Want More Originality? Try Some Emotional Variation – A Ramble

Although this is an article about writing fiction, making comics and/or making art, I’m going to have to start by talking about music for quite a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

Shortly before writing this article, I found myself listening to a song called “Land Of The Free” by Gamma Ray for the hundredth time and I realised something about my own musical tastes – I prefer optimistic heavy metal music. And, yes, contrary to popular belief, optimistic heavy metal actually exists. And it feels great to listen to!

Not only does it encompass pretty much everything within the Power Metal sub-genre, but optimism also can be found in individual songs by bands in many other sub-genres of metal. I mean, there are even optimistic death metal songs out there (like this one [WARNING: The video contains FLICKERING LIGHTS] ).

Yet, when you think of heavy metal, “optimism” isn’t usually the first word that springs to mind. And, yet, this is what makes these songs so intriguing and appealing. They do something slightly different with a familiar genre, leveraging the strengths of the genre in order to achieve a slightly different emotional effect. They take the intense emotional catharsis that the genre is famous for and imbue it with a sense of joy, fun and/or hope that is often missing from more traditional heavy metal. And it is really something to listen to!

It also prompts all sorts of other interesting creative flourishes too. For example, the theme of optimism means that these songs have something in common with songs from other genres – which is why, for example, a metal band like Alestorm can make an awesome cover version of a (not entirely radio-friendly) rap song called “Hangover” by Taio Cruz. Many of Alestorm’s songs are about drinking, partying and having fun. Taio Cruz’s song is about this too. So, the cover is absolutely perfect.

Likewise, it can also lead to some unexpected thematic matter too. For example, although I’m not a Christian, I was quite surprised to realise that the “epic fantasy” story told in a heavy metal song called “Keeper Of The Seven Keys” by Helloween is, thematically at least, surprisingly Christian. It’s this story about someone who goes on an epic quest to defeat Satan by destroying things related to seveal negative qualities (eg: hate, fear, senselessness, greed and ignorance).

So, why have I spent several paragraphs talking about heavy metal music?

Well, simply put, one of the easiest ways to make something “orignal” within a familiar genre (aside from taking influence from things outside of the genre) is simply to look at the general emotional tone of the genre and then try to create something that evokes a slightly different emotional tone.

For example, one of the things that I’ve noticed whenever I’ve made cyberpunk art is that I’ll sometimes try to make it bright and cheerful, rather than gloomy and dystopian. Although this was initially because I absolutely love this genre and want to celebrate it, it does result in a slightly different “style” of cyberpunk to many things in the genre.

“Market Seven” By C. A. Brown

“Architecture” By C. A. Brown

Adding a different emotional tone to a familiar genre not only makes your creative works more original, but it also allows you to explore themes that you might not be able to if you stuck to a more traditional version of the genre. I mean, part of the creative process behind some of my “optimistic” cyberpunk paintings was just curiosity about what everyday life in a 1980s-style cyberpunk future would actually look like. And, well, it’s probably not all doom and gloom.

So, yes, adding a different emotional tone to a familiar genre can be a really interesting thing to do.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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Three Tips For Making Original Art

Well, since I’ve spent several days writing about making studies of historical paintings, I thought that I’d do the literal opposite today and talk about making original art (eg: art that isn’t fan art).

Yes, it might not get as many views. Yes, it’s more difficult to make. But, it can be a really great source of self-expression, not to mention that it gives you a greater degree of creative freedom and control over your work.

So, here are some tips for making original art:

1) It’s ok to take inspiration: Although I’ve written before about how to take inspiration properly, one misconception from people who are new to original art is that their art has to be “100% original”. However, there’s no such thing as “100% original”.

Even if you don’t consciously take inspiration from other things, then you’re going to do it subconsciously. If you’re an artist, then something has inspired you to become an artist (rather than a writer, a poet etc..). I could go on for a while, but there’s nothing wrong with being inspired by other things. In fact, it is quite literally impossible to make art without being inspired by other things.

Making original art means just taking inspiration from other things (rather than copying them directly) and, more importantly, finding an interesting mixture of inspirations that allows you to make art that doesn’t look like it is based on just one thing.

