Behind the New Yorker’s Jack Kirby Cartoon Ripoff

Van Jensen

Van Jensen is a former crime reporter turned comic book writer. In addition to ComicMix, he contributes to Publishers Weekly and Comic Book Resources. He lives in Atlanta, and his blog can be found at

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23 Responses

  1. Rick Taylor says:

    A swipe is a swipe.No excuse.

    • Russ Rogers says:

      There are whole art forms built around the "swipe," from sampling in Rap Music to Grandma's decoupage scrapbook covers. The New Yorker has apologized and given credit to Kirby on line. Do you think they owe Kirby's heirs money? The funny part of the cartoon is having a gross, Kirby-esque monster at the window while a very average looking guy who is totally oblivious to the situation.How much of this is swipe? How much of this is parody? How much is an homage? How much is it just a non-issue after two weeks?… Is Munden's a swipe, parody or homage?

  2. Rick Taylor says:

    It's still a swipe.There is a way the artist could have drawn it without taking the exact angle of the original drawing.Get a new layout.

    • Russ Rogers says:

      I'm not sure an entirely new layout would have been as funny. The "funny" part, if there is one, is in having a very staid, normal looking guy finding himself inside a Jack Kirby cover. Part of the what makes stuff funny is the audience discovering an "Aha!"-moment. It's that moment of recognition. Sometimes comedians delve into Pop-culture nostalgia, "What if Eddie Munster was a cast member on Big Brother? I think it would go something like this…" The creativity in humor is finding novel ways of tickling that sense of surprise and recognition.I don't think the panel is as funny if you say, "Based on the work of Jack Kirby as seen in Tales to Astonish." That takes away that moment of surprise and recognition for the reader. It's that moment when they can pat themselves on the back and say, "Oh yeah, I KNOW that!"For some people, that moment of surprise and recognition in the Harry Bliss cartoon was linked with outrage instead of humor.Harry Bliss, the artist who drew the cartoon, wasn't sure where the punch line was. He sent the drawing to Neil Gaiman asking for a caption. Here's what Gaiman wrote in his blog:A few months ago my friend Harry Bliss (it's possibly more accurate to say my acquaintance Harry Bliss, as we mostly wave at each other in email and have so far failed to have dinner or save each other from drowning but I like him very much on the basis of not knowing each other very well) sent me a drawing that he'd done that needed a caption. It was a Jack Kirby Monster on the side of a building, with a cheerful Harry Bliss man on the phone inside.I pondered it, and a month later sent him a suggestion, and he said it was funny but that the New Yorker had already bought the drawing for their caption contest.…Jokes are like mathematical formulas with multiple answers. You have a premise (to provide tension) that can have multiple resolutions (to provide comic relief). Harry Bliss could recognize a good premise, but he couldn't find a good resolution, a good punch.The New Yorker took this problem and made it into a contest. Bliss didn't trace Kirby. His angle is slightly different. In my opinion, this is an homage.Now THIS is more problematic:…This is either a case of parallel invention or blatant rip off. (Who invented calculus?) Very often comedians can come up with the same premise and that can lead them to the same conclusion, the same punch. Obviously, Harry Bliss cartoons are going to be closely scrutinized for a while. And people aren't going to be searching for the "funny," they will be searching for something "fishy."

      • Alan Coil says:

        Reading elsewhere, it seems Bliss does this once in a while. He uses previous art in his panels. It's something he's known for.But it would have been wiser to just say 'creature by Jack Kirby'.

        • Mike Gold says:

          "Previous art"?? C'mon. It was ripped it off. There's no argument — look at the stolen art and look at the original and then understand that the latter was published some 45 years earlier. It's so clear Stevie Wonder could probably make the call."Funny" is not an excuse. If I put on a clown outfit and a big red rubber nose and big floppy shoes and then find an old lady and beat her over the head with a salami and grab her social security money and then jump into my Volkswagen driven by three dozen clown-costumed getaway men.. am I being "funny"??

