Open for Debate: Bill Watterson

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The man is an enigma.

And despite being out of the spotlight for almost 20 years, still a controversial topic of conversation. With the release of the Dear Mr. Watterson documentary (which Frank reviewed HERE), which focused a great deal on his refusal to merchandize any aspect of his comic strip “Calvin & Hobbes”, many are still debating if the bold move was fueled by artistic integrity, or stubbornness and insecurities. It’s an important debate in this society of overblown marketing, merchandizing and corporate domination. In a capitalistic society run by mo’ money and less heart, does a character like Watterson feel refreshing or pretentious? And aside from that, did his choice have the comic’s best interest in mind? Would a Hobbes plush or a Calvin backpack ruin the integrity, or diminish the meaning of the comic strip itself? Is C&H only worthwhile in it’s purest form?

Some here side with Watterson in that mass merchandising waters down the original intent of the comic itself… and although Watterson went to extreme extents and wouldn’t even consider minor non-intrusive ways to work with the syndicate, his willingness to put the best interest of his creation above money is commendable. Others, like Byron (as stated in his “Deal with the Devil” opinion-piece), feels Watterson should have known what he was getting himself into and fought an irrelevant battle against commercializing a product that was ALREADY commercial.

What say YOU, Alliance reader? Where do you fall in this discussion?

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17 Comments

  1. Would it be inappropriate to answer that he was neither a purity pioneer nor a crybaby? He’s an example of someone who values creator-owned property similar to how many webcartoonists are creators of creator-owned works.

    • Agreed. I admire that fact he had a set of values for his art. I disagree with how he handled the situation with his syndicate over “Calvin and Hobbes” but it’s in the past and what’s done is done.

      But at the end of the day, he stood up for his values. Whether he should have changed his tune once he was a contracted syndicated artist is another story.

  2. Thanks for the link to Byron’s opinion piece, I had missed that one. He argues very passionately, but I can’t say I agree with his premise. Watterson made enough money that he was able to retire at a relatively young age and go off and paint and enjoy himself. I’d say he did all right business-wise. Could he have made more? Sure, but so what? How much money and fame do you need? I’m reminded of a quote from another “crybaby” cartoonist, Garry Trudeau: “America is the only place where failure to promote yourself is widely considered arrogant”.

    • I respect everyone’s opinions, and this issue brings up heated discussion on both sides of the fence. Your point is well taken.

      But my point all along has been “how did he make his money?” The syndicate did their job, that’s how. And when it came time to “pay the piper” he suddenly grew a set of morals and refused to play. THAT is what I think is wrong.

      How much money is enough? Can’t argue that at all. I don’t strive to be rich, or I wouldn’t be doing what I do. But, in my opinion, he could have continued the comic (something he truly loved doing) if he had not made the environment so stressful for himself and the syndicate.

      Oh, and I love Garry Trudeau. 🙂

  3. It’s kind of irrelevant whether we agree that merchandizing would have compromised the integrity of C&H or not. He wasn’t doing it to keep the strip “pure” for US — he was doing it to keep the strip pure FOR HIMSELF. That’s how he needed to do it in order for him to be happy with the situation. And he’s perfectly within his rights to do so.

    No one owes us merchandise, no matter how bad we want it. An artist creates his work. If you choose to like it, if you choose to buy it, then the contract between creator and audience is complete. He doesn’t owe you further work, he doesn’t owe you a glimpse into his personal life, nothing more.

  4. Perhaps he didn’t want to sell his soul to the Syndicates, because we all know that even after he retired, they would still be using his characters todya to sell things for the unforeseeable future (meaning forever). And he would have no say in the watered down versions that might have appeared to day in Insurance commercials, cheap Saturday morning cartoons and what not.

    It’s about character with him, his character and not money. Refreshing.

    • I won’t jump too hard here, but he had ALREADY SOLD HIS SOUL. That is my only point of contention in this.

      Did he have the rights to do what he did? Absolutely. Was he right to break a contract that made him rich enough to retire and not have to do anything else for the rest of his life? My answer is no.

