CSotD: Without a Trace

(Dr. Macleod)

(Jeremy Banx)

Two threads in this particular Juxtaposition: The backgrounder is the current dustup in the UK about Boris Johnson locking everyone down and then allowing his own staff to hold a Christmas party last year at 10 Downing Street.


It was revealed, apparently, in a wonderfully foolish cock-up when the Prime Minister’s new PR person was trained with a mock press conference in which staffers, posing as media, hilariously asked her about the party. The problem was that, as much fun as they were having, the thing was being taped and so, as such things do, it fell into the hands of the for-real media.

There followed a series of evasions, prevarications and outright bloody lies, which has brought Johnson and his government to the brink of ruin.

The British seem to have an appetite for watching their politicians go down in comical flames and the cartoonists are having a field day.

But that’s not the point here.

These two cartoons, rather, provide a good starting point for discussing the issue brought up by David Apatoff of cartoonists who trace or even photocopy their subjects. DD Degg cited the article, but was discreet in not showing the examples. I think the original article, however, is worth seeing in its entirety and this is definitely a time when you should read the comments.

It’s not a new topic and I’d heard it simmering for weeks before Apatoff brought it up. And, several years before that, it was mentioned at the Daily Cartoonist in relation to a no-longer-available interview with Edward Sorell, of which all that’s left is

“If you don’t trace, it’s art. If you trace, it’s illustration,” says Sorel. “For me, working direct is fine art, and tracing is commercial art. That’s the difference.”

Which brings us back to Banx and Dr. Macleod, neither of whom traced a photo of Boris Johnson for their cartoons, and neither of whom needed to.

Granted, the challenge in caricaturing Johnson is making the hair look sufficiently insane. Having just come through four years of a president who spent an absurd amount of time making his hair look just-so, it’s quite a change.


Though Dave Brown always managed to depict Trump’s hair without having to trace photos.

Still, in comparing those two quite similar Boris Johnson takes the question is not who nailed the most photo-realistic depiction of the man, but who did the best job of mocking his professed innocence?

IMHO, less is more, though it’s a race to see who came up with the most minimalistic commentary, with Banx holding an edge because everything he does is minimalist.

In any case, one should not mistake a spare style for a lack of artistry, nor should you mistake detail for art, as Apatoff makes clear.

The key, rather, is to develop a style, and, once you’ve done that, caricatures should fall into that style.

It can be relatively realistic, as in this Herblock drawing of Barry Goldwater, and I would add that the initials on his briefcase are hardly necessary, particularly given that he was a presidential candidate at the time. It’s not traced, but it’s clearly a picture of Goldwater, drawn in Herblock’s style.


Just as Ann Telnaes did not have to label Attorney General John Ashcroft in this piece, which reflects her unmistakable style.

And I’m glad she didn’t, as any additional verbiage, even a small label, would have detracted from the power of her message.


Even Tom Toles, whose style was as minimalistic as that of Banx, was able here to create a more-than-passable caricature of Donald Rumsfeld, though he generally labeled his caricatures. I don’t think he had to, particularly since the person thus being drawn was invariably at the center of some major story.

As it happens, this comment on a particularly heartless remark drew condemnation from the Joint Chiefs, and I don’t think they needed a label to tell them who Toles was criticizing.


There is a second element to copying,

which is copying something well-known. It’s lazy to trace a well-known building, and, assuming the cartoonist has developed a distinctive style, it should stand out anyway, and not in a good sense.

However, there are times when copying a well-known image and adapting it to your own style is the right move:


Clay Bennett captured a great deal of Tenniel‘s classic illustration here, and he’s enough of a skilled draftsman that we may assume his slightly adapted version was done freehand, though it hardly matters, given the updated, original touches he added.

His lighter touch probably reproduced better on newsprint than a more faithful copy would have, and I’d also note that he acknowledges Tenniel next to his signature. (I like that he says “after John Tenniel” rather than “Apologies to …” a phrase which always makes me think that, if you need to apologize, you shouldn’t do it.)


(James Gillray, with a second hat-tip to Dave Brown)


(David Rowe, 2017) 


(Robert Ariail, Current)

Adapting a classic does not so much require a faithful copy so much as a faithful application, and these parodies of James Gillray’s classic 1805 cartoon of Napoleon and William Pitt carving up the world vary in that respect.