          • Russ Rogers says:

            I think you just described an upcoming episode of "Jackass." So … no, not funny. But there are too many who would disagree with me. And don't give this idea to Johnny Obnoxiousville.

          • Alan Coil says:

            Mike, never meant to imply it wasn't ripped off. Just saying I read elsewhere that he has done it before.

          • Mike Gold says:

            Didn't take it that way. I'm just expressing hostility. It's a living…

  3. Rick Taylor says:

    It's still a ripoff.

    • Russ Rogers says:

      But is it a funny ripoff? I can forgive a lot if something is actually funny. Harry Bliss couldn't find the punch. It took Neil Gaiman a month to find a punch and write a caption. Was his funny? Probably. I'm curious to know what it was; but I'm a fan-boy. I looked at the three New Yorker candidates for winning punch line, the eventual winner was the only one that was even moderately funny. The other two weren't memorable.Maybe justice can only come (and karma be served) when some enterprising artist rips off a Harry Bliss cartoon and turns it into the cover of a Horror Comic.

      • Van Jensen says:

        The winning caption writer actually acknowledges that the best captions aren't all that funny, because New Yorker readers are too stuffy and don't like haw-haw humor.

  4. Rick Taylor says:

    I've just grown more than tired of 'swiping' being considered a form of art over the past few decades. I don't care if it's 'funny swipe'.It's a 'SWIPE'.

    • Alan Coil says:

      More and more comic book artists these days are simply taking existing art, scanning it into their computers, altering it slightly, and (e)mailing it in.I'm with you on this one.

  5. Rick Taylor says:

    Alan,I'm not even a huge fan of the 'homage cover' even when they credited the original artist.It was OK for the trade or the collected book. But when it started showing up regularly on the monthlies it was 'like, get a NEW layout, OK'?

  6. Russ Rogers says:

    Harry Bliss speaks for himself on this issue:…its been stated more than once by the NYer, I meant that as a homage to the King. The image I picked was not obscure. It was one of the 4 or 5 iconic pre hero Monster covers Jack did for Marvel, and I looked at it as fair game. If I were to use an image of the Mona Lisa, I wouldn't credit DaVinci. It's assumed the average Joe would know what it was. think Bliss assumes too much about what "the Average Joe" knows. Maybe a majority of people could say who painted the "Mona Lisa," probably a majority of New Yorker readers. I doubt more than 50% would know who painted "American Gothic." And I bet a large percentage couldn't even say who painted "Whistler's Mother"! It's sad, but I doubt the Average Joe knows who Jack Kirby is or could recognize one of his monsters.Bliss also talks about the Rau kerfuffle, claiming it was parallel invention. I tend to believe him, but I'm an optimist.

  7. Rick Taylor says:

    Even if I were going to do something like this I would have credited Kirby up front.Was this guy dumb as to think a million fanboys wouldn't immediately notice?I can't believe you've invested this much energy in helping justify a (not very good) swipe.

    • Russ Rogers says:

