By: Rob Tornoe
In the wake of his successful Indiegogo fundraising campaign, cartoonist Bill Day has landed in the middle of a controversy that has bubbled up among political cartoonists about plagiarism and where to draw the journalistic line when it comes to reworking old cartoons and making them new.
As reported earlier this month, Day had taken to Indiegogo with the goal of raising $35,000 so that he could quit his day job at a bike shop and commit to cartooning full-time. Day has been juggling odd jobs and syndicated cartoon work ever since he was laid off by the Memphis Commercial Appeal three years ago.
Day was able to meet his goal, but an issue came to light when Alan Gardner at The Daily Cartoonist reported that Day used a 3-D image of an assault rifle, originally created for video game development, in one of his cartoons. The cartoon in question featured the weapon labeled “NRA,” and included a hand-drawn image of the U.S. Capitol building in place of the gun’s silencer.
Daryl Cagle — owner of Cagle Cartoons, which syndicates Day’s work (Full disclosure: I am a Cagle.com contributor) — said when he was alerted to allegations that Day had used the rifle image without permission, he asked Day to remove the cartoon and redraw the gun by hand. According to Cagle, Day said he thought the image of the gun was a photo, not a 3-D rendering created by another artist.
Despite the request, Cagle said there was never an issue of plagiarism, since Day altered the image sufficiently enough and transformed it into his own editorial comment on the issue of guns.
“Regarding the gun cartoon, I don’t see any plagiarism there,” Cagle said. “Had Bill Day put an attribution into his cartoon, such as ‘Apologies to Zach Fowler’ (the gun artist) I would not have asked Bill to take the cartoon down.”
It is difficult to develop editorial standards when it comes to defining plagiarism in the cartooning world. While cases such as David Simpson literally tracing the work of former Chicago Tribune cartoonist Jeff MacNelly are obvious and clear, less clear are the numerous times cartoonists working independently of one another come up with the same exact ideas (referred to as Yahtzees by Cagle).
Chicago Tribune cartoonist Scott Stantis (syndicated by Tribune Media Services) wrote in to media blogger Jim Romenesko that the New York Post plagiarized his Lance Armstrong cartoon in a recent cover image, which featured Armstrong’s iconic Livestrong bracelet replaced with the word “Liestrong.”
But as Romenesko noted, others have tweaked the name of Armstrong’s foundation in the same way, including Jamie Lee Curtis and GQ, as well as thousands of images on Google. Stantis conceded, writing, “I will give the Post the benefit of a doubt,” but the case underscores the complexity of calling out a cartoonist’s work as plagiarism.
Further clouding debate is the issue of editorial cartoonists altering their own images and repurposing them for new cartoons. Gardner linked to a Tumblr page called That Cartoon Critic that features several Day cartoons that have been reworked and updated. Some cartoonists refer to this as “self plagiarism” and decry it as lazy and hacky, while others see it as simply an opportunity for time-constrained cartoonists to take a shortcut.
Comics historian Michael Rhode, who was on the panel that awarded Day the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 2010, said he thinks that in a perfect world, editorial cartoonists would produce original and excellent new cartoons on a daily basis. But clearly, with cutbacks and layoffs adversely affecting the ranks of political cartoonists, such a perfect world doesn’t exist.
“Day has been struggling to make ends meet since being laid off by the Memphis paper, which later had the gall to attempt to buy his work through his syndicate,” Rhode said. “After working a full-time job and being let go after being injured, cartooning is a part-time job which probably doesn’t really pay any bills at all for him. I understand his reusing his own material in these circumstances.”
Rhode said that Day is hardly alone, noting that Edward Gorey’s estate is using the same technique to publish new Gorey books despite his death in 2000, and that when newspaper syndicates introduced vacations in the 1980s, readers got “Doonesbury Flashbacks,” or repeats, at least twice a year.
Cartoonist Matt Bors (syndicated by Universal Uclick) disagrees, and said he believes repurposing old cartoons and presenting them in a new light diminishes the importance of political cartoons as a whole.
“As cartoonists we should be constantly putting out new work,” Bors said. “That’s what editors and readers want, not re-worked old cartoons with new labels. It’s a sign of laziness to keep re-purposing cartoons with slightly different labels, and it’s cheating your readers.”
The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) weighed in on the issue with a press release written by the association’s board that said, “reselling old cartoons with only a few labels changed is just plain bad for both the art form and for business.”
“Like the statement says, these instances are damaging … and are very rare,” said Matt Wuerker, staff cartoonist for Politico (syndicated by Universal Uclick) and current AAEC president. “The best thing cartoonists can do to promote the profession is to focus on putting out the sharpest and most original work they can themselves.”
The release struck a chord with Jeff Darcy, cartoonist for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, who defended Day’s long career and said Day created “impressive cartoons with sophisticated draftsmanship,” noting that even Walt Disney employed similar time-saving methods.
“Now that the editorial cartooning standards and practices department has run its high horse over Bill Day, how about it run it over to the next convention of publishers and editors and lobby in person for retaining and hiring editorial cartoonists,” Darcy wrote on the Daily Cartoonist. “[That way] cartoonists like Day can be gainfully employed and not have to employ time and energy-saving shortcuts.”
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.