by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
November 7, 2001
SEATTLE -- During my years as Cartoon Editor of the old Saturday Review (under the editorship of Norman Cousins and then Carll Tucker) I often received 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 bed with a seal draped across the headboard (She: "All right, have it your way, you heard a seal bark."). Or one that depicted the tracks of adownhill skier, one 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 therefore immune to direct theft (though cartoons that "quote" them are okay).
Certain cartoon situations are beyond "quotation." They have the classic shape of a verse or musical form. Originality consists in filling the pattern with original content. The "man on the desert island" is one such pattern. Another is the drunk staggering in his front 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 our systems, once asked all of us to submit for one issue nothing but desert island gags. I recall this as immensely stimulating. The whole point of a classic set-form is that it stimulates the imagination to come up with something new.
That is the case with meter and rhyme in verse. Robert Frost once famously remarked that writing "free" verse was like playing tennis without the net.
It seldom occurred to me that the duplicate or near-duplicate gags submitted to me at SR were intentional plagiarism. I am too familiar with the ease - perhaps I should not be giving this away - with which any experienced cartoonist invents funny drawings.
Sam Gross, the brilliant New Yorker cartoonist, once said at a meeting of the Cartoonists Guild that anyone who could walk down Fifth Avenue for half an hour and not come up with twenty ideas ought to look for otherwork.
All this is by way of leading up to this recent anecdote.
In the New Yorker for 10 September 2001 there appeared a drawing by Michael Crawford. It had a label: FRENCH ARMY KNIFE, and the gag, a switch on the familiar ads for the Swiss Army Knife, depicted all the many blades as ... corkscrews. Ha ha.
Trouble is, I had published the identical idea, down to the identical label 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 a pseudonym: 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 years 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 two cartoons, and ... an ordinary rejection slip.
I'm not sure whether this was mere incompetence, a joke, or an insult. When I send Bob a copy of this Ink Soup we might learn more.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.