      But one thing I never talk about is his fight to have the Sunday comics posted unedited. Now THAT was dead-on and I applaud him for that fight. What newspapers do to Sunday comics is stupid and just down-right wrong. They should never interfere with an artist’s vision for his creation. Now THAT was a GOOD fight.

  5. One thing it all boils down to is that we, as insatiable fans, feel cheated by Watterson for not giving us what we demand, and that is more C&H. But ya gotta look at it in another light. Perhaps, Bill gave us the best of what he had/wanted to give.

    Now before someone comes to chew my head off, let me finish. Think of any number of bands who made an awesome couple of albums, and then went on to tarnish their legacy by releasing mediocre, if not gosh-awful material in later years.

    Most of the legends in the music game, who will go down in history as the greatest, have mostly all had their careers cut short in some way. As fans, we received all we were gonna get from them. Think of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, even Tupac and The Notorious BIG. I wonder if they all would still have that iconic status if they were still around to continue making music to this day. Or would they have begun to slowly create stuff that we may not like or maybe they decided to change their style to something different? There’s no way of telling really.

    But in all honesty, I respect Bill Watterson for ceasing his comic when he wanted to. Maybe he knew that he told some of the greatest stories in the annals of comic history. Maybe he suspected that the well was running dry and he thought too much of his creation to just keep churning out material that he wasn’t feeling anymore.

    We get mad that our favorite TV shows quit. Heck, I would’ve watched Breaking Bad for another 30 years if they kept it going. However, would it have been as good a show stretched out over time, or would it have been cancelled in another five years, looking like a train wreck of a series? It ended on top and it will always be regarded in high esteem.

    So, yeah, even though I want another trillion C&H comics (and maybe even a few calendars and t-shirts and Halloween costumes for my kids), maybe it’s for the best that Mr. Watterson left the building before security had to escort him out roughly. Just my opinion.

    • Hi, George…. we’ve chatted here and there…. enjoy your comics!

      I agree that many artists/groups/TV shows/movie sequels should’ve quit long before they did.

      I have always felt (I could be wrong, but it’s my opinion) that had Watterson not had the draining fight he had with the syndicate over merchandising, he probably would have drawn the strip longer than he did.

      I know the deadlines got to him, but he took sabbaticals and got to draw the Sunday strips bigger… I can’t help but think that if the syndicate hadn’t given him a fight over merchandising, he may have had the desire to draw the strip longer.

      I just don’t think the quality of the strip slipping was the main reason he quit drawing. I think he was tired from fighting.

      But in the end… the syndicates owned the rights to his strip and had every right to try to merchandise it as much as they could. I guess I’m saying it’s probably a moot point because there’s no way either side was going to drop the fight easily.

      It’s a shame. I think everybody lost, in the end – the syndicates lost potential merchandising money, Watterson lost the joy of drawing, and we lost the joy of reading his strip. I think he had a lot more good years in him. I think he would’ve stopped before the quality really slipped, and I don’t think too many people would have begrudged him that.

      Breathed and Larson burned out after 10 years or less with their strips (although Breathed came back a few times), but I can’t help but think that Watterson would’ve at least eked out a few more high-quality years had he not had the merchandising fight.

      I have often wished he’d come back and just do the strip once a week, or whatever he wanted to do – online or in print. I’m sure the syndicate would give him anything he wanted. But I seriously doubt he will.

      It was his right to quit, and not to come back. I just miss the strip.

      • I would love to see Watterson return with his own privately owned webcomic. He could turn off comments, stay off social media, and remain as private as he wishes. But we’d all get to read his true work, no editor or syndicate interference, and that would be enough for me. He could easily monetize it with a book deal, I’m sure any publisher would gladly accept. The middleman is gone, and his name alone would sell it.

        It would be interesting to see Watterson’s writing and art, free from all red tape…. to be able to compare to C&H as we knew it.

  6. I think that originally, the issue of merchandising Calvin and Hobbes boiled down to a matter of control, and the state of the newspaper industry at the time of the strip’s run.

