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Did New Yorker cartoonist plagiarize from The Far Side?

Gelf magazine is wondering if a New Yorker cartoonist is plagiarizing a Gary Larson cartoon. In this week’s latest New Yorker is a cartoon by Lee Lorenz, a former art director at the magazine, which depicts a man feeding birds in a park and appears to be attacked and eaten by the birds. A very similar cartoon was done by Gary in 1984 (see above link for scans of the two cartoons).

Bob Mankoff “guarantees” that Lee is not a plagiarizer. Additionally, he is quoted as saying:

“Often in the same week different cartoonists will independently come up with identical ideas. Other times cartoonists generate ideas that have been previously published in the magazine. This is not plagiarism; rather it is the result of very creative people developing many ideas from a few well-established, well-traveled cartoon settings.”

Hat tip: E&P

Community Comments

#1 Dawn Douglass
@ 10:10 am

If there’s a pattern of somebody’s cartoons strongly resembling somebody else’s, then I would fire the cartoonist. If it’s one or two, hey, people come up with similar ideas all the time.

This particular gag seems like an inevitable idea that would naturally occur to more than one mind.

#2 Mark Steinman
@ 10:48 am

Are there any Charles Addams aficionados out there? I could be mistaken, but didn’t he do a similar cartoon?

#3 Josh McDonald
@ 10:49 am

This is actually something I worry about in my own work. Especially when a good idea seems to come quickly and easily, I have to start looking through every cartoon collection I can find to make sure it isn’t someone else’s cartoon emerging from the dark depths of my memory.

#4 Scott Metzger
@ 10:53 am

Mankoff’s explanation summed it up. Many cartoonists have similar, whacked-out minds that will eventually hit on similar ideas.

Dawn, as you said, if there’s a pattern of it- then that’s a red flag. But every so often something like this is bound to happen.

I once got an angry email from some guy who claimed I ripped off a Bizarro cartoon in a greeting card I did. (It was a “husband and wife communicating” kind of gag.) He even scanned and attached the Bizarro cartoon I “stole.” I admit, they were pretty similar—but then again, a lot of people are married and run into similar situations when communicating with their spouses.

I actually emailed him back stating my case but he wasn’t buying it. he was convinced I ripped him off. Oh well.

#5 Mike Lester
@ 11:46 am

“Are there any Charles Addams aficionados out there? I could be mistaken, but didnâ??t he do a similar cartoon?”

I’m going w/ Alfred Hitchcock as the originator but this gag could easily date to cave painting. Writing is always going to have a chicken / egg component. The criminality of tracing and appropriating anothers style has no similar defense. Unless you’re drawing a legacy strip in which case forget everything I just said.

#6 Rich Diesslin
@ 12:24 pm

That’s why the art is copyrighted and the gags are not. There is no way to prove where the ideas originated and there isn’t all that much new under the sun. It’s very often old gags played through new characters and/or circumstance that still give us a chuckle. Not on purpose, just the way it works out. Often as cartoonists and writers we think we’ve come up with something unique, but like everyone above has said, it’s likely to be very close to things already done and we can never be sure. It may be new to us, but truly unique insights are rare.

#7 JBoy
@ 1:18 pm

“Did New Yorker cartoonist plagiarize from The Far Side?”


#8 Rick Stromoski
@ 4:30 pm

â??Are there any Charles Addams aficionados out there? I could be mistaken, but didnâ??t he do a similar cartoon?â?

The Addams cartoon had a person feeding seeds to pidgeons on one bench and Uncle Fester feeding pieces of carrion to vultures.

#9 Dawn Douglass
@ 4:49 pm

Okay, this was way back in 1995, before a lot of people were on the Web and before Dilbert became a blockbuster. I was talking to Scott Adams via email for awhile, and he told me he thought people were crazy to put their cartoons online. He said that so-called gag writers were always trying to sell him ideas, and he knew that many of them had been lifted from web cartoonists. I guess these robbers thought nobody would notice or care. I’d like to think that web cartoons get a bit more respect these days, but sometimes I wonder.

I also wonder how many cartoonists nowdays use gag-writers. Seems to me you’d really be putting your reputation and feature at risk when it’s so easy to get caught these days, should somebody sell you a lifted gag.

