wouldn’t be seen by Europeans for centuries to come.
When the Spanish made contact with the Mayans, newly discovered records previously thought burned for heresy show that they were stunned to find that, somehow, the Mayans had independently developed Spider-Man, a superhero known to the Spanish as “the Mysterious Champion of Spiders.” Their figurines were crude, but showed every detail now considered definitive of the character’s visual design. Strangely, the Mayan Spider-Man is a more morally ambiguous figure than modern iterations, probably owing to the spider’s long association with trickster figures.
To be fair, though, the foreign knockoff “dark age” was really only a European phenomenon. As near as India or even further west, in modern Kazakhstan or, some would contend, the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire, the model still flourished even through Roman and later medieval times. One could hardly walk through any densely populated area of India without seeing thousands of toys depicting Godzilla in crude 11th-century plastic. Of course, Godzilla’s origins changed considerably over time before he reached the silver screen and his Atomic Age backstory became indelible. India’s Godzilla myths date back to a short but quite familiar passage in the Brahmanas detailing a plume of mystical fire that awakens a giant creature of the depths, although he is seemingly more amphibian than reptilian, as befits a sea monster.
In Europe, the Renaissance was, appropriately, a rebirth of the foreign knockoff archetype across the board. Just look at Michelangelo’s (the sculptor) immortal marble figure of Michelangelo (the Ninja Turtle), an enduring icon for the ages. Leonardo himself even got a jump on Marcel Duchamp’s debasement of his Mona Lisa with his own “Renaissance Italian Jessica Rabbit,” as we often call it today, his Voluptuous Lady of the Rabbit, posed and barely smirking just like its more famous sister.
Next week: a deep interrogation of colonial-era heroes like the Scarlet Pimpernel, progenitor to the roguish Zorro, and John Shaft, the black private dick who’s a sex machine for all the chicks, if you can dig it.