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Sunday Mailbag

Q: A few posts ago you mentioned how sometimes art directors ask you to ape the look of another illustrator and how you either talk them out of it or decline the job. Are there illustrators out there who routinely do ape the look of other artists?

A: Oh, yes. I know of several illustrators who have built their entire careers around mimicking the style of other illustrators.

Originally this question included the website of an artist that does just that, but I removed the reference. I don’t like bashing other people as a rule, so do not expect me to name names. What people do is their own decision and if they are comfortable doing something like mimicking another artist’s style to earn a living, I am not going to judge them. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, if they can live with it more power to them, I guess. I don’t think this kind of thing hurts the original illustrator whose style is being ripped off, because they likely are not in need of work if their style is so popular or iconic it’s being aped by other artists, and any client who would go to a copy-cat illustrator was never a real possibility as a client for the original anyway. Therefore it’s a victimless crime… just don’t ask me to have a great deal of respect for those types.

I do know of a number of illustrators who are not shy at all about being clones of the styles of other, more notable artists. Jack Davis is probably the most imitated cartoon illustrator of all time (I’d say Jeff MacNelly is the all-time most copied cartoonist ever), and I see many artists with heavy Davis influence who aren’t true copycats, but I know of at least one whose work is such a Davis mimic he even signs his name the exact same way. Mort has many copy-cats also, some to the point where it makes you wonder if they don’t have a stack of MAD‘s next to their drawing table so they can find a Mort drawing of a hand, figure, or expression, they need to draw at any given time. I know of one airbrush illustrator from the 80′s who literally used the following (paraphrased) line in his advertising: “If you can’t afford Mark Fredrickson, call me!”. Al Hirshfeld is another illustrator who you see copied quite a bit. There is one guy who bills himself as the “next Al Hirschfeld”… as if there could ever be another. I even know of some live caricaturists who unashamedly advertise they work in Hirschfeld’s style.

There is actually a market for copycat artists, and that’s why some people choose to go that route. The first cartoonist I ever met was the late George Karn, a local Twin Cities illustrator who was part of an illustration studio here in Minneapolis that a college class of mine visited. His promo piece was a montage of copycat images… he had a Davis, a Drucker, an Arnie Roth, a Jeff MacNelly, etc. He actually gave us advice to say you should “adopt” a variety of styles so you can get lots of work and not be limited to “one style”. The translation to that is “clone the work of recognizable cartoonists and you’ll get work from clients who want their look but won’t pay their fees”. Karn was a talented artist but never made his own mark on the world with his own properties or features, although he did work I am sure most people would have seen. He drew many of the General Mills “Monster Cereal” characters for packaging, ads and promotional items, among other national advertising and product art. He was clearly comfortable doing what he did, and I guess in a way he was more of a “jack of all trades” kind of cartoonist who mimicked many styles as opposed to someone who just marketed himself as “Jack Davis lite”. There is a bit of a difference.

I am sure there is a few people out there who think I’m being a hypocrite saying what I said in the previous paragraph, since some people seem to think I am a rip-off of Mort Drucker. Anyone who thinks that is either visually illiterate or has some other agenda for saying so. People who don’t know what they are looking at might see caricatures done in a linear, inked technique in a sequential storytelling format and instantly think “Mort Drucker” regardless of what the style really looks like. They can go ahead and think that because I know they are wrong, and more importantly people like the editors at MAD know they are wrong. If they were right, I’d not be working for MAD. Even my initial Mort influences have been fading away for years now. I’m very comfortable in saying my work is it’s own style… far inferior to Mort’s, Jack Davis‘s or any of the MAD legends, but not a mimic.

I don’t really know what to think about illustrators who blatantly mimic the work of another artist. It’s quite possible to earn a living by doing it, but it must be very unfulfilling. You would have to come to grips with the fact that your career is really riding on the coat-tails of another artist whose style you are aping, and any jobs you get are because the client really wants the other guy but either can’t afford him or he is unavailable. You also have a certain stigma with regard to your work, especially from other illustrators and more reputable art directors. You certainly are out of the running for jobs from many upper-level clients because they won’t contract a copycat when they can have the real thing. I know in MAD‘s case, they refuse to give work to artists who too closely resemble the work of their mainstays. even when those mainstay’s no longer work for them and/or have passed away. This is especially true of blatant mimics as well as those who are just too heavily influenced by the classic MAD artists. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to earn a living as a freelance artist no matter how you do it, so if that roads allows you to have a successful career, who am I to say it’s wrong?

Thanks to R Griffin for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!

6 Responses to “Sunday Mailbag”

  1. Genaro says:

    The best proof to any people out there who may believe you are a Drucker rip-off is the MAD Harry Potter special issue, where they can see parodies from the first and second HP movie alongside and compare.

    • Tom says:

      In all honesty I really don’t get those kinds of comments anymore, and the very few times I hear them they usually come from the haters. Haters gotta hate.

  2. Jack Myhervold says:

    I agree there is a difference between being a clone, and being someone who is influenced by an artists work they admire. I would bet the early Mad artists were all influenced by each other as they created what would become the Mad visual language. Like you are now, they were all unique, but all share the Mad feel for facial exaggeration, wild body language, and the inevitable shoe bottom with a hole or wad of gum. In the “Man of Veal” satire, on pg 17, the guy in the upper right in the green outfit with the crazed leering look, is Richmond, and not a clone of any one artist, but it has a connection to Elder, Wallace Wood, Davis, Mort, Viviano, and others. The tradition continues in good hands.

  3. Jeff Niffen says:

    A lot of comic book artists will break into the industry by aping an already established artist’s style because they know that editors are looking for what sells. Most of them, a few years in, will eventually start to develop and hone their own style, and I love watching that evolution take place.

  4. Ed Meisinger says:

    I would not consider your work “far inferior” to Mort Drucker’s and Jack Davis’s. You’re on the same level.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks but looking at it with an objective eye, I still have a long way to go to be in their league. Mort and Jack have a command of visual imagery and storytelling that is awesome to behold. On the plus side, they are certified artistic geniuses so it’s not like I am aspiring to be mediocre. I;ve got mediocre down cold :D

 

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