Open Discussion: verifying originality without being influenced

Wiley Miller made an interesting comment on the open discussion about using gag writers and how he handles blind submission from gag writers. He said,

So without ever looking at the index cards (as I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by their material), I’d stick them right into the return envelope.

I’ve heard variations of that theme – cartoonists not going to collection sites like or comic collection books so as not to unintentionally pick up on an idea that in the future might be questioned as their own.

On the opposite side are cases cited by Mike Lynch where he knows cartoonists that obsess with figuring out if their material is original. He writes,

A couple of my gag cartoonist friends obsess over originality, using their COMPLETE NEW YORKER CARTOONS CDs and Cartoonbank searches to check if their ideas possibly came to Carl Rose, Warren Miller or Mort Gerberg before now.

I’m assuming that we all, A. want to do original work and B. would be unpleased to be called on the carpet if our work was questioned. But where is the balance as a cartoonist? You can’t check all your gags through various databases (think of the time spent on that alone) and even if you did, wouldn’t you be opening yourself up to possibly unconsciously picking up further ideas?

44 thoughts on “Open Discussion: verifying originality without being influenced

  1. Speaking not as a cartoonist but as a blogger/columnist who writes (hopefully) humorous pieces, I try to avoid reading other humorists so I won’t be influenced too much by their material. I agree with Wiley!

  2. I avoid looking at other cartoons so that, if I end up doing something that’s uncomfortably similar to someone else’s cartoon I’ll know in my own mind that I didn’t plagiarize it, even unintentionally.

    Sometimes, however, I come up with an idea that’s so simplistic that I worry that lots of other cartoonists will do the same thing. Then I check out Cagle to see if they have. If I find similar material, I trash the idea.

    Finally, sometimes I think of an idea that seems a lot like what a specific artist would do: “That’s SO Ruben Bolling/Matt Bors/Mikhaela Reid…” In those cases I call them and ask them what they’re working on.

    Only you can prevent Yahtzees!

  3. I only look at the crap. That way, I’m angry enough to do better.

    I don’t want to know that someone is better than me. I always assume I’m the greatest.

    flawed , drunken logic saves the day again.

    You’re welcome,


  4. I think the point is not to get discouraged after discovering that ones idea is not that original after all. People have similar experience in life, which means some repetition is unavoidable no matter how hard we try.

    Wiley’s case is special in that the idea is not yet “officially” born and he can come up with it (uninfluenced) first.

    The real question is how can one avoid repeting himself :).

  5. I sometimes have to develop the obvious ideas first in order to get them out of the way. Rough them out and set them aside. Okay, that’s done, now what if….

    But then again, sometimes first instincts really are best.

  6. This is an issue in all genres and all fields, really. It just jumps to the fore with editorial cartooning where current events and common cultural context give rise to parallel evolution.

  7. It’s kinda difficult to do something “original” and not be at least a little bit aware of what others are doing, or (perhaps even more importantly) what others have already done.

    Walt Kelly put it nicely in his Comics Journal interview … Something along the lines of, a cartoonist’s work is influenced by those they admire. He also described how once a cartoonist has done something great, you should aim to do something equal or better.

    Of course, the Internet wasn’t around then. One could waste all their time searching for greatness, but only find the stuff Corey reads!

  8. How terribly ironic it is to dream of being a cartoonist because you love comics growing up, copying your favorites, then finally achieving that dream but no longer being able to enjoy comics for fear of accidentally copying someone.

  9. For me, its not about copying, so much as it is about confidence. I kid, but I still look at the good stuff, but only when I’m feeling good about what I’m doing. If I’m down about my work, then the last thing I want to see is someone knocking it out of the park.

    That said, I think you also come to a point in your career where you can look at the greats for reference, understand where they were going with their writing, their art and maybe try and use their line of thought in your own stuff.

    Or, you could just trace. That works, too.

  10. I agree with Ted’s observations. Very simple gags are almost universal conventions of the visual language of cartooning. Conventions any cartoonist might end up using at some point in time.

    So should a cartoonist avoid writing simple gags to avoid possible duplication?

  11. Scott Adams, by his own admission, writes very little of his material. It mostly arrives via emails in the form of scenarios, concepts, punchlines, and so on.

