Discussion: Can a cartoonist plagiarize own work?

Earlier today, I posted a blurb about New York Post cartoonist Sean Delonas who is being criticized by some for running essentially the same cartoon twice – merely altering the drawing, or redrawing (tracing) it from a previous cartoon of his.

Rob Tornoe, who was the first to point out Sean’s re-drawings, now alleges that today’s cartoon by Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial cartoonist David Horsey is a rework of a cartoon that was originally drawn/published back in 2001.

The Bad Cartoonist railed on Jeff Stahler back in February for redrawing the same cartoon (different dialog balloons) within a months time of each printing. Back then he wrote:

It appears that most of the cartoon was simply redrawn, so at least he didnâ??t trace himself, but the lines on his wife look suspicious. In either case, he was so short on ideas he took a cartoon that he did LESS THAN A MONTH AGO, changed the text and clocked in for a full days work. What? Has drawing yourself become too time consuming that you have to borrow a cartoon from yourself? Most cartoonists wait at least a quarter before they start to rehash their old ideas, but one month is pushing it. At least he remembered the mug

What is the standard when it comes to reworking one’s own cartoons. Is it laziness as the Bad Cartoonist suggests? Time-Efficiency? Acceptable practice? Would George Will get away with re-running a former column, with slightly word changes to address a different topic – or the even the same subject.

What do you think?

UPDATE: David Horsey, in addition to the comments below, has written a blog post on his blog regarding the matter.

However, I wasn’t trying to deceive anyone. I assumed plenty of folks would remember the cartoon. It was reprinted in the book Tornoe has on his shelf, From Hanging Chad to Baghdad, and I’ve used it over and over again in public presentations. When I read that Pres. Bush was closing his term in office having tea with Queen Elizabeth, I thought it would be fun to revisit the image I had drawn of their first tea time, to give it a new spin and, for online readers, present it in color. It didn’t seem like such a controversial idea. Apparently, I was mistaken.

55 thoughts on “Discussion: Can a cartoonist plagiarize own work?

  1. Plagarism? No.

    “Lazy-Ass Cartooning?” Yes.

    Folks have been getting up in arms about folks like Tim Buckley basically rehashing his art for years. What else is new?

  2. Interesting question, Alan … Is your bandwidth ready for the deluge?

    I’m initially reminded of a fairly recent book by Derrick Bang entitled “Charles M. Schulz: Li’l Beginnings.” It’s astonishing how many of Sparky’s original Li’l Folks gags found their way into Peanuts.

    Sometimes it was the gag’s general premise. Other times, the punch lines were repeated word-for-word.

    What’s that famous quote George Lucas always refers to when he re-releases a re-worked Star Wars? “Great art is never finished, only abandoned …”

    Or something like that 🙂

  3. This is a bad rap. The truth is that plagiarizing is a common technique used by a lot of great artists. Great artists like Milli Vanilli for instance.

    Cartoon plagiarizing regardless of the source is essentially lip-synching without the spandex.

    It’s fun. It’s easy and, like a great toupe’, no one can tell!

    (great toupe’: a contradiction in terms.)

  4. Itâ??s astonishing how many of Sparkyâ??s original Liâ??l Folks gags found their way into Peanuts.

    I can forgive a rework of an idea or gag if it’s for a completely different audience, but in the cases cited above, the cartoons are published in the same paper, for the same audience – it does feel like the cartoonist is cheating.

  5. I remember reading a book by Ben Crenshaw (sp?) where he basically encouraged reusing artwork with different gags and sending them out to as many magazines as possible to maximize your income potential. Seems dumb to try to pull this over on the same publication in the same year.

  6. I have no idea what these cartoonists are thinking. You’re being paid an honest days wage for an honest days work. You’re cheating your employer and your readers if you do this. If you need a day off, take a day off. This is ridiculous.

    Now pardon me while I go crank up Milli Vanilli on my iPod. He was the best.

    Incidentally, when he dies, can I justifiably reuse one of my own hack obit cartoons and just relabel it for Milli Vanilli? I could claim it’s subtle irony wrapped in spandex, or something like that.

  7. Is it lazy cartooning?

    Are we all guilty of doing it to some degree?

    Is it an acceptable practice?
    If you do it right! 🙂

    Is it cheating?
    I think that’s a rather severe term for such minor infraction.

    This is one of those self-regulating items. If a cartoonist does this sort of thing too much, the readers loose interest. And, by the way, I think columnists are far more guilty of this practice than cartoonists.

  8. The same cartoon in the same publication two months later is ridiculous, but I don’t have a problem with cartoonists reworking a gag with different word balloons, or whatever, for different audiences, or even the same audience years down the road IF the cartoonist is on staff at the publication and is just doing it to fill in for vacation time or something like that.

