Writer/Artist Authorship Conflicts in Dickensian England

As many comic book fans know, both Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby took major umbrage at the way that Stan Lee was given practically all the credit for Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, etc. Even today, artists chafe under the popular notion that the story is the writer's domain, as they feel that they are just as much part of the storytelling of the comic as the writer. These are standard discussions nowadays.

However, amusingly enough, while doing the Stars of Political Cartooning piece on George Cruikshank, I discovered that even in the 19th Century, artists were taking issue with writers getting all the credit!

In this particular instance, Cruikshank felt he should be considered the co-author of Oliver Twist!

When Charles Dickens was just starting out as a writer, George Cruikshank was already a known commodity, and therefore, when Dickens began producing the short story collection "Sketches by Boz" in 1834, the stories were partnered with etchings by Cruikshank, which attracted attention to the work when it was published in 1836.

In the same year, Dickens began a serialized story called The Pickwick Papers, which soon turned into a serialized novel. The artist Richard Seymour (who perhaps came up with the idea) contributed four drawings for each serialized issue, while Dickens produced 24 pages of story. When Seymour killed himself soon into the collaboration, Cruikshank was considered to fill in for Seymour, but he was thought to be too expensive, so other artists filled in for the remaining parts of the story.

The series became a massive success.

Upon the success of his self-published novel, Dickens was hired by Richard Bentley to be the editor of Bentley's new literary magazine, Bentley's Miscellany. It was here that Dickens also was hired to begin a new serialized story, this time with the full intention of turning the work into a novel.

With Dickens now established as a bona fide draw, Cruikshank was no longer considered a waste of money producing the art for the series, and in fact, by this point in time, Dickens was pretty much a bigger name than Cruikshank (in a year or so there would be no doubt that Dickens was the bigger name).

The way the series worked was that in each issue, Cruikshank would produce one etching and Dickens would write one chapter of the story.

In the early days of the collaboration, Dickens and Cruikshank would confer before Cruikshank did the etchings. That was the case for probably the most famous etching in the book, the famous "Please, sir, I want some more" scene...

but as time went by (and Dickens became more and more famous and therefore more and more busy with extra-curricular matters), the conferences between the two went from discussions to fairly detailed descriptions by Dickens to ultimately just general descriptions by Dickens.

In many ways, this is the same thing that happened between Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on Fantastic Four. At first, they were detailed discussions making way to less detailed discussions making way to Kirby basically being allowed to draw what he wanted, with Lee having the prerogative to change what he liked - that also occurred here, where Dickens would take issue with how Cruikshank drew certain scenes, but Dickens would also sometimes revise his work to fit to Cruikshank's drawings.

Here are a few scenes from the book...

Cruikshank first made claims as to the authorship of the book about ten years after the book came out, suggesting that Cruikshank came up with the ideas for Bill Sykes, Fagin and, I believe, the Artful Dodger.

However, in 1871, a year after Dickens was dead and couldn't defend the charge, Cruikshank argued that he came up with much of the plot for Oliver Twist.

Now, on the whole, most of Cruikshank's claims are pretty much bogus, and almost certainly driven by the change in each man's fortunes since the release of Oliver Twist. Dickens became like unto a god in England, while Cruikshank toiled in relative obscurity (especially compared to his heyday of the 1810s-1830s).

That said, I believe the complete and absolute dismissal of Cruikshank's authorship claims are driven less by the facts of the case and more by the cult of personality that grew around Dickens, that any acknowledgment of Cruikshank's contributions would be seen as a shot at Dickens, and therefore must be completely dismissed.

Cruikshank was producing these drawings concurrently with Dickens producing the accompanying text. The drawings clearly were a major part of the telling of the story, hence their inclusion in every chapter (Dickens was not even a fan of having to use drawings to accompany his work, he simply acknowledged that it WAS necessary for the success of the book). Cruikshank DID design pretty much every character in the novel, visually (although, early on, using cues from Dickens). And Dickens DID occasionally revise his text to better fit Cruikshank's drawings.

So while I think most people would ultimately come down on the side of Charles Dickens as the sole author of Oliver Twist, I don't believe it as absurd as one might think to possibly consider Cruikshank (and all of the illustrators who worked with Dickens) as co-authors of the work, or more specifically, that Oliver Twist is a collaborative work (heck, you could probably include the editor of the work in there, too).

Remember, this is not the case of a fellow writing a book then having an artist draw illustrations to go with it - the drawing and the writing was going on at the same time, as it was a serialized work.

Writing in 1842, Samuel Warren wrote of Twist, "thus the writer follows the caricaturist, instead of the caricaturist following the writer." And yet, by the 1880s, even Cruikshank's own biographer referred to Twist as "In all the range of Dickens's work, there is nothing more essentially his own than 'Oliver Twist.'"

I posit that the ensuing years of popularity for Dickens (as well as Dickens own statements that he was the sole author of all his work) changed people's perspectives to the point where something that would have been seen as reasonable enough (Twist as a collaborative work) to something that is seen as an outrage (Twist as anything but Dickens' sole work).

A great many thanks to Robert L. Patten, for his excellent scholarship on this topic.

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