Jeff Stahler resigns during investigation of plagiarism

Jeff Stahler has resigned from his staff postion at the Columbus Dispatch yesterday according to an email from his editor to Steve Myers at the Poynter Institute. Jeff’s work came under scrutinty this week after his Sunday cartoon was found to be strikingly close to a 2009 New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress. A couple other New Yorker cartoons were also found that were very similar prompting his editor Ben Marrison to suspend Jeff indefinitely while an investigation was made.

I’ll update this story over the weekend as more details emerge.

54 thoughts on “Jeff Stahler resigns during investigation of plagiarism

  1. With so much good editorial satire and commentary on TV and the web, it makes the void of original and quality material in the newspaper stand out like a zit.

  2. This is another recent discovery of alleged plagiarism. I suspect this type of thing has happened before but difficult to identify until now that the internet has made our world so much smaller.

  3. Alan,
    I just read this post and the link to The Poynter Institute story wherein you mentioned two similar cartoons of a mailman astride a snail.
    I realize there was no accusation made, but as the author of one of those two cartoons(actually, I’ve seen a few more) I feel compelled to respond. As far as I can ascertain both cartoons were released by the syndicate on Tuesday morning- not within the last few days as was stated.
    In my case, I had already finished one cartoon last Monday afternoon and was working on another when I heard an NPR story about “Snailmail about to get a lot slower.” I immediately thought of this mailman on a snail idea – image and caption- and went straight to drawing it. I thought at the time I’d better get this out quickly before somebody else comes up with the idea. I wonder if the other cartoonist heard the NPR story and had the same epiphany as I. What I don’t wonder about is if this is an example of plagiarism. It is an example of a creative coincidence – or what Daryl Cagle calls a Yahtzee (only I think there have to be 5 to make a Yahtzee.) This does happen occasionally. The biggest example was on Sept. 11, 2011 when I and about 25 other cartoonists drew the Statue of Liberty weeping, head in hand. Mine ran on Sept. 11 in a special edition- the others may have run the same day, too, or the next day.
    Thanks for allowing me to clear the air

  4. Will Jeff Stahler still do the Universal Uclick/UFS distributed Moderately Confused comic strip?

  5. Robert,

    Glad you understood I wasn’t making an accusation.

    That said after reading your post, I will say running with the first idea that pops into your head and rushing it out the door knowing its something other cartoonists would come up with isn’t plagiarism. It’s just plain lazy.

  6. Jeff Stahler didn’t plagiarize the New Yorker cartoon — if he saw it at all, he adapted it. Sipress’s drawing was about how manuscripts pile up at publishers; Stahler commented on how employers are buried in resumes. The guy in Tulsa was copying art; Stahler only echoed a punch line. I’m not sure exactly what he did wrong.

  7. Haven’t any of you released a cartoon and later found out it was strikingly close to one that someone else had done? This happened to me very recently. The cartoonist that pointed it out to me had done the cartoon 8 years ago and I had never seen it before. He and I both laughed about the whole thing and went our ways. It happens.

    Another thing that has happened to me is that I have sketched out an idea and had the nagging feeling that I’ve seen it before. In one case I finally discovered after a full year and a half that one of my unused ideas was actually a Far Side that I had seen YEARS earlier. It was the same word for word. If I had gone ahead and released the cartoon after a year of unsuccessfully searching for its origin would I be guilty of plagiarism? It would be a complete accident.

    Either of the above cases are quite possible and neither of them mean a man should lose his job!

  8. He “resigned” after a plagiarism investigation, hasn’t issued any statement in his own defense, and blatantly copied a Mike Lester cartoon.


  9. I am a huge fan of Jeff Stahler. He is a very creative cartoonist and I always enjoyed seeing his take on the world around us. The Columbus Dispatch is a very right wing paper and I am sure some of his work ruffled their feathers. I now find little reason to buy their paper.

  10. @Matt Bors, Why would someone steal an average cartoon from a mammoth publication such as the New Yorker? Nobody in the world could possibly think it would go unnoticed. There are many small magazines or websites out there that few people read that have far better gags that someone could steal from with a minimum threat of getting caught.

  11. Good points Derrick. Also resignation does not equal guilt, it simply leaves it unresolved and no one knows what the options, or lack of options, there were that led to it. Overall it still seems like a very weak case. Also I’m under the impression (but could easily be wrong) that gags are not actually what is copyrighted in a cartoon, just the artwork, at least if I remember the copyright paperwork correctly. I look forward to your comments gag-writers ! If they were, almost no syndicated strip could survive.

  12. George Harrison was convicted of lifting the chorus of “My Sweet Lord” from “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Yet, he wasn’t destroyed by his peers. He continued to compose and write wonderful music until his death.

    Sadly, it isn’t the same for cartoonists, who can easily come up with ideas similar to other cartoonist’s ideas. Jeff Stahler’s career and life work has been destroyed. He’ll never recover his name or reputation. How sad.

  13. Harrison was “convicted” of what was called “unconscious plagiarism”, that is, it wasn’t intended. The remarks being made here are under the belief that the plagiarism was intentional, and that’s where the difference lies. Some of the arguments in favor of Jeff’s copycatting being unconscious have merit yet his history shows enough instances of conscious theft. Under this cloud of suspicion his resignation says a lot.

  14. I?ve seen this happen so many times. One glaring example is the Rubix Cubical concept. I?ve seen it done at least five or six times by different cartoonists. A Simple Google image search shows at least six, all the same Idea same concept. I don?t have dates for the actual strips so I?m not sure which one was first. In no particular order

    Off the Mark
    Strange brew
    Speed Bump
    Argyle Sweater
    Reynolds Unwrapped

    And there are two more out there that I have seen I just don?t know the title of the strip.

    I don?t think that it was intentionally coppied, I think this sort of thing just happens. When I finish sketching out an Idea, I always try a quick search on line as I?m always worried that it?s been done before.

  15. Lets hope the Dispatch fills this postion.
    Chip Bok being from Ohio and tilting to the right would be
    a good fit for that paper.
    Mike Lesters stuff would be right at home in the conservative
    Dispatch as well

    They also have Paul Combs and Jim Borgman in the backyard
    who they could try and talk into returning to editorial cartooning

    Or they could bring Matt Bors back home to Ohio and
    try to Brainwash him into being the first conservative
    altie- cartoonist.

  16. Since Rich asked for a gag writer to chime in, I’ll chime in.

    Inadvertant duplication of ideas is inevitable, and happens all the time. I’ve seen gags that I’ve thought up and distributed rendered by artist who I never sent them to, to the point where I’ve almost wondered if someone was redistributing my gags. But I’m sure that it is strictly coincidence. Sometimes I have to check to see if I didn’t already write an idea years ago, and I’m sure I’ve inadvertantly “thought of” a gag because I actually saw it once upon a time. It’s bound to happen to all of us.

    That said, it’s one thing to see the same idea, quite another to see the same rendering – particularly when there’s some complexity involved. Looking at the Stahler cartoons presented as examples, the travel poster and bank cartoons are straightforward enough that coincidence is a reasonable explanation.

    But the resume gag, that’s too blatantly a steal from the manuscript cartoon. Regardless of the specific copyright protections, sentences that similar would be seen as blatant plagiarism in any other form of writing. Even though the context has changed, it’s a obvious copy not just of the thought but of the verbal rendering. Not even high school students would get away with it.

    Getting an idea from an outside source is fine, if you put some real creativity into using it. But just changing the context without any significant changing of the wording – or drawing, if that’s what creates the humor – is stealing someone else’s creativity and calling it your own. For a syndicated political cartoonist to do this with a New Yorker cartoon, where large segments of the audience are likely to see both cartoons, shows profoundly bad judgment.

    This is a perfect example of why cartoonists should consider using gag writers. If you’re having a creative lull and the best you can do is either use something blatantly obvious or directly “adapt” someone else’s work, then for pete’s sake collaborate with someone to freshen things up. Sure, it will cut into your profits, but not nearly as much as producing stale work or being branded a plagiarist!

  17. There are gags that pop in my mind that I’m sure that were used before, so I don’t use them. But I think sometimes even an old gag can be used again if the writer constructs it in a new fresh way that is unexpected and with a totally different perspective. But to even enter this territory you’d better have an exceptional material.

    We need a world database system where you can enter the your gag and it can locate if it’s ever been used. Hey!! I can get started on that right now!

  18. @Don Hagist. Are you saying that gag writers are immune from submitting blatantly obvious or stale adaptations?

  19. “This is a perfect example of why cartoonists should consider using gag writers.”

    He’s good. That one made me laugh out loud.

  20. Cartoonists should consider using gag writers…..???? I swear I’ve just stepped into an episode of the Twilight Zone.

    An editorial cartoon is NOT a comic strip, an editorial endorsement, a photograph, an illustration or a gag cartoon….never has been and never will.

    Unfortunately, that’s what too many creators, readers and editors want an ‘editorial cartoon’ to be.

  21. #13 — Do you remember Gary Hart? Some people either want to be caught or are narcissistic enough to feel they’re above it all.

    This isn’t a Hollywood mystery — sometimes the obvious answer is also the correct one, much as it ruins the fun.

  22. I second what Milt said; too many cartoonists over the past decade or so have allowed themselves to be neutered by editors who are afraid of upsetting advertisers or readers. So we have jokes and gags becoming the coins of the realm. It has ended up being Fool’s Gold and has led to the tremendous drop in the value of our profession.
    I hate to say this, but the position of staff cartoonist could disappear in my lifetime.

  23. @Peter; A Simple Google image search shows at least six, all the same Idea same concept. I don?t have dates for the actual strips so I?m not sure which one was first. In no particular order

    Off the Mark
    Strange brew
    Speed Bump
    Argyle Sweater
    Reynolds Unwrapped

    Most of those guys are blatantly stealing from The Far Side. ‘Nuff said.

  24. There’s copying an idea completely and claiming it as your own and then there’s riffing off of or playing around with a great trope.

    @peter and @terry I think you’re getting overly litigious…especially litigious for cartoonists. Strikes me that playing around with the rubbick cube is generally kosher if you’re doing something new and different with it, even if Larson deployed it first.

    Some new Yorker cartoonist did the first island with a single palm tree and castaway cartoon maybe 80 years ago. Would you really deprive us of all the hundreds of visits to that cartoon island that have followed ?

    Lighten up, dudes.

  25. I don’t think Larson ever did a Rubik’s Cubicle gag. I don’t think that was what Terry was saying. I think he feels that anyone doing off beat panels owes something to Larson. There’s some truth to that but I don’t think that equates to ripping off Larson. By the way, my Rubik’s Cubicle comics was published in 1997. Beat that!

  26. At the risk of sounding like a space cadet. It seems like
    creative types all travel the same energy wave length.
    We’re all seeing the same scenery as we ride that wave

    So it shouldn’t be surprising that many of our mental cameras have a pic of that same castaway island. When I rode by the island the postmaster general was riding a snail around it,
    yelling “Slowdown”

  27. I’m going to have to disagree with my very good friend, the Honorable Mark Parisi. I believe that when Terry Laban says we’re “blatantly stealing from The Far Side”, he does, indeed, mean we’re “blatantly stealing from The Far Side”.

    Don’t know about you, but having worked my ass off every week for 17 years to come up with original content, I find it somewhat disheartening to read another cartoonist make that charge on a public website. I’m just reminded why I never read these things unless someone else points me to them.

    Besides, I’m blatantly stealing from Pastis.

  28. I thought this was about editorial cartoons. I’ve laughed at a lot of Jeff Stahler gags, but I don’t get using rimshot-style one liners as editorial cartoons.

    A lot of jokes are innocently pulled from the ether by more than one person. This reminds me of what stand up comedians go through when somebody is confronted about joke stealing instead of journalistic ethics.

  29. Please note that I said “most of those guys”. I didn’t mean to include Dave Coverly, and if he thinks I did, I do apologize. However, I fail to see how anyone could look at, say, “The Argyle Sweater”, and see anything but a Far Side ripoff. I suspect Scott Hilburn is fully cognizant of this, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out he thinks anyone who ISN’T ripping off Gary Larson is a sucker.

    I hereby nominate Stephan Pastis as official Cartoonist Whip.

  30. #32 Coverly: “I find it somewhat disheartening to read another cartoonist make that charge on a public website.”

    Me too. But if I’m reading the moonwalk correctly, now only 4 of the 5 are FS ripoffs? -Helluvan’ accusation.

  31. #22 – I had no intention of implying that writers are immune from coming up with stale or obvious gags – sorry if I gave that impression. No is immune. But collaborating with a writer improves the odds of being original (it adds another person’s input to say “seen it” or “way too obvious”). Collaboration is not for everyone, but works very well for some.

    #24 – Although the alleged plagiarism in this case involved editorial cartoons, the issue affects all types of cartooning.

    #27 – Stylistic similarity is common in every art form. Very few artists (musicians, writers, etc.) are true innovators; the remainder adapt what is already out there to some extent or another. But that doesn’t make them uncreative.

  32. @MIke Lester

    The truth is, I’d say probably 80% of syndicated panels are essentially Gary Larson ripoffs. Just like pretty much all heroic fantasy novels are Tolkien ripoffs. It doesn’t mean I think those people are actually plagiarizing anything. When enough people imitate something, it becomes its own genre.

  33. I’m a big fan of Off the Mark and Speed Bump, so I have to say that calling them Farside ripoffs is wrong to the point of crazy. Additionally, blanket statements about fantasy novels without having read the majority of fantasy novels is useless.

    Every modern comic is a ripoff of Peanuts. There, we’ve gone from a guy losing his job because of accusations of plagiarism to nothing of value.

  34. Terry #38: I see what you’re getting at, but the term “ripoff” has a strong negative connotation that obscures your point. A term like “derivative” or what have you is more fair.
    Yea, it sounds PC to play the semantics game, but sometimes the terminology changes the message.

  35. Don #38 (we don’t do “@” anymore?)
    Well, some things are ripoffs and some things are derivative and some things are just influenced. And some things are plagiarized. I’m not sure a cartoonist should lose his job over stealing a few gags, though. It’s not like it’s a doctoral thesis.

    Stephen #39 I never SAID Speed Bump was a Far Side ripoff! Jeez. And I don’t have to read the majority of fantasy novels to know they’re just warmed over Tolkein. I only have to look at the covers.
    Maybe the term “ripoff” IS too inflammatory. If I say Gary Larson ripped off B. Kliban, you’d all get mad at me. But if I said he was HEAVILY INFLUENCED by B. Kliban, you’d say that obviously I was right.

  36. #42 I don?t read fantasy novels, either. I see the covers but I don?t form an opinion based on them.

    Really, Stephen? You see a paperback with a lurid cover of a guy in armor, who has a mostly naked girl in one arm and a sword in the other, battling what appears to be an evil wizard shooting bolts of light out of a wand and you say to yourself, “Y’know, appearances aside, I’m going to read that because it just might be a literary masterpiece!”?

    You must waste a lot of time.

  37. That whole “Really?” thing is getting old. I wonder who started THAT.

    No, I only waste time here. The cover of a book is an advertisement that can be at complete odds with what’s inside due to some marketing director. There are many examples from the last couple of centuries. Stephen King wrote a nice article with examples over on

    Really? A guy who makes comics can’t understand a prejudgement of the work? Really? Beauty and the Beast can’t be nominated for Best Picture because it’s animated? Really? (Have I worn it out yet? I haven’t?? Really????)

  38. I’ve heard most cartoonists live in glass houses, the better to see the world around them and so to make their commentary visionary and appealing. Hope these same cartoonists know that we readers have a stockpile of bricks to be shatterting your view.
    Before you keep on piling on Mr. Stahler, check out your own “views”. Haven’t you seen and reacted to the same editorial subject in very simialr ways?
    Careful! I’ve got a brick especially for your glass house ready.

  39. I?m going to have to disagree with my very good friend, the Honorable Mark Parisi. I believe that when Terry Laban says we?re ?blatantly stealing from The Far Side?, he does, indeed, mean we?re ?blatantly stealing from The Far Side?.

    Don?t know about you, but having worked my ass off every week for 17 years to come up with original content, I find it somewhat disheartening to read another cartoonist make that charge on a public website. I?m just reminded why I never read these things unless someone else points me to them.

    Besides, I?m blatantly stealing from Pastis……… Who would do that

  40. I seem to be late with a response to this, but here’s my two cents…
    first of all, TERRY LABAN (not sure you are), but you sound like a rabble rouser.
    I can only speak for myself, but I all say, I’ve been cartooning for 23 years. That means I’ve been cartooning longer than a lot of these folks whom you are throwing under the bus.
    I know Leigh Rubin and Wiley have been doing it longer than I, a lot of the other panelist have not.
    Larson, himself cartooned for 15 years so I’ve been cartooning 8 years, to date, longer than he did total.
    I can certain concur about the frustration of being ripped off. Who knows who does it and why, but why even cartoon if you have to do that???? What many people don’t know is that A LOT of cartoonists use gag writers, and these gag writers could be “snatching” gags and selling them to unwitting cartoonists. I prefer to do my own work. I find it challenging and more rewarding. There are cartoonists out there who have done cartoons that I have previously done in years past, and I let them know. It’s not to say they’re stealing it. It’s just to let them know because I think they need to know. I don’t think well known cartoonists purposely steal work. If they do, they really should go into retail or used car sales.
    Saying, as TERRY LABAN did that certain cartoonists are “blatantly stealing from Far Side”, well, that’s just a moronic statement and says all you need to know about this person’s lack of knowledge about cartoons. Have he ever seen Kliban or the New Yorker cartoons? Oh, duh. I don’t think it’s fair to say Larson stole from them either. He created his own style within the context of the non-reoccuring character based single panel. He developed his own style, and yes, one can see influences from MAD, Kliban, Gross, and a few others, but it was still Larson’s creation. Having said that, there are some who actually go over the line on being influenced in terms of humor and style of drawing. I think some of that might be influenced more by the syndicates’ lack of creativity when it comes to who they choose to syndicate. After all, syndicates are composed of suits who knew what sold in the past and they want to re-create sales from the hey-day of the cartoon 80’s and early 90’s. Syndicates are not artists. They are businessman (well, in very large part).
    So, there’s my two cents. Keep the change.

  41. Just read post 38 where TERRY LABAN further unveils his lack of historical acumen.
    Terry, please get a cartooning history book and don’t embarrass yourself.

  42. Terry Laban’s website identifies him as a syndicated cartoonist. Where are you syndicated, Terry?

  43. @Dan Reynolds
    My lack of historical acumen is demonstrated by what, exactly? It’s not news that B. Kliban is generally credited with orginating the basic gag template– a dry statement describing an absurd situation as if it was part of a longer story which the reader can only imagine– that Gary Larson later became much more famous for. And tons of others adopted after that.
    Guess I am a rabble-rouser. Too bad.

    @Marc Davidson
    My comic strip Edge City has been syndicated by King Features since 2001. If you go to my website and click the link on the right, you can see todays offering. Then you can email the features editor of your local paper and suggest they add it. And then I will be your friend for life.

    By the way, what’s with everyone typing my name in CAPITAL LETTERS? I can hear you–you don’t have to shout.

  44. terry….

    Sorry for the late reply…

    You said, “My lack of historical acumen is demonstrated by what, exactly? It?s not news that B. Kliban is generally credited with orginating the basic gag template”

    You just revealed your lack of historical acumen in the statement above. I guess you’re not familiar with the NYer? How about Punch Magazine? B. Kliban wasn’t even born in 1935. He didn’t even become a Playboy cartoonist until 1962.

    Many consider New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno the father of the modern gag cartoon. He was born in 1904, and cartooned with the NYer from 1925-1968. Notice I said “MODERN”.

    I hope you have been a little edified with this very brief and incomplete historical cartoon addendum.

    Single-panel cartoonist,
    Dan Reynolds

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