David Rowe’s 2017 take parodies the original but mocks Trump, who is shown as a baby watching as Xi slices off whatever he wants while Trump does not carry a similar blade nor demonstrate a similar ability to carve for himself. As such, Rowe comments on the summit then happening, suggesting that Trump is hardly an equal to Xi as Pitt was to Napoleon.

Ariail’s take goes farther afield, and so I’m not sure it works. He’s certainly right that Xi and Putin are contemplating moves with substantial global effects, but they aren’t in the process of dividing the globe between them, either in terms of actual territory or in terms of spheres of influence.

Another issue here is that, while Bennett could be confident that most people would recognize Alice, her tea party and the contemporary Tea Party movement, even if they didn’t recognize the play on Tenniel’s illustration, it’s not likely the average person would know Gillray’s original or be able to make the comparison to Napoleon and Pitt.

That makes it crucial that the piece also stand alone.

It’s less of a problem for Rowe, because his cartoon is a discussion of world dominance, which was also Gillray’s point, and so Rowe’s parody can indeed stand alone.

Ariail’s version also stands alone, but doesn’t convey the same message, so the inside reference — whether obvious or obscure — is lost. He’d have probably done better to come up with a completely fresh image.


One final thought:

Copying ideas is a completely different topic than copying artwork and photos. We can deal with it another day, but these quick points:

  1. We’re all on Facebook. Illustrating a meme you saw there isn’t going to fool anyone. Don’t be foolish.
  2. Deadlines and posting times vary so much that it’s hard to tell coincidences from theft. Just because two cartoonists come up with the same idea within a few days, don’t assume one stole from the other.
  3. A good rule is “If the idea came to you quickly, it probably came to other cartoonists, too.” That’s how we ended up with three dozen weeping Statues of Liberty after 9/11. If an idea seems obvious, find one that isn’t.
  4. Shit happens. As demonstrated here:


13 thoughts on “CSotD: Without a Trace

  1. I want to thank you for drawing my attention to Edward Sorel’s caricature work. Our library has several of his books and I’ve enjoyed them very much. A pleasure I’d not have had without your recommendation.

  2. It appears to me that Apatoff is accusing Michael deAdder of ” …gluing a photocopy of a head on a poorly drafted body…”.
    (Using a photo AND drawing “poorly”?)

    Or am I misunderstanding?
    If not, finding (and showing) the alleged photograph of Mr Pence would be a good idea.

    “…It’s not a new topic and I’d heard it simmering for weeks before Apatoff brought it up…” Please elaborate!

    While on the topic, I could probably find scores of examples comic strips — past and present — that have made copious use of copy & paste (“Cutty-cutty paste-paste” as a cartoonist friend once described the process).

    I recall an interview decades ago with the creator of a popular strip who openly bragged about copying and pasting to save having to draw his characters, saying something to the effect, ‘You don’t need to be able to draw to be a cartoonist”.

    There are numerous strips today that appear to be a series of copied and pasted drawings — making some statement, I suppose, about how the art in comics isn’t important; it’s the writing…

  3. Not much to elaborate on. Political cartoonists have been complaining about colleagues who trace. To go into detail would simply be to gossip and probably to ensure getting cut out of future conversations.

    And I didn’t mention any comic strips here, nor did Apatoff. The topic of comic strips as art vs commercial illustration is one for another day as well, but there are some of one type and some of another. It’s a different field than the one addressed today.

  4. Tangential, but may I mention David Malki !’s “Wondermark?” He takes 19th-century woodcuts (out of copyright) and adds new captions. His main web page says “collaboration with the dead.”

    All right, a really *thin* tangent.

  5. The references to Gilray and Tenniel touch on another issue you brought up the other day with cartoons riffing on The Birds.

    Cartoonists recognize these classic cartoons instantly, even if Josiah Newspaper Reader or Keightlynne Websurfer do not. But since there are so few common literary, artistic, or visual references available any more, most of us will take what we can get. If Josiah and Keightlynne don’t get it, they can encyclopedia or google it.

  6. Yes, Paul — precisely why I said an homage has to also stand by itself.

    You can’t assume your audience will catch a reference. It’s more of a wink to the knowledgeable, and that’s fun, but it’s no way to make a living.