Maybe it’s a moot point today. Most cartoonists don’t make enough money to pay writers, even if they wanted to.

#10 Jeff Vella
@ 5:03 pm

Dawn said, “If thereâ??s a pattern of somebodyâ??s cartoons strongly resembling somebody elseâ??s, then I would fire the cartoonist. If itâ??s one or two, hey, people come up with similar ideas all the time.”

I just wanted to add to her point, The cartoonist in question doesn’t always have to show a pattern to be accused of plagiarism.

About 5+ years ago a cartoonist was accused of plagiarizing Bob Englehart (from the Hartford Courant). When I saw the cartoons side-by-side, the cartoonist in question not only repeated Englehart’s idea in the comic, but the characters in the comic were identical to Englehart’s artwork. The guy must have traced it on his light table, signed his name to it and passed it off as his own.

Thats plagiarism at it’s worst.

#11 Wiley Miller
@ 5:07 pm

“The Addams cartoon had a person feeding seeds to pidgeons on one bench and Uncle Fester feeding pieces of carrion to vultures.”

I remember that one, but I also seem to recall another one by Addams that was about 6 panels, where a guy is feeding pigeons while sitting on a park bench, then in each panel, more pigeons arrive, engulfing him, then the last panel is the skeleton.

#12 Jim Bertram
@ 5:12 pm

As a cartoonist, I have had the same concerns that Josh mentioned.
I hope this doesn’t make me a plagiarizer of someone else’s comments :-)

#13 Anne Hambrock
@ 5:17 pm

Wiley, your recollection is correct. The skeleton scenario that you are remembering is a cartoon I grew up with, as my dad had it in a book of collected works of Chas Addams. I read it in the 60’s and the book was published at the very latest in the 50’s so the gag is at least as old as that. Also, upon reading the recent bio of Addams, I discovered that a huge percentage of his cartoons were written by New Yorker staff gag writers (the norm rather than the exception at that time). It may be that since New Yorker staff cartoonists did the gag in the first place it was safe for a New Yorker artist to go to that well again with impunity.

Or it’s a complete coincidence.

#14 josh s.
@ 7:33 pm

When I saw that cartoon in the magazine I almost did a double-take. I thought it looked like an old Far Side panel. Now I know I wasn’t the only one. Makes sense that Charles Addams did one, too.

I highly doubt the cartoonist deliberately lifted either gag. There’s a better than average likelihood that Lee saw one or both of the comics in the past, but I would be surprised if he (or is it she?) sat down at the drawing board one day and said, “Hey, why don’t I rip off Gary Larsen today?”

Then again, I make an effort to rip off the Chiffons every chance I get.

#15 Darrin Bell
@ 7:51 pm

Any cartoonist who’s ever fed birds in a park could easily come up with that idea, without ever reading either the Far Side or the New Yorker.

#16 JBoy
@ 8:06 pm

True ’nuff, Darrin.

Given Lorenz’s long and distinguished career, though, I’ll wager he thought “this HAS to have been done already” when he scribbled out the human-eating pigeons idea.

#17 Anne Hambrock
@ 8:32 pm

The Addams ‘toon in question can be found page 24 in “Black Maria” published in 1960.

The copyright page contains the following notes:

“Of the ninety-two drawings in this book, the fifty-seven appearing on the following pages were originally in the New Yorker and were copyrighted in the respective years shown by the New Yorker In.:

(Here follows a list that does not include page 24)

“The four drawings appearing on pages 18, 28, 32 and 42 first appeared in Holiday. Twenty one drawings appeared in newspapers as a McClure syndicate feature, and ten have never been published.”

The bird cartoon is not listed on any of the attributed pages and therefor must have been unpublished before the book or one of the 21 newspaper drawings. i.e. it never appeared in the New Yorker.

The cartoon itself shows a man in a pin striped suit standing with a bag of seed in one hand , his other hand outstreched to fee the first 2 birds. By panel 4 he is completely engulfed and panel 5 is the skeleton.

(I know, I know – I take my Addams cartoons way too seriously!!)

#18 Malc McGookin
@ 9:58 pm

OK, I think we’re pretty much in agreement there was no plagiarism, and I said so on the sitelinked, but one other interesting point was that it gave me a different slant on the gag, namely that the man feeding the pigeons could (in the last panel) end up surrounded by the dead bodies of all the pigeons and have an evil smile on his face. I saw him in my mind as wearing a large brimmed hat with his face in shadow.

