Calvin and Hobbes is Americaís hottest comic strip. After less than three years in syndication, it appears in more than 600 newspapers. The three Calvin and Hobbes collections are permanent fixtures on The New York Times bestseller list. And its creator, Bill Watterson, has already won the coveted National Cartoonist Society Cartoonist of the Year award.
So why havenít you seen the Calvin and Hobbes characters splattered across the American land≠scape on burger glasses, greeting cards, and as stuffed toys? Because Watterson says ďNoĒ to licensing. In fact, Watterson probably says ďNoĒ more than Calvinís prank-weary parents. Frankly, heís not interested in it, and he tells us why in this interview. Watterson was born in Washington, D.C., 1958. At Chagrin Falls High School and Kenyon College in Ohio, he drew for the student newspapers and yearbooks. Upon graduation in 1980, he became the political cartoonist for The Cincinnatti Post, an experience he remembers as relentlessly depressing but mercifully short. Unable to fulfill his editorís fuzzy notion of what an editorial cartoon should be, Watterson was fired before the end of his first year. For the next five years, Watterson submitted comic strip ideas to the syndicates. Six were developed, six were rejected. United Features Syndicate was the most encouraging and Wattersonís seventh develop≠ment contract, this one with UFS, resulted in Calvin and Hobbes. Ironically, UFS declined to distribute it, say≠ing they didnít think it would sell. Universal Press Syndicate snatched it up and launched it in November 1985. Watterson values his privacy and only rarely gives interviews. He agreed to do this one on the grounds that the strip be the center of discussion. The interview was conducted, transcribed, and edited by Richard West, editor of the late and lamented political cartoon journal Target, and longtime friend of Watterson.
RICHARD WEST: How do you explain the popularity of Calvin and Hobbes?
BILL WATTERSON: Really, I donít understand it, since I never set out to make Calvin and Hobbes a popular strip. I just draw it for myself. I guess I have a gift for express≠ing pedestrian tastes. In a way, itís kind of depressing.
WEST: Isnít it ironic that in a profession thatís become so formulaic you have created the most successful comic strip of the Ď80s by not trying to fulfill a formula?
WATTERSON: But in a way, Iíve ended up with the old tried and true. Itís a strip about a family - a familiar, universal setting thatís easy to identify with. Iím trying to put a unique twist on it, but itís well-covered ground. The trend nowadays in comics seems to be to zero in on a narrow, specific audience, like divorced parents, baby boomers, and so on. I guess the idea is to attract a devoted special interest group to the comic page who will scream if the strip is ever dropped. That way, the strip stands a better chance of survival than a strip that aims wide but doesnít hit deep. Generally, I donít like these trend-of the-month strips because theyíre usually the product of some market analysis rather than the product of any honest artistic sensibility on the part of the cartoonist. Still, with any strip, itís not the subject thatís important, itís what you do with it. A family strip can be hackneyed drivel just as easily as any other kind of strip.
WEST: Sometimes Calvin acts very childlike and at other times he acts he acts and says things that are completely impossi≠ble for a child of six. What are your thoughts on that?
WATTERSON: The main concern for me is flexibility-whatís going to give me the most range, what voice is going to give me the most leverage. As far as making the kid into a wise-cracking adult, thatís certainly been the approach of a lot of comics. The appeal of that is that, you know, the cartoonist is an adult and, presumably, he has adult comments to make. Itís not natural to speak through the mind of a child.
WEST: The whole joke rests on putting sophisticated thoughts into the mouth of a baby or child.
WATTERSON: Right. What I have enjoyed about Calvin is that I feel Iíve got the range to do what I want, that he can be childish at some points and not at others. The whole challenge really is to set up rules. You can make your cartoon world have as much sense or as little sense as you want to, and the main thing is that youíre consis≠tent within that vision. I think the audience will go along with you. It doesnít have to be one or the other. One of the neat things about Bloom County is that the strip has virtually no rules at all. Cutter John rides a wheel chair loaded with animals wearing fish bowls for space helmets, and thatís just the way things are. Everyone in the strip accepts it, and we readers do, too. In essence, Breathed says he's going to draw whatever he feels like and heís not going to worry about a lot of clever explana≠tions for what happens. The readers have to take it or leave it. Itís a riskier way to write, but it gives Breathed com≠plete freedom in the world he's set up. Other strips, equally good, have more ordered universes. I suppose mine is somewhere in between the extremes.
