Saturday, December 17, 2011

Plagiar-Vu All Over Again

I just received my copy of The Best Editorial Cartoons, 2012 edition from the publisher the other night. Its founder, Chuck Brooks died shortly after the deadline for submissions, so one wonders how many more editions of the book there will be.

There are more on-line only cartoons in the book than ever before, and a few idiosyncratic choices -- there is only one Tom Toles cartoon, for example (aside from the one in the chapter for cartoons which won awards this year), but five by Chuck Asay. In my humble opinion, Toles is far and away the better cartoonist, but Asay's worldview is more in line with the late Mr. Brooks's.

I was struck by two cartoons: one by Jeff Stahler and another by Steve Breen. Mr. Stahler just lost his job at the Columbus Dispatch over charges of plagiarism -- charges which have relaunched a debate over what in fact constitutes plagiarism. Accusers pointed out cartoons which seemed to echo New Yorker cartoons, although some of the questionable cartoons involved ideas which easily could have occurred to multiple cartoonists independently (what Daryl Cagle calls "Yahtzees"). Cartoonists have also been debating where to draw the line between a plagiarized idea and a common meme.

The Stahler and Breen cartoons in BECY illustrate the murky of this delineation. Stahler's cartoon shows presidents from Nixon to Obama saying one word each of the sentence "We must reduce our dependency on Mideast Oil." To my mind, that recalls a Mike Peters cartoon about the Vietnam War, drawn for the Dayton Daily News and reprinted in Time magazine and other national outlets, in which presidents from Eisenhower to Ford said one word each of the sentence "Victory is just around the corner." (One of them must have had two words, but I don't remember which.) Other cartoonists besides Jeff Stahler have used the same gimmick since -- at least once on the topic of energy independence -- and it just seems to me to be lazy to swipe Mr. Peters's basic idea to rehash it as your own.

Steve Breen's cartoon is more disputable. He substitutes President Obama for the hapless boatman in Winslow Homer's painting "The Gulf Stream." Breen duly credits Homer, as he ought, but I was instantly reminded of the 1974 cartoon by the late Jeff MacNelly depicting President Nixon in the exact same painting.

Is that plagiarism? Just about every editorial cartoonist in the country, myself included, has drawn some parody of Grant Wood's "American Gothic" to comment on every topic from the weather to inflation to marriage equality. The same with several of Norman Rockwell's paintings, da Vinci's "Last Supper" and James McNeill Whistler's "Arrangement in Gray and Black: The Artist's Mother." But any first grader is bound to recognize those paintings to some degree or another, whereas many adults are not familiar with the works of Winslow Homer at all. Some cartoonist, forgotten to history, was the first to draw each of those parodies, and the rest of us have, let's face it, swiped those ideas.

Does the fact that an image is already well-known make it okay for a cartoonist to swipe it? Aside from paintings, many cartoonists have borrowed and re-borrowed many images from movies. I have no idea who the first cartoonist was to draw Toto pulling the curtain aside to reveal the humbug behind whatever politician is projected as the Great And Powerful Oz, but many have drawn that same cartoon since. (There's one in the new BECY about Newt Gingrich, who has also inspired a new round of Grinch Who Stole Christmas cartoons for anybody who missed them back when he was Speaker of the House.)

We cartoonists traffic in cultural images all the time, so it makes sense that we'd reuse images that everybody knows. The tricky part is reusing less well-known images that only Art History majors and other cartoonists will recognize.

Oh, and I have one cartoon in the book, by the way. Most of my favorite 2011 cartoons before the book's deadline were about flash-in-the-pan stories (does anybody remember the Craigslist Congressman any more?) which would have required a paragraph of explanation, so I'm not at all disappointed.

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