Cartoongate has blown wide open. Fasten your metaphorical seatbelts and look out for flying crosshatch.
Michael Cavna of the Washington Post reports that the Columbus (OH) Dispatch has suspended its editorial cartoonist as it investigates allegations of plagiarism.
Disclosure: I know Jeff Stahler. We’re not close friends, just acquaintances. Seems nice enough, but that’s not the point.
The Dispatch’s investigation isn’t over. But it’s hard to imagine that this doesn’t mark the beginning of the end of Stahler’s career as a cartoonist. (He also draws freelance cartoons for USA Today and does the syndicated panel “Moderately Confused.”)
These allegations have been around for years. Cartoonists keep files of plagiarism real and imagined, and Jeff’s name came up often. No one I’ve talked to thinks he’s innocent, and neither do I. There’s too much of a pattern, over too long.
And there are others.
This is the tip of the iceberg. Other editorial cartoonists, including Pulitzer Prize winners, have long been reputed to be serial plagiarists within the industry. We’re not talking about accidentally regurgitating a gag you read elsewhere and thinking that you thought it up yourself. We’re talking about tracing artwork on a lightbox down to the slightest detail. We’re talking about intentionally repurposing a gag from another cartoon, changing it just enough to make it plausibly different, then passing it off as your own.
There is no excuse for this behavior.
I do hope, however, that editors and publishers at newspapers, magazines and websites that post cartoons consider their own role in encouraging plagiarism.
That’s right: it’s also their fault.
For at least 30 years newspaper and magazine editors and publishers have discouraged originality in cartooning. They have recruited, hired and given Pulitzers to cartoonists whose drawing style slavishly mimics the late cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, who died in 2000.
They have hired cartoonists like Stahler, whose politics are as bland as his ink line, while refusing to hire those with more original drawing styles. No daily newspaper—out of 1600 in the United States—has ever hired a staffer from the ranks of the dozens of “new breed” political cartoonists (Tom Tomorrow, Ruben Bolling, Ward Sutton, Stephanie McMillan) who emerged from the alternative weeklies in the 1990s.
At award time, Pulitzers and other prizes invariably go not only to the safest work—stuff that takes no chances politically, stylistically or artistically—while brilliant younger talents like Tim Krieder and Lloyd Dangle were forced to quit drawing cartoons because no one would hire them, recognize them, or pay them for their work.
A classic example: after 9/11, over 60 cartoonists drew weeping Statues of Liberty. Over 60! It was appalling. Yet to this day, when you criticize the tendency of the profession to yield “Yahtzees,” as we call them, the guilty cartoonists say that their readers love them. Which is no doubt true. Readers love sentimental pap.
It’s up to editors to police their pages. That includes challenging their cartoonists to come up with material that isn’t merely original from a legal perspective—i.e., not traced from a Jeff MacNelly book—but original from a stylistic, political and conceptual framework.
Over the years, including as President of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists, I challenged the editors of major publications including The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today and The Washington Post to seek out hard-hitting, fiercely original cartoons for their pages. For my efforts I have been roundly ridiculed. In the last year Matt Bors has taken up the battle against derivative work, including plagiarism. Now it’s his turn to be ostracized and mocked by richer, more successful cartoonists who aren’t fit to clean his inkbrushes.
Even syndicated reprints suffer from this elevation of the safe, bland and boring over edgy, smart and fun. Editorial cartoonists who take chances have seen their syndicated lists melt down over the last decade while guys like Stahler have prospered.
Alt weeklies were showcases for smart political cartooning throughout the 1980s and 1990s, providing paychecks and venues for emerging artists such as Matt Groening, Mark Alan Stamaty, Stan Mack and Carol Lay. Now many of them favor bland, apolitical work as well.
You know what’s weird about the editors’ Cult of the Safe and Funny? Safe cartoonists aren’t safe; “funny” cartoons aren’t funny. Dangerous cartoons get read and talked about. They draw in readers. Cymbal-crash cartoons like those that run in USA Today aren’t funny. They’re stupid.
Jeff Stahler’s defense ought to be that he was merely pursuing the logic of the industry to its logical conclusion. Stupid, bland, moderate, centrist, derivative shit pays.
UPDATE (12/10/11 13:40 EST): Jeff Stahler has resigned.