WEST: Do you think that because Breathed has estab≠lished no rules, he limits the acceptability of his strip? Or, put another way, because Calvin and Hobbes is restricted in some ways - that you are respecting the boundaries that you have created in this fantasy world - that itís easier for people to accept the strip, and that explains some of its popularity?
WATTERSON: Thatís possible. That aspect of it doesnít interest me much. Who reads it and who doesnít isnít a concern of mine.
WEST: Iím talking about acceptability. For instance,if you violated the rules of Calvinís fantasy world, how would that diminish the strip? Why couldnít you have less rules? Why couldnít the strip be more like Bloom County?
WATTERSON: I think itís the way Iím most comfortable writing. I like to work within certain confines. The aspect of the strip that I have the most fun playing with is the personalities and the characters. In other words, their in≠teraction is what is interesting to me, not the playing with the form of the comic strip. Iíll qualify that. Visually, I like to play with the form, but, for example, Bloom County occasionally has a narrator. Itís a wonderful-device, but it doesnít really fit my needs. What Iím trying to do in Calvin and Hobbes is make it realistic enough so that I can explore the ideas that interest me without making it so realistic that it confines me.
WEST: You once said that Calvinís imagination was greater than yours. Where do you go to find inspiration if youĎre not basing it on your world ?
WATTERSON: Well, for example, just a simple thing that Iíve played around with a couple of times is the issue of size. You take your size for granted. You get larger up to a point and then you stop, and then that is your size, and you relate to the world from that viewpoint. If size was a complete variable, what would the world be like? In other words, if there was not a hard and fast rule of growth, how would things change? That presents me with an awful lot of visual possibilities that I enjoy working with. And to adults who are used to thinking of the world from a certain vantage point, it sometimes seems fresh, I hope.
WEST: One of the best things about the strip is that you surprise readers with the areas of concern of the strip. Do you surprise yourself? Do you find yourself pursuing things that delight you, that youíve stumbled upon? Is the inspiration on automatic pilot?
WATTERSON: I wish it was more than it actually is. I canít just turn off the things that we all accept or have learned. For example, everybody works with a day-to≠day assumption that gravity is going to be there from the time he gets up until he goes to bed and so on. To imagine if gravity were suddenly turned off requires an effort. My mind doesnít just naturally go off in these odd directions all the time.
WEST: Well, in the last three years, have the fantasy sequences gotten easier? You seem to be doing less of them these days. Is there a reason?
WATTERSON: At first it was fun simply to juxtapose fantasy with reality - the simple fact that the reader could see the fantasy and then, at the end, see the flip. See it from the childís view and then, later, see it from the adult view and realize that thereís an inconsistency there. That was originally a fun device, but the burden on the strip has been to make each switch more clever. The juxtaposi≠tion alone can get predictable it itís just done over and over in the same way. Each time itís got to be done with some unpredictability, some cleverness to it so that it doesnít become moribund. So, yes, Iím doing fewer because itís getting more and more difficult.
But I still try to do the fantasies as they interest me. Thereís a limitation to them. Theyíre fun to read and theyíre certainly fun to draw, but they donít have the emo≠tional weight to them that an interaction between two in≠teresting characters does. In other words, when Spiff is on Planet Zorg, itís a visual feast. I get to draw bizarre landscapes and monsters and fool with lighting and color and so on, in the Sundays. Itís an adventure story on the simplest level. He reacts to the situation and then maybe at the end it flips into a classroom or whatever, but there's no emotional depth.
The depth of the friendship between Calvin and Hobbes interests me because of its significance. Each kind of story has its own problems in writing, but my main concern really is to keep the reader on his toes, or to keep the strip unpredictable. I try to achieve some sort of balance between the two that keeps the reader wondering what's going to happen next and be surprised.
WEST: What do you say to the thought that Calvin and Hobbes is basically the exploration of a friendship and that all of the other comic devices you use are comic relief from that emotional center?
WATTERSON: Thatís not far off, but I donít know if Iíd say the other is just a relief from that. Both interest me for different reasons. Really, what Iím trying to do is to juggle as many balls as I can at once so that Iíll have a slapstick joke one day, a fantasy another day, a friendship, a sadness. I try to explore as diverse a world as I'm capable of. This, again, gives me the flexibility to keep the writing interesting and I hope it also keeps it lively for the reader as well.
WEST: Letís talk about Hobbes a little bit. He seem to be older and wiser than Calvin, but not much. Which of the following more accurately describes him: a pet, a brother, a friend, or the father that Calvin never had?
