What are we talking about when we talk about cartoon plagiarism

Now concentrate, and picture yourself as an editorial cartoonist. It’s your average day. You follow the news, pick a topic for your next cartoon, do some research, get drawing, proudly publish your work. And then another cartoonists writes a comment under your post saying “I already drew this, look at this link.”

How do you feel? Is he right!? Maybe he is! Did you do your fair amount of research to be sure your idea and the realization of it are in no way similar to anyone else’s? You spent so much time thinking and drawing and, all of a sudden, in front of everyone, another cartoonist says something that sounds pretty much like a “yeah well, this sit was taken, dude” or even worse, “you kind of copied my work.”

You must feel bad, I think. I feel bad about it, and it happened more than once. But was this deserved?


Let’s talk about plagiarism.

From the University of Oxford: “Plagiarism is presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, by incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgment.”

Pretty straightforward.

So, we can exclude that part that says “presenting some else’s work” as your own. That would amount to taking a screenshot of a cartoon made by another cartoonist, cutting away their signature, and publishing it claiming the authorship of it. That is crazy, and basically never happens. Cartoons get regularly stolen, that for sure, but not by other cartoonists.

But what about presenting “ideas as your own”? This is tricky. Say I take Edvard Munch’s The Scream and I use it, in a different fashion but in a totally similar way, for something like the coronavirus face masks scare. Like this.


Would this be plagiarism? I don’t believe so. This would fall more on the line of referencing – in a postmodern way – to a work of art or widely known image for the purpose of delivering a message. References happen every day, they are part of our culture – think about the Simpsons and their use of pop culture, movies, books, songs, etc.


Drawing the same thing

And yet, the concept of reference implies a “paternity.” It implies that, when I re-draw The Scream, I admit I am working on a remake of the original work. That’s also why no one gets upset about it. Because the source is known!

But what if I am not doing that? What if it is not my intention to refer to anything or anyone in particular, and I am simply drawing something that, in a way or another, was already drawn by another cartoonist? It just happened to have been already kind of done.

Let me give you an example. I recently drew a cartoon about the Israeli occupation of Palestine – you can see it below. I posted it on my social media and a fellow cartoonist commented: “Unfortunately there are more flags with tanks. See my Myanmar flag.”


As I said at the beginning, a cartoonist tries to avoid working on ideas that are already taken. One does some research, maybe trying to google “Israeli flag tank cartoon” or skimming through archives like the one on the Cartoon Movement. It takes time, and it’s no rocket science.

To be frank, a cartoonist cannot tell another cartoonist “hey, tank and flag are already taken.” Otherwise a singer could go on like “I’ve got dips on the words love, heart, sky,” for example.

Plus, here we’re talking about really common keywords: war, Israel, Palestine, tank, occupation. The possible permutations of images revolving around such ideas are, well, not infinite. A subject needs to be understandable for the public and not impossibly complicated to draw. It’s a fine balance, and cartoons are heavily based on stereotypes. Make it too “out there”, or too difficult, and nobody will understand it. Make it too obvious, and it will be boring.

To be frank, a cartoonist cannot tell another cartoonist “hey, tank and flag are already taken.” Otherwise a singer could go on like “I’ve got dips on the words love, heart, sky,” for example.

Clearly there are limits to that, don’t get me wrong. Similarity doesn’t mean sameness – although sometimes two cartoonists can have the exact same idea, and realize it almost in the same way. Of course, a cartoonist cannot go over the line of someone else’s cartoon – I’ve seen that, and that is plagiarism.


Let’s keep our eyes on the target, please

Editorial cartoonists are professionals and, as such, they try to make a living out of their drawing. It is difficult, maybe even impossible, in the era of social media, and when competition is as fierce as it can be.

But let’s remember cartoons are also activism. We draw about topics we care about, for people to care about them. I don’t go on drawing much more cartoons than I will sell only for the sake of passing time. It’s always going to be a losing game, for the 99% of cartoonists.

In Italy, we say “It’s a war of the rags.” La guerra degli stracci, that is, a war among people without money. Almost no money is involved, only the pride of having drawn the first tank, the first flag. Can we really claim our tank was the first-ever? I do not believe so.

My only answer for who tells me “I already drew the tank and the flag” or “I already drew the flag and the mask” or whatever else, is: “Ok, fair enough.”

Fair enough, but also, who cares! Cartoons need to make a dent in the public opinion. And if the best way to sensitize people to the Israel-Palestine problem is to draw a thousand cartoons with tanks and flags, then so be it.

Plagiarize away, please.


