I wished Bill Watterson had licensed Calvin and Hobbes for merchandising.

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Bill Watterson, the creator of the comic Calvin and Hobbes famously resisted merchandising the characters, which would allow the production of Calvin and Hobbes mugs, t-shirts etc.

I followed the sources from the Wikipedia article, which brings us to this speech from Watterson.

The speech is a good insight into an artist who is notoriously private.

He holds the opinion that money corrupts the art. He says:

In a way, it’s surprising that comic strips have ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That’s not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and of course many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. But more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.

Watterson seems primarily concerned with syndication and the loss of control of their characters it gives the the creators:

Today, comic strip cartoonists work for syndicates, not individual newspapers, but 100 years into the medium it’s still the very rare cartoonist who owns his creation. Before agreeing to sell a comic strip, syndicates generally demand ownership of the characters, copyright, and all exploitation rights. The cartoonist is never paid or otherwise compensated for giving up these rights: he either gives them up or he doesn’t get syndicated.

… Incredibly, syndicates still today tell young artists that they’re not good enough to draw their own strip, but they are good enough to carry on the work of some legendary strip instead. Too often, syndicates would rather have the dwindling income of a doddering dinosaur than let the strip die and risk losing the spot to a rival syndicate. Consequently, the comics pages are full of dead wood. Strips that had some relevance to the world during the depression are now being continued by baby boomers, and the results are embarrassing.

He then takes on merchandising, noting that some syndicates create the comic after deciding what the product that they’re wanting to sell is:

One syndicate developed a comic strip after it had settled on the products: the strip was essentially to be an advertisement for the dolls and TV shows already planned.

(The original cartoon series Transformers did this, and I’m of the opinion that it’s a great show).

Watterson acknowledges that merchandising can be done tastefully, but is concerned that with the extra money and work involved, the comic strip becomes less a work of art and more a commodity.

Of course, to be fair to the syndicates, most cartoonists are happy to sell out, too. Although not to the present extent, licensing has been around since the beginning of the comic strip, and many cartoonists have benefitted from the increased exposure. The character merchandise not only provides the cartoonist with additional income, but it puts his characters in new markets and has the potential to broaden the base of the strip and attract new readers. I’m not against all licensing for all strips. Under the control of a conscientious cartoonist, certain kinds of strips can be licensed tastefully and with respect to the creation. That said, I’ll add that it’s very rarely done that way. With the kind of money in licensing nowadays, it’s not surprising many cartoonists are as eager as the syndicates for easy millions, and are willing to sacrifice the heart and soul of the strip to get it. I say it’s not surprising, but it is disappointing.

Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in.

Watterson successfully resisted licensing his characters, and as such the only Calvin and Hobbes merchandise you can buy are illegal bootlegs – the Calvin pissing on a Ford image being the most notorious.

Liking Calvin and Hobbes is a part of my identity. I want to be able to walk down the street wearing a Calvin and Hobbes  t-shirt and have someone recognise it and say ‘I like that cartoon too!’.

I could make or buy an illegal bootleg, but I know that if I did, and I wore the shirt out, anyone with a modicum of awareness of Watterson’s aversion to merchandising would know that I’m wearing a shirt that the creator hasn’t endorsed.

I or the person with this awareness could perform some kind of moral gymnastics, and argue that the bootleg shirt is not compromising the original creation’s value, and probably isn’t what Watterson disapproved of.  This kind of gymnastics leaves a sour taste, and isn’t a nearly as good feeling as wearing a shirt that you know that the creator has endorsed.

Ultimately I can empathise with Watterson. He probably didn’t resist merchandising because he didn’t want adult fans to wear a fan shirt; he was probably more concerned with overwhelming pressure to sell more products at the cost of cheapening the characters, or losing control of his characters and later regretting their devaluation.

Watterson could have individually approved certain images to be used on certain mediums, but possibly he felt that was too stressful, and it was simply an easier decision to refuse merchandising outright.

I think it would have been possible for Watterson to merchandise his characters, without cheapening them. He could have said, ‘Here’s a set of images, use these on mugs, tshirts, and mouse pads. No toys, no greeting cards’ and left it at that.

I wish he would reconsider – I really want to wear a Calvin and Hobbes t-shirt

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2 thoughts on “I wished Bill Watterson had licensed Calvin and Hobbes for merchandising.

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