Tuesday, May 31, 2016


       "To live is to war with trolls"  -- Ibsen

This week I gave a talk on copyright law at the annual convention of the National Cartoonists Society (always a fun event).  My talk included an Eight Minute History of Thievery in Cartooning, recounting some of the colorful disputes over who created what.  This post is taken from that talk.

The history of comics is streaked with plagiarism like bacon is streaked with fat.

In fact, the very first comic strip resulted in a huge copyright battle.  Richard Outcault, who created the Yellow Kid in 1895, found himself competing with a duplicate Yellow Kid in a rival newspaper:

dueling Yellow Kids by Outcault (left) and George Luks (right)
Rudolph Dirks created The Katzenjammer Kids in 1897 but when he asked for a vacation his syndicate tried to replace him with another artist, Harold Knerr.  Dirks sued to regain his strip but after a long court battle,  Dirks and Knerr ended up with two virtually identical strips: The Captain and The Kids and The Katzenjammer Kids The two strips competed for audiences for 67 years, from 1912 to 1979.  When The Captain and The Kids finally folded, both creators were already dead.

Virtually identical characters by Dirks (left) and Knerr (right)
In 1933,  Ham Fisher hired a young assistant, Al Capp, to help with his comic strip,  Joe Palooka.   Capp noticed that one of the characters in the strip, a large bumbling mountain man called Big Leviticus, was popular with readers so Capp quietly developed his own strip about another large bumbling mountain man, Li'l Abner, and sold it to a rival syndicate.

A strong resemblance: Fisher's Big Leviticus (left) and Capp's Li'l Abner (right)
When Fisher discovered what Capp had done, he went ballistic.  He claimed that Capp had stolen his ideas, and reminded readers that "the original hillbillies" were in Joe Palooka.  His ads urged readers not to be "fooled by imitators."  Capp and Fisher descended into a bitter feud which lasted 20 years.  When Fisher finally committed suicide in 1955, Capp crowed that he considered it “a personal victory,” saying that driving Fisher to suicide was his "greatest accomplishment.” 

As you can tell, the early years of cartooning saw a lot of heated battles involving different kinds of borrowing, copyright infringement and plagiarism.  But cartoonists in the early decades never dreamed how sophisticated and lucrative theft could be.  In later years, what was once criticized as "theft" came to be renamed "appropriation art" or "repurposing" or "transformative use" or "sampling" or "re-contextualiation." What all of these new categories have in common is that they represent minor, unimaginative art. 

The legitimization of this type of borrowing began with pop art.  Bill Overgard's panel from his 1961 strip, Steve Roper was copied by Roy Lichtenstein.  When reporters questioned Lichtenstein he responded, "What I do is form, whereas the comic strip is not formed in the sense I'm using the word."  Overgard replied, "he said he never copies them exactly, [but] he comes pretty close..."

Fast forward a couple of decades and you encounter the fine artist Erró (Guðmundur Guðmundsson) who specializes in copying other people's comic art, redrawing it in a mash up, and selling it as his own fine art.  When cartoonist Brian Bolland visited the gift shop at the Pompidou Center in France, he found that Erró had copied Bolland's cover for Tank Girl in a fine art poster.  Bolland's name had been carefully deleted from his picture.
Bolland standing in front of Erró's poster
Bolland wrote a long, thoughtful letter on social media which shamed Erró into turning over his unsold inventory of prints to Bolland.

But Lichtenstein and Erró are amateurs compared to Richard Prince who shamelessly steals from illustrators, cartoonists and other commercial art.  For example, Prince copied this cartoon as a work of fine art...

...which recently sold at auction in 2012 for $812,500:

Once when Prince was sued for copyright infringement, he offered this legal theory for his borrowing, along with his personal opinion of the lawyer who filed the lawsuit:
I hated that lawyer; that lawyer was really an asshole.  I just wanted to be like-- my attitude was like, Dude, this is my artwork, and you are a square.  You are a fucking square.  For me, it's like I wasn't going to be a part of his world, I wasn't going to acknowledge his world. ... Copyright?  That's absurd."
Finally, no history of theft in cartooning would be complete without mentioning ebay.   An excellent example is the following gentleman who, under the name "fosworld," was selling fake Calvin & Hobbes artwork as originals on ebay.


The scam was easy to confirm because the cartoonist, Bill Watterson, had donated those originals to The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University where they reside today.  When confronted, the seller continued to sell the fake strips, dodging and weaving and offering various excuses.  Complaints to ebay about the seller were slow to get a response; ebay is notorious for ignoring intellectual property rights in situations where ebay might make a quick buck from somebody else's fraud.

Finally the outrage over the Calvin & Hobbes forgeries became hot enough that fosworld quietly shifted to other, less troublesome inventory.  To my knowledge none of fosworld's victims ever got their money back.  If you encounter one of them, tell them to write fosworld. 

Theft in cartooning continues to mutate and evolve as fast as cartooning itself, and the internet is the perfect petri dish.  Be careful out there!

Monday, May 16, 2016


This weeks marks the 100th anniversary of Norman Rockwell's first painting for the Saturday Evening Post.

Rockwell's relationship with the Post continued for 47 years and included 323 covers.  It was one of the most important and remarkable creative associations of the 20th century.


At its peak, the Post enjoyed a circulation of 6.2 million readers.  People in small towns without a museum or library looked forward to receiving the Post cover each week; for some, illustrations in publications were their only contact with art.  People in those days before television or the internet lingered over the covers.   Rockwell had a far larger audience than Picasso. 

In what was called "the Century of the Common Man," Rockwell's covers helped to serve as glue for a nation by visualizing a common human nature through two World Wars and the Great Depression.

Rockwell's famous "Four Freedoms" first appeared in the Post
Rockwell didn't know it at the time, but his audience included some of the great image makers of the future.  His Post covers had a profound influence on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, starting when they were young boys.  His covers taught the young film makers how to frame a story, prioritize the elements of a scene and lead the eye around a picture.  Said Lucas: "He was able to sum up the story and make you want to read the story, but actually understand who the people were, what their motives were, everything in one little frame."

Rockwell's high standards are truly inspiring.  He painted "100%" in gold on his easel to remind himself always to do his very best.      

The centennial of Rockwell's first cover is being celebrated this week by the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Philipp Rupprecht (1900-1975) illustrated children's books in Germany to help warn children about the dangers of Jews.

Jewish perverts attempt to lure Aryan children with candy

Learning to recognize Jews by the shapes of their noses
His knack for drawing Jews earned him a position as the political cartoonist for the Nazi newspaper, The Stormtrooper, where he worked enthusiastically from 1925 to 1945.

 "Jewish Murder Plan against Gentile Humanity Revealed"

Wealthy Jews attempt to seduce blonde women with money
 The editorial policy of The Stormtrooper was not subtle: "The Jewish people ought to be exterminated root and branch."

Hitler believed the arts were a crucial tool for shaping public opinion.  His government commissioned thousands of patriotic works and sponsored art competitions and festivals in villages and towns to reinforce his message with the public.  Recognizing the importance of political cartoons, the government released Rupprecht from military service so he could continue drawing for The Stormtrooper.  Hitler supported the newspaper until the end of the war, despite shortages and competing demands for resources.

Those were truly the golden years for government sponsored hate mongering.   Since that time, funding seems to have tapered off. 

This may be partly because things didn't work out so well for poor Philipp.   At the end of World War II, with Germany in ruins,  Rupprecht was put on trial for his role as a cheerleader for the massacre of millions of innocents.  He was sentenced to six years hard labor.  After his release from prison he worked quietly as a painter in Munich until his death in 1975.

Despite the mountains of meticulous documentation produced during the war crimes trials, some still refuse to believe the concentration camps occurred.   Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has repeatedly complained about “the myth of the massacre of Jews known as the Holocaust,” asserting that “The Holocaust is an event whose reality is uncertain and if it has happened, it’s uncertain how it has happened.”

Khamenei's words alone have proven unpersuasive to most sane people, so Iranian forces have begun a talent search for the next Philipp Rupprecht.  Perhaps pictures can galvanize public opinion where words have failed. 

In December 2015 the Tehran International Cartoon Biennial announced a cash prize of $50,000 for the best cartoon about the Holocaust.  An exhibition displaying 150 of the best Holocaust cartoons from the Tehran  Biennial will open this week, timed to coincide with the anniversary of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

When the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was confronted with the contest he attempted to minimize the government's official role, but the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum did an excellent job of tracking the funding for the competition to official Iranian sources.