Flag This For Later

Two weeks ago, a little three-act drama was enacted in the world of online political cartooning. On Friday, June 26, just hours after the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges was released, the Southern Poverty Law Center posted on Facebook a five-panel strip showing the Confederate flag coming down and a rainbow flag taking its place on the same pole. No artist was named, and the strip had as sole attribution Daryl Cagle’s caglecartons.com website. On that day full of rainbow-colored profile pics, the post proved wildly popular: as of the evening of Monday, June 29, it had received 230,488 likes and 192,197 shares, mine among them. Facebook doesn’t seem to keep track of such things, but judging by my news feed, quite a few people set up the strip as their Facebook profile cover image. At the time, I went over to Daryl Cagle’s page to ask him who had drawn the strip, only to see that the question had already been asked and he had not answered it.

The comic strip as it originally appeared on the SPLC's Facebook page.
The comic strip as it first appeared on the SPLC's Facebook page.

On Saturday, Cagle finally spoke up, chastising the SPLC for “steal[ing] and alter[ing] copyrighted works.” Cagle wrote: “This cartoon is stolen from cartoonist Bob Englehart of the Hartford Courant, who we represent at CagleCartoons.com and Politicalcartoons.com. Bob’s signature and attribution have been crudely removed from the third panel, and the last two panels with the rainbow flag were added by SPLC or another copyright pirate.” He noted that he had reported the copyright infringement to Facebook, and had requested that the cartoon “be removed from the SPLC page and over 180,000 Facebook sites that have shared the altered/pirated” version.

Once Cagle pointed out Englehart’s original version it was easy to see how it had been transformed into the cartoon that had become so hugely popular barely a day before. It was equally easy to see the less-than-professional work put into the transformation. Englehart’s cartoon consisted only of the altered version’s first three panels, plus text. The added panels turned out to be nothing but panels 1 and 2 in reversed order, with the Confederate flag transformed, rather clumsily, into the rainbow flag. (The evidence had been there all along, in the strangely symmetrical pattern of the background clouds in the altered version. Intoxicated, perhaps, with the emotions of the day, nobody to my knowledge noticed this or pointed it out online; I certainly didn’t.) Even more egregious was the removal of Englehart's signature from the third panel. Again, in retrospect, evidence of this removal is clear: not only can a couple of dark specks—remnants of the imperfectly erased signature—still be seen there, but so can a little rectangular white artifact, a clear result of a hasty job in Photoshop or a similar program.

Bob Englehart's original strip.
Bob Englehart's original strip.

The removal of the signature was clearly unethical. Not knowing who was responsible for the “remix,” I can only speculate on his or her motives. It should be pointed out, though, that the removal of the signature—which, in the original version, also marked the conclusion of the strip—allows the five-panel version to flow better. The signature might also have seemed formally distracting in the composition of the third panel, particularly when that panel appears in the very middle of the sequence. None of these formal concerns, of course, in any way mitigate the ethical problems around the remixed version.

(I should add that I have not been able to track down the anonymous “remixer.” I contacted the SPLC and they pointed out the tweet where they originally found the image. It is not a retweet, so the image may have originated with the owner of the account. My attempts to contact the owner have so far been unsuccessful. The image, as originally tweeted, did not contain the caglecartoons.com attribution at the bottom; that was added by the SPLC when it reposted the strip, clearly based on the copyright notice between panels 1 and 2.)

In this second act of the drama, a number of those who had shared the SPLC post deleted their shares and criticized the SPLC for having posted an unattributed artwork; this may account for the reduction of the number of likes from the 260,000 claimed by the SPLC in their June 29 statement (see below) to the just over 230,000 recorded on the post Monday evening.

The third act took place on Monday, when the SPLC posted an apology for having used an uncredited and modified cartoon. In the post they described the alterations from Englehart’s original, and announced that an editor at the Hartford Courant, where Englehart works, only requested that the record be corrected, and gave permission for the modified version and all its shares to remain online. Though the SPLC post did not record Englehart’s own response, the cartoonist posted a comment on that thread giving his blessing to the resolution.

For more than one reason, I am glad to see that a compromise was reached and that the remixed, expanded version was allowed to remain (officially) online. To begin with, it was the expanded version that reached iconic status, not the original one. This may simply be because Englehart’s original cartoon was published on June 22, before the Supreme Court decision, which came down on Friday, June 26; thus, Englehart simply could not draw the equivalence between the coming down of one flag and the rise of another which his remixer could, four days later.

Secondly, and speaking simply as a disinterested critic, I would argue that the expanded cartoon is better than the original. For one, simply by virtue of the historical events, it is more thematically complex. Secondly, the expanded version shows that the text in the Englehart original was unnecessary. Thirdly, (as I argued on Facebook, without knowing this entire situation; what follows below is an expansion of that reading), the expanded version is also formally complex and (whether accidentally or not) does something new and interesting with the language of comics that the original doesn't do. Because of all this, I doubt that the original ever had the potential to attain the iconic status that the altered version did.