2) Start with something easy: Making non-original art requires slightly different skills to making more original art. The former involves modifying and/or re-interpreting a pre-existing thing and the latter involves creating something without doing this.

So, a good way to ease yourself into making original art is to make types of original art that allow you to draw on the skills you’ve already learnt from making less original types of art. In other words, things like still life paintings and paintings that are based on photos that you have taken.

Since you’ll still have to arrange the subjects for your still life painting, take the photos yourself and/or choose from photos you’ve taken in the past, then this still fits the definition of “original art”. But, at the same time, you’ll have something already there to base your art on. So, it’s kind of something in between the skills needed for making fan art and the skills needed for making original art.

3) Don’t be afraid to look stupid: When I started practicing art daily in 2012, I made a decision to mostly make original art. But, of course, my imagination was a lot less evolved than it is now. Yet, I was still able to produce a piece of art every day. How did I do this?

Well, for the first couple of years at least, my art would often look a lot more… random… than it does now. Like this:

“In The Ice- Cave” By C. A. Brown [25th September 2012]

“A Lucky Moment” By C. A. Brown [August 2013]

The backgrounds would often be kind of generic, the character designs would occasionally be a bit strange, my compositions were often very unimaginative, the events of the pictures would also be fairly random too. Yet, without pushing myself to come up with new ideas for art on a daily basis, I’d never have got to know my imagination as well as I do now.

“Death Takes A Holiday” By C. A. Brown

“By Arcade Light” By C. A. Brown

What I’m trying to say here is that you won’t become an expert (or even vaguely competent) at making original art overnight. Like any skill, it has to be learnt through practice. So, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. And don’t be afraid to look stupid whilst you’re learning.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Creativity And Originality Are Different Things – A Ramble

Well, since I’m still going through more of a retro gaming phase than usual at the moment, I thought that I’d look at another thing that computer and video games from the 1990s can teach us about making art, writing fiction, making webcomics etc… I am, of course, talking about the difference between creativity and originality.

The 1990s has something of a reputation for being one of the most creative decades in the history of computer and video games. Yet, it was probably also one of the least original decades in gaming history.

Because gaming was still something of a “new” medium during the 1990s, the people who made games often had to take heavy influence from other artforms (eg: cinema, television, music etc..) – and this actually resulted in better and more creative games, even if they were less “original” than they might initially seem to be. Likewise, games often took inspiration from other games too – and still managed to be extremely creative.

Why? Because there’s no such thing as a truly “original” creative work. Everything is inspired by something. What really matters is both how many inspirations you have and what you do with them.

Before I go any further, I should probably talk about copyright law and how it relates to creative people. Although I’m not a copyright lawyer (and this shouldn’t be considered legal advice), even some basic research will show you that most copyright laws around the world are explicitly designed to encourage creative people to take inspiration from other stuff. The only thing that they prohibit is lazy and uncreative plagiarism.

In other words, copyright law does not cover concepts or ideas, it only covers the highly-specific way that these things are expressed.

To use a retro gaming-related example, both 1992’s “Alone In The Dark” and 1996’s “Resident Evil” are horror games about people stranded in old, monster-filled mansions. They both include fixed camera angles, deliberately awkward controls, lots of in-game documents, item-based puzzles, a choice of either a male or female protagonist, a third-person perspective etc… In terms of ideas and concepts, both games are very similar…..

This is a screenshot from “Alone In The Dark” (1992), a game set within a monster-filled mansion.

This is a screenshot from the 1997 Director’s Cut version of “Resident Evil” (1996), a game set within a monster-filled mansion.

Yet, these games express these similar ideas and concepts in very different ways.

“Alone In The Dark” is a more ‘traditional’ horror game that is set in the early 20th century and is inspired by old horror literature (H.P.Lovecraft in particular). There is less of an emphasis on weapons/combat and more on puzzle-solving and exploration. The game’s horror relies on slowly creating an ominous atmosphere of dread, with barely any blood or gory detail being shown.

“Resident Evil”, on the other hand, takes influence from more modern horror and thriller movies. It focuses on a highly-trained elite police unit that is stranded near a decrepit old mansion during the summer of 1998. The game’s array of realistic modern weapons have well-researched descriptions in the game’s item menu. There’s slightly more of an emphasis on combat, resource management and grisly blood-spattered horror. Later on, the game even begins to introduce elements from the science fiction genre too.