  7. “… Political cartoonists have been complaining about colleagues who trace…”
    I wasn’t aware of that, and not having seen Apatoff’s site before today, I’ve had to rely on innuendo. I’d appreciate seeing proof before condemning deAdder.

    I tend to see editorial cartooning and strip cartooning as separate but connected: Comic Art. And I hope that the ethics of each would intersect.

    I think it’d be helpful to have a clear definition of “tracing”. How does it compare with copying vs scanning vs “photocopying” vs “cut & paste” vs referencing vs “mashup”?
    Those, to me, are different techniques; some apply to digital art, some to “pen & ink on paper” art, some to both.

    Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Apatoff seems to have a strong dislike for deAdder. When I look at the close-up example, I don’t see any evidence of “gluing a photocopy” (and I’ve done enough of that to feel competent to comment); the remarks about “…a poorly drafted body…” and “…achieve a likeness when they might lack the talent to do so…” seem gratuitous; and the description of hatching and cross-hatching as “…An overlay of scratchy lines creates the illusion that this is a real drawing” suggests a lack of knowledge about what makes a “real” drawing.

    I’ve followed and enjoyed deAdder’s work for years; if he does manipulate and draw over photos, I’d be surprised — and somewhat disappointed. I hope he gets a chance to defend himself.

  8. I commented over at Clay Jones’s GoComics page that I could see an honorable use for tracing when a cartoony artist wants to plop something incongruously real and palpable into his world, though that’s done even better with a photo.

    I had in mind a “Miss Peach” strip where Arthur, in the props department, had crafted a full-sized diesel locomotive. (Boy, I miss the “real” Mel Lazarus.)

  9. Here is Apatoff’s response to Nelson’s concerns (from the comments at his blog). Also, he mentioned not being familiar with Apatoff: David Apatoff is well-known within the cartooning community and respected for his knowledge of drawing.

    Blogger David Apatoff said…
    Nelson– I should clarify my view. I don’t think the cartoonist literally cut out a photocopy of a head with scissors and glued it on his drawing. People stopped doing that in 1987. But I do think his mechanical shortcut is comparable, and– for the same reasons– it’s particularly ill-suited for satirical drawing. An automated likeness won’t produce irony or ridicule, it doesn’t seize upon a similarity to a turtle or a monkey or an inanimate object, it doesn’t produce the artist’s visceral reaction to a nose or low forehead, or exaggerate an expression in the eyes. An automated likeness will always fall short of the artistry, judgment and skill of first rate satire.

    I’m not disparaging the use of photographs generally; I’ve written glowingly about artists who’ve used photographs effectively, such as Bernie Fuchs, Austin Briggs and Toulouse Lautrec. I have nothing against Mr. de Adder personally. For all I know, he’s a saint who deserves the Nobel peace prize. (To keep my comment from sounding personal, I considered cropping my reproduction of his cartoon so that his name didn’t appear, but that seemed inappropriate.) And to be frank, I’m more concerned about the dulling of public taste and the lowering of standards than I am about any one cartoonist.

    My view is that photo-illustration is usually an inferior substitute for good drawing, and that’s nowhere more true than in political cartooning. If a cartoonist has trouble achieving a likeness, there are ways to deal with it. Garry Trudeau never learned to achieve a likeness in 40 years but he offset his deficits with other strengths. The guy who invented Foto Funnies in the 60s gave up all pretense and glued word balloons on photographs. But in my view, the kind of lines superimposed on the faces we’re discussing are primarily to camouflage their photographic roots and integrate the bodies with the heads.

  10. I don’t have time to write an adequate reply but will follow up later.

    I don’t want to speak for Michael deAdder; I’m voicing my opinion that he’s being done a disservice. He seems to have been accused of copyright infringement (gluing a photo onto his artwork and now by using some kind of “mechanical shortcut”.)
    Is using Procreate a mechanical shortcut?.

    Has anyone produced a copy of a photo that could have been used in the example in the original blog post?
    Ive read OPINIONS that he worked over a photo. I haven’t seen proof.
    My opinion for now is that he used a photo for reference and didn’t distort or exaggerate enough to suit some people.

    More to follow.

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