IS THERE SUCH THING AS STYLE PLAGIARISM?

Unless the copying in question is explicit plagiarism verdicts are mostly handed down in the court of public opinion rather than the law. An artist’s style identifies himself against all peers, and readers are attracted by individuality.

Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell

J.C. Leyendecker

J.C. Leyendecker

American painter Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) painted himself a very distinct style most Americans associate with The Saturday Evening Post magazine.

Even his closest peer J.C. Leyendecker (1874 – 1951) — who actually painted more covers for the Post than Rockwell — had a similar but still distinguishable style all his own.

Style is personal to the artist. Very few comic book fans need the credit blurb to identify a Todd McFarlane or John Romita Jr. drawing, or an Alex Ross painting.

To copy another’s style is to ensure life under shadow. The courts allow for this experience but knowledgeable readers dispense verdicts more harshly. Ultimately the choice is up to the artist which court he or she wishes their work to be judged.

There are painters who copy Rockwell’s style so perfectly that only a highly trained critic can identify the original. Many creators make a fine living through imitation, even in comics (see Mark Tatulli, as supported by Andrews McMeel/Universal syndicate) often to the distress of more discerning fans, but does the public revere the art or the imposter?

Shouldn’t true homages benefit the actual creators rather than the mimics? When the money comes rolling in what does the mimic feel when gazing into a mirror?

Every artist should take notice that nobody ever exclaimed, “That beautiful song sounds like a mocking bird.”

 

“In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

– Thomas Jefferson

Styles do change, but principles do not. Art is not so different, especially when it comes to discovering your own personal style.

An artist’s principles are reflected in everything they create. The better a person knows who they are, before they make commitments, the better their path is through life. An artist’s comic voice will become personal (not borrowed), their line work will flow from within (not from copying another creator’s printed pages), and like a fingerprint their artwork will be unique. The very length of their fingers, the ligaments inside, the strength in their wrists, their intensity, personality, etc, all conjoin to form a uniquely wonderful equation known as Style!

But it takes a long time to develop a style, and because style takes a long time to develop artists may find plagiarism’s seduction too strong to resist. The struggling comic artist should find guidance in their artistic principals while style is developing. To stand like a rock in the face of slow progress is a test of will.

If an artist is not on the only path to their style then they are trespassing on someone else’s.

 

A CASE FOR VISUAL PLAGIARISM?

 

nancy ernie bushmiller

original Nancy strip, drawn by Ernie Bushmiller

Let’s review the classic comic strip Nancy by the late Ernie Bushmiller (1905 – 1982) to examine a situation where readers demanded Visual plagiarism.

Nancy was originally called Fritzi Ritz in 1922, but later renamed to Nancy after her character introduction dominated the comic.

Bushmiller’s style was a deliberate pen stroke to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Basically it is a very stylized comic that resonated with readers for decades. With Mr. Bushmiller’s passing in 1982 other artists were hired to continue the strip, but here’s where it gets tricky …

When an original creator is lost an existing strip is more-or-less a franchise for the syndicate, and (given the contract language most cartoonists signed when they were unknowns) the syndicate has rights to practically the entire feature. The first artist hired was Mark Lasky, but sorrowfully he passed within a year of accepting the Nancy comic strip.

Mark did admirably well replicating Bushmiller’s style, and pleased millions of readers who spent decades bonding with the strip. This is a great example where both the court of law and public opinion would have reached similar verdicts. Problems arrived when the great comic engine Jerry Scott (of Baby Blues and Zits fame) assumed the drawing chair from (1984 – 1994).

Mr. Scott did not continue in Bushmiller’s style; he drew Nancy in what can only be referred to as (then late-80s, early-90s) a contemporary style.

 

nancy-jerry-scott-1995

Nancy, pub. 1995 (Jerry Scott)

 
Ok, now the tricky part of the tricky part … Traditional devotees of the Nancy comic strip, and Bushmiller’s iconic style, noticed something different with line quality, character emoting, body language, and facial characteristics. This change led to some bitter criticism.

Could it be said these fans were requesting Visual plagiarism? After all, Mark Lasky did a wonderful job copying Bushmiller’s style and nobody was complaining. Jerry Scott appeared and changed Nancy’s style for another one. But which one?

Style, as mentioned earlier, is a deeply personal expression forged within an individual artist. Mr. Scott is not Mr. Bushmiller, so the question then becomes what is Mr. Scott’s style? Especially if he wasn’t going to dutifully copy Mr. Bushmiller’s.