Because both games can draw on a common set of ideas and concepts, this frees the creators up to focus on expressing these ideas in unique and creative ways. Because the developers can’t make exactly the same game, it means that they have to look for ideas and concepts from other things (that aren’t games). This sort of thing results in a much greater level of creativity, even if the things created aren’t entirely “original”.

So, yes, creativity and originality are two different things.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Creativity As Variation – A Ramble

Even though this is an article about making art and writing fiction, I’m going to have to start by talking about music (again!). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope will become obvious later.

A day or two before I wrote this article, I ended up going through a slight classical music phase. Although this mostly involved listening to the few classical pieces that I really like (eg: Moonlight Sonata, Pachelbel’s Canon, The William Tell Overture Finale, Danse Macabre etc..), it also made me think about how traditional classical music differs from many other forms of creativity and what this can teach us.

The interesting thing about traditional classical music is that it is all about variation. Since Beethoven or Pachelbel aren’t exactly going to start writing any new material, all of the creativity surrounding traditional classical music is finding new ways to play and arrange these old songs. In essence, traditional classical music literally just consists of cover versions. And, yet, it’s absolutely fascinating.

I think that a lot of this comes from the fact that any performance of a piece of traditional classical music is both familiar and new at the same time. If you’re already familiar with the underlying song, then the emphasis is on how well it is performed and how the musicians interpret the piece. The creativity comes from how a musician makes the song in question sound interesting or distinctive. It is about variation, rather than “originality”.

Interestingly, most other forms of creativity also used to be like this. Few to none of Shakespeare’s plays are truly original stories. Likewise, many traditional European paintings are based on religious or historical stuff that has been painted many, many times before. In the olden days, originality mattered a lot less. Yet, many works from the past are still considered to be masterpieces.

Of course, it could be said that the invention of copyright (and the gradually creeping expansion of copyright terms over the years) has had a chilling effect on more contemporary examples of this kind of thing. But, it would probably be more accurate to say that contemporary copyright laws merely insist that creative people include a much greater degree of variation when taking inspiration than they used to.

Although I’m not a copyright lawyer, it’s clear that modern copyright laws still allow artists and writers to be inspired by the same stuff. After all, most copyright laws around the world acknowledge that general things like ideas, themes, colour schemes, poses etc.. can’t be copyrighted. So, yes, copyright still allows you to be inspired by things, provided that you do it in the right way (eg: by looking at the general elements of something else, and then doing something different with them).

However, copyright laws generally state that an artist or writer’s interpretation of an idea must be different from everything else that shares the same inspiration. So, copyright law still technically acknowledges that most forms of creativity are variations on pre-existing things, but it demands a much greater level of variation than used to be standard in the past.

Still, the idea of more traditional variation-based creativity can be incredibly fun to play with. As long as you stick to creative works that are out-of-copyright, then you can create your own variations and interpretations of them without any restrictions. The interesting thing about doing this is that re-creating something familiar means that you have to think a lot more about what you are doing. Since your version will be compared to the original, your decisions about things like style, tone, technique, materials etc.. matter a lot more.

For example, here’s a reduced-size preview of a study I made of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The Day Dream“:

The full-size painting will be posted here in early April.

As you can see, I ended up making all sorts of subtle changes whilst copying this painting. I altered the composition very slightly, I used a slightly more limited palette, I included more darker areas (to make the colours look bolder by comparison), I used different materials to Rossetti (eg: waterproof ink, watercolour paint and digital tools), I used my usual cartoonish style, I made the background look less detailed and more “wild” etc..

Whilst painting this study, I was very aware of my own “style” and wanted to make the finished painting look both like my own work and like the original Rossetti painting. I wanted the finished painting to look familiar and different at the same time.

And this is what makes variation-based creativity so interesting. The whole idea of “familiar, but different”. The idea of standing on the shoulders of giants. The idea that great works are more than just one thing made by one person, that they are things that are part of the collective imagination. That they are things that are interesting enough that other people want to re-create their own versions of them.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Bother With “Original” Art? This is why! – A Ramble/Rant

Before I get to the opinionated parts of this article, I should explain why I put the word “original” in scare quotes. There’s no such thing as a “100% original” work of art. Every artist is influenced and inspired by other things (even if it’s just painting from life). It’s an essential part of making art and being an artist.

