Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taking a Swipe/Now That’s a Switch

“Immature artists imitate, mature artists steal.” - Lionel Trilling

I’m going to expand a bit more on an earlier post about getting ideas. Rather than sitting around staring at the blank sheet of Bristol and sweating blood, there are time-honored methods at generating material. At times my brain is like an empty bird-feeder; ideas flutter around aimlessly, nothing really seems to get a grip and start digging in. Usually that’s a problem that lies within my thinking process – it’s not that there’s an absence of stuff out there, I just need to free things up and get into the groove. Techniques I've previously covered include experimenting with wordplay and free-association exercises, and also the potentially thornier topics of appropriation and the related concept of "floating lyrics," what I think accounts for the analogy of recurrent motifs popping up in both music (lyrics and notes) and art.
There's an awfully fine line between inspiration and emulation, homage and cop-out, derivative of and plagiarized from, and influenced by and ripping off.

For example, one of the few cartoons to actually make me, grim, jaded bastard that I am, laugh out loud in recent years is the webcomic created by Dan Walsh "Garfield Minus Garfield," encapsulates the difficulty in categorizing such overlaps and making judgements (a side-note in that Garfield creator Jim Davis was gracious enough to give his blessing on this series).

Personally I try and avoid reading most other cartoons, particularly contemporary ones; not just because I don’t really enjoy them (I do) or have the time (I don't), but because I don't want to muddy the water from the well that I draw from. In other words, I get paranoid that looking at someone else’s idea will plant a seed deep down in my subconscious where it will germinate, and many years later long after I’ve forgotten the original I’ll erroneously claim it as my own. Lost count of how often I cringe at seeing a panel by a more famous cartoonist that is either the same exact joke as one that I’ve drawn or close enough to draw obvious comparison to. I get stressed out just thinking about the potential accusations of plagiarism even though I’ve never before even seen the other guy’s, or had drawn mine long before theirs.
I’ll never forget an instance while I was working at a copy shop and this old-timer dude who was a fan of my work brought in an old pornographic magazine, one of the really sleazy ones like Cherry or Hustler, and gleefully displayed a cartoon of a seal clubbing a baby. Well, that happened to be one of my trademark pieces at that time, one that had achieved a small amount of notoriety for me, and needless to say I was righteously indignant at the implied assumption. Besides which, I only read Playboy, and yes, just for the cartoons.
I recall years ago having folks occasionally come up to me and say I was ripped off by someone else; “hey man, he totally copied you dude” – you’d think that living in the biggest state there’d be more than enough room for everyone at the cartoon table. But when you are dealing with a certain demographic (Alaska) and your material covers the same territory (ex: bears, moose, other animals, nature themes and the outdoors etc.) there’s bound to be some inevitable overlap. You learn to laugh it off, like much of life - it's an occupational instinct. There's only so many “blown a seal” mechanic gags to go around the North I suppose, just like endless variations on desert island/psychiatrist couch/etc, gags. Plus there’s (fortunately) only one Sarah Palin, but she seems to be a remarkably inexhaustible and dependable source of inspiration. At any rate, I've caught a couple outstanding rip-offs of my own stuff from some local amateurs, and if I wasn't such a hardass teacher I'd be more flattered, as I usually wind up critiquing their awful technique instead.

Aside from delving into the collective unconscious, when as an artist you deal with universal themes, play with stereotypes, use clichéd situations and topics that are the basis for proverbs and metaphors around the world throughout time, the chance that you are treading a well-worn path exponentially increases. There’s a good argument that there’s nothing truly original, and there isn’t any new ideas left anymore – it’s all been done/said/drawn before. And in many cases I think that’s true to an extent; but one can almost always improve on it though, and there are ways to make it your own. Make it funnier, draw it better, use it as a jumping-off point and add your own unique spin. Just such a technique is commonly referred to amongst gag writers as "swipes" or "switches". Hopefully divulging this won't get me in trouble for exposing the guild's secrets, maybe I'll get visited by the cartoon mafia who'll break all my pen nibs. Here's couple of my panels that illustrate those concepts: the first one is off a little doodle that was in a copy of an old New Yorker magazine in my outhouse, and on this scan you can even see the marker scrawl of my switch idea ("mummy in outhouse frankenstein using as t.p."), then the ballpoint pen rough from my sketchbook, and finally the published version.

Next is one that I just did recently, and while mulling over this blog post it just kept nagging at me how familiar it had looked, reminding me of something seen somewhere ... and after flipping through my collection of books - a-ha, found the inspiration in B. Kliban's 1976 "Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head and Other Drawings." Now it's debatable whether or not I "stole" anything, as definitely wasn't conscious, but ignorance is no excuse. but the composition and content sure is similar - too close for comfort. Offered up here as Exhibit A of sincerely unintentional derivations, but it enough of a spin on the concept to avoid charges of outright plagiarism? Is the original reference obscure enough to not bother worrying? Does anyone really care? Yes: you can bet that there are aficionados, fans and fellow cartoonists out there keeping score who would eventually connect the dots. I did and I drew the damn thing to begin with.

