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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 07/20/2008

The Morning Line: Do You Do 'Derivative'?

By Michael Cavna

Drawing wacky single-panel toons is treacherous work in "The Far Side's" long wake. (Universal Press Syndicate)

"Imitation is the sincerest form of syndication."
-- Anonymous*
(* okay, we coined that -- but "anonymous" lends that certain authoritative air, no?)

No matter the artistic medium, viewers are often compelled to see influences. It's a way to connect to a new work, like learning that someone is a friend-of-a-friend. But when those influences are too blatant, too direct, the creator is called an imitator, a copycat or -- in polite artistic circles -- simply derided as "derivative." Sniff -- the damage has been done.

On the comics page, the derivative abounds, sparking reactions that range from "But it's homage" to "thieving scoundrel!" "Mutts' " Patrick McDonnell openly acknowledges his due to George Herriman's classic "Krazy Kat" -- he's a true Herriman scholar, in fact -- and everyone can smile, sit back and enjoy the honest homage. In other cases, though, business is far less gentlemanly. Exhibit A: Every other panel strip that has followed in the wake of "The Far Side."

Gary Larson's retired creation left such an enormous creative footprint -- and so many aspiring cartoonists were inspired by his genius and success -- that one could point and shout "derivative" at today's comic pages till both index finger and larynx tired from overuse. Fairly or unfairly, now charges of "derivative!" have come forth with the recent release of the panel "Argyle Sweater." To wit: this charge of being too "derivative."

I'll leave it to you to decide whether comics like today's "Argyle Sweater" are overly derivative. No, my Big Question for today is: Do you even care when a strip is markedly derivative? Does it offend your aesthetic sensibility and sense of fair play, or do you think it's all one big marketplace of exchanged ideas and approaches, and honest influences are the price of working in the field of art? We politely invite your comments.

(Note: This blog item is the sole property of Comic Riffs and The Washington Post and any attempt to filch our ideas without the expressed writ -- aww, nevermind, If we can influence a single soul, then so be it.)

By Michael Cavna  | July 20, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Morning Line  
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I would have to say that I do not mind if a strip is derivative of another if they happen at different times. For example: "Liberty Meadows" could not comfortably exist in my Comics Sphere of Preference were "Bloom County" still running strong. However, that "L.M." came along after "B. Co." had retired, made "L.M." an acceptable supplement to the daily read, filling in a void that Breathed created in my little world. Reference also "Red and Rover" as compared to (as if) "Calvin and Hobbes."

But no one has held a candle to Gary Larson, have they?

Just my two cents.

Posted by: erin | July 20, 2008 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps it is because the comic medium is newer, but in music we never have this discussion. Every note, every sequence of notes, have been played. Putting it together with your own emotion, your own emphasis is the only way to be original. Jazz musicians regularly "quote" famous solos within their own "improvised" solos. At the same time, there are those who quote more than others. Miles Davis would be considered more original and thus more influential than, say, Blue Mitchell. But, Miles still drew extensively from what came before him. How you put things together, what contributions and adjustments you make to previous work, and the entire body of your work - this is what you are judged upon.

Posted by: Rich | July 20, 2008 9:47 AM | Report abuse

If a comic harks back to another that I like, NO, I it does not bother me. If I never read a comic that and a derivative shows up, how would I know. AND, I may like the new one.

So, derivatives are fine.. new rifs on old/great others.

Posted by: PearlandPeach | July 20, 2008 1:14 PM | Report abuse

It's the 'funny' page. Not the 'purely-original idea' page. I don't mind derivative strips, or even blatant rippoffs, as long as they're funny for the 10 seconds it takes to read them.

BTW, just where would I fine the 'purely-original idea' page in a newspaper?

Posted by: JeffH | July 20, 2008 2:22 PM | Report abuse

All that true. However Gary Larson was extremely derivative of B. Kliban ( who I may add doesn't often get that deserved recognition and was a true original single panel comic illustrator ) . Its just the nature of art. Ho Hum.

Posted by: Willner | July 20, 2008 4:27 PM | Report abuse

I think it's great when artists pay tribute to (or criticize) other cartoonists they admire, but it has to be clear. (like the recent Zippy strip with Harry Hanon's Louie)

But blatent joke-stealing goes too far and is just laziness. I also hate it when they repeat the same jokes or turn a common stale joke that has been around for 50 years into a strip.

While I'm ranting, I also hate it when they add a new character to update (Poochie) a strip, but just end up showing how out of it they are (Beetle Bailey's Gizmo!)

Posted by: Some Guy | July 20, 2008 4:47 PM | Report abuse

Of course Argyle is totally derivative of The Far Side, but what the heck- Gary Larson left the playing field open quite a while ago. I doubt if he has any complaints. Anyway, Argyle is pretty good, easily the best of the Doonesbury replacements that The Post was running. By the way, Doonesbury itself has been pretty worthless lately (the Berzerkistan Olympic team?). And as I've said before, it's WAY past time to let Peanuts rest in peace.

Posted by: Mike | July 20, 2008 5:22 PM | Report abuse

It all depends on how derivative a strip is, and how well it is done. There have been a number of landmark comics that changed the perspective of the comics page in their wake: Pogo, Peanuts, Doonesbury, The Far Side, and Calvin and Hobbes, to name a number from the past half-century.These left a number of imitators in their wake: there would be no Bloom County without Doonesbury (and strips like Candorville also owe it a huge debt); Calvin and Hobbes broke new ground - Lio takes that foundation and builds on it (can't see how Red and Rover does, other than the telepathy - but then I rarely find R & R funny, and wonder what time frame it is supposed to be in - the 60's? 70's, today? Ooops, that's just going off on a tangent). My family (not just me, but my wife and daughters) finds Argyle Sweater too derivative - not just in visual style, but in the fact that Hillburn uses some of Gary Larson's old routines. If you are familiar with The Far Side, you recognize the recycled gags - and that just isn't funny.

Posted by: howiehunt | July 20, 2008 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Far Side may be gone but there are several comic strips whose weidness approaches that of Far Side and make me think and laugh. Strange Brew by John Deering comes the closest in my opinion. Others are Speed Bump by Dave Coverly and Rubes by Leigh Rubin.

For whimsical drawings and social commentary you can't beat Ballard Street by Jerry Van Amerongen. For a nostalgic look at everyday life, Pluggers by Gary Brookins fills the bill. For biting satire on white collar management behavior, Working It Out by Charlos Gary provides a Dilbert-like view in a single panel.

Posted by: Larry Bauer | July 20, 2008 8:04 PM | Report abuse

Yes it does bother me. And every invention should include NOTHING that was ever invented before. Or they should at least write "thanks to the guy who invented the wheel" on pretty much everything.

Posted by: f2 | July 21, 2008 7:18 AM | Report abuse

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