Can a cartoonist use a gag writer or is that cheating?

Mike Lynch revisits the topic of cartoonists using gag writers. Historically, it was much more common than today.

Some think using a gag writer is the equivalent of using steroids – a true cartoonist should do both the writing and the art. I used to be squarely in that camp, but I’d much rather see a cartoonist turn to a good gag writer to keep the quality of the feature up rather than phoning it in or worse lifts/borrows/steals ideas from other cartoonists.

Your thoughts?

18 thoughts on “Can a cartoonist use a gag writer or is that cheating?

  1. Seems like a silly question to me. Why does it matter?

    A band is made up of musicians with varying strengths; the result is one tune.

    A cartoon can be made up of artists with varying talents; the result is one cartoon.

    1 + 1 = 2.

    But 4 – 2 also = 2.

  2. There are lots of writer-artist teams out there. I only think it’s “cheating” or “dishonest” if a cartoonist builds his or her own name on the strength of uncredited gag writing from others. If the project is a collaboration, I believe the project should be signed as such.

  3. I hesitate to say I don’t prefer it, because I like a lot of people who use gag writers. I guess it depends on your goal.

    I’ve always liked the singular vision, even with comedians like Louis C.K.

    But if you’re just out to entertain and tell jokes and be a working comedian/cartoonist, I’ll laugh just the same whether you wrote it or not.

    Of course, that means the bad stuff (and it always outweighs the good stuff) is all mine.

  4. I’m with Jerry, the first commenter: who cares?

    When I was a kid, I thought it was “cheating” to trace some of your art from a photograph, or even to look at your subject. True drawing, I thought, was just what came from your memory or imagination. Now, I’m a professional illustrator and sometimes comics artist, and I use photo reference all the time. Sometimes I trace photos for backgrounds, or even character poses. So what?

    What matters is the end result. The fact that some cartoonists hire writers, or art assistants, only proves that they value the quality of their work above keeping all the money. The cartoonist is still responsible for the material, at the end of the day, so it’s still his or her name on the work.

  5. Some people are better writers than artists, some people are better artists than writers. You’re only cheating if you’re putting your name on something and you didn’t have anything to do with it.

  6. I have been lucky enough to have some of my ideas accepted and used by cartoonists – my ability to draw owes the scale of artistic talent a few points*. I’m not consistent enough to try to make a living as a gag writer, but some of my ideas, credited or otherwise, have made it into print, and I’m grateful to see them given form.

    *Although that doesn’t stop some people in similar circumstances.

  7. Was it “cheating” for Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross to make huge careers for themselves singing songs they didn’t write?

    With the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in the news 24-7 it is easy to say that only musicians who compose their own songs are to be admired. But the music business is waaaay more complex than that.

    And the comics business is way more complex than that. While there are some giants in comics who have stuck steadfastly to the “one-man-shop” model, Bill Watterson comes immediately to mind, it is hardly the only way to create a feature.

    Even though Hank Ketchum created Dennis The Menace in 1951, and drew it until 1994, he used gag writers as early as 1955 and, to my knowledge, never gave any of those writers credit. As far as I can tell, the general comics reading public neither knows this fact nor cares. They read their comic, get a laugh and move on.

    It only seems to bother a certain set of purists. I admit that sometimes I have fallen into that camp on an emotional level but it just isn’t the way the business works.

  8. I think you hit on some good points, Anne. Writing great comics material is not necessarily a talent every cartoonist has. Jack Davis made several attempts at developing a syndicated comic strip, with and without help with the writing. For different reasons, none hit the mark. Davis could certainly draw as funny as anybody ever did, but his writing was not on the same par as the art. When he drew features for MAD, he always worked with writers. Would anyone say that because Davis was not a great writer of humor that he wasn’t a ‘true cartoonist’?

  9. As a gag cartoonist, everyone is always saying, “This would be a great idea!”, and sometimes they are. I defer to my comedic friends when my well runs dry or it’s been an intensely busy time and I need material quickly. I’m all for collaboration with equal credit however it can be difficult when my audience calls out that the humor or punchlines don’t align with my regular work. I also find that collaboration helps me change my style to separate and give the collaborative work it’s own identity. But yes, at times on an emotional level, I love taking all the glory for a final piece. What would Monet had done if he asked Van Gogh to draw something and Monet would fill it in like a paint by number. Beautiful results but not really the style of either.

