WHEN THE sublime political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly died just more than a decade ago, someone sent his friend and fellow Pulitzer winner Mike Peters an obit.
The MacNelly obituary, Peters tells Comic Riffs, said: “You are in everything I draw.” “That is true for a lot of us,” says Peters, acknowledging that MacNelly’s brilliance influenced several generations.
But in the case of Oklahoma editorial cartoonist David Simpson, Peters laments, MacNelly is what Simpson has been drawing. Almost line for line, stroke for stroke.
At least twice in recent weeks, Simpson has plagiarized the work of the late Chicago Tribune legend, reports the Daily Cartoonist. Portland-based political cartoonist Matt Bors tells Comic Riffs that he has seen at least four Simpson cartoons that were acts of plagiarism. And according to journalistic colleagues, Simpson has been committing light-box larceny for decades.
(Update: ThisLandPress says Wednesday it has discovered numerous more occasions in which Simpson’s artwork mirrors that of MacNelly.)
Now, for the second time in six years, the chickens — if not MacNelly’s cartoon birds — have apparently come home to roost. As of Tuesday, Simpson has resigned as a contract contributor for the Urban Tulsa Weekly amid the allegations, reports Poynter. And in a letter by Simpson obtained Wednesday by Comic Riffs, the cartoonist — in his own words — says he was “fired” by the Tulsa weekly, which announced that he “is retiring from the editorial cartooning business.”
Simpson reportedly had worked for the Urban Tulsa Weekly since 2005 — the same year the Tulsa World fired him for plagiarizing a cartoon by the Hartford Courant’s Bob Englehart. At that time, Englehart wrote: “Having not learned his lesson in the late 1970s when he was busted for stealing Jeff MacNelly’s cartoons, he has recently stolen one of mine.” On Wednesday, Englehart tells Comic Riffs of Simpson’s earlier case: “In the ‘70s, Simpson lost his syndication gig but not his newspaper job.”
“I'm sure you could sit down with a six-pack and a stack of MacNelly books and make an evening out of matching them up with Simpson's entire body or work,” Bors tells Comic Riffs. “By now, we know David Simpson was a serial plagiarist with an irrepressible fetish for Jeff MacNelly's line.” (For side-by-side examples, you can check here and here and here and here.)
Peters says that Simpson stole work from him, as well.
“I think it was sometime in the ‘80s, maybe earlier, I was syndicated with United [Feature] Syndicate and someone sent me a bunch of Simpson’s cartoons traced from large parts of my cartoons, with just the caption changed,” Peters, who is now syndicated by King Features, tells Comic Riffs. “I was mad but was not going to do anything about it until I realized that we were syndicated by the same syndicate.
“That meant that he was picking up papers using my cartoons with different captions on them [for] the same syndicate. So I sent my cartoons with the Simpson copies to my syndicate and he got fired the next day.”
Simpson is a longtime cartooning veteran — so much so that he was inducted into the Oklahoma Cartoonists Hall of Fame in 2005. On Tuesday, responding to Simpson’s latest plagiarism case, the Hall of Fame announced that it has retracted the honor.
“When it was brought to our attention on Sunday about his most recent apparent plagiarism, the available members of the induction committee discussed our reactions, and came to the immediate decision that we should retract the Hall of Fame honor and remove his works that were on display in the museum,” Hall of Fame officials Carole and Jack Bender (who also produce “Alley Oop”) tell Comic Riffs via e-mail. “The quickness of our decision was due to the fact that this was not a first offense. ...
“It was a breach of professional ethics we could not ignore or condone.”
All of which raises the question: Why were Simpson’s actions tolerated for so long?
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“There are stories on Simpson going back decades — everyone knew he was a hack,” says Bors, who last week alerted the Daily Cartoonist’s Alan Gardner to one instance of Simpson’s accused plagiarism. (Gardner, who is also a cartoonist, tells Comic Riffs that one of his readers alerted him to a second recent instance of apparent plagiarism.)
“He has been accused of stealing so many cartoonists’ work: [Paul] Conrad, Englehart, Bill Schorr — it's hard to count,” Peters says.
It is interesting to note that now — as in 2005 — some of his colleagues acknowledge his talent.
Gavin Elliott, creative director at the Urban Tulsa Weekly, told Poynter’s Julie Moos on Tuesday: “I’m disappointed. He’s a good cartoonist as far as the actual work goes.”
Compare that to what Englehart said of Simpson back in 2005: “He's a really good cartoonist. There was no reason he had to do this.”
On Wednesday, Englehart also told Comic Riffs of Simpson: “He’s very charming.”
Simpson did not return our calls or emails seeking comment. But on Wednesday morning, Susie MacNelly — Jeff MacNelly’s widow — tells Comic Riffs that Simpson’s editor asked her to write the newspaper’s “retraction” (which she, of course, declined). She also tells us that she received a letter of apology from Simpson.
“Mike Peters so accurately described David Simpson as a cartoon kleptomaniac,” MacNelly tells Comic Riffs via email. “Tulsa must be in a black hole with different journalistic ethics, because neither Simpson nor his editor/publisher seem repentant.”
The Urban Tulsa Weekly returned an email from Comic Riffs but did not comment on the case.
Update: In his “sincere” letter of apology to Susie MacNelly, Simpson writes:
“I’m very sorry that I stole Jeff’s [Jimmy] Carter cartoon from the seventies. I accidentally stole the cartoon 25 years ago when I worked at the now defunct Tulsa Tribune, not three weeks ago for the Urban Tulsa Weekly.”
After noting that he has “thousands of old drawings from 40 years of cartooning in his garage,” Simpson goes on to try to explain himself:
“I honestly didn’t know that I had swiped it 25 years earlier. But that’s no excuse. I’m completely to blame. The peole at Urban Tulsa didn’t know anything about this.
“Jeff’s syndicated cartoon ran in the Tulsa Tribune for 20 years and in the Tulsa World for eight, until his death. Jeff was the greatest cartoonist of his generation and none of his contemporaries [like me] could keep up with him.”
Each plagiarism case, of course, is propelled by its own circumstances and psychology. Yet they all always come down to the same core question: Why stoop to committing one of the industry’s cardinal sins?
Is it the desire to get caught, perhaps? Or is it the belief that as long as you can find work again — as long as there’s always a new employer to be had — the risk is worth the reward? (Bors notes: "How this man found employment after his 2005 firing remains one of the great mysteries of the recession.”)
Amid the many unanswered questions, we do know this: There’s a higher tolerance for plagiarism by newspaper cartoonists than there is for the same sin by newspaper reporters. As Paul Scofield’s character Mark Van Doren says, scoffing, in the Robert Redford-directed film “Quiz Show”: “Cheating on a quiz show — it’s like plagiarizing a comic strip.”
That kind of glib but cancerous attitude can permit a plagiarist to thrive for decades. But the crime, of course, should be taken every bit as seriously when committed by visual journalists. And we hasten to add: Simpson is hardly the only cartoonist with unclean hands.
“The hard truth underlying this story is that swiping MacNelly cartoons was done with wild abandon before the Internet came out,” Bors tells ‘Riffs. “Simpson may have been on the extreme end of the spectrum with his slavish reproductions, but cartoonists far more notable than him have stolen from MacNelly while enjoying successful careers and none of the scorn that is now heaped upon Simpson.”
“It only shows,” Peters says of MacNelly, “how great a cartoonist he was when guys are still tracing his work. Truly the best in the last century.”
As for Simpson, Peters offers three simple words:
“Dave, get help .”