    I do think it needs to be a true rework, though, that turns it into a different, updated gag. A lot of art is very flexible and can be written in all kinds of ways, as those “provide the caption” type gags prove.

  9. “The same cartoon in the same publication two months later is ridiculous…”

    That’s a perfect example of not doing it right. You need to have years pass in order to pull it off. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into my file cabinet to mine material from 1996.

  10. “Thatâ??s a perfect example of not doing it right. You need to have years pass in order to pull it off.”

    The only difference there is you are betting less people will notice. It’s still doing the same thing. I second Nick’s comments. You are being paid. Act like it.

    Thinking of reworking an old joke? At least take the time to change the drawing–make it from a different angle or something.

    Better yet, tell your editor you just can’t do it today and they need to run a syndicated cartoonist in the spot. Take the extra time to think of something original like your job description says. Do backup cartoons for the days when you can’t think of anything on evergreen topics with a long shelf life.

  11. So the feeling seems to be that editorial cartooning should be above reworking the art, yet comic strips do it ALL THE TIME.

    What’s the difference? That the cartoonist was on staff? Or is it something more than that?

  12. A comic like Dilbert is simple and drawn on the computer…I assume he plops the same files into panels and changes the expression. Who would blame him?

    Sometimes in a cartoon you repeat the same image for multiple panels while someone is talking, for effect. Gorrell does this often to varying degrees of success.

    But I think when you take a one panel comic with two specific characters and an ornate rug and simply reissue it with new text, it’s clearly laziness and should be avoided.

  13. DDouglas: “yet comic strips do it ALL THE TIME.

    Ya’ think???? Why would anybody spend a day of their precious dwindling lives re-drawing Dagwood asleep on a couch?

    I was wrong in my earlier analogy: it’s not like a great toupe’. To re-draw your own sh*t is like wearing your toupe’ backwards and hoping nobody notices.

  14. Give me a freakinâ?? break. Cartoonists and artists have always revisited old themes and images. When I saw that Bush was ending his years in office having tea with the queen it reminded me of one of my favorite cartoons from his first months as president. I was happy to revisit the old cartoon and I HOPED people would remember it. That was kind of the point â?? bookends to a failed presidency.

    I have drawn thousands of cartoons in my career and won accolades for a few of them. Donâ??t call me lazy, I was just having fun with my readers. If you critics with a stick up your butt are annoyed, why donâ??t you go to art school and learn how to draw yourselves.

  15. Mr. Horsey: “learn how to draw yourselves.”

    I did but I keep looking like Bambi as a lumberjack.

    PRO-ARTIST TIP #34: Aping yourself helps if you’ve got “Girl You Know It’s True” stuck in you head.

  16. “Yaâ?? think???? Why would anybody spend a day of their precious dwindling lives re-drawing Dagwood asleep on a couch?”

    I guess for the same reason that you want them to re-draw a man on a street corner holding a sign.

    I understand the problem if the person is on staff and expected to create new material each time, but it seems to me that a drawing is a drawing. So I’m just trying to understand the double-standard between comics strips and editorial cartoons. I’m not saying it’s unreasonable, I just want to hear the reasons.

    Matt, it sounds like you’re saying that the No-rework rule is not limited to editorial cartoons but panel gags, too.

    OR is it better to say that the difference is really character strip vs. gag strip. Seems to me that something like Marmeduke could get away with it okay, too.

    Yeah, I think ongoing character (even Bush!) vs. “walk on” character is probably the line. But then “average Joe” could probably move back and forth across, if it’s not the entire gag.

  17. D*mn this infernal internet. No one is safe, anymore.

    Give Horsey a Mulligan or two on this, though. If you’d put out his body of work, you’d want a day off, too.


    PS: “â??Never draw what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; and never trace what you can cut out and paste up.â? – Wally Wood

    PSS: Nick – Milli Vanilli was not a “he.”

  18. I’ve been drawing the same cartoon for years.

    I’ve noticed something else as well and it blows the roof of this entire business: Darby Conley draws something called Get Fuzzy every day single day! And he’s getting away with it!!! Pastis is the same with that Pearls thing! And Wiley Miller there, I reckon he has sold that Non Sequitur repeatedly for years.

    I noticed the same thing years ago with that Garly Larson bloke, every single day he just repeated a gag called The Far Side!

    Something should be done about this!!!

  19. “Has John Cole just outed Mister Milli Vanilli as a tranny?”

    If so, I’m sure Sean Delonas will want to trace a cartoon about it.