I even stretched the gag to say he could be walking out of the final panel wearing a boilersuit with “Bob’s Pest Control” written on the back.

Anyway, it was AFTER that I clicked a supplied link to a Mad Magazine cartoon and found that “my” idea had already been done!

#19 Rick Stromoski
@ 4:57 am

The thing that I find most curious is how Mankoff would decide that Lorenz’s idea was the first time it ever saw print and was fit to publish. It’s almost a cliche’ at this point and the sheer numbers of cartoonists who’ve seen it before attest that it shouldn’t have been selected for publication.

Maybe I’ll submit a drawing of a businessman on the phone withe the caption “No, Thursday’s out. How about never â?? is never good for you?”

#20 Dan Olson
@ 10:01 am

Malc McGookin wrote

“OK, I think weâ??re pretty much in agreement there was no plagiarism, and I said so on the sitelinked, but one other interesting point was that it gave me a different slant on the gag, namely that the man feeding the pigeons could (in the last panel) end up surrounded by the dead bodies of all the pigeons and have an evil smile on his face. I saw him in my mind as wearing a large brimmed hat with his face in shadow.”

Ah, Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” a true classic.

#21 Dawn Douglass
@ 11:14 am

When we lived in Hawaii, we loved going to Hanauma Bay to snorkel. We’d take frozen green peas to feed the fish. They’d swarm from all over. It was wonderful, because there were so many beautifully colored fish.

I always thought it would be funny to do an animation of that, with the swarming fish attracting a big shark and eating up the snorkler along with the fish. Now I don’t dare ever use the idea! Too bad.

When we went back to Hawaii a couple of years agoa to welcome our son home from Iraq, I learned that they don’t allow you to feed the fish anymore. I understand it, but it was still disappointing.

#22 Martha
@ 5:42 pm

None of you are seriously suggesting that Lee Lorenz, after decades of art and authoring, intentionally ripped off someone else’s idea so he could get one more spot in The New Yorker, are you? I mean, come on.

#23 Martha Lorenz
@ 5:42 pm

None of you are seriously suggesting that Lee Lorenz, after decades of art and authoring, intentionally ripped off someone else’s idea so he could get one more spot in The New Yorker, are you? I mean, come on.

Full disclosure: Yes, I am related to him. He’s my dad.

#24 Tim O'Brien
@ 9:07 pm

I once submitted a cartoon to the New Yorker that I later found was almost precisely the same gag as something Bob Mankoff himself had done ten years ago. I didn’t copy his cartoon; I had never seen it before I drew mine. We just both spontaneously came up with the same gag. I’m of the opinion that these types of inadvertent similarities can’t be avoided.

As an illustrative exercise, check out Daryl Cagle’s Professional Cartoonists Index. On any day, there might be a half dozen strikingly similar editorial cartoons on a given topic. It’s so common that Cagle has given a word to the phenomenon: Yahtzee. Since the cartoonists produced their work on essentially the same day, clearly they didn’t plagiarize each other, they were simply working with a limited range of topics and independently came up with the same take on an issue. How hard to is it to believe that two gag or strip cartoonists contemplated the same scenario and pushed the idea into the absurd in much the same way, thereby producing much the same cartoons? That this could have happened with so commonplace a setting as a person feeding birds in the park is scarcely hard to believe. On the contrary, I’d be surprised if there aren’t a couple of dozen very similar variations on it floating around.

Finally, as to the specific notion that a cartoonist of the caliber and reputation of Lee Lorenz copied anyone else’s work, I have one word: gimmeabreak.

#25 jack corbett
@ 3:04 pm

This idea has been done before, by, I think, Playboy cartoonist, Shoemaker.

