Monday, July 19, 2010


Watch Your Head
I'm not big on What-If scenarios, at least not in retrospect. They're too daunting and too trivial and too irrelevant all at the same time. What if I'd taken a different route the day I had that accident? What if I'd stayed in nursing school? Or finished college in general? What if I'd thought twice about that one (one?) joke that bombed so irreparably?

Who cares? I didn't, and here I am.

But there's one What-If that I do wonder about. What if I had drawn Frazz the way I had originally sketched him - with curly hair instead of straight?

My comic strip gets compared a lot to the great Calvin & Hobbes, sometimes with a sneer and sometimes with a hurrah and always with way more credit than I deserve. The compliments feel good, the anger kind of hurts, and I don't let myself believe the compliments too much because then I'll have to believe the insults, too.

For the record: I learned a ton from reading Calvin & Hobbes, and I use it. If we want to give my plagiarism accusers some credibility, I'll steal and rephrase a quote from George Bernard Shaw: 90% of cartoonists my age are influenced by Bill Watterson and the rest are liars. I try to draw Frazz cleanly and expressively, like Watterson drew Calvin & Hobbes. I try to write it smartly and give my readers credit for thought and ambition, like Watterson did. From there, I do it my way, and if similarities happen they happen. I neither steal nor conceal.

But that's not what a lot of people zero in on. Many of the people who notice similarities, and nearly all of the angry ones, go straight to the hair. Calvin had spiky hair; Frazz has spiky hair.

What if I'd stuck with my first sketches? (Again, the whole Plan-B-In-Retrospect is laughably moot; his spiky hair wasn't as Calvinesque then as it's grown to be. Characters do their own thing over time a lot. You can create them but you can't control them. Ask any given god.) Frazz had to have messy hair - that was a given. He's just the kind of guy who wouldn't spend a lot of time fussing with his hair, for one, but the main thing is that messy hair never goes out of style. But I first drew him with a darker, curly eraserhead mop. It looked great. But I already had him idolizing a certain Texas singer-songwriter who did his hair much the same way, and I thought that might be overkill. That's right - I didn't want it looking too derivative. So I went with light and straight and messy, and who knows where the strip might have gone had the proverbial butterfly flapped its wings that way?

I enjoyed the nod from Cory in Watch Your Head. Enjoyed it very much. He's a terrific cartoonist, so to be sent up by him is a real honor. In a nice bit of circular symmetry, his editor at the Washington Post Writers Group is Amy Lago, who signed me to United Feature Syndicate more than 10 years ago and got Frazz of to such a solid start. She's a terrific editor with impeccable instincts. She never got to see the sketches of Frazz with the frizzy hair. If she had, I wonder. What If …?


Steve said...

"What if" is what one says while digging that hole where you have gone deep enough to still see the top...but you cannot get out anymore.
I'd yell, "Stop digging", but far too many people ignore the warning and keep on going. The editor at the Washington post may be good, but the decision to show you on the kids page for four days each week is a very unfair error...o their part!

SpeedyChix said...

Here on the MIchigander (and don't have your email along). We see you sent your parents here unchaperoned. Not to worry. We're here, and Janet and Gord have been adopted by 400 of their new closest friends. The hills are a touch larger than you may have led them to believe. Mom says no hard feelings.
Wheeling along in Bellaire.

Viper said...

Nobody will ever touch Watterson's mastery. But Frazz is the only reason I still read the comics pages. Frazz with curly hair? That sounds like a terrible accident in the Transmogrifier. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Influence is one thing. I agree with Mallett that it's unavoidable in any art. However, Frazz is a blatant rip-off of Calvin... and not just the hair. The character looks nearly identical. Mallett's defensive attempts to side-step around his shameful plagiarism are nothing short of laughable.

Jacob said...

Ditto what Viper said; actually Frazz is the ONLY strip I read anymore (thanks As far as I'm concerned, Frazz is a fun, artfully drawn strip which people look forward to reading every morning and which leads them to the dictionary or the encyclopedia almost as frequently (that's a good thing). I'm sure I speak for most when I say that I enjoy the obvious effort you put into the strip as well as the frequent allusions to literature, science, and athletics. And yes, those are also reasons why people loved Calvin and Hobbes. That's not plagiarism--that's just a good comic strip.

Anonymous said...

Angry? Amazing! Have your critics never excerpted from, adapted or otherwise used concepts, solutions or other good ideas developed by others? If not, they must spend an awful lot of time reinventing the wheel!

Anonymous said...

Why would Frazz as a grown-up Calvin be plagiarism? It isn't copying word for word, image for image, or story line for story line, or even characters. I don't see how it's like Calvin & Hobbes, other than the points you make, unless Caulfield is Calvin and Frazz is Hobbes. And if that's the case, then they have no reason to complain about how Frazz looks, do they?