A curious case of repetition

Writing a daily comic strip has to be one of the hardest things to do in the creative arts. Having to come up with a good and original joke every single day is something I cannot imagine doing, assuming that I can come up with any jokes at all, which I can’t. Cartoonists often fall back on familiar tropes such as people stuck on a desert island or the Garden of Eden or the fortune teller with a crystal ball and the repetition of such tropes is seen as fair game as long as the joke is slightly different. Some cartoonists have their own particular tropes that they fall back upon.

The cartoon strip Non Sequitur by Wiley Miller is one of my favorite strips. It is consistently funny and his Sunday strips are rich and elaborate in their artwork. On December 29, 2014 he had the following strip.


The idea that to the fish the only thing that matters is that cats are its enemy and thus being able to distinguish between them is not an important skill is a droll comment on how we generalize about others and treat them as monolithic based on one or a few traits.

But that cartoon immediately made me recall an earlier one that he did on January 13, 2012.


The reason I immediately remembered it was that the earlier strip was not printed by our paper Plain Dealer and the space was replaced with this comment: “Editor’s note: Today’s “Non Sequitur” strip was withheld because it was deemed objectionable by Plain Dealer editors. A replacement strip was unavailable at press time.”

That caused quite a fuss and naturally I and many others went online to see what was so awful and I commented on it at the time. Most people seemed to feel that the paper had over-reacted in the belief that the strip endorsed racist stereotypes when in fact it was making fun of people’s tendency to focus on only one aspect of those who were not like them. Wiley’s record is one of positive social messages and by no means can he be accused of advancing racist ideas.

As you can see, the joke and the depiction of it in both strips is pretty much the same and this time around the paper let it go without comment. But what I was curious about was why Wiley repeated the same joke so closely, something I have never seen him do before. I am sympathetic to inadvertent self-plagiarizing of an idea. As someone who writes a lot on this blog, I have a lot of ideas for stuff to write about whirling in my head. Since I have been blogging for so long and have written millions of words, I do have a nagging fear that I may not be able to distinguish between something that remained only in my mind and something that I actually put into print.

But given the flap over the earlier cartoon, surely Wiley would have remembered this particular original? Was he doing a quiet little experiment to see if people are paying attention and would still think it controversial this time around?


  1. David Wilford says

    richardelguru @ 1:

    I know how it probably sounds, but do all cartoons look alike to you?

  2. mnb0 says

    “assuming that I can come up with any jokes at all, which I can’t.”
    That’s what I’d call a self-defeating statement.
    Granted, it’s not the best and most original joke of all time, but it still made me smile.

  3. flex says

    Arguably, the second cartoon which only shows cats is more racist than the first.

    While the first cartoon used a variety of different critters, with the common trait being that they all prey on rabbits, the second cartoon used a single predator race. Showing only cats suggests that cats as a species are anti-fish.

    Of course other interpretations are possible:

    1. In the first cartoon, the rabbit is being racist because it cannot identify the obvious differences between the animals, and instead focuses only on the one trait. Much like a racist who thinks skin color is more important than any other ability a person might have, e.g. writing skill, musical talent, engineering knowledge, hell, even driving ability. Conversely, the fish honestly sees many similar traits in all the cats, so it’s comment is less racist.

    2. In the first cartoon the rabbit admits it sounds bad for it to say it. This parallels a lot of the racist statements we hear. Racists rarely admit that they are racist, but regularly preface their racist statements which an acknowledgement that their comment could be taken perceived as racist. Further, it’s clear that the rabbit can see (or at least has been told of) the differences because it says that it’s going to sound bad. While, the second cartoon the fish simply says that all the cats look the same, and while the fish may recognize there must be some differences because there are discrete cats, the fish cannot actually perceive any differences. So the fish’s racism is ignorance not willfully seeing only one common trait.

    And of course the cartoonist’s intent is served by your calling the two of them to our attention. Because while each cartoon has a message, the controversy about the first along with the lack of controversy about the second create another layer of meaning for both cartoons. Which is probably something the cartoonist was looking for.

  4. Mano Singham says


    This strip appeared on December 29, 2014, before the Charlie Hebdo killings, so that could not have been the motive. These strips also have to be done weeks in advance of publication.

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