  10. I admit I probably have more respect for the one-person auteur who writes, pencils, inks, and sweeps up the pencil shavings. I like comics created with a singular artistic vision.

    But I really just see it as two different ways of getting the job done. There’s the Charles Schulz way and the Mort Walker way. I I genuinely respect both approaches; some of our very best used assistants, including gag writers. There’s also a line where it crosses into self-serving deception and unfair credit grubbing.

    I very much like the way Dan Piraro handles it. He’s totally upfront about using gags provided by others, and includes a credit on those particular strips. Honest and honorable.

  11. Some very famous comics, which should have been retired years ago after the original creator passed away, use gag writers. I find this cheating as they will buy from anyone who sends in a gag, not knowing if it is original, reused or stolen.

    It’s one thing to have a companion who does the comic with you as a partner, it’s another thing to buy just any gag that comes in the mail so as to keep the dying feature afloat. The gag writers get no credit and the cartoonist gets all the glory by simply tracing the old comics that the original creator created and using the gags sent in by “strangers.”

  12. Since the comics’ earliest days most successful cartoonists have used assistants in some capacity. In the days before computers it was almost essential–one of those old full-page Sundays alone could have been a week’s worth of work for most individuals! Charles Schultz was notable for NOT using them. A comic strip, at least a syndicated one, is more a product than a work of art–as long as it shows up each day, no one cares how it gets there. That being said, my only assistant is Photoshop.

  13. I think it?s important to distinguish between the one- or two-panel gag cartoon and the comic strip. With the former, I see no problem with gag writers, though I do think readers should, in some way, know they are used. Otherwise, the artist gets full credit where full credit is not really due.

    With a comic strip, the writing usually grows out of the characters created by the cartoonist. Ideally, no one knows these characters better than their creator, since they really are composites of him or her. Schulz may be an extreme example since he was a comic genius, but his characters were him and he was them, so he was writing about himself. I think this may be true for most comic strip artists who love working with their characters. Once created and if created well, characters will continue to develop and the artist is basically just following along, sometimes just listening to them and trying to keep up with them. I suppose there might be outside writers who could understand the characters well enough to write what they have to say, but I doubt they?d ever understand the characters the way the creator would and it seems unlikely they could further develop a character. Still, outside writers are used for some strips primarily gag-oriented (versus, say, slice of life), and it can work with the cartoonist as final judge. But again, I think the writer should be acknowledged.

  14. Being a gag writer, I obviously think using gag writers is a fine idea (and will be happy to talk directly with anyone looking for a writer). I also appreciate that it’s not for everyone. Whether to collaborate or not, and how much to collaborate, is part of the artist’s preference. I also fully agree that it’s the finished product that matters most; most “consumers” of art don’t really care who wrote the music or the lyrics, they only care that the performance sounds good. It really should be about the artwork, not the artist.

    For myself, I don’t care about getting credit or not. I really like seeing how an artist enhances my gag; the artwork always adds a substantial element of creativity and enjoyability that the gag alone doesn’t have.

    It’s very important that artists work with writers who suit their style, choosing just as they would choose the ideal pens or software or what have you. If one writer is a bad fit, try another. Try me! If you don’t like my work, try someone else. Ultimately, be true to your own goals of entertaining your audience, and use whatever resources are available to do that.

  15. Having a gag writer is no different than an artist having assistants, whether inkers, background guys, letterers, writers, what have you.

    One of my favorite bits of trivia from Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy” strips in the 60s and 70s was an -in-strip comic strip called “Sawdust”, consisting of a pile of indistinguishable dots that were the characters in the strip. Each dot was drawn by a different art assistant, and the art staff’s names were “Chet, Al Ray, Hap and Rick” I believe.

    The inside joke was that these were the names of Gould’s staff of assistants, Gould himself being “Chet”.

  16. Sitting in my studio in dear old Blighty, pen at the ready but brain befuddled – I clearly would welcome a dialogue with a gag writer and or a max 5 panel strip writer.
    Glad to enter an email conversation – the wonders of the web allow the world to communicate so why not a artist and a writer?
    If you fancy it let’s see what happens.

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