  20. Matt and friends, let me put this a little more diplomatically… I was not trying to get away with something by reworking an old image. The intent was to bring readers back to an older image that I knew had been published widely. I considered redrawing the image completely but actually thought that would look more like self-plagiarizing. I figured touching up the same image would get the point of deja vu across better and make it clear I was being intentional. I also was looking forward to using the two images together in public presentations. Maybe that was where I went wrong — to think about how I’d use these cartoons in the context of a speech rather than seeing how some readers might look at what I was doing. Anyway, the point is, I wasn’t trying to take the day off or slip something by anyone. I told my editor what I was doing. I just didn’t anticipate the ever-vigilant critics ready to pounce from the blogosphere.

  21. I just want to know, is it more acceptable to copy your own work if you are a web cartoonist or a print cartoonist?

    Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.

  22. btw, if anybody wants press credentials to draw cartoons from the Republican National Convention, I have the direct contact info. Just shoot me an email.

  23. David, from what I’ve seen in the past year, those “ever-vigilant critics from the blogosphere” positively LIVE to catch other, more popular colleagues with their pants down – even when said colleague is mooning them. (The fact that you went to the trouble of explaining why you “re-used” your own work shows your class.) It saddens me to see cartoonists bad-mouth other cartoonists…when their reasons for doing so come across as mean-spirited. Of course, when you’re caught REALLY being lazy, you deserve to be called on the carpet.

  24. I think Cole is right, Horsey has earned a mulligan, especially after reading the second explanation from David. I’m more offended by people who make a habit of the practice.

    I also think David’s right that I need drawing lessons.

  25. Part of it is expectations, depending on the format, or context. Think back to “The Angriest Dog in the World”, by David Lynch. If he changed anything in the cartoon (other than the speech bubble), people would have yelled at him for the exact opposite reason. And also aren’t there a bunch of Matt Groening’s “Akbar and Jeff” strips where the two characters are in the same place in previous gags, just new text or speech bubbles? That cracked me up. (Now I have to go and see if I can find any of my old “Life In Hell” books.)

  26. Man I did this big time when I was doing SPuN. I did a TON of Barry Bonds comics that were the SSSSSAAAAAAMMMEEE image with new text. That was $weeeeet!!! Easy! Mo money, mo money, mo money. 🙂


    In some cases I was so smart I didn’t even change the text:


    It’s called being a “Duplicist”.



    circa 2008

    A duplicists is a person who maximizes content by efficiently and creatively appropriating content to create more content. Duplicists generally use technology to facilitate creative appropriation. Creative appropriation, if done correctly creates massive passive income for the duplicist. (see Andy Warhol)
    if done incorretly, creative appropriation may lead to claims of pagrisim. (See Kaavya Viswanathan) Duplicists usually freelance and handle multiple projects and deadlines for uncommonly frugal clients.



    Shoot, since all my stuff was done in Flash, I could copy and paste like craaaaaazy. I’m the king of this stuff. This is what we in the “software development” world call “code reuse”. If it’s good enough for Google, DOD, Mircosoft, Apple, HP, NASA, US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and most fortune 1000 companies, ddammit it’s good enough for me. imho

  27. Nick, you are a star and the last guy that needs drawing lessons. I meant that not-so-clever remark for the non-artists out there and shouldn’t have said it. I violated my own rule: when engaging in this kind of debate, take a deep breath and don’t spout off like someone calling in to talk radio. By the way, I just finished a cartoon for tomorrow that neither I nor anyone else has ever drawn before. And it’s an idea that I’m sure is utterly original. There’s never been anything like it in the history of the world. Plus, it took me a realy, really long time to draw, so I hope I don’t have to give back the money my publisher paid me..

  28. As certified leader of the “Matt and friends” council, we hereby grant you a Mulligan. You do not have to have your drawing hand chopped with a rusty Hunt 102 nib. May art lessons be taken by all.

    Seriously, I’m glad you have an explanation and ran this by your editors. I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us lowly internet trolls to ask why an artist reissued an old cartoon with new words–it certainly wasn’t clear from looking at it that you planned to put them side by side in a future slide show. You didn’t ask me, but I think you should have drawn it a different way.

    Many Editorial Cartoonists are becoming so lazy that they come out with cartoons that were identical to another artist’s days before…and no one thinks it’s a problem. Some say plagiarism, others think it’s just a glut of bad ideas. Some recycle their own ideas like it will save the planet. Others lazily cut and paste because their drawing hand hurts. Some look like they hold their pen with not a hand, but a certain orifice.

    We shouldn’t be an insular bunch where asking questions about basic artistic standards is seen as violently rocking the boat. For a group that bashes people every day cartoonists seem to expect the craft to be hands-off to internal criticism .

