Monday, December 26, 2011

Imitation Flattery

One of my favorite cartoonists, Tony Piro (creator of Calamities of Nature) recently posted a heads-up on the viral spread of a hacked version of one of his strips, which is in turn a remix of a classic sequence from Charles Schulz:
"My use of the Peanuts characters, in a comic that I drew and wrote myself, is allowed as a parody. But when people grab my art, change a few words, and label it as their own, it amounts to theft. Of course people are free to make their own parodies, but they should use their own art and writing."
This once again brings up the topic of basic copyright, which does not cover ideas, only the execution of said ideas, ie only the drawings themselves are protected. But this is in turn preempted by usage of an image for purposes of parody versus derivative work (an example of this is in my recent conflation of Winslow/Simpson Homer in this panel). It's a tangled web of confusing legal and ethical interpretations, which has no easy or immediate answers. All this being said and done, I underwent major cognitive dissonance over the Piro piece, which I dug, in light of another recent parody of Peanuts, which I most decidedly did not. Heralded by many as somehow being creative geniuses for what I saw as a really really sad degradation of Schulz's work, "Peanutweeter" juxtaposed random tweets with selected panels:

No, nothing is sacred, nor should be, but pushing shock value for it's own sake doesn't counts for much these days, especially when the idea is incredibly lame and completely unoriginal. Gee, what's next, a mashup with Peanuts and porn? Wow, wouldn't that be funny (No, and yes, it's also unfortunately already been done). Point being mooted now by the inevitable legal takedown that ensued, which in itself prompted some enthusiastic debate on related comment threads. Under the guise of supposedly being "edgy" and "hilarious" this was created along the same continuum as Piro's piece, but it didn't even bother to redraw the art, just rip off and re-contextualize the original drawings, which was the underlying premise of what for many made it funny to begin with ("benign violation theory"). 

*Update: aaaand now here's Peanuts by Charles Bukowski...

**Update #2: Via a Facebook friend (h/t Anita) and Popped Culture blog comes R. Sikoryak's existential take on "Good Ol' Gregor Brown" from Masterpiece Comics:

Regardless of what one's personal opinion might be on the relative merits of either extreme, only one of these there are many examples that literally illustrate both the power of Peanuts and the First Amendment

Roy Lichtenstein, Image Duplicator, 1963

Arguably this all started getting even fuzzier courtesy of the Pop Art movement, which as one of its hallmarks began to appropriate and re-contextualize derivative works, such as the poster-child of the movement Roy Lichtenstein. This "transformative" approach to art continues today as evidenced by the infamous Novak/Cano dustup and also Eric Doeringer's blatant copying. All three of these I use in classrooms as an excellent starting point on discussions about authenticity and originality. But as I've also documented here a few times, there is a literal line that can be crossed with stealing another artist's work and passing it off as your own (like in this former student's case). 

“I've been imitated so well I've heard people copy my mistakes.” - Jimi Hendrix

Case in point: there's been a couple recent high-profile cases of plagiarism in the world of editorial cartooning. Jeff Stahler and David Simpson have both resigned their respective positions at their newspapers upon the discovery of plagiarized pieces which were cannibalized from the work of other cartoonists. In this way editorial cartoonists in particular are held to a different standard than artists, perhaps as they have one foot planted in the realm of journalism. These controversies prompted calls for an code of ethical conduct for editorial cartoonists, which given the evidently swift self-policing within the ranks and ensuing circular firing squad by fellow creators would be unnecessary.  The witch-hunt is pretty severe, in many cases deservedly so, still it's more than a little disconcerting to watch the pile-on and trial-by-comment-thread - instead of the stereotyped image of a mob of villagers with pitchforks picture a bunch of cartoonists brandishing crow-quills.

These issues of authenticity and originality affect the creator as being the only one who does everything in the production of a cartoon, to varying degrees along the continuum: using writers, pencillers, background artists, letterers, colorists, art by committee etc. - to the point where the original artist has nothing to do with the piece that bears their name (read Bill Watterson's 1989 "The Cheapening of The Comics" speech for more on that).

A couple prime examples of sub-mental advertising, or, how to broadcast idiocy

As far as the overlapping (deliberate or accidental) of content goes, one of the more ironic experiences I had during the writing of a thesis in the Sequential Art MFA program at SCAD was actually being sent home by one of my committee advisers with a copy of Gary Larson's "History of the Far Side" with instructions to read it. My long held knee-jerk reflex to avoid at any cost any inadvertent osmosis of ideas from the Far Side feature ran smack up against the glaring omission of any detailed discussion of Larson's work in my research. Dodging discussion of the influence of one of the giants in the field, who cast just as big of a shadow across the industry as Schulz did for strips, was avoiding the 800lb gorilla in the room. This instinctual deflection of Larson's work in part stems from the innumerable and inevitable comparisons I've personally endured for over twenty-five years - "Oh - you're just like the Far Side!" Comments like these mostly come from encounters with well-intentioned folks that upon seeing my gag panels for the first time immediately try and relate the cartoons to what for them is probably their sole point of reference. They simply have no experience with any other creators or features in the field beyond the most famous ones, which is aesthetically equivalent to judging all music on the basis of having already heard Justin Bieber/Brittany Spears etc. This ignorance is understandable coming from the general public, but there are many others, even established cartoonists, who fail to discriminate between obviously different styles. Case in point being that anybody who says "everybody doing single-panels is just copying Larson" needs to turn a few more pages back in the history books (at least as far as Kliban), and furthermore, anyone with a basic grasp of comics history can trace the artistic lineage of the medium (and single-panel format) over hundreds of years from as many different creators.

“The difference between a bad artist and a good one is: The bad artist seems to copy a great deal; 
the good one really does.” - William Blake

At times during the weekly sortie into the stacks at a local library I troll the waters for inspiration, but if any switches do occur it's so convoluted and removed from the original source material it is rendered unrecognizable. Studying a body of work from any artist will reveal habitual, repetition of content and execution which plays out into predictable patterns. Not unlike the music analogy above, more often than not this can eventually make one too bored to follow the artist for very long. But on the other hand, once a fan-base develops it can be a commercial deathwish to ever dare experimenting outside of an established repertoire, and many an artist has alienated or even lost their respective followings because they refused to keep cranking out the same old stuff. This "same old stuff" is also known as ones "style," and it's both a blessing and a curse. One person's groove is another person's rut, and there are many examples of cartoonists folding their funny tents before evolving into a self-parody that runs gags on fumes and has overstayed their welcome in the comics section (notably Larson's "Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons" and Watterson's rant). At the other extreme are the "legacy" strips, syndicate tent-poles which maintain a death grip on the franchise (examples include Family Circus, Dennis the Menace, Hagar the Horrible, Shoe, Prince Valiant, virtually every single superhero in the DC/Marvel pantheon, and even the Peanuts zombie). Either way there is no time-line beyond the voluntary self-imposed ones, and the debate continues about the overall future of comics, but as long as there are artists who enjoy creating work, and there is a sustaining audience who enjoys reading it, the ink will flow.

“To copy others is necessary, but to copy oneself is pathetic.” - Pablo Picasso

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