These are only some of the many cartoons containing tanks and flags I could easily find on the Cartoon Movement. By Ismael Hammad, Rafat Alkhateeb, Marco De Angelis, Vasco Gargalo, Gianfranco Uber

The laughter paradox: on satire and sexual violence

You must know I love Gipi. As a cartoonist, his sheer talent and creativity are what I feel I must aim for, at least from a stylistic point of view. That’s why some days ago, as I often do, I visited his Instagram profile, and that’s when I read his short story Inspector Modern.

The story Gipi drew

The story goes like this – you can read it here, in Italian: Inspector Modern – that’s his surname – is in his office when a woman, Marisa, is brought in. She’s hurt and bruised and wants to denounce sexual aggression. Andrea assaulted her, she says. At this point Inspector Modern loses it completely, and starts cursing at the male universe, saying that he feels ashamed of being a male himself because of these episodes of violence.

Then he concludes that, after all, this is a simple case, because Marisa is a woman. He believes her, because “one must always believe a woman. That’s not that hard to understand.”

So Andrea is brought in. But Andrea is a woman as well. And she says Marisa assaulted her. Moderno is baffled and lost for words. The end.

Paradox and reality

So, the paradox here would be that he said we should always believe women, and there are two women giving contradictory statements, accusing each other. Who to believe, then?

Ok.

Some context. Gipi wrote this story in the aftermaths of a scandal that is still rampaging in Italy: the son of Beppe Grillo, one of the founders of the political party Five Stars Movement, has been accused of having raped – together with four of his friends – a girl. A video of the violence is circulating the web, and Beppe Grillo made his own video to defend his son, and then Grillo’s wife did the same, and then, and then, you get the gist.

So, does Gipi’s paradox sound appropriate, to you?

Some things, we shouldn’t say

I got to the Instagram post containing the short comic strip when the shitstorm was blowing at its hardest against Gipi.

His line of defense was pretty much something on the line of “cancel culture,” or “nobody gets me,” or “how can you think I would justify a rape,” or “this is just a simple story,” things that to me amount to say, when accused of racism: “Let me tell you, I have so many black friends!”

From the perspective of a cartoonist – which I am, although I am an editorial cartoonist and Gipi is not, so there are some differences – there are things that you could say, because they might be clever and make somebody laugh, but you decide not to say them, because they would be inappropriate, and although not openly wrong, surely distasteful.

Gipi says he wrote his story after having read an editorial written by Simonetta Sciandivasci in the newspaper Il Foglio. I can’t read the article, since I am not a subscriber, but I found a tweet by Sciandivasci which, interestingly, sounds like a comment on Gipi’s Inspector Modern.

She says, I translate: “Here is an answer given by Altan – legendary editorial cartoonist – that should come to mind when we support the line of ‘everyone is stupid/one can’t say anything anymore.” And what Altan says is, I translate a part of it: “There are things we should simply not say. Because they are horrible. They add nothing: at best, they deform things.”

Deontology 

Isn’t this what every professional should do? One can make mistakes, but the struggle is always finding the balance between making a statement and not offending in a gratuitous way some of the individuals involved in a story.

But here, Gipi’s choice of drawing this strip, and the arrogant defense of his freedom of being sharp and cynical, are a mere stylistical exercise.

Why drawing a divertissement story based on a paradox about sexual harassment, whose pivotal sentence is  “One must always believe a woman. That’s not that hard to understand.”? The premise is wrong, and, even worse, sounds like a mockery of a statistical fact, a journalistic fact, a freaking fact: during 2020 alone, 91 women were killed, and there were 1,522 emergency calls for stalking and violence only between March and June 2020. Ha, ha, ha! Right?

I call this behaviour lack of professional deontology, of professional ethics, that is. Gipi is not an editorial cartoonist, but he is, like all of us, a creator of culture. He has an ample following, and when he decides to give his opinion he must know there will be people listening.

We must to dare not laugh

Honestly, I’m growing tired of this habit of marking people that take things seriously as “boring” or unable to understand irony, or “touchy” or “humorless.”

There are things that are not funny, even if a funny story can be drawn about such things. In this particular case, although I don’t support full-on attacks on a cartoonist, I think critiques were totally justified. By the way, I haven’t spotted even a single insult towards Gipi in the comments thread under his story.

This strip is clever, yes, maybe even funny, but doesn’t make me laugh. I actually do not want to laugh at it, because laughter is an extremely serious matter, and even smiling at the Inspector Modern story would mean, in a way, allowing a sad story – or all the sad stories – of violence and harassment to be summarized by a silly and empty paradox. Laughing is, more often than not, a statement.

Laughter is an extremely serious matter. This also is a paradox.