It was 1991 when aspiring comic strip artist Moira Manion decided to dust off two characters from her college days and bring them to the public. She had a relationship with a small, startup syndicate whose mission, in part, was to give undiscovered cartoonists their first national platform.
So for a paltry $25 a month, Manion crafted Franky & Ralph -- based on characters she had been drawing for years.
"Franky & Ralph was about Franky, who was a sly red fox, and Ralph, who was a shy, naive rattlesnake. They lived in the suburbs, because their woods had been torn down and turned into suburbs," Manion says.
In one early strip, a human denizen of the suburbs is fishing around with his arm deep inside an animal trap -- to retrieve his wallet.
"So he's reaching in there and it goes, 'Snap,'" Manion says. "And Franky, the fox, is sitting behind the hedge with Ralph wrapped around his head, and Franky has a big satisfied grin on his face and he says, 'See Ralph, it's all in using the right bait.'"
The strip combined cute characters with a pointed message about the cost of development. Manion says at the peak of its three-year run, Franky & Ralph reached more than two million readers of weekly papers around the country.
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But in early 1995, Manion's syndicate, Argonaut Entertainment, went out of business. She pitched Franky & Ralph to the major syndicates and received only rejection letters. Despite the hand-written notes of encouragement in their margins, she decided to lay down Franky & Ralph temporarily to pursue other ideas.
A few months later, with her suburban streetwise fox and naive rattlesnake still fresh in her head, Manion ran across a notice in a newspaper trade magazine.
"It said that coming in October, United Feature Syndicate would be launching a new strip about a streetwise raccoon and a practical, naive turtle who lived in the suburbs because their woods had been destroyed by the suburbs," Manion says.
It was her first notice of a strip called Over the Hedge. With the backing of the same syndicate that carries Peanuts and Dilbert, Over the Hedge grew over the next decade to reach readers in more than 200 daily newspapers. And this spring, its creators hit the jackpot of their trade.
The computer-animated movie "Over the Hedge" opened second at the U.S. box office, just behind "The Da Vinci Code." After three weekends it remains at No. 3, and has pulled in more than $112 million.
Manion does not plan to see the movie. But she couldn't resist looking through a picture-book adaptation in the bookstore.
"Part of me thinks, 'God, that could have been my strip.' My mother and I used to talk about the day when it would be launched as an animated film and we would go to the opening, play with plush Frankys and plush Ralphs," Manion says. "I try to be mature about it, and then I want to go in a dark room and gnaw off my own foot."
Manion says there's no way to know if T. Lewis and Michael Fry, the creators of Over the Hedge, were ever influenced by her strip in the early '90s. She doesn't necessarily believe they were. But back in 1995, when Over the Hedge debuted, she consulted a lawyer.
I try to be mature about it, and then I want to go in a dark room and gnaw off my own foot.
"Thankfully, he was honest. He said it would take years and years, tens of thousands of dollars, emotional stress, psychological stress, and I could still lose," Manion says.
Making $6 per comic strip had not put Manion in any financial position to pursue a lawsuit. And she's learned the legal hurdle she'd have to clear is high: Could the two strips, when held up side-by-side, be so similar that a reader would have trouble telling them apart? In that case, she acknowledges the art of the two panels is quite different.
"What I learned is that you cannot copyright an idea. We can see this when Disney and Pixar, two different animated companies, come up with 'Antz' and 'A Bug's Life,' or 'Madagascar' and 'The Wild.' I can never claim whether the creators of Over the Hedge had the idea before I did," Manion says. "The only indisputable fact was that Franky and Ralph was being read by more than two million people, three years before Over the Hedge was ever in print."
"Listen, people have similar ideas all the time," says Lisa Klem Wilson, general manager of syndication for United Media, which syndicates Over the Hedge.
Wilson says she has never heard of Moira Manion or Franky & Ralph, and neither have Over the Hedge's two creators -- though their strip was coming together when Franky & Ralph was in print in the early '90s.
"They had been working on this for a number of years, developing it, and trying to hone it into what it became, which is really about suburbia and some creatures that lived on the fringes," Wilson says.
While this is the first time anyone has questioned the originality of Over the Hedge, Wilson says there's plenty of overlap in the industry.
"There aren't that many ideas in the comic strip world. How many family strips are there? How many strips are there that are like the Far Side?" Wilson says. "It also is very timely, in that it was the time when suburbia was really growing and the animals were being pushed out of their environment. So it isn't a concept that's so unique it couldn't have been thought of by two people at the same time."
But while Over the Hedge has become a household name, Franky & Ralph lives on only in Manion's personal files.
Lucy Caswell, curator of the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University, says in the competitive world of comics, the fate of a strip often rests with the power of its distributor.
"There are major syndicates who have lots more resources to put into the promotion and sales of their features than the small syndicates do. So it really is a matter of size and economic power," Caswell says.
Caswell does not recall Argonaut Entertainment, the short-lived syndicate that carried Franky & Ralph. And she had never heard of Franky & Ralph until she received a set of samples to review for this story.
"It's competent," she says. "There are some funny ones."
Her praise overall is modest. Caswell does not believe she has been faxed an overlooked gem.
Asked to compare it to Over the Hedge, she agrees the premises are similar -- though the artwork is not. She also says Franky & Ralph appears to have a more political edge than Over the Hedge. And in that respect, Caswell says Franky & Ralph owes its own debt to a famous forebear of both strips.
"I'm sitting here thinking about Pogo. Pogo used woodland creatures. He did talk about ecology issues and litter in the Okefenokee Swamp, where Pogo took place. That started in the late '40s," Caswell says.
For her part, Moira Manion acknowledges Pogo was an influence on her. She also realizes that her more biting, Pogo-like take on suburbia might have been a commercial drawback in the 1990s.
"From what I've witnessed in Over the Hedge, the animals are celebrating suburbia as a utopia," Manion says. "In terms of marketing, their take on it is a lot more effective than mine."
While "Over the Hedge" the movie takes in millions, Manion sometimes struggles to make ends meet. She says her personal task is not to pursue legal action, but to stave off the bitterness that could wash over any artist in her position.
"The only easy way is to realize there's nothing I can do about it," Manion says. "I think that's the only way a person can come to terms with some failure that they didn't do out of their own stupidity. I did the best work I could at the time, and it just didn't go. Over the Hedge did."
Manion hopes talking through the experience will help her put it in the past, and increase her motivation for new projects. She has stopped cartooning for now, focusing instead on writing.
But it's hard to completely move on, and friends have encouraged Manion to create a permanent home for Franky & Ralph on the Internet.
"I am going to put some up online as soon as I figure out how to do that," Manion says. "And they are going to live again, hopefully, as a children's chapter book about how the characters first met."
And if Over the Hedge sued, saying she'd borrowed their characters?
"Oh, I'd love it if they did," Manion says. "The irony would just please me thoroughly!"
Not to mention the chance to show her strip came first.