The webcomics blog about webcomics

Maybe Not Pitchfork Time Yet

Nobody likes a good internet riot more than me¹, and there’s a call going around in webcomics circles using exactly that terminology today:

Hey Internet, it’s Time to Riot For Howie Noel

Executive Summary: webcomicker Howie Noel has had for a number of years a comic called Tara Normal, which attracted some attention and perhaps even offers from the entertainment conglomerates. Simon & Schuster has, over the past year or so, released a series of books aimed at readers eight and up under the series name SaraNormal. Both deal with an alive female person who has mysterious ghost-seeing powers. I think that’s about the limit of what all people would regard as “undisputed facts”.

Ryan Fisher (he of the riot-rousing post linked above) reports that Tara Normal creator Noel went on the TGT podcast last month talking about Tara Normal and SaraNormal, and feeling poorly treated by the latter; I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcast, so much of what follows is based on Fisher’s interpretation of what was said there:

Not only is the name a blatent [sic] rip-off of Howie’s Tara Normal, the comparisons don’t stop there. SaraNormal features a young woman with the same abilities as Tara, hits some of the EXACT SAME plot points and even includes some of the same cast members! If that isn’t bad enough, the fictional author Simon & Schuster created to huck this brand of copyright infringement has the SAME DAMN BIO THAT HOWIE USED. The bastards couldn’t even come up with an original background for their made up AUTHOR! SaraNormal is now a book series that has 9 different books, meanwhile Howie is left with the pieces of the baby he created.

Let’s take those one at a time:

  • Titles aren’t sacrosanct; the same riffing that led from “paranormal” to “Tara Normal” could lead to “SaraNormal”, or for that matter, ParaNorman. I’m not saying that it was an independent derivation, just that this is probably the weakest claim.
  • Regarding the powers, abilities, and plot points, I’ve not read either TN or SN, so I can’t comment; Fisher said he hasn’t either, and it’s understandable if Noel reports seeing massive similarities — in any person’s mind, coincidence only explains so much.

    However, ideas like “young woman talks to the dead and investigates paranormal activities” aren’t protected by copyright, only their execution. From my reading of synopses, it appears that Tara is a licensed paranormal investigator that beats up zombies; Sara is 12 and apart from the talking to ghosts thing, has life problems closer to what you’d find in a Judy Blume novel.

  • Fisher’s last point is probably the strongest — if S&S have appropriated Noel’s bio for the author of the SaraNormal books, that’s pretty blatant. However, I couldn’t find a side-by-side comparison of the two bios. When I asked Fisher about it, he referenced the bio provided for the author of SaraNormal as seen on Amazon:

    Phoebe Rivers had a brush with the paranormal when she was thirteen years old², and ever since then, she has been fascinated by people who see spirits and can communicate with them. In addition to her intrigue with all things paranormal, Phoebe also loves cats, French cuisine, and wiling her afternoons away in coffee shops writing stories. Phoebe has written dozens of middle-grade fiction books and is thrilled to now be exploring Sara’s paranormal world.

    … but did not have a copy of Noel’s books to compare to, so that’s inconclusive.

The best thing about this (and what makes the riot calls premature) is that Fisher says Noel’s been advised by a lawyer to not disclose other details. If you think you’ve been ripped off, lawyering up is the smart thing to do, as is keeping quiet on things the lawyer says not to yap about, as is not starting any riots or letting others start them on your behalf.

Guys. We’ve got speculation here, not self-reported, and the creator has a lawyer whose job will be much more difficult if any unsanctioned riots get underway. Know how you know that last bit is true? If a riot would have helped, the lawyer would be leading it.

Whether Sara is a thinly-disguised version of how Tara was described at 13, I can’t say (and from a third-hand perspective, neither can you). I can easily believe that given the YA (read: mid-teens and up) explosion in paranormal fiction, S&S would be looking to expand the concept down to the pre-teen readers. I can, barring other information, can find the explanation of “same idea, different people” to be reasonable.

I am not saying that these explainings-away are true, just that we don’t have enough information to break out the pitchforks, as one might if you saw a drawing suddenly lifted from a cartoon to a suspiciously-identical unauthorized shirt or art gallery print.

Should Noel’s lawyer decide that a het-up internet is the appropriate response, or evidence come to light that somebody at S&S planned an appropriation, then swing by my place: I’ve got a whetstone that’ll put a nice edge on your rhetorical pitchfork. Until then, please recognize that there is no clear set of rules to govern situations like this and sometimes the best thing you can do is keep your powder dry.

¹ Okay, that’s probably not true, but let’s face it — the internet creates a tendency towards mobs greater than anywhere this side of Springfield.

² That bio does seem a bit contrived to me, but contrived to make the author resemble the protagonist.

Good, reasonable analysis, Gary, the kind I can almost always expect from you (except when you go all fanboy over comics and comickers I go all fanboy over too). Of course, you obviously are never gonna get anywhere on the internet…

But when grouping together Tara Normal, SaraNormal and ParaNorman, don’t forget Paranatural, one of the better comics I discovered this month thanks to’s March Madness Tournament. I am semi-heartbroken that the two BEST discoveries I made in the tournament, Ava’s Demon and A Redtail’s Dream, both got eliminated in the semi-finals. But I seriously look forward to your overview of the whole thing Monday (I’ve been doing running commentary at my barely-out-of-beta not-competing-with-yours-honest blog Tooned.In… seriously, when I discovered that URL was available, I HAD to do something with it)

This was a really calm and respectful way at looking at this and I really appreciate you taking the time to do so. In case it isn’t obvious right off the bat, I’m Ryan from STA who wrote the blog piece to you linked to.

If I have any regrets about the blog I posted it’s that at the offset I didn’t declare that it was a reaction piece after listening to the podcast between Kurt and Howie. Howie and I have only talked a hand few of times via twitter EVER so I hardly had any behind the scenes info.

I wasn’t trying to present myself as having some, of even like I was doing any kind of reporting. It just killed me because I felt like this thing hadn’t got the attention I felt it deserved. My hope all along was to try and get it churning again (thus the term “riot” in the title) in the hopes that people like yourself would catch wind and do your own piece.

I have no reason NOT to believe everything Howie as said, and my gut reaction when looking at Saranormal is that everything he said, is in fact true. Regardless, thanks again for covering this and doing so in such a respectful manner. Sorry I couldn’t answer any of your questions when you asked, I had as about as much info going into this as you.

I just did a bit of detective work, and I’m 99% convinced that “Phoebe Rivers” doesn’t exist at all. Full details here:

Yes, it’s a secondary detail compared to arguing about whether or not the content was ripped off, but it’s still a pretty damning thing to have to admit that the author of your new hit children’s series doesn’t actually exist.

There’s a long and glorious history of fictional authors, from The Hardy Boys to Sweet Valley High and beyond.

The copyright and trademark infringement is actually based on a graphic novel proposal and script that only a few publishing professionals have read or seen including the publisher in question. Judging merit based soley on my webcomic series involves not doing proper research or even asking me, the creator,what I’ve been dealing with for over a year. I have received legal counsel and I have moved forward.Switching 1 letter on a registered trademark does create brand confusion in this situation. Thank you.

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