Rick Rouse is a US Army deserter who, after running away to China, gets a job at Fengxian Amusement Park, a family destination heavily “inspired” by Western culture, featuring Rambi (the deer with a red headband), Ratman (the caped crusader with a rat’s tail), Bumbo (small ears, big behind) and other original characters. The park’s general manager is convinced that Rick was destined to greet Fengxian customers dressed as none other than Ricky Rouse. But when American terrorists take the entire park hostage, only Ricky Rouse can save the day. In a furry costume. Introduced by Christopher Sprigman, author of The Knockoff Economy, this original graphic novel is a relentless action comedy, a satire of US-China relations, a parody of Western entertainment and a curious look at China, a country that, once we look past its often outrageous infringements, is a culture ripe with innovation and a unique, courageous spirit.
Ricky Rouse Has a Gun is part action story, part parody, part commentary on intellectual property, and totally entertaining.
We got a chance to chat with writer Jörg Tittel about the graphic novel’s origins, Shanzhai (the Chinese culture of knocking-off the intellectual property of others), and more!
Graphic Policy: Where did the idea of Ricky Rouse Has a Gun come from?
Jörg Tittel: I ripped it off, of course. But seriously, the idea of setting a Die Hard knockoff in a Chinese knockoff theme park first came to me when I was living in Los Angeles a few years ago. As the budding filmmaker I was then, I was probably a bit frustrated with the fact that everything that was actually getting green-lit was based on a brand, a remake of a classic, or an unnecessary sequel. Or preferably all of the above. And then I saw a YouTube video of an actual fake Disneyland in China. Add the fact that Bush was still very much the US president, mix it all together, and you get closer to the dangerous cocktail recipe that infected my brain and refused to get out.
GP: The graphic novel skewers a lot, first Shanzhai. How did you first come across it, and why have a story that revolves around it?
JT: There is something utterly hilarious and bizarre about a drastically and beautifully different culture appropriating Western cultural icons and renaming them to their heart’s content. On the internet, that stuff is called fan art. But in the world of multinational corporations, it’s considered theft. I obviously don’t condone anyone profiting from stolen intellectual property – it’s a disgusting practice – but I’m equally appalled by the “West’s” apparent lack of original ideas and our now standard practice of ripping ourselves off “legally” by buying 20th century ideas and franchises and reheating them ad infinitum. I’m worried we’ll all get cultural salmonella poisoning.
GP: Do you think the book itself both skewers intellectual property and Shanzhai? You take on both with the character of Ricky Rouse, but also action movies too. There was a Die Hard vibe I got from a lot of the story.
JT: I didn’t really set out to “take on” anybody. I see the whole thing as both a warm embrace and a full frontal assault where (hopefully) noone gets spared. A “fuck you hug” if you will for Hollywood, China, plagiarists, US foreign policy and whoever else may get referenced in the book. I’ll leave that to your readers to discover. As far as Die Hard is concerned, I believe it is the perfect action movie still to this day: inventive, funny, suspenseful, violent, with characters you actually care about. People are still desperately trying to make the next Die Hard. Look at Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down for instance… two films that both rip off the Die Hard “formula” and each other, all at the same time. You wouldn’t find such big budget knockoffs in China. You have to go to Hollywood for that. That said, I’m a total hypocrite of course, because despite all its “higher” ideals and satirical tone, Ricky Rouse Has a Gun is my silly attempt to make my own Die Hard. Anything to erase those sequels from my memory! Hah!
GP: The underlying theme of the book to me seems to be about control and co-option, either through pop culture/intellectual property or through military force, soft and hard power. How do you see these two in today’s world stage?
JT: There has been a lot of talk, especially since 9/11 and Bush’s wars, of these being signals of the “fall of an empire” akin to the Roman Empire eventual demise. And in some ways, that may indeed be true. Disney is more powerful than it’s ever been but it took buying the three biggest entertainment brands (Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars) rather than coming up with beautiful, original stories. America, too, has had to expand outwards. American productivity and manufacturing has been going down. Tens of thousands of its kids have been sent to fight dubious wars (many of them for oil etc.) abroad instead of making anything of value at home, and many more foreigners (including, tragically, Chinese children) have been manufacturing America’s biggest “export”, the iPhone. All the while, Apple has hardly paid a single tax dollar in its native country. We are no better here in Europe, of course. At this rate, all this control and co-option could lead to an implosion of our beloved “West.” I’m worried we’ve become a snake eating its own tail. But hey, STOP, what are we talking about? My book is FUNNY and ACTION PACKED!
GP: Shanzhai is interesting to me, as it both thumbs its nose at intellectual property, but also is controlled by it, since that’s what it is influenced by.
JT: I warmly recommend you read Bianca Bosker’s excellent book Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China and Christopher Sprigman and Kal Raustiala’s The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation on this subject. Incidentally, Chris also wrote the awesome foreword in Ricky Rouse Has a Gun. The foreword is worth the price alone. Heck, don’t read the silly bubbles or look at John Aggs’ awesome art. Just buy the book for the foreword.
GP: There are obviously different opinions between China and the United States about the ownership of culture. War has been fought over physical goods in the past (oil being an obvious example), could you see the cold war over intellectual property ever turning hot like in the book?
JT: In many ways, it already has. Individual artists, authors and creators are making less and less money, while corporations fill their pockets under the guise of anti-piracy measures and technological progress.
GP: Now that the book is out there, have you heard from Disney at all? It seems interesting this is out there, when they’re currently in a fight with DeadMau5 over the mouse logo.
JT: The Deadmau5 story is interesting – and incredibly silly – but there’s a crucial difference: Joel Zimmerman (aka Deadmau5) filed for a trademark which Disney’s lawyers feel might threaten their iconic mouse logo, whereas Ricky Rouse is an obvious parody. I would however love to hear from Disney – Ricky Rouse Has a Gun would be a great Touchstone picture.
GP: There’s the obvious question about Disney’s opinion, but what about the Chinese? Have you gotten any feedback from folks there? Especially those involved in Shanzhai?
JT: I’ve had awesome feedback from Chinese readers so far but I’m hoping that a Chinese publisher will translate the book so I can hear what “they” really think!
GP: What can we expect from you next?
JT: My partner- and wife-in-crime Alex and I will be directing our first feature film next year, an adaptation of György Dragomán’s incredible novel The White King. And I’ve been working on a YA comic book series which I can’t wait to unleash on the world. Both projects are very very different from Ricky Rouse. Perhaps I’ll miss the bugger enough one day to write a bloody sequel. How meta would that be?