“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.”

– Herman Melville

Copycatting someone’s success has a long and storied history across many disciplines. It appears success causes people to either line up against that person, support that person, or copy that person. Quite tragically humans will even copycat suicides. Whether or not mimicry is buried deep inside some evolutionary RNA strain or reveals itself as the result of natural forces I can only hypothesize, but history proves the comic industry cannot resist its gravity.

Snowmen have always appeared in comics, but before Calvin and Hobbes twisted the public’s idea of snowmen representation readers were universally conditioned to viewing traditional front yard creations or standard personification (if at all, prior to Frosty), as the following examples illustrate (The Snowman (1944) by John Giunita and Frank Frazetta excluded, of course!)

Frappe-the-Snowman

Frappe-the-Snowman, 1905

snowman-postcard

Snowman postcard, 1800s

Frosty the Snowman

Frosty the Snowman, 1950s

Bill Watterson is revered by his fans and peers for more reasons than Batman has enemies, but one particular reason was his main character Calvin’s outlandish snowmen sculptures. These were satirical creations born from Calvin’s counter-cultural spirit and Watterson’s not-so-subtle jabs at haughty artspeak, among other motives. Lets revisit some of these interesting strips:

 

calvin and hobbes
calvin and hobbes
calvin and hobbes

 

These snowmen strips were loved and helped make Watterson a success. Of course, as history informs us, wherever there is success imitators will crowd the picture. Not-so-curiously, odd snowman creations suddenly populated the comic pages. Were these artists simply paying homage to Watterson’s genius or were they risking Concept plagiarism? Let’s observe a few examples:

foxtrot-snowmen

Foxtrot

nancy-jerry-scott

Nancy

adam-snowmen

Adam

zits-snowgirl

Zits

family-circus-snowmen

Family Circus

Did these examples merit a letter from Watterson’s (via Universal Press Syndicate) legal department? Again the answer is “No.” Watterson (or Universal Press Syndicate) can copyright images of Calvin or Hobbes but they cannot copyright the idea of odd snowmen creations. Is this fair? Yes and no.

You can imagine the constricting creative atmosphere if everyone could copyright ideas. Felix the Cat might be able to sue all cat comics. Berke Breathed could possibly sue the movie Happy Feet on grounds that his penguin Opus had copyrights to it. Descendants from Bram Stoker’s family may have a chance at the largest lawsuit ever, dating back to the original 1897 Dracula novel, by suing Hollywood for every reincarnation of Dracula ever produced, etc. I’m not a Copyright attorney so I’ll leave details to legal scholars, but in matters of generating plagiarism awareness my suspicion is the court of public opinion is not so forgiving.

Why would someone mimic a concept so obviously credited to another? Is it the intense daily pressure to produce content that offers relief for at least a day? Is is true homage to a brilliant peer? The reasons to copy are surely myriad and personal for every artist, but when beginning a comic strip concept, or continuing an existing one, each creator must answer their own conscience — What does originality mean to me? Do I want to be an Elvis impersonator, sing “Love Me Tender” in my own style, or write new songs nobody has ever heard?

We have seen how Watterson’s snowmen creations generated him affection, money, and artistic success. But, as I’ve mentioned earlier, history informs us that where there is success there will be imitators. With this in mind, let’s look at a 1960s comic strip from Peanuts — almost 25-years before the first Calvin and Hobbes comic strip was published. (Readers, by now, should understand it’s inclusion.)

 

peanuts-linus-snowmen

Peanuts, pub. 1960s

After seeing these examples who do you feel has the ethical rights to the snowman concept now?
Does it matter if no legal infringement occurred?

 

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