But, for the purposes of this article, I’ll be talking about what most people consider to be original. Namely works of art that aren’t obviously copies of other things (and which take inspiration the old-fashioned way). In other words, anything that isn’t fan art.

For example, this painting that I made before writing this article is clearly inspired by things like the 1970s-90s, the colour scheme of this set of “Doom II” levels, cyberpunk movies like “Blade Runner” and “Ghost In The Shell (1995)” etc.. Yet, it isn’t directly based on anything in the way that a fan art painting would be:

This is a reduced size preview, the full-size painting will be posted here on the 16th January.

And, no, there’s nothing inherently wrong with fan art. I make it on rare occasions, because it’s fun to make occasionally (emphasis on “occasionally”!). But, in this article, I’ll be talking about artists who seem to make nothing but fan art.

A while before I started writing this post, I was procrastinating and watching art videos on Youtube whilst thinking of an idea for the painting shown earlier in this article. Although the art videos that I watched were really interesting, one thing stood out to me. There was barely any original art in the videos on one channel whatsoever! Seriously, it was pretty much all fan art!

Yes, on a practical level, I can understand why some artists do this. More people like to see art based on their favourite TV shows/films/videogames. It’s a lot easier to paint or draw realistically if you have lots of ready-made references (that you don’t have to turn into something too new and original). And, yes, it allows you to start painting right away without having to go through the difficult process of thinking about what to paint or using your imagination.

But, for a while, I felt like a total and utter fool! Here I was, having “uninspired” days (where I crank out crappy original paintings, because regular practice is important –even when you aren’t “inspired”!) and putting time and effort into working out how to come up with good original ideas.

For a while, I thought that I was some kind of hilariously stupid traditionalist who limits themselves because of old-fashioned ideas about “originality”. After all, some of the popular artists on Youtube are making fan art all of the time. They obviously don’t have to bother with difficult things like “creativity” and “inspiration”.

But then, I realised that the joke is on them.

Making nothing but fan art is the artistic equivalent of a band only playing cover songs or hiring an outside songwriter for all of their songs. Yes, they might have recognisable hits and lots of fame. They might even develop their own musical style. They’ll probably end up in the charts. They’ll probably put out albums more regularly. But, compare them to a band like Iron Maiden.

Iron Maiden is a long-running heavy metal band who are virtually never played on the radio or shown on TV. They’re barely ever in the charts. They take inspiration the old fashioned way. They write their own lyrics. They’ve put a lot of time and effort into coming up with their own unique sound, which has evolved over time.

Yes, they’ve covered other bands, but it happens extremely rarely (and the covers usually end up being obscure B-sides ). And…. they’re about a billion times better than bands who end up in the charts regularly. They have literal hordes of fans in pretty much every country on the planet and you’d be hard-pressed to find another metal band who hasn’t been inspired by Iron Maiden in some way. Iron Maiden’s music will echo loudly through the ages, whilst many pop bands will be lost in the mists of time.

Yes, making nothing but fan art might make art “easier”, but the only person you’re cheating is yourself. You’re missing out on the chance to learn how to come up with art that is distinctively “yours”. You’re missing out on the chance to develop things like themes and motifs in your art.

You’re missing out on the feeling of accomplishment that comes from putting something from your own imagination onto a piece of paper or canvas. You’re missing out on learning how to persevere through uninspired times. You’re missing out on developing and refining your art by taking inspiration from a wide range of sources.

You’re at the mercy of current culture and whatever happens to be “popular” at the moment. You’re also at the mercy of the imaginative people who make the things your fan art is based on.

Yes, thinking of original ideas can be difficult and time-consuming sometimes. But, at least you aren’t limiting your artistic development.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

How To Take Inspiration From Other Things (Whilst Writing Fiction)

2017 Artwork Taking inspiration for fiction article sketch

Although I’ve talked about how to take artistic inspiration before, I thought that I’d take a more specific look at how to to take inspiration whilst writing fiction. Since fiction is a non-visual medium, there are some fairly significant differences between taking inspiration for fiction and taking inspiration when making art, comics etc….