    The important bit is that he loves his job, regardless of how his strip reaches the end result.


  12. It is impossible to avoid doing something that someone else has already done from time to time.

    It was their idea, and it was your idea, too. They just thought of it first – and someone probably thought of it before them.

    That’s why legally, you can’t copyright an idea – only your specific written and drawn expression of an idea.

    No matter what the idea, it’s going to be filtered through the artist’s creative senses, so in some way, it’s going to end up with some degree of originally.

  13. If, as a cartoonist, you are worried about unintentionally copying someone else’s idea, wouldn’t that extend to not reading columns or watching any kind of television coverage about a current event? Should we isolate ourselves totally from the outside world so as not to have ANY contamination in our creative process?
    I agree with the posts that suggest that the same idea can occur to many different cartoonists at the same time; sort of akin to Jung’s “universal mind” theory.
    The key, it would seem, is how you can make it your own, through the application of your style, sense of humor, and ability to get it out there first!

  14. If youâ??re dealing with characters in your head, only you know what theyâ??re going to say.

    Mine are giving me dimensions for a paper boat and telling me to put 2 cartoonists of every type on board.

  15. “Should we isolate ourselves totally from the outside world so as not to have ANY contamination in our creative process?”

    Don’t cartoonists isolate themselves from the outside world anyway?

  16. The worst is when you believe you’ve sincerely and independently come up with an idea, drawn it up, have it in the box, then see someone else who has come close to it. Did that person “beat” you to it, since you thought of it and drew it but it just hasn’t seen the light of day? Or is it “first to market wins”? I’ve trashed some of these cartoons. I’ve gone ahead with some of these and to this moment I don’t know how I decide. I get the heebie jeebies just thinking of it.

    And I hear Tatulli uses mimes.

  17. All things in moderation. To obsess over this stuff, I think, is counter productive. You can’t expect cartoonists to stop reading cartoons and try to work in a vacuum. That’s just nuts. We’re all influenced to some degree by the works of others, which is a good thing. That’s how we got interested in wanting to be a cartoonist in the first place!

    There’s a big difference between being influenced and copying. We all know where that line is drawn (so to speak), and one’s personal and artistic integrity will keep you from crossing that line. So cartoonists should deprive themselves from reading the work of others out of fear that makes your work less original.

    The example Alan posted about how I dealt with solicitations from gag writers is an example of how we read things differently. I read cartoons in a more casual manner, as any other reader does, and can have a positive influence on directions of my cartoons. But gags on index cards intended to sell you is read in a more active manner, where the specific gag sticks in your mind and is difficult (for me, anyway) to work around or get out entirely. So I say relax and enjoy.

  18. An admirable but unnecessary and counter productive obsession w/ who got there first. The Brevity guys using a Far Side Collection would bother me more if I didn’t think Larson owed a great deal to B.Kliban. An old saw in the art world is that nothing is “original”. It may or may not be true but it’s liberating to think so.

  19. @mike Lester – I posted that video of guy and rodd to zing him for picking on Tatulli. I hope everyone saw that the scene in question was a joke. I don’t believe the brevity guys plagerize in anyway.

  20. If I do a Obama/fly cartoon today with the fly labeled “Wall Street” and the swatter “regulation” am I guilty of psychic plagiarism knowing that half the editorial cartoonists in the country are already working on it?

  21. I often search certain other cartooniests sites and cagle, and then do the opposite.

    They are like Richard Mulligan’s “Custer” character in “Little Big Man”:
    “The perfect reverse barometer!”.

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  24. I was referred by a family member to one of their friends to create a logo. (family member knows im interested in graphic design and I created a logo for her for free) The problem is that i dont have a lot of experience in logo design and I dont really feel confident in my work; especially for outside clients. People think im a good “designer” but they think anybody who can use photoshop is a “Graphic Designer” I am in the process of re-designing a lot of my pieces because I was told from a graphic designer instructor that they weren’t up to par. The friend of my family member asked to me create a logo but wants to see some of my past work. My past work in my portfolio really sucks (at least to me) so I really dont want to. I made the mistake of quoting a price ($125 hoping to scare off the client, lol), but know I cant back it up (i dont think). How can I get out of this professionally and by saving face?


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