Vol. 12, No. 3,009 - The American Reporter - October 19, 2006

by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
Seattle, Wash.

Printable version of this story

SEATTLE -- During my years as Cartoon Editor of the old Saturday Review = (under the editorship of Norman Cousins and then Carll Tucker) I often rece= ived in the mail a drawing that strongly reminded me of something I'd seen = before.

No one had the nerve to send me a picture of a man and woman in bedwith = a seal draped across the headboard (She: "All right, have it yourway, you h= eard a seal bark."). Or one that depicted the tracks of adownhill skier, on= e on one side and one on the other side of a giant tree.

Those drawings by Thurber and Chas. Addams were much too famous and the= refore immune to direct theft (though cartoons that "quote" them are okay).

Certain cartoon situations are beyond "quotation." They have the classi= c shape of a verse or musical form. Originality consists infilling the pat= tern with original content. The "man on the desertisland" is one such patt= ern. Another is the drunk staggering in hisfront door to be greeted by his= wife, armed with a rolling pin, behind it.

The cartoon editor of Esquire, probably hoping to get it out of oursyste= ms, once asked all of us to submit for one issue nothing but desertisland g= ags. I recall this as immensely stimulating. The whole point ofa classic = set-form is that it stimulates the imagination to come up withsomething new= .

That is the case with meter and rhyme in verse. Robert Frost oncefamous= ly remarked that writing "free" verse was like playing tenniswithout the ne= t.

It seldom occurred to me that the duplicate or near-duplicate gagssubm= itted to me at SR were intentional plagiarism. I am too familiarwith the e= ase -- perhaps I should not be giving this away -- with which anyexperience= d cartoonist invents funny drawings.

Sam Gross, the brilliant New Yorker cartoonist, once said at a meetingof= the Cartoonists Guild that anyone who could walk down Fifth Avenue forhalf= an hour and not come up with twenty ideas ought to look for otherwo= rk.

All this is by way of leading up to this recent anecdote.

In the New Yorker for 10 September 2001 there appeared a drawing byMicha= el Crawford. It had a label: FRENCH ARMY KNIFE, and the gag, a switc= h on the familiar ads for the Swiss Army Knife, depicted all themany blades= as ... corkscrews. Ha ha.

Trouble is, I had published the identical idea, down to the identical la= bel and even the identical fleur de lys symbol on the knife, in the = Princeton Packet on 13 May 1981. I signed my drawings then with apseudonym:= Flynn Belloc. This now seems silly, but I did not wish to advertise to the= Dean of the Faculty that I was publishing silly drawings on the side.

Never for a moment did I suppose that Crawford had stolen my idea, but I= was amused enough to send my old colleague Bob Mankoff, now Cartoon Editor= of the New Yorker, photocopies of the two drawings separated only by 20 ye= ars and the fact that my corkscrews were better drawn.

A month or so passed. Finally a large flat envelope from the New Yorker= arrived. I eagerly opened it, hoping to enjoy some intricate squirming by= way of explanation. What I found was my letter, the twocartoons, and ... = an ordinary rejection slip.

I'm not sure whether this was mere incompetence, a joke, or an insult. W= hen I send Bob a copy of this Ink Soup we might learn more.

Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus ofCompara= tive Literature at Princeton University.

Copyright 2006 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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