    And if I ever caught Horsey with his pants down it would finally answer the ultimate question: is his success due, in part, to the support offered by briefs or the relaxing freedom of boxers?

  29. As I said in my email to you, you certainly have earned a “get out of jail free” card on this, but I do agree with Matt. For an industry that earns it’s livelyhood by bashing people, observations from other cartoonists are good from time to time.

    Maybe this is why everyone liked the Bad Cartoonist, because he offered this, albeit in a very personal and sometimes harsh way.

    All that being said, where’s Sean Delonas and his explanation?

  30. Matt, I agree with you that “asking questions” shouldn’t be “seen as violently rocking the boat;” and Rob, I don’t think anyone would find fault with “observations from other cartoonists” about questionable practices. The thing is, quite often those questions and observations are raised by people who really just want to “bash,” you two excluded. I believe every cartoonist working today is, at the very least, entitled to be questioned BEFORE he or she is ridiculed for committing some grave cartooning no-no. It’s just common, everyday good manners.

  31. David, I was sincerely messing with you with the crack about the drawing lessons. I should have used an emoticon 😉

    –“I violated my own rule: when engaging in this kind of debate, take a deep breath and donâ??t spout off like someone calling in to talk radio.”

    I’ve certainly been guilty of the same. And I do think you deserve a mulligan. You put more work into an average drawing than most of us put into a week’s worth. You’re definitely not a lazy cartoonist.

    I can’t wait to see tomorrow’s cartoon!

  32. I suppose everyone has moved on from this by now, but I’ve just been blogging about it on davidhorsey.com (with links to this discussion and to Rob Tornoe’s original post) and it’s still on my mind.

    I appreciate the Mulligan and the kind comments, but I’m still not sure I did anything especially outrageous. As I said in my blog:

    “When I read that Pres. Bush was closing his term in office having tea with Queen Elizabeth, I thought it would be fun to revisit the image I had drawn of their first tea time, to give it a new spin and, for online readers, present it in color. It didn’t seem like such a controversial idea.”

    Perhaps I’m wrong. Still, it seems like there’s a rather large gray area. Is Tom Tomorrow guilty of plagiarizing himself when he uses incredibly similar images in cartoon after cartoon and employs essentially the same formulation time after time in his satire of right wing thought processes? Or is he like Monet doing water lilies over and over again? Is Oliphant’s recurring jab at the Catholic Church — St. Pedophilia — a clever variation on a theme or a lazy way to recycle the same tired joke?

    It’s an interesting question to contemplate. I know I certainly won’t revisit an old cartoon again unless I acknowledge very clearly in the drawing what I’m doing. But, even if I do that, is it still cheating if I don’t actually redraw every line?

    And finally, is it really plagiarism if you are stealing from yourself? Or is it more like artistic masturbation? And, if so, are sex toys permissible?

  33. Oliphant has boasted of the (rare) times he has borrowed from himself. The second edition is more often more apropos.
    Duke Ellington would often “haircut” from some of his earlier work, and the music of others.
    Now, as a musician, most of us do covers. Is it plagiarism, or tribute? It would be plagiarism if one advertised it as being an original, and did not give proper attribution ( like Led Zepellin ).

    If there were more venues available for more editorial cartoonists; then less would appear to be copied, derivative, and stereotyped. Those that enjoy the overwhelming amount of print are simply too overworked to come up with fresh stuff on a consistent basis.

  34. Ok, so explain me this one:

    Aug. 15, 2005, B.C.:

    Rock: I envy you, kid.
    Flower: Why would you envy me?
    Rock: Because you have roots.
    Flower: I *do*?
    Rock: Yes!
    Flower: Thank goodness! I thought my toenails had gone berserk.

    Aug. 18, more than three decades earlier (it’s in the “Dip in road” collection, with copyright dates 1969 and 1974), B.C.:

    Rock: I envy you. … You have roots!
    Flower: I do?
    Rock: Sure!
    Flower: Thank goodness! I thought my toenails had gone berserk.

    Does anybody think berserk toenails are sufficiently high-larious to make the repetition worth the effort? (And yes, Hart redrew the thing — the two “characters” are in completely different styles.)

  35. Just as little point of fact, you cannot “plagiarize yourself”.

    plagiarize |Ë?plājÉ?Ë?rÄ«z|
    verb [ trans. ]
    take (the work or an idea of someone else) and pass it off as one’s own.