WATTERSON: Hobbes is really hard to define and, in a way, Iím reluctant to do it. I think there's an aspect of this character thatís hard for me to articulate. I suppose if I had to choose from those four, the brother and the friend would be the closest. But thereís something a little peculiar about him thatís, hopefully, not readily categorized.
WEST: Well, in a way that says more about Calvin than Hobbes because Hobbes is implicitly, explicitly just a pro≠duct of his imagination.
WATTERSON: But the strip doesnít assert that. Thatís the assumption that adults make because nobody else sees him, sees Hobbes, in the way that Calvin does. Some reporter was writing a story on imaginary friends and they asked me for a comment, and I didnít do it because I really have absolutely no knowledge about imaginary friends. It would seem to me, though, that when you make up a friend for yourself, you would have somebody to agree with you, not to argue with you. So Hobbes is more real than I suspect any kid would dream up.
WEST: Well, at the risk of getting into psycho-babble, a lot of psychologists would say that children create imaginary friends to play out family dramas. So an argu≠ment can be just as much a part of an imaginary world as, you know, a sort of sentimental, gooey friendship can be.
WATTERSON: Yeah, well, I would hope that the kind≠ of complexity there will make the relationship interesting on a couple of levels.
WEST: So youíve delineated a fine boundary that is pushed out of shape at various points and almost illogical at various points, but it has an internal consistency of sorts.
WATTERSON: Of sorts, yes.
WEST: You must find yourself in situations where you say, ďNo, I canít do that,Ē and other times when you will≠ingly violate what would seem to be a logical rule just for effect.
WATTERSON: Such as?
WEST: Well, such as when Hobbes tied Calvin up to a chair. If you accept the rest of the fantasy that youíve created - that Hobbes is imaginary - thatís an impossibility.
WATTERSON: Yeah, and Calvinís dad finds him tied up and the question remains, really, how did he get that way? His dad assumes that Calvin tied himself up somehow, so well that he couldnít get out. Calvin explains that Hobbes did this to him and he tries to place the blame on Hobbes entirely, and itís never resolved in the strip. Again I donít think thatís just a cheap way out of the story. I like the tension that that creates, where youíve got two versions of reality that do not mix. Something odd has happened and neither makes complete sense, so you're left to make out of it what you want.
WEST: I guess thatís the rule of some of the best fantasies. Did Alice really go through the looking glass? Was Dorothy really in Oz? What do you choose to believe?
WATTERSON: I should also mention, just in that con≠text, that the fantasy/reality question is a literary device, so the ultimate reality of it doesnít really matter that much anyway. In other words, when Dorothyís in Oz, if you want to make this obviously a dream, it becomes stupid - you confine yourself.
WEST: It has less purpose.
WATTERSON: And also less potential. There are inner workings in The Wizard of Oz that are too coherent for a dream - at least my dreams are never that coherent - and so it becomes less interesting if it is only a dream. The literary merits, the purpose of writing it that way, are better served by some ambiguity than by making everything very obvious.
WEST: You do a lot with the visuals of the strip. Do you make a conscious effort to vary the visual, as well as the storylines?
WATTERSON: I enjoy the drawing more than the writing, so I try to think of ideas that will allow me to develop the visual side of the strip as fully as possible. Some ideas donít lend themselves to that. Even then, I try to make the drawings as interesting as I possibly can, given the very limited constraints of the format. In other words, if Iíve got essentially two characters talking in a daily, Iíll try to put them in an interesting location, have them walking through the woods. Iíll try different perspec≠tives. If Iíve got several daysí strips that are essentially talking strips, one day Iíll eliminate all background, have it as sparse and clean as I can; the next day, try to make it a little lusher or develop the setting more. This is pro≠bably done more out of boredom than any conscious deci≠sion to do this one day and do this another day.
The Sundays are the one day that I have a little more freedom with the visual aspects. The fun of a Sunday is that I have more space. Sunday strips lend themselves to longer conversations or visual things or, best of all, both. Although if you have much conversation then you donít have room for much visual. Sundays are more consciously chosen to reflect those two interests.
WEST: Isnít there a remarkable similarity between Hobbes and Tigger?
WATTERSON: People have pointed that out. Tigger is probably more naive and energetic, but heís an endear≠ing character. Disney did a good job with him in anima≠tion, although the other Pooh characters suffered in the translation. The original Pooh stories are very subtle and sophisticated. They went right over my head as a kid, which is why they never were a real influence on me, but I reread them recently, and theyíre hilarious. If I had understood the stories earlier, Iíd have certainly swiped the idea.
WEST: Well, isnít the point that there are similarities between characters that