I think the following two comic strips may answer that question. The first strip is a Nancy comic strip drawn by Jerry Scott, the second strip is a fictional Calvin and Hobbes comic strip composed of panels from separate Calvin and Hobbes comic strips. Coloring has been removed to standardize the comparison.

Do you see an artist’s style? … Whose?

jerry-scott-nancy-calvin-hobbes-snowman-comparison

Nancy, drawn by Jerry Scott

 

jerry-scott-nancy-calvin-hobbes-snowman-comparison

fictional Calvin and Hobbes strip (various separate comic panels)

 

We must be always remain open to evidence unseen, but again, that is the purview of the legal court system. The court of public opinion is less rigorous, and clearly there is something similar in styles.

Style is personal, and obvious to readers, but it can not be copyrighted. Is there such thing as Style plagiarism? Yes there is, but it still remains in the eye of the beholder and there isn’t a law against it.

When considering your comic strip, to avoid legal letters you would do wise to steer around explicit Visual or Written plagiarism unless (in Mark Lansky’s situation) you receive explicit permission from the original creator, or legal representative body, to mimic.

However, in the court of public opinion your risk is minimal and only your artistic principals will guide you. You may not receive a legal letter but you may receive letters from folks wishing to dispense their own sense of justice. When looking into the mirror what do you see? Chances are that is exactly what is on your drawing table in the next room.

I could not in good conscience depart here without questioning one other small unknown. In the Nancy comic strip above, Nancy solves the problem of individual balls of snow being too heavy to be lifted on top of each other. Was this an original comic gag or is it true that in the dark alleys of Childhood Town the Godfather is still pulling all the strings behind the scenes?

charlie-brown-snowman.jpg

Charlie Brown making a snowman, pub. 1950s

 

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

What is all the fuss about plagiarism anyway? Well, it’s a very serious matter if you are the original creator or profiting legal owner. Written and Visual plagiarism are vigorously pursued and punished, but it is the encompassing and slippery nature of Concept plagiarism that cannot be easily defined. Therein exist the copiers, the spoofers, the imitators, and the distant echoes of brilliant pioneers. Each one protected by our First Amendment and governed by the subjective term of “fair use.”

A great example of the difficulty in litigating Concept plagiarism was our friend (again) Berke Breathed and his Outland character Mortimer Mouse (a spoof of Disney’s Micky Mouse’s older brother.) Obviously you can see where Breathed got himself into warm water.

Norman Rockwell

Disney, Mortimer Mouse

outland-mortimer-mouse

Outland, Mortimer Mouse

He published a series of unflattering comic fiction regarding the biography of Mortimer which ultimately ended with Walt Disney himself rejecting Mortimer.

Predictably Breathed was sent a letter from Disney’s legal department. Breathed, fearless as always (though I’m sure his syndicate Washington Post Writers Group held final say), responded in the comic pages with a story where the evil protagonist was Michael Eisner (then CEO of Disney).

But Disney could not, or would not, pursue the matter further and risk the publicity. Better to let the entire altercation became background noise to the daily grind, and when Breathed retired from comics in 1995 Disney and Breathed simply remained unfriendly.

Historians may note the irony that Disney’s 2011’s critical and commercial failure Mars Needs Moms film was based on Berke Breathed’s book of the same title. Did Breathed finally get revenge 16-years later? It is plausible they made more money by hating each other.

 

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

 
“Millions of teenagers will someday awake with the sickening revelation that wearing a single glove and sequined socks does not make them Michael Jackson. Some cartoonists, involved in the same sort of charade, are in for a shock as well. Too few cartoonists are drawing from their hearts.”

– Bill Watterson (1984)

If you are reading this you are most likely a webcomic artist yourself. Gone are the editors, the syndicates, the newspapers, the predatory contracts, the rules, and — not surprisingly — the big money. What’s left is just a loose communal group of cartoonists meandering through the internet without direction. We are all “making it up” as we go.

In Mr. Watterson’s quote above he strikes at the heart of every aspiring cartoonist, and his message is singular: Don’t plagiarize. No one can deny his success and enduring legacy, but haven’t we seen examples where Mr. Watterson may have blurred his own words?

In positive ways anti-plagiarism laws are a great counter-Darwinian assurance that creators will be forced to discover new and unique methods for success instead of relying on tried-and-true repetitions. We all benefit from diversity. The question now becomes — since we’ve seen cracks in the dam — will web cartoonists drink from the leaking holes or plug them with their finger and discover new solutions.

I hope this article helped raise some awareness of your own comic goals.
The choice is yours … I mean, ours 🙂

 

Most sincerest thanks for reading this article!
— Douglas Cellineri
 

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