  36. repeat | rÄ?’pÄ?t’
    verb [trans.]
    1. to do, experience, or produce again
    2. to express (oneself) in the same way
    3. to do, experience, or produce again
    4. to express (oneself) in the …

  37. Susan: I’m not sure why you’re reading B.C. collections at 3:18 in the morning but that’s great stuff and in my opinion, artistic fraud.

  38. How many times… has Charlie Brown missed kicking the football?
    …has Odie been kicked off the table?
    …Dagwood run into the mailman?
    …Calvin imagined he was a dinosaur?
    …Billy followed the broken line?
    We still laugh every time.
    When I did my strip I loked for possible
    themes that may be repeated.

  39. There is a difference… a rather big difference… between doing variations on theme and repeating a cartoon.

  40. What if he would’ve redrawn the situation, but then put a big label on the picture saying “Deja vu” … would that have been okay?

    I don’t see why it’s so hard to accept that maybe there was meaning in the duplication. I know I’ve done the same thing, not out of laziness, but using the duplication as part of the delivery of a point.

  41. I’m guilty of having done this with a Cleveland Indians cartoon, with my editors knowledge. When the Team beat the Yanks in the playoffs last year I submitted four or five ideas on it. One showed chief wahoo piloting a b-17 named the Bronx Bomber. In the Bombers seat were little midges, which had played a role in the win by bugging the Yanks pitcher. While were going through the ideas it suddenly dawns on me the I did a similiar cartoon about ten year earlier that ran on the front page. Chief wahoo in a Bronx bomber with bats falling out like Bombs. I told my editor,”Oh wait we can’t do this..I just remembered I did something like it 10 years ago” But he still loved the visual with the bugs and wanted to do it. So we ran it and it was probably the most popular toon i did all year. The two drawings were totaly different. But even with that and it’s popularity. It still makes me uncomfortable. Because my reaction to this issue is like others-it’s pathetic laziness with all the stuff out there to draw cartoons on.

  42. I’m trying to convince myself my Bronx bomber toons were variations on a theme, not much different than Jasper Johns Flag or Target series, except that know one has offered me millions for them yet.

  43. This is a very interesting discussion. I’ve thought about (obsessed over?) this very idea myself: http://joshshalek.blogspot.com/2007/07/should-i-post-this-twice.html

    I don’t think there’s any problem revisiting an idea, as David Horsey has. It’s kind of like a visual call-back. It is also a way to say, “this is what I thought before,” and comment on how things have either changed or stayed the same since then. (Usually it’s a bit of both.)

    You know, Dali revisited The Persistence of Memory. A link I found with both paintings is here: http://www.stpetersburgtimes.com/2002/03/07/Weekend/The_persistence_of_Da.shtml
    But there, of course, he changed a number of elements in the painting.

    Sean Delonas does not seem to be doing what either Horsey or Dali had. While I don’t think he should lose his job over it, I do think he’s lost a lot of credibility as a commentator and an artist. He’s certainly not the only artist/writer who has intentionally repeated himself in public, as a number of Daily Cartoonist comments have pointed out. But I expect more from cartoonists than, say, op/ed columnists or MSNBC reporters. To be a published cartoonist is a rare thing, a special thing and something that you don’t take for granted. That’s what really galls me about laziness in this field. For every bad comic you see published there are hundreds of aspiring cartoonists who would work harder than that just to get their work seen by the public.

  44. Now was what Milli Vanilli did so bad they have to be compared to editorial cartoonists?

    I have thoughts about this, but I’ll save ’em for my own blog.

  45. I agree with you Josh, I think what Delonas did was MILES away what Horsey did. I’ve still gotten no response from Delonas or his editor.

  46. I think the bottom line is that David’s efforts to intentionally use previous imagery as a way to bring a point across was completely misconstrued by some as being somehow lazy or unethical.

    It seems today so many editorial cartoonists are under the microscope, that any unconventional methods or ideas with broader scope than just one cartoon are quickly attacked.

  47. So, let me get this straight- It’s OK if you rerun a drawing from eight years ago, but it’s NOT all right to redraw a cartoon from a few months back?

    Obviously, readers (or other cartoonists) are less likely to notice the repeated image with an eight year time lag, but besides the diminished chance of being caught, what’s the difference?

    I guess the difference might be that it’s a lot easier to rationalize the act (as some inside joke with your readers) after you get busted. Come on, Horsey no more expected his readers to make the connection between those two cartoons than he expected another cartoonist to call him out on it.

  48. Well, sometimes I develop several cartoons from an idea (now I got a caption and two possible drawings). So to publish both shall be plagiarism? Maybe it should be laziness… or not. Shall Bach be accused of plagiarism for his Goldberg Variations? OK, he was a genius and I’m not.

    So , if there are variations, plagiarism is out of the equation.

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