As with making art, comics etc… you should always have as wide a range of inspirations as possible. You should always, if possible, mix your inspirations together too. This is very important, for reasons that I’ll explain at the end of the article.

But, for the sake of simplicity I’ll start with explaining how to take inspiration from just one thing (even though, for a very good reason I’ll explain later in the article, you should have more than one inspiration!)

Unlike making art or comics, you have a slightly greater degree of freedom when it comes to designing the settings of your stories if you’re inspired by visual media (like films, comics etc…).

Although I am not a copyright lawyer and nothing in this article should be considered legal advice, one general principle of most copyright laws across the world is that they only protect highly-specific expressions of ideas, and not basic/general ideas and concepts.

Despite the oppressive and restrictive reputation that copyright has, it is designed to allow people to take inspiration, provided that they do something new and different enough with that inspiration.

For example, your sci-fi story can include a detailed description of a futuristic spaceship crewed by both humans and aliens. Your spaceship could also have faster-than-light travel, touchscreens on the walls and/or sliding doors between each room. These are all general ideas and concepts which no-one can copyright.

But you can’t call your spaceship the USS Enterprise. You can’t call the engine a warp drive. The alien crew members in your story can’t be called “Klingons”, “Vulcans”, “Andorians” etc.. Your spaceship can’t consist of a saucer with two engine nacelles attached to it. You can’t say that the touchscreens use the LCARS operating system etc.. Why? Because those are all highly-specific (and therefore copyrighted) details from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.

Because the setting of a story consists of images translated into words (which are later translated back by the reader), you can actually make your setting descriptions relatively close to the images that have inspired you – provided that you don’t use highly-specific details!

The same holds true for characters too. In prose fiction, you can make your characters “look” similar to TV show, film, game etc.. characters that you like. You can even give them similar personalities too. But you’ll have to give them different names and different backstories. Again, general traits are a free for all, but highly-specific details are not!

However, with the story itself, you can only borrow general story types. So, look at the things that you really like and ask yourself “what type of story is this?“. Is it a story about a love triangle? Is it a revenge story? Is it a story about a time loop? Is it a story about virtual reality? etc..

Once you’ve got your answer, come up with a new (and different!) plot that also fits into that general category. It’ll still have the same atmosphere as the thing you’re inspired by, but you won’t be ripping anything off.

But, you might say, isn’t all of this bordering on plagiarism? Well, it is only borderline plagiarism (in the moral sense of the word, at least) if you take inspiration from just one thing. But, if you blend inspirations from as many things as possible, then you’ll ironically end up with something fairly original.

Going back to my “Star Trek: The Next Generation” example, if the main character of your sci-fi story is a bald man from Belgium called “Captain Ricard” then this might possibly technically be an original character – although everyone will probably realise that it’s a blatant rip-off of Captain Picard.

However, if you were to blend elements from other fictional characters (even ones from the same TV show, if you’re particularly lazy) – I don’t know, let’s say that Captain Ricard is also a telepath who has bionic eyes – then it’ll probably seem at least mildly more original. But, the more different things you blend and the more ideas of your own that you add to your inspirations, the more original it will be.

So, remember, taking inspiration is perfectly fine (as long as you avoid highly-specific details). But, the more inspirations that you blend together and the more of your own ideas that you add to the mix, the more interesting, distinctive and original your story will be. So, use more than one inspiration!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Things To Think About If You Worry That Your Art, Comics, Fiction Etc.. Aren’t “Original” Enough

2017 Originality and inspiration article sketch

First of all, this isn’t an article about plagiarism or fan art/fan fiction. If your story, comic etc.. is a direct copy of something else and/or directly based on another published work (and isn’t a parody of it), then this is not the article for you.

It is an article for people who want to make their own imaginative things that are sometimes heavily inspired by other things, and are worried that their work isn’t “original” or “imaginative” enough. This is an article for people who worry that their own imagination isn’t developed enough because they tend to be inspired by other things.

Likewise, I am not a copyright scholar, so none of this should be seen as formal legal advice of any kind.