Now here's another sample of a piece from when I just so happened to be in a copy-shop next to a woman who was making xeroxes of an obviously butchered plagiarism of a panel, and next to it the variation I spun using our own local species of rodent. Again, this would be what I'd call a decent example of switching, ie far enough removed from the original that there's no possible connection.

Many if not most of the full-time big-league cartoonists employ writers; the pressure to consistently perform is intense, and syndicates are probably like television studio executives flogging a cash cow - you can bet that folks of the caliber like Leno and Letterman etc. don't ad-lib their routine, and it's been meticulously groomed by a team of professional writers beforehand. I personally make it a point of pride to generate my own material, which is probably one reason why I’m so sensitive about originality; it’s something like the Barry Bonds authenticity issues with regards to setting records when one is tainted by the controversy of steroids. All it takes is one incidence and one could be branded forever in the public arena.
For me, there has always been something so deeply satisfying and creatively gratifying at the accomplishment of bagging a really good bad gag, one that is your and yours alone – laying claim to being the first one to come up with a joke so bad that nobody else could have possibly gone there, is for me the ultimate reward of a job well done.
Though I do often wonder what would happen if I ever found myself in the position of having to come up with seven times the amount of material I do for Nuggets, plus knocking a home-run with every single one; probably have to take everything a lot more seriously than I already do. I shudder to think of the absolute bombs regular long-time followers of my feature have had to slog through over the past twenty + years in this paper - having to do only a weekly panel you'd think it'd be at least seven times funnier. Posted here is another good example culled from my archive of what I'd term an homage, since the source material is so well known it's an obvious parody, with apologies to Gustave Doré:

Now there’s always going to be someone who will criticize an overlap in content, overt or otherwise, or stylistic similarities between your work and someone else's. Hell, even the fact that I do a single panel cartoon is more than enough to damn me as a Far Side copy in some people’s eyes. I suppose that Gary Larson's work might have been an influence, as his cartoon started around 1982, and I had begun experimenting with the single-panel format for a student newspaper at the community college I attended a couple years later. But right when I was beginning to draw comics seriously in high-school the big thing for me was the underground comix scene and MAD magazine. Canny observers can easily spot the tracks left all over my work from those pivotal influences. But again, comparisons are inevitable, I try and have the good graces to let occasional comments from either direction (whose work looks like whose) roll off my back; it's as inevitable as getting mixed up with "the other guy" which just goes with the territory. And besides, in a moment I'll point out an obvious example with regards to my own influence.

Sure enough, at anyone’s success the vultures will begin to circle, as evidenced by a comment thread that, like a sweaty pimple on the ass of a cartoonist working at the drawing table, erupted after The Daily Cartoonist posted a news item a while back on Scott Hilburn’s Argyle Sweater’s syndication. Several shmucks piled on with some petty sniping over sour grapes, including a link to the one oopsie in question. Never mind the obvious fact that the vast, overwhelming number of Argyle Sweaters, the 365 panels a year, year after year stuff, is clearly original material. Even so, Hilburn courageously went out of his way to preempt criticism on his own blog:
Friday, April 27, 2007 - Larson (excerpt)
"I received an e-mail the other day regarding my April 13th comic. The e-mail informed me that the day's panel was overly-similar to a comic already done by Gary Larson. I get a lot of Far Side comparisons so, at first, I thought nothing of it. However, because it mentioned a specific date, I later became bothered by it. I did a little research only to find that he was right - they were more than similar. I e-mailed my editor explaining the situation and asked him what he suggested I do. He replied that this happens quite often. He went on to say that artists often internalize other artists work. I suppose an idea or concept can somehow get lost in one’s subconscious and resurface weeks, months or in this case, years later without realizing that you’ve seen the idea before."
Well now that sounds familiar. Shit happens. And to illustrate that in the spirit of self-confessional full-disclosure, I've been guilty of the same:

So with the benefit of belated hindsight, there's no way I'd even try foisting this off as original; part of the learning curve in making such amateur mistakes, and it's the job of a professional to recognize and rectify such beginner blunders as best you can. And so apologies to my personal hero that influenced me long before I ever seriously started my own career - B. Kliban (from his classic 1977 book "Whack Your Porcupine"). Over twenty years had passed from when my parents first exposed me to his work and when I stumbled across a mint set of his books at a used bookstore while hiking in Arizona. Imagine my chagrin at flipping through them and discover my own undiscovered dirty laundry. Not the first time the joke's on me...

“There is nothing new in art except talent.” - Anton Chekhov

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