    It’s important to note that there was a time where Calvin and Hobbes merchandise was produced and Watterson did not throw a stink about it. There were at least two calendars produced prior to 89, and Waterson drew new art for promotional posters for bookstores in Britain. He did the Treasury books, even though he felt they were redundant. It wasn’t until the syndicate decided to milk Calvin and Hobbes for all it was worth that Watterson became resistant.

    When a strip was merchandised to the level back then, the creator didn’t get a say in everything that was produced. A different artist might even be brought in to create work for products. (This was done with Peanuts. There were even longer comic stories produced, which weren’t drawn or even written by Schulz.) And it seems pretty obvious from Watterson’s writing in the Complete Collection that, at least at first, he was specifically resistant to THAT. He hadn’t wanted to draw a strip incorporating a robot the syndicate wanted to merchandise for the same reason.

    Now, let’s consider syndication. The major argument here is that Watterson signed with the syndicate, so he should have known to view his strip as a product and not some grandiose artistic venture. But Watterson stated in the Complete Calvin and Hobbes that he did not realize exactly what he was agreeing to when he signed on. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like he had a lawyer advising him at the time (or that he could have afforded one.) So you can’t fault him for being caught off guard when the syndicate informed him he didn’t own the rights to his work and they could do what ever they wanted with it.

    Additionally, it wasn’t like he could have taken his work and gone elsewhere. The syndicates had, and still have, a monopoly on the newspaper strip industry. You couldn’t make a living cartooning without a syndicate. And the standard syndication contract placed control of the strip in the hands of the syndicate.

    Furthermore, this isn’t an issue of Watterson stiffing the syndicate the money it “deserved” for promoting the strip. Syndicates take a 50% cut on everything the strip makes. Literary agents do roughly the same thing as a syndicate (see, “your career in the comics”) and they make 15-20% commission. The difference is that there aren’t eight literary agents with a monopoly on the industry like syndicates do.

    I do think that the argument eventually escalated from “hey, I’m not comfortable with this, I want control over my work,” to “you guys are cheapening the product.” But I also see that as completely natural as the legal battle got more and more heated. And when you’re constantly asked to justify your actions, you’re eventually going to bring it to a moral level just to get other people to shut up.

    A big reason the “merchandising” debate is coming back is because of the emergence of web comics as new industry. Many of those cartoonists make their living purely through milking their strips for all their worth commercially. But the difference between web comics and Calvin and Hobbes is that web cartoonists have infinitely more control over what they sell and how they sell it than Watterson ever did at the beginning. Who knows, if Watterson hadn’t seen his control of his work diminishing at an alarming rate maybe he wouldn’t have been so adverse to the idea of merchandising his strip. Maybe we would have seen more of those calendars. Maybe he wouldn’t have burned out after 10 years.

    • wow, some excellent points there, Alyssa. I had forgotten about the calendars in the very beginning. That was the type of merch I figured Bill might actually consider– still using the comic strip format, just in/on something different than a newspaper. Calendars, mugs, lunchboxes, all using a panel or strip directly from Bill’s work.
      It really was a long battle, drawn out (no pun) and we tend to miss the slow progression of it and see his reaction as a stubborn, naive tantrum of sorts. There’s so much more to this that we will never know.

      • Thanks! Not many people know about the calendars. The people who bought, used, and threw those away must be kicking themselves now. Those things are worth a mint today.

        I’m pretty sure the 10th anniversary book had some mention by Watterson of how those could be seen as relatively harmless. (That, and how the Cubism and black and white Sunday strips reflect his feelings over the syndication battle.) I know Hobbes plushes were out of the question, since he didn’t want people to pick which version of Hobbes was real. And he hated the Ford t-shirts.

        But you’re right, we’ll probably never know what exactly happened and how things were handled.

    • Right now: Yup. It’s expected you negotiate for control of your own work.

      Back when Watterson signed his contract: Nope. The standard syndication deal gave the syndicate control over everything. They owned the characters, and merchandising rights. After Watterson fought that huge battle, cartoonists began negotiating back the rights to their work resulting in a change in the nature of syndication contracts.

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