Plus, I won’t be talking about the distinction between inspiration and plagiarism much (because I’ve sort of mentioned it before). For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that whatever you’ve made has been inspired in a legitimate way (eg: based on generic elements, themes etc… from something else, rather than copying highly-specific exact details).

So, what should you do if you worry that your art, comics, stories etc.. aren’t “original” enough? Here are a few tips:

1) Look closely at your inspirations: If you are worried that your imaginative creative works “aren’t imaginative enough”, then take a close look at the things that inspired you. I can almost guarantee that these things were also heavily inspired by other things too. It’s a universal truth that even “highly original” works are usually heavily inspired by other things, they just contain an unusual mixture or combination of influences.

For example, one of the largest influences on a comedic cyberpunk webcomic mini series that I’ll be posting here in early-mid February is the movie “Blade Runner” (to the point that it even includes a parody of one scene from the film – but, more on that later…)

“Blade Runner” is a groundbreaking film that has had a huge influence on the science fiction genre in general. However, groundbreaking as it was, it isn’t even close to “original” in the strictest sense of the word.

It’s heavily inspired by old film noir movies, it’s inspired by 1980s Japan/South Korea, it’s vaguely similar to old “Judge Dredd” comics from the 1970s/1980s in some general ways, some of it’s most unique interior locations are just slightly altered versions of real buildings, it’s explicitly based on a novel by Philip K. Dick etc… Strictly speaking, it isn’t “original” in the slightest, but it was able to become an “original” film by combining a range of influences in a unique and imaginative way.

If you look at anything that inspires you, you’ll probably find something similar to this. Imagination, “originality” and creative inspiration come from finding things that inspire us and then finding new and distinctive ways to use general elements (eg: elements that aren’t highly-specific enough to be copyrighted) from these things in our own work. It’s an inherent part of the creative process.

So, finding what inspired the things that inspired the things that you’ve made might help to assuage some of your worries about “originality”.

2) Comedy and parody: First of all, if you’re making something in the comedy genre, then you shouldn’t worry too much about “originality”. Although I am not an expert on the legal aspects of this, you have very little to worry about if your work is a general parody of something (or even a direct parody, featuring exact characters, settings etc.. from the thing you are parodying).

Many countries, either through law or tradition, make large allowances for parodies of of other things. The precise definition of a “parody” might vary from place to place, but the importance of allowing people to make parodies is widely recognised.

Even vaguely decent parodies can often contain more originality than you might think – for the simple reason that they will often parody multiple things at the same time. In order to do this, they will often come up with an entirely new cast of characters, a new setting, a new story etc.. even if these things are heavily inspired by something else.

For example, even though my upcoming cyberpunk webcomic features a parody of a dramatic scene from “Blade Runner” – the characters and backstory are somewhat different, even if the scene itself is clearly a comedic version of a scene from that film (with a very slightly different twist on the themes from “Blade Runner”).

So, yes, even parodies are often more “original” than you might think.

3) Find more influences: The more inspirations something has, the more “original” it will look. If you’re worrying that your story, comic etc.. isn’t “original” enough, then this might be a sign that you need to find more influences and more things that inspire you.

For example, I’d been wanting to make a sci-fi comic in the cyberpunk genre for a long time. After discarding the idea of making a “serious” comic (since I seem to be better at comedy than serious storytelling these days), I still couldn’t work out how to make a comedic cyberpunk comic until I started looking at more things in the cyberpunk genre (eg: computer games like “Deus Ex” and “System Shock” – both of which, ironically, were heavily inspired by the works of William Gibson amongst other people).

In the end, my upcoming cyberpunk comedy webcomic series included a range of pre-existing sci-fi influences like “Blade Runner”, “Neuromancer“, “Star Trek”, “Sliders“, “Back To The Future” and “Transmetropolitan“, but also a couple of additional cyberpunk influences like the games I mentioned. Without those additional influences, and the additional knowledge about the genre that came with them, I wouldn’t have been able to make this comic series without seriously worrying about the story being a “rip-off” of the few cyberpunk things I’d seen beforehand.

So, worries that your work isn’t “original” usually just means that you need to find more things to get inspired by.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