Emily the Strange - strangely familiar?


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Last week a website called You Thought We Wouldn’t Notice put up a comparison of Emily, the heavy-banged adolescent icon (right), and Rosamond, the heavy-banged character from the children’s book series ‘Nate the Great’ (left). Publishing industry blog Galleycat mocked up a side-by-side version, like the one above, which BoingBoing picked up. Seems like everybody wants to know if Emily and Rosamond are connected.

There are obvious similarities. Long black hair with bangs, sleeveless shift dresses, black tights, white Mary Janes, black cats with oval eyes. The distinctive text -- from ‘Nate the Great Goes Undercover’ and an early Emily sticker -- is phrased almost identically. And there’s the chronology: the first ‘Nate the Great’ book was published in 1972, while the earliest Emily images began circulating around 1991.


On the other hand, the man who owns Emily the Strange, Rob Reger, says that he wasn’t aware of ‘Nate the Great’ until several years after that. His company, Cosmic Debris, has taken Emily from a character for a skateboard design to a ubiquitous Hot Topic icon to comic book heroine and, possibly, a 2010 movie. The designer Nathan Carrico, Reger has explained in a comment on multiple blogs, ‘first conceived of and used Emily as a character for a skateboard design back in 1991.’ He continues:

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.... 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.

All of which sounds pretty reasonable (his complete response is the seventh comment here). Emily now has bats as well as cats, she has other stances, and is less demure than the older Rosamond. But there is something that seems to be a holdover from page 14 of ‘Nate the Great Goes Undercover’: Strange.

The author of the Nate the Great books, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, is about 80; the illustrator, Marc Simont, is 93 or so. They might be forgiven for not dropping into Hot Topic to make sure that there wasn’t a character adorning lip balm that looked familiar. A Laughing Squid blog post includes what is, apparently, an e-mail from Simont.

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.

Leave it to a ninetysomething to use the word ‘caper’ so charmingly. Who knows, maybe lawyers or judges will wind up deciding if this is fair use, a coincidence or something else. It might not be so terrible if the caper brought the Nate the Great books some renewed attention -- Nate may not have his own electric guitar, but he was a pretty popular child sleuth in his heyday.


-- Carolyn Kellogg