VISUAL PLAGIARISM (for comic artists)

Let’s review a famous argument from the 1980s: whether or not Berke Breathed’s Bloom County was merely an imitation of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury.

In the 1980s Bloom County was the comic industry’s shining star, rising high enough to garner a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Doonesbury, on the other hand, rose to earlier prominence in the 1970s focusing on social and political commentary, and blazing the trail Breathed would eventually follow by becoming the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1974.

So why was there an argument between Doonesbury devotees and Bloom County fanatics? Let’s visually compare the two comics:

doonesbury garry trudeau

Doonesbury 1970-1980


bloom county berke breathed

Bloom County 1980-1989

It is safe to conclude that Bloom County was heavily influenced by Doonesbury; Breathed dispelled such mystery by admitting as such in his later Outland comic strip collection, One Last Little Peek (1995). He provides an early Bloom County comic side-by-side with a Doonesbury comic strip from which he had lifted the idea (shown below).

This public confession confirmed years of insincerity claims by Doonesbury fans, but Breathed was no slavish copier. He had a whimsical talent for fantasy and satire, and eventually separated himself from Doonesbury‘s shadow with his humorous absurdity and lovable characters. Bloom County did indeed become its own comic strip but many readers never forgave him for his Doonesbury roots and likeness.

The lesson is still constant though, plagiarism has many faces. At first glance you may be inclined to think Visual plagiarism due to the similarities, but drawing character profiles is not plagiarism. You might feel Written plagiarism is the claim but no selection of text is repeated. Also, slanted text blocks and similar exclamation words do not qualify as Written plagiarism.

Thus, Concept plagiarism may be the closest accusation, but how would you prove what one person feels is true and what is definable evidence? A person’s subtle altering of visual and written elements may immunize them against legal plagiarism charges, but in the words of that song made famous by the rock band The Who, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” the truth is still a loud noise to silence. Interestingly, that Who song is titled “”Won’t Get Fooled Again.”


Doonesbury/ Bloom County comparison, as published in One Last Little Peek by Berke Breathed



As mentioned in the introduction, overt Visual plagiarism is easy to spot due to it’s lack of subtleties, but because of this obviousness it is very rare. Compare the following illustration examples and focus your attention on the dragon faces and the date of publications.

brian ajhar dragon boss

Brian Ajhar - pub. 1985 Success Magazine

arthur rackham dragon

Arthur Rackham - pub. 1909

These illustrations are separated by 76 years, but something is curiously suspect.
Brian Ajhar (left) is not just another anonymous illustrator; he is an accomplished professional who has been consistently producing work for over 30 years.
Arthur Rackham (right) was the premier illustrator of the early twentieth century (1900) until his death in 1939. His Victorian style has also passed into history, yet here before us might be a good reason to familiarize ourselves with his work. Why?
Whether or not any permissions have been granted I do not know. I only know that the slippery nature of plagiarism can affect anyone. The choice is up to the individual to either provide credit to the original creator or risk discovery and questions over similarities.


“Being a cover artist is not like being a real artist. That’s just copying what someone else did.”

– Sebastian Bach

I don’t believe many people enjoy being called a cheater, a copier, a deceiver, a fraud, a scammer, or a plagiarist. These are ugly words and have strong negative connotations in our society. We are a country that prides ourselves on originality, creativity, and an independent spirit. Well, at least those claims make good headlines.

Look a little deeper and you will probably find more chameleon-like behavior than you anticipated (in politics, music, religion, fashion, etc). The fine line (the VERY fine line) between being “influenced by” and simply “dressing up” someone else’s creation is often revealed in the history we don’t know. It is worth considering, when beginning or continuing a comic, which path you will follow. Let’s turn our feline curiosities towards a few familiar cats.


Heathcliff, pub 1973


Garfield, pub. 1978

bill the cat

Bill the Cat, pub. approx. 1983

nick nolte

Nick Nolte, pub. 2002

Notice any similarities? Of course there are. Many people believe Garfield to be the first comic cat, while Heathcliff is sort of the unspoken cousin at the family reunion. But Heathcliff appeared five years before Garfield. As for Bill the Cat, again we have to revisit Berke Breathed’s Bloom County and his penchant for imitation. His self-proclaimed Garfield-parody is lightly disguised. Nick Nolte, though, has always been a cool cat. He’s also been rumored to have a serious affection for Bill the Cat (unconfirmed, or course).

Is this evidence of plagiarism? Who is the victim here? Garfield because of Bill the Cat, or Heathcliff because of Garfield? One thing is uncomfortably consistent, and that is the visual concept of these cartoon cats.

To add more intrigue, lets compare what Garfield originally looked like in 1978, before Jim Davis dramatically altered his appearance by 1982 (as shown above): bill the cat

Why such a dramatic change in such a short time? Does Heathcliff have a claim now? Only Jim Davis knows, everyone else can only conjecture.

The legal answer is “No.” You can copyright Garfield’s expression of what a cat looks like, but you can’t copyright orange cats, triangle stripes, small ears, rounded tails, and cocky attitude. The court of public opinion may not completely agree though.

My intention is not to confirm or deny suspicions, but to raise consciousness in upstart or existing comic artists about the slippery nature of plagiarism and the unspoken labels attached to it. Do you wish to be known as an original or risk the label of cover artist? To each to his own standards.


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