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Shia LaBeouf plagiarism? Comic writer Daniel Clowes eyes legal action, actor apologizes

A screenshot from HowardCantour.com before the trailer for the film was deleted.
A screenshot from HowardCantour.com before the trailer for the film was deleted.

"Transformers" star Shia LaBeouf's 12-minute short film "HowardCantour.com" went viral on Monday, but wasn't up long before the Internet figured out that it bore a striking resemblance to a comic short story written by Daniel Clowes, creator of "Ghost World" and other graphic stories.

On Tuesday, LaBeouf tweeted an apology — which critics quickly pounced on as also possibly plagiarized — while Clowes himself considered his legal options, his longtime editor Eric Reynolds told BuzzFeed.

"His apology is a non-apology, absolving himself of the fact that he actively misled, at best, and lied, at worst, about the genesis of the film," Reynolds said. "He implied authorship in the film credits itself, and has gone even further in interviews. He clearly doesn’t get it, and that’s disturbing. I’m not sure if it’s more disturbing that he plagiarized, or that he could rationalize it enough to think it was OK and that he might actually get away with it. Fame clearly breeds a false sense of security."

LaBeouf (you know, the one who you think of accidentally when trying to think of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) put out the film in 2012 and took it around the festival circuit, playing Cannes, the AFI Film Festival and elsewhere. He released it more broadly Monday on Vimeo.

Viewers — including film bloggers of the kind satirized in the film — were quick to point out that the script closely resembled a 2007 indie comic by Clowes titled "Justin M. Damiano," which appeared in a comic anthology "The Book of Other People" (and which was also re-released earlier this year in "The Daniel Clowes Reader"). In many instances, the film matches Clowes' story word for word, and its images closely match panels in Clowes' comic.

"I was shocked, to say the least, when I saw that he took the script and even many of the visuals from a very personal story I did six or seven years ago and passed it off as his own work. I actually can’t imagine what was going through his mind," Clowes told BuzzFeed.

Even comedian Jim Gaffigan got pulled into it, playing Justin ... er, I mean "Howard Cantour."

The story centers on an online film critic played by Gaffigan. It opens a window into the world of film critic contrarianism, as well as the PR machine trying to influence reviews and the nature of indie film critics as fanboys. (The film carries no writer credit.)

The cast also includes underground comedy hero/writer of big Hollywood blockbusters such as  "Night at the Museum's" Tom Lennon as another critic. Maybe Lennon could offer LaBeouf a copy of his book on screenwriting.

LaBeouf tweeted an apology — of sorts — late Monday night.

LaBeouf tweet

He both seemed to defend what he'd done while apologizing for not crediting Clowes.

LaBeouf tweet

While it's still probably fair to call LaBeouf an amateur filmmaker, he's directed other shorts before, including 2004's "Let's Love Hate" and 2011's "Maniac."

LaBeouf tweet

LaBeouf tweet

LaBeouf tweet

He followed that with one more tweet, admitting that he did, in fact, screw up. (But he used harsher language.)

Meanwhile, commenters online were quick to point out that LaBeouf's apology also bore a striking resemblance to a comment on Yahoo Answers.

LaBeouf previously seemed to take credit for the film's story in an interview with Short of the Week, which also helped release and promote the film online, saying, "I have been crushed by critics (especially during my 'Transformers' run), and in trying to come to terms with my feelings about critics, I needed to understand them. As I tried to empathize with the sort of man who might earn a living taking potshots at me and the people I’ve worked with, a small script developed."

Short of the Week issued their own apology, saying, "While we believe we were misled, we also feel partly responsible having partnered with Shia and his team to premiere the film online and would like to apologize to Mr. Clowes, our promotional partners to whom we passed the film along to, and ultimately to you, our cherished SOTW audience."

"As curators of a powerful but under-appreciated medium like short film where filmmakers often spend years of effort and make little or no money, the recognition a filmmaker receives from their work, and therefore attribution, is often the only benefit they’ll see in return," the site added. "Correct attribution is very important to us because it means everything to the creators of the work." They also noted how, while the film toured the festival circuit for over a year, it took online audiences to point out the plagiarism.

Comedian Patton Oswalt wasn't having any of it.

Patton Oswalt tweet

Patton Oswalt tweet

Patton Oswalt tweet

Patton Oswalt tweet

Patton Oswalt tweet

Popular cult hit radio host Tom Scharpling added:

Tom Scharpling tweet

Screenwriter Diablo Cody, the woman behind movies like "Juno" and "Young Adult," has previously talked about how she learned to write from buying the screenplay to "Ghost World." She took a shot at LaBeouf as well.

Diablo Cody tweet

LaBeouf was already known as a Clowes fan, as reported in the Chicago Tribune in a piece about LaBeouf paying a visit to a Chicago comic convention. LaBeouf made and distributed his own comic book previously, which I'm sure other comics creators are looking over to see if any of their own work was "adapted" by LaBeouf. Of course, given that the comic was slammed by everyone from the Tribune to comic book news site Comics Alliance, they're probably hoping to stay out of LaBeouf's view entirely.

Clowes' publisher Fantagraphics called LaBeouf's film "a complete rip off," adding, "Every-word from the 4 page comic created by Clowes in 2006 is used in the script for LaBeouf's directional debut. Clowes never authorized the use of his comic for HowardCantour.com. He had no knowledge that he had been plagiarized until today when the film was posted on Vimeo."

Once could be a coincidence, but eyebrows were particularly raised since LaBeouf's been caught plagiarizing before. He tried issuing an apology to Alec Baldwin after appearing with him in a production of the play "Orphans," but did so using lines directly from an issue of "Esquire" by Tom Chiarella with no attribution.

LaBeouf set the offending HowardCantour.com film to "private" after the plagiarism accusations broke, but you can still watch it on BuzzFeed.

Read a page from the actual comic below.

You can read an analysis of the story, published in September, featuring more of the story (where you can also see more of the word-for-word copying in LaBeouf's film) at the Hooded Utilitarian.

The actual HowardCantour.com website still featured a trailer Tuesday morning, but midday Tuesday, that was pulled as well, leaving a blank black website in its wake.

This story has been updated.