#26 dan reynolds
@ 4:16 pm

My name is Dan Reynolds. I am a cartoonist. I once was SUED by someone (I won’t mention the name, but you all know this person) by someone who claimed I stole his cartoon. First off, it was proposterous as I WRITE MY OWN material and draw my own work and have done so for years. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll take the day off and go and find someone to copy”. Secondly, the cartoon the guy claimed I stole was a cartoon in which I changed the names of a group of well-known characters – I won’t mention the characters. This “changing of the names” as a spoof is one of the oldest gag ideas, after the person on the deserted island gag. There was no convincing this person. It cost me $500 to defend myself AND I WAS INNOCENT!!! When considering if someone is stealing from someone, I would consider first, what’s the person’s track record. I’ve never been accused before or after – and why should I – I write my own material. Now, that isn’t to say, it’s not possible to do a cartoon, HONESTLY, w/o prior knowledge, very similar to someone else’s cartoon. It is. Gary Larson once did a cartoon idea that I had. It was his Moses parting his hair. That was MY idea. Did he steal it. No. Of course, not. Lee Lorenz has been drawing cartoons for years. There’s no doubt in my mind he did not steal that cartoon. What’s his motivation? None. Was his plan…I’ll steal Larson’s idea that half the population has seen before and post it in the New Yorker where everyone can see, and maybe no one will notice. Er,,,yeah, great plan.
No, I think the more interesting question is why someone would JUMP to the conclusion that a well-known cartoonist would do such a stupid thing when they obvioulsy didn’t…and post this accusation for the world to see. Why? This person is most likely jealous they’re not getting the EARNED attention that Lee Lorenz is gets for the HARD WORK he does in being a cartoonist. I say the focus should not be on Lee who has done nothing wrong, but on the person who like to run around like the boy who cried wolf, getting themselves noticed.
This person should get an original thought, draw it as a cartoon, and try to publish it on something other than a chat line. I doubt that will happen. If this person needs any help, they can find a FAR SIDE book in their local bookstore, and make a xerox copy and sign their name to it.

#27 Eric Burke
@ 5:29 am

I think Gelf magazine is ripping off Golf Magazine.

Imagine a golfer’s surprise when he thinks he bought a magazine that would help him with his swing, or to read the latest on how Tiger is dominating golf and married a super hot wife…only to realize it’s some crappy mag called Gelf?

They played Letter-man and changed one simple vowel in hopes of stealing sales. Hacks!

#28 jack corbett
@ 1:29 pm

I didn’t mean to imply that Lorenz stole the idea fm someone else. Ever cartoonist who has been around for at least 6 months has had dup ideas w/ another cartoonist. I once sold an elephant cartoon to SEP and over the years I found the same idea by other cartoonists 3 times. Two of the similiar ideas were published by SEP! And I can’t tell you how many of my ideas that I’ve had on file for years have been published in top magazines like the New Yorker. Which promptly killed my cartoon.

#29 Steve Barr
@ 8:53 am

Many years ago, I created a comic strip called “Snapdragon” for Tribune Media Services. It was not widely circulated, and died within the first 12 months of its inception. It was later revived as a weekly feature for several years.

I once drew a strip with a pun in it about a character “grinding his teeth” in his sleep. Quite some time later, a very similar gag appeared in “Hagar the Horrible”. Did I leap to the conclusion that someone as talented as the great Dik Browne would have stolen my idea?

No, I was honored to think that he came up with a similar ideaâ?¦independently of mineâ?¦and thought it was funny enough to print. Never, even for a second, did I assume he might have seen my idea and copied it.

Having been a fan of Lee Lorenz’s work for many years, I would never imagine he intentionally plagiarized another artist’s idea.

The infamous Gill Fox once wrote an article for a trade publication on this very subject. The article was illustrated with an array of reprints of political cartoons by a variety of artists around the world, all published on the same day. They featured fighter planes buzzing in one ear and out the other of a major Middle Eastern political figure. There was absolutely no way any of these cartoonists could have stolen the idea from each other.

It just happens sometimes. To make a charge of plagiarism implies theft of intellectual property and intentionally copying ideas. There’s no way I would ever believe someone of Lee Lorenz’s stature in this field would do such a thing.

#30 Padma Rubiales
@ 1:39 pm

There was another very similar cartoon to a Larson cartoon in the Aug 27, 2007 New Yorker. Shanahan did a cartoon of an elephant who stepped on a clown, looking at his foot and saying “I thought I smelled something funny.”

Gary Larson, in Far Side Gallery 2, copyright 1980-86, page 177, shows an elephant stepping on a caveman and sayng “Well, what the? I thought I smelled something.”

Hecka similar if you ask me.

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