Normally I don’t waste much time thinking about Rich Johnston, professional comics journalist. However, recently he featured a pal of mine, Cathy Leamy, in a feature on his site. Unfortunately, that feature is called “Swipe File”.
If you’re not into comics, you may not know what a swipe file is, but you can probably guess. It’s a term for a collection of images that an artist “swipes” — that is, copies — from. It’s not a term of endearment. While it’s true that even some of the big names have been caught swiping others, there aren’t many artists who would be pleased to find themselves accused of such.
On Rich’s site (which I’m not going to link to; even the paltry hits I’d provide would be too many) he compared the cover of Cathy’s minicomic, Geraniums and Bacon #4 to Ryan Kelly’s cover for Local #12. Both were labeled as coming out in 2008. Since Ryan Kelly’s book is more well known (and was displayed first in the post), the implication, along with the title “Swipe File” is that Cathy swiped Kelly’s art for hers.
Problem is, G&B #4 didn’t come out in 2008, it came out in 2007. Given the context, that’s a huge difference. This “professional” didn’t even bother to check that the date he was giving was correct (it’s printed on the inside cover of the minicomic, and the blog entry linked above is from 2007.)
When this was pointed out to him, he “corrected” the error by changing the date on his site. So now what were we to infer — Ryan Kelly swiped from Cathy Leamy? Nobody thinks that. Clearly it’s just a coincidence that the covers look similar; the image on both is pretty basic and straightforward. Nevertheless, it’s still labeled “Swipe File”.
A bunch of us who know Cathy were just bamboozled by the whole thing. Swipe? Really? This is going to be the first time many people see Cathy’s work and right out the gate she’s pretty much labeled a plagiarist. What’s up with that?
However, as Rich points out, just because the feature is labeled “Swipe File”, it doesn’t mean he’s saying that one of the images is a swipe of the other. In fact, the page has a very “professional” disclaimer on it:
Swipe File understands presents images to comment on their juxtaposed similarities and/or differences and makes no allegation that either was inspired by the other. Swipe File subscribes to the concept of IdeaSpace, synchronicity, ideas whose time has come, and all the rest.
So there, that settles everything! Just because he labels it a swipe doesn’t mean he wants you to infer it’s a swipe.
There are plenty of ways to do this sort of thing without having to accuse anyone of anything. For example, Bully has a regular feature called “Separated at Birth” that handles this same idea but also allows for homages, coincidences, and parodies without making any accusations. I even suggested to Rich via Twitter that if he wants to also handle such things without problems, maybe just change the name of the feature to something like “Twinsies” or whatever.
Rich, however, wanted to handle this like a professional. He felt that changing the date was good enough, and besides, he’s got the disclaimer! The place where he swiped the idea from (his words) called it “Swipe File” so it has a “long and glorious history” of presenting similar images of all types. In fact, he couldn’t understand why he was getting so much hassle over a simple mistake of putting the wrong date.
Really, Rich? You didn’t see what the big deal was? Your failure to check your facts results in the implication that a comics artist is stealing her material and you want to claim you’re the victim here?
I tried to help him see the effect of what he’d done by asking him, on Twitter, “Would you like seeing your work featured on PLAGIARISM!, even with a note somewhere saying ‘possibly not plagiarism’?” And this was his response:
Really, what do you say after that? His argument is, essentially, “Even though I’m using the term ‘A’ I mean ‘Not A’ and don’t know why anyone would assume I mean ‘A’.” As Dorian Wright quoted:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Rich Johnston still has no idea what he did wrong, and sees no problem with implying someone is a plagiarist, since when he labels it “plagiarism” he means something other than the commonly-recognized definition of the word; in fact, the complete opposite of the commonly-recognized definition of the word. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the one who’s been wronged here. It’s utterly ridiculous.
Considering the level of maturity and competency the “professional” comics journalists display, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the amateur ones must not even be multicellular yet. There really is some great serious, thoughtful, and humorous comics writing being done on the Internet, but very little is being done by the people who somehow get paid to do it.