      What I pointed out was that part of the joke was in being able to recognize that this IS a Jack Kirby monster. That's the pop culture reference. That's the nostalgia trigger that sets up the joke and makes it funny. The joke doesn't work as well if you say, "Based on a drawing by Jack Kirby," because HALF the joke is being able to recognize that already. I also pointed out that most people wouldn't be able to recognize a Jack Kirby drawing, so MOST people won't get the joke. That's OK. Some jokes are meant to be "inside jokes." In this case, only MAJOR comics fans with a knowledge of the history of comics will GET that this is a "Jack Kirby."I said that a swipe like this is more excusable if it's funny. I also pointed out that Harry Bliss couldn't find "the funny." He was stumped for a punchline. I pointed out that the New Yorker couldn't find the funny, but saw enough potential here and chose to make it a contest. The winning entry is only moderately funny and doesn't really reference the Monster at all, let alone that it's a Jack Kirby. That makes the winning caption very dry and urbane, very "New Yorker," but NOT very funny.I will admit, I've given this subject a lot of thought. I wasted some energy. I've drawn some parallels. And I'm willing to give Bliss the benefit of doubt. But I don't think I've tried to justify. I'm just not as offended.I've mused about what more Harry Bliss or the New Yorker could do to make this right. They have apologized. They've printed a correction that wrecks the joke on some level. And any joke that you have to explain probably isn't worth telling. Should the New Yorker or Harry Bliss send a portion of what Bliss earned for the cartoon to Jack Kirby's heirs or some charity in Jack Kirby's name, let's say the HERO Initiative? Would that make things right? Bliss says that what he was trying to do was an homage. I'll take his word at face value. He wasn't trying to sell a cover to a Horror Comic, he was doing a humor piece in a literary magazine. He wasn't copying, he was expanding. On some level this homage worked. Jack Kirby is getting a good deal of publicity and recognition from it. This is a swipe and a rip off:…Here, Rob Liefeld is reselling the same pose, the same dramatic elements to the SAME audience. Nothing new is being brought to the table. That's blatant laziness and plagiarism.At least with Lichtenstein's swipes there was some irony in presenting art that was done for the masses in a new format designed for the fine art world. That's the funny, finding a NEW venue and audience for something that's already floating in our collective subconscious.…Are Warhol's "Cambell's Soup Cans" a rip off and a swipe? Are they a tribute and homage? Are they ironic and a joke?'s_Soup_CansBliss tried to do an homage and a funny cartoon. From the reaction here, he failed at both.

  8. Michael Davis says:

    I was about to chime in on the side of the artist when I read the 'average joe' comment. That's just BS. As great as Jack Kirby is he is not a household word to many people outside of comics and related media. I think the guy thought that comic book fans were too stupid to pick up the New Yorker, no most of us are to smart.

  9. Vinnie Bartilucci says:

    " It's assumed the average Joe would know what it was."There was a story in CBR's comic book Urban Legends column just last week about Johnny Carson making fun of Kirby. Carson did a bit that had a pair of 3-D glasses as a prop, a pair that came from the 3-D book Kirby did. The glasses were printed reading "Jack Kirby, King of Comics, and the sketch was promptly forgotten, and Johnny just started ranking this guy named Kirby he'd never heard of, and how is he "King of Comics"? Well, Kirby (and alledgedly a member of the legal profession) contacted Carson's office, told him EXACTLY who Kirby was, and why he could lay claim to the title. Carson actually apologized to Kirby on a later show.So no, the general public has no idea who Jack Kirby is. Nor do they know who Will Eisner is, or Grant Morrison, or any others we hold in high regard. Stan Lee, and that's it. As for the credit, all it needed was "After Kirby" in the original piece right under his signature, and he'd'a been a hero and not a hack.George Perez has the best policy about homage covers I've ever heard – he sends a good portion of his pay for the cover to the guy(s) who did the original. Can't get classier than that.And the best parody of this is Art Balthazar's "Patrick the Wolf Boy". With only one or two exeptions, every cover has been the exact same pose of Patrick, just with different clothes or background.

  10. Russ Rogers says:

    Noted comic book author and Jack Kirby historian, Mark Evanier writes:I cannot speak for Mr. Kirby but I seriously doubt Jack would have considered this to be plagiarism. It's one drawing put into a new, funny context. It's also an obvious and famous drawing (I included it in my book) and it's not like Mr. Bliss could have expected everyone would have thought it was his design. The joke in the visual is that it contrasts so totally with his own style.On the other hand, I think someone at the New Yorker is guilty of a bit of bad sportsmanship. Readers were invited to submit captions for the Bliss cartoon and quite a few entrants wrote to me that they'd submitted lines like, "What's that? You say you're the lawyer for the Jack Kirby estate?" Someone at the magazine must have noticed the name of Kirby popping up in many entries…and if they didn't know who that was or get the connection, they should have researched it and found out. Then they should have realized that one of the Kirby reference submissions would have been funnier than any of those they picked, and it would have carried Bliss's joke to a logical, honest punchline. So that's where I think the "wrong" lies…and let's be honest. It's a pretty trivial "wrong."

  11. Rick Taylor says:

    Stop the madness!