One of the interesting aspects of the remixed strip does come from the Englehart original: the metonymic treatment of it. Metonymy, in rhetorical theory, is the figure of substitution by association: a flag standing for a country or, for that matter, for an idea such as LGBT rights is an excellent example of it. In terms of comics language, the strip is also metonymical because most of the action takes place off-panel, below the lower frame: the lowering of the Confederate flag in both versions refers both to the specific actions of an unseen human actor actively bringing the flag down, and more generally to a change of attitudes in the United States as a whole. The same is true of the raising of the rainbow flag in the expanded version.

I find even more interesting the use of panel-to-panel transitions in the expanded version. Explaining this will require a brief excursus through Scott McCloud’s theory of comics, particularly the categories of such transitions he describes in Understanding Comics: moment-to-moment, action-to-action, subject-to-subject, and so on. Now, I have argued elsewhere that McCloud's categories need to be tweaked, and I have tried to redefine them linguistically. Thus, action-to-action transitions can be defined as "Panel 1: Character A performs action x; Panel 2: character A performs action y." McCloud's moment-to-moment category I have argued is better defined as transition on continuous action, or "panel 1: character A performs action x; panel 2: character A continues to perform action x." Subject-to-subject can be linguistically formulated as "panel 1: character A performs action x; Panel 2: character B performs action y."

Let us look at Englehart’s original strip. There is clearly a transition on continuous action (TOCA from now) between panel 1 and panel 2. Because of the metonymical aspect of the strip (we are imagining someone actively lowering or raising the flag), we assume, after panels 1 and 2, that the action continues in panel 3, so the 2-3 transition is also (implicitly) TOCA.

If we look only at panels 1-3 of the expanded version, the same transitions can be read there. Additionally, there is a clear TOCA between panels 4 and 5; if we assume—again, based on the strip’s metonymical aspect—that the action in 4 and 5 continues one begun in panel 3, then the 3-4 transition is also an implicit transition on continuing action; however, it is a transition on a different action than in the transitions 1-2 and 2-3.

We are presented with a paradoxical situation: all the transitions seem to be transitions on continuing action, yet the action at some point—specifically in panel 3—shifts. A metamorphosis seems to take place—implicitly—within an otherwise nearly empty panel. The middle panel modulates the 1-3 continuous action into the 3-5 continuous action. Now, what kind of transition is this, which, as opposed to every McCloudian type of transition, does not take place in the gutter between two panels, but inside a panel itself? (In a further twist, in this case, that “inside the panel” is also “outside” it, as all the action takes place off-panel, yet not in the gutter, but below the lower edge of the frame.) Clearly, this is not simply a panel-to-panel transition. We could call it a subsequence-to-subsequence transition, within the full sequence of the strip.

Now, this subsequence-to-subsequence transition is clearly not a TOCA. If we just look at the flag, the transition can be called, using McCloud’s vocabulary (and possibly misappropriating it, since McCloud only formulated it for transitions across a gutter), subject-to-subject. In this case: Confederate flag comes down; rainbow flag goes up. If we read the strip as metonymical and infer what takes place at the bottom of the flagpole, the transition is action-to-action: the same person, we assume, lowers the Confederate flag and raises the rainbow one. I would suggest we think of panel 3 as a pivot panel, one that belongs to two different sequences within a comic—ending one, starting another—and performs a transition between them. This is not a notion I have seen yet in comics theory, but I have a feeling that many more such panels can be found, once we go looking for them.

The expanded version also points out the limitations of studying panel transitions only two panels at a time. The transition over every one of the four gutters, as we have seen, can be seen as being on continuing action; yet the accumulation of such transitions results in a more significant change that breaks the continuity of action. I think we can even read an implicit political message in the very grammar of the strip.

(If such complexities could not be found in Englehart’s original version, neither can they be found in the cartoon which Cagle suggested as a substitute, nor in other legitimate versions, such as this one, which later showed up, none as good as the original, non-legitimate one, and which they may have been imitating.)

To whom, then, does the formal achievement described here belong? As I argued, the original was formally and thematically much less interesting than the anonymously altered version; on the other hand, the expanded version would never have existed without Englehart’s one. I have seen calls online for the remixer to have simply redrawn their version from scratch, but such an action would have been even more dishonest, since the remix did not simply use Englehart’s art, but was clearly prompted by Englehart’s sequential grammar. It’s perhaps best to think of it as a collaborative work between Englehart and the anonymous remixer, one created illegitimately yet later granted legitimacy by Englehart’s blessing. Even before that happened, though, it had become iconic, encapsulating in a complex and compelling visual-narrative language the strong emotions felt by many at the political developments of recent weeks.