I just watched the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson about the comic “Calvin and Hobbes” and its creator, Bill Watterson. The strip only ran for ten years, 1985-1995, but the love for a precocious brat and his furry friend endures in a series of reprint books which are still read by fans and get passed down to their children. "Calvin and Hobbes" bursts with imagination and childhood frustration while avoiding dated references, making it approachable even today.
The reprint books are, and likely will remain, the comic strip's only official legacy. Watterson, despite sounding a most resonant echo across America's cultural landscape, has never licensed his strip or its characters to anyone, for anything. There’s no action figures, T-shirts, or greeting cards … no Saturday morning cartoon, video games, or live-action movies with a CGI Hobbes … no tearaway desk calendars, no coffee mugs, not even a Hobbes stuffed tiger toy.
An estimate in the documentary puts a dollar figure on how much such licensed Calvin and Hobbes merchandise would've brought in: $300,000,000, or about $10 million a year since 1985. Half of that would have gone to Watterson, and the other half to his publishing distributor, or “syndicate” as they’re known in the comic strip industry. Compare that seemingly huge figure to the estate of Charles Schulz, creator of "Peanuts" (Charlie Brown and Snoopy), which takes in about $40 mil a year in licensing fees. Every year. And has done so for decades. And Schulz died in 2000, and no new "Peanuts" strips have been published since.
There is an illicit "Calvin and Hobbes" legacy seen on car window decals with Calvin pissing on Ford logos, Chevy logos, the Dallas Cowboys’ star, Dale Earnhardt's number 3, the Republican elephant, etc. Bill Watterson has threatened the makers of the decals with lawsuits, to varying degrees of success. In a rare quote on the matter, the reclusive Watterson quipped, “I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo.”
But Watterson didn’t miscalculate at all. The idea that his copyrights could have been licensed to the tune of one third of a billion dollars by now isn’t unknown to him. But from day one, Watterson's answer was always “No,” and (to date) he has managed to convince his syndicate, Universal Uclick, not to license Calvin and Hobbes without his consent, despite the option for such a move appearing in the contracts.
The question is, “Why?”
As a copyright holder and a creator of an artistic universe of my own, I find Watterson’s reasoning laudable — he, and only he, created "Calvin and Hobbes," and he wanted it to remain that way. Watterson had no co-writers, inkers, background artists, colorists, or editors offering input. Comic strips are one of the very, very few art forms in which a creator can speak one-on-one with his audience without any editorial, distributional, or political influence whatsoever. (And it does so daily, often for decades.) That’s the polar opposite of, say, a movie or television show, which would be very daunting to create entirely by one's self. My chosen art form — writing, specifically the novel — comes close, but there are editorial notes, publication and marketing data, cover artists and designers, and distribution means that often require an intrusive input from outsiders. Then there are critics — sadly, they’re often the first filtration of potential customers.
Many of those barriers are falling thanks to the Internet and its ability to bring an artist resources, distributors, and an audience. Anyone can create the art in whatever form (video, music, writing, painting, comics) they choose and post it online. This is a wonderful means of not only reaching the audience directly, but also presenting your art in the exact way you intended it to be consumed.
The trouble is, anyone watching/reading it can simply copy that art and give it away to others. Or they can twist it to their own ends by modifications or remixing. The creator is left with empty pockets in that scenario. Hence, you'll see artists use linked ads (like for Amazon on my site), or fucking annoying Geico commercials before every YouTube video. After all, we need to eat too.
I have taken so long in getting my works out in what has become a dying (and easily bootlegged) format that the only real hope I have of making a living off of writing novels alone is to land the sort of licensing that Bill Watterson has always turned down. J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Stephen King are filthy rich not only because fans buy their books — a $25 hardcover or $12 e-book might only net them $4 pre-tax. No, their millions have come from the franchising of their work for the common market: the movies, the tie-in toys and Burger King collectible cups and the like, which lead to more fandom and more book sales, spawning more movies, etc.
But when you license — when your work becomes a franchise — it ceases to be “your work,” and immediately becomes the dough of dozens of diverse bakers: the adapting writers, directors, producers, craft-artists, actors, marketers, commericial pitch-men, the manufacturers of consumable goods who will make your stuffed tiger toy, and even bully-pulpit retailers like Wal-Mart who will tell you what your toy needs to be priced in order for them to bother carrying it.
Let's say I, the original creator of Calvin Connor's world, land a huge licensing deal and I manage to gain a strong say in each little baking decision for the movie, TV show, or collectible figurine for my silly kids from Troop 666. That means I'll have to deal with every one of those bakers I just listed, and all their people and secretaries and underlings. And I’ll be expected to meet with them in person or on the phone only at times convenient to them, and give notes and listen to their stupid suggestions which strip away any nuance or humor I may have injected in my art ... all the while, at the same time, I'm meant to be busy at home creating more novels for Calvin Connor, and a new series for Art Maguire, and a possible spin-off for "Cindy," and this other sci-fi horror thing I want to make into a trilogy ... you know, the art that fans bought and loved and got me to this point in the first fucking place.
I can hire a representative (or a firm) to act on my behalf, but will they always clear every tiny decision with me? And anytime I or my people turn our eyes away from the industrial kitchen of my franchise, the bakers will bake away without my input. The resulting pie would be named for my art, and people will associate its quality (or lack thereof) with my name and brand, but it is no longer my art, and I don’t really control its final flavor, how flaky the crust is, what temperature it is when it’s served, or even the look of the plate it’s plopped on.
And you wonder why it's taking George R.R. Martin so long to complete the Song of Fire and Ice novels!
These were the possible scenarios that led Bill Watterson to turn his back on licensing way back in 1985. And so, from then until now, "Calvin and Hobbes" has only ever been a comic strip, entirely created by Watterson, available collected in trade paperbacks (and daily on his syndicate's website). It really had nothing to do with the money. Clearly, Watterson has earned enough from the books to have retired after just ten years of producing the strip. What he most desired — what was most important to him — was the control of his work.
He wanted his art to be seen, appreciated or not, on his terms, and no one else's. And he got just that. And when the time came, when his creative desires were met, he simply quit and moved to a quieter place. Being so reclusive, he might as well have fallen off the edge of the earth. But his legacy remains, as he intended.
There are plenty of artists who accept the lack of control (and piles of cash) that comes with franchising or work-for-hire. Those who refuse to "sell out" fall into one of three categories:
1. They build their own boardroom: e.g., famous, talented artists who turn into moguls of what are essentially sole proprietorships. Examples include Todd MacFarlane (Spider-Man, Spawn), George Lucas (Star Wars), and Lee Iacocca (who designed the Ford Mustang but you know him as head of Chrysler). These guys made a lot of hullabaloo about creators’ rights and the dreaded work-for-hire environment. However, once MacFarlane got his own book (published by a company that he co-owned) and a toy company run by him … once Lucas got his ownership of Star Wars codified (under a company that he owned) … once Iacocca got his own throne at a chief rival of Ford's … all three stopped doing anything even remotely creative and became full-time businessmen. They license their work, take meetings, count money, and control their copyrights/trademarks/patents by putting employees into the same work-for-hire environment that they themselves loathed.
These artists are the polar opposite of Bill Watterson — they enjoy being moguls, and even seem (in hindsight) to have striven to be moguls from day one (cf. the career arcs of Diddy and Merv Griffin). Their early art, which gave them their name, was simply the stepping stone; later in their careers, they may retain the title of “creator” for aspects of the art which came long after they stopped creating anything. And in the autumn years, they can do what Lucas did, and simply sell the whole thing to someone else for even more cash. Cuz why not, it's not meaningful art anymore. It's just a company. Right?
2. They go from Citizen Kane to Paul Masson wine commercials: e.g., world-famous, genius-level artists whose struggles against “the system” lead to less art being available for consumption, a decline in popularity, and a finish as cult idols worshipped in much smaller circles. Examples include Prince (the musician), Steve Jobs (for half of Apple’s history), and Orson Welles (the standard-bearer). Rather than take the George Lucas path and create their own beaurecratic empires, these folk become insurgents in their own artistic field and attack the very distributorships that sell their work to the public. Often, lawsuits and boycotts are involved; contracts either get shredded or are weaponized (forcing the artists to do work that they’d otherwise never touch, and if they won't, go ahead and rot; the corporation will move on).
Their work is always framed in cumbersome real-life backstory: how the studio re-edited a scene, changed the album cover or track listing order, or forced the software to do something else. Nothing can ever be fully appreciated without knowing these details. Eventually, a majority of the public grows tired of never getting new art to enjoy, or art that is frankly wearisome to endure, and the genius becomes a sad belligerent drunk in a wine commercial outtake (or, as a final insult, the voice of Unicron).
Steve Jobs eventually re-established creative control and used the new wave of technology to finally bring a huge portion of the buying public to his side — but this came after decades on the fringe, a business model that got him fired from his own company. (Remember that before the iPod, Apple rarely held anything higher than 10% of any market they were in — and I'm including Pixar.) Now, Apple’s products and methods are ubiquitous and influence all the others. Prince eventually became his own distribution center but long after his albums had any cultural impact (or, let's face it, meaningful sales). If only Welles managed such a comeback!
3. They lurk in a dark corner deliberately: e.g., the artists who are happy to be cloaked in cult status for the duration. Their work reaches fewer eyes and ears, but does so only in the way they intend. Here we find Bill Watterson and his little blonde boy riding in a wagon with a stuffed tiger. Here also, you can put in any number of respected cult figures who never “sold out." People like Vincent Gallo, Liz Phair, Quentin Tarantino, Thomas Pynchon, and Christian von Koenigsegg. They make what they want, when they want to, and make sure it gets to the people in the way they intend. The end. If such methods mean less art, or more expensive art, or even potentially off-putting art — that’s their choice, and they understand that and like it that way.
I think many artists start out this way, with such noble goals in mind. Piles of bills tend to change attitudes on such things. I have a job that pays my bills and a lifestyle that affords me plenty of free time to write — and since I don't have 40 books to my name and a heap of licensed movies etc., that's the way it will be. I can't live on royalties alone.
But suppose things take off and I achieve a kind of runaway success. Will I lock the doors to licensing and money, like Bill Watterson ... or will I become Morlock, Ltd.? (I must say, I like the sound of that!) Maybe I’ll never have the option. But in either case, I won't ever be that third kind of artist, who does work-for-hire because he needs money. My future won't be the same as Rob Liefeld's!
Still, the world of art needs fringe figures like Gallo and Pynchon to provide an example of an “alternative” way to be an artist. Millions more have given Liefeld money than have ever heard a Liz Phair song, but in the end, that doesn’t make Liefeld a better artist … nor does it make Phair an automatic art icon. Watterson made his decision, and as the creator and owner of the work that is "Calvin and Hobbes," his is the Voice of God in such matters. Luckily for him, many people fell in love with his work.
What matters is long-term appreciation. And not the snobbery of professional criticism, I mean when a father gives his ten-year-old son a copy of Something Under the Bed is Drooling, and the young boy devours it. That's the mark of art: it creates an emotional impact so strong that the audience seeks to share their experience with others. So, long after Calvin put away his transmogrifier gun and stopped torturing poor Rosalyn, his antics and imagination still reach an audience. This must be comforting to Bill Watterson, much more so than a bank statement the thickness of a phone book. We should all achieve such lofty heights in whatever we set out to do!