Emily Strange, the black and white character often associated with the Hot Topic brand, has become an international phenomenon with themed stores throughout Asia and Greece. Emily is seen by fans as an icon for individuality and uniqueness, but was her character originally based on a more obscure heroine from a 1970’s children book? CoffeeGhost.net was one of the first sites to point out the similarities to the black haired idol and a character named Rosamond from the Nate The Great series:
“Rosamond (who predates Emily by a decade) is a young, slim girl with long, straight, black hair and wears a short dress. She has four cats (named Super Hex, Big Hex, Plain Hex, and Little Hex). Emily’s cats now have distinguishing features, but originally they differed only in their sizes (exactly like Rosamond’s cats).”
The strongest argument suggesting that Emily the Strange was based on Nate The Great , however, was just recently published on the art theft blog You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice. YTWWN user chelseamca not only mentions the similarities between the two characters, but shows an actual scan of Rosamond and her cats taken from Nate the Great Goes Undercover that is nearly identical to the original Emily Strange stickers printed in 1991. Although the main character may vary slightly, the reworded copy and reversed cat poses are unmistakably inspired by the pages of this classic book.
The YTWWN article receives a lot of skeptical voices, but nobody defending the originality of the Emily character dares tackle the identical pages. Even Rob Reger, co-creator of Emily and founder of Cosmic Debris, acknowledges the similarities in a comment recently cross posted on several blogs:
“As you may be aware by what has been noted in many interviews and on Wikipedia, Nathan Carrico first conceived of and used Emily as a character for a skateboard design back in 1991. After seeing a sticker of the design, I thought the quirky “looks strange” design was in line with other tees Cosmic Debris was doing, and that it might resonate well with the crew I was selling to. I asked and received permission to use the design from Nathan. We then began creating Emily’s gothic, nonconformist, dark world by using a variety of original expressions (”I want you to leave me alone”, “Teacher’s Pest”, “Emily doesn’t search to belong…” etc.) and unique Emily designs on our t-shirts and other products. Several years thereafter, the character of Rosamond from the children’s book series Nate the Great was brought to my attention for the first time.
Although the designs and worlds of Rosamond and Emily are different and readily distinguishable, and although we never received any complaints from the author, the artist, or the publisher, we phased out the original skateboard design upon learning of the Rosamond character, and worked with the creative team to further distinguish Emily and her universe. Regarding copyright law, there is legally nothing wrong with sharing or implementing a unique variation on a concept. I have never drawn inspiration from the Nate the Great series or Rosamond.”
So according to Rob Reger, the original Emily design was acquired from another artist without any prior knowledge that the art was not original. Then, after realizing that the content was ripped from another source, Cosmic Debris made small changes to the character and her universe from the original inspiration. Emily the Strange is now a global brand, with a new line of comics and a motion picture on the way, but where does that leave the original creators? There appears to be no credit to Nate the Great writer Marjorie Weinman Sharmat or illustrator Marc Simont anywhere for their part in creating Emily. Nor can I find any public statements regarding the success of the character based on their work. With Emily merchandise being sold publicly for over 17 years, it is becoming increasingly unlikely they will reap the rewards based on their work.
UPDATE 1: Doc Pop links to this in the post, but here’s the Emily the Strange co-creator Rob Reger’s response to this controversy.
UPDATE 2: Doc Pop emailed Marc Simont the illustrator of most of the “Nate The Great” books. Here’s his reply:
Dear Doctor Popular,
Thank you for your interest in the Emily the Strange caper., which I just learned about a few days ago. Marjorie Sharmat, the author, and I have referred it to the legal department of the publisher. We have not had any contact with Cosmic Debris. Marjorie has the rights to the text and I have the rights to the illustrations. The illustrations are copyrighted in my name.
UPDATE 3: Over on his blog, Doc Pop points to the elephant in the room.
image via You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice