Cartoon Stripped Assets

Bill Watterson, 21st December 2006ce

Comic strips have been licensed from the beginning, but today the merchandising of popular cartoon characters is more profitable than ever. Derivative products – dolls, T-shirts, TV specials and so on – can turn the right strip into a gold mine. Everyone is looking for the next Snoopy or Garfield, and Calvin and Hobbes were imagined to be the perfect candidates.

The more I thought about licensing, however, the less I liked it. I spent nearly five years fighting my syndicate’s pressure to merchandise my creation.

In an age of shameless commercialism, my objections to licensing are not widely shared. Many cartoonists view the comic strip as a commercial product itself, so they regard licensing as a natural extension of their work. As most people ask, what’s wrong with comic strip characters appearing on calendars and coffee mugs? If people want to buy the stuff, why not give it to them?

I have several problems with licensing. First of all, I believe licensing usually cheapens the original creation. When cartoon characters appear on countless products, the public inevitably grows bored and irritated with them, and the appeal and value of the original work are diminished. Nothing dulls the edge of a new and clever cartoon like saturating the market with it.

Second, commercial products rarely respect how a comic strip works. A wordy, multi-panel strip with extended conversation and developed personalities does not condense to a coffee mug illustration without great violation to the strip’s spirit. The subtleties of a multi-dimensional strip are sacrificed for the one dimensional needs of the product.

The world of a comic strip ought to be a special place with its own logic and life. I don’t want some animation studio giving Hobbes an actor’s voice, and I don’t want some greeting card company using Calvin to wish people a happy anniversary, and I don’t want the issue of Hobbes’ reality settled by a doll manufacturer. When everything fun and magical is turned into something for sale, the strip’s world is diminished. Calvin And Hobbes was designed to be a comic strip and that’s all I want it to be. It’s the one place where everything works the way I intend it to.

Third, as a practical matter, licensing requires a staff of assistants to do the work. The cartoonist must become a factory foreman, delegating responsibilities and overseeing the production of things he does not create. Some cartoonists don’t mind this, but I went into cartooning to draw cartoons, not to run a corporate empire. I take great pride in the fact that I write every word, draw every line, color every Sunday strip, and paint every book illustration myself. My strip is a low-tech, one-man operation, and I like it that way. I believe it’s the only way to preserve the craft and to keep the strip personal. Despite what some cartoonists say, approving someone else’s work is not the same as doing it yourself.

Beyond all this, however, lies a deeper issue: the corruption of a strip’s integrity. All strips are supposed to be entertaining, but some strips have a point of view and a serious purpose behind the jokes. When the cartoonist is trying to talk honestly and seriously about life, then I believe he has a responsibility to think beyond satisfying the market’s every whim and desire. Cartoonists who think they can be taken seriously as artists while using the strip’s protagonists to sell boxer shorts are deluding themselves.

The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realise or will admit. Believable characters are hard to develop and easy to destroy. When a cartoonists licenses his characters, his voice is co-opted by the business concerns of toy makers, television producers and advertisers. The cartoonist’s job is no longer to be an original thinker; his job is to keep his characters profitable. The characters become ‘celebrities’, endorsing companies and products, avoiding controversy, and saying whatever someone will pay them to say. At that point, the strip has no soul. With its integrity gone, a strip loses its deeper significance.

My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the specialness of certain friendships. Who would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overpriced knick-knacks that nobody needs? Who would trust the honesty of the strip’s observations when the characters are hired out as advertising hucksters?

If I were to undermine my own characters like this, I would have taken the rare privilege of being paid to express my own ideas and given it up to be an ordinary salesman and hired illustrator. I would have sold out my own creation. I have no use for that kind of cartooning.

Unfortunately, the more popular Calvin and Hobbes became, the less control I had over its fate. I was presented with licensing possibilities before the strip was even a year old, and the pressure to capitalize on its success mounted from then on. Succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest expectations had only inspired wilder expectations.

To put the problem simply, trainloads of money were at stake – millions and millions of dollars could be made with a few signatures. Syndicates are business, and no business passes up that kind of opportunity without and argument.

Undermining my position, I had signed a contract giving my syndicate all exploitation rights to Calvin and Hobbes into the next century. Because it is virtually impossible to get into daily newspapers without a syndicate, it is standard practice for syndicates to use their superior bargaining position to demand rights they neither need nor deserve when contracting with unknown cartoonists.

The cartoonist has few alternatives to the syndicate’s terms: he can take his work elsewhere on the unlikely chance that a different syndicate would be more inclined to offer concessions, he can self-syndicate and attempt to attract the interest of newspapers without the benefit of reputation or contacts, or he can go back home and find some other job.

Universal would not sell my strip to newspapers unless I gave the syndicate the right to merchandise the strip in other media. At the time, I had not thought much about licensing and the issue was not among my top concerns. Two syndicates had already rejected Calvin and Hobbes, and I worried more about the contractual consequences if the strip failed than the contractual consequences if the strip succeeded. Eager for the opportunity to publish my work, I signed the contract, and it was not until later, when the pressure to commercialize focused my opinions on the matter, that I understood the trouble I’d gotten myself into.

I had no legal recourse to stop the syndicate from licensing. The syndicate preferred to have my co-operation, but my approval was by no means necessary. Our arguments with each other grew more bitter as the stakes got higher, and we had an ugly relationship for several years.

The debate had its ridiculous aspects. I am probably the only cartoonist who resented the popularity of his own strip. Most cartoonists are more than eager for the exposure, wealth, and prestige that licensing offers. When cartoonists fight their syndicates, it’s usually to make more money, not less.

And making the whole issue even more absurd, when I didn’t license, bootleg Calvin and Hobbes merchandise sprung up to feed the demand. Mall stores openly sold T-shirts with drawings illegally lifted from my books, and obscene or drug-related shirts were rife on college campuses. Only thieves and vandals have made money on Calvin and Hobbes merchandise.

For years, Universal pressured me to compromise on a “limited” licensing program. The syndicate would agree to rule out the most offensive products if I would agree to go along with the rest. This would be, in essence, my only shot at controlling what happened to my work. The idea of bartering principles was offensive to me and I refused to compromise. For that matter, the syndicate and I had nothing to trade anyway: I didn’t care if we made more money, and the syndicate didn’t care about my notions of artistic integrity. With neither of us valuing what the other had to offer, compromise was impossible. One of us was going to trample the interests of the other.

By the strip’s fifth year, the debate had gone as far as it could possibly go, and I prepared to quit. If I could not control what Calvin and Hobbes stood for, the strip was worthless to me. My contract was so one-sided that quitting would have allowed Universal to replace me with hired writers and artists and license my creation anyway, but at this point, the syndicate agreed to renegotiate my contract. The exploitation rights to the strip were returned to me, and I will not license Calvin and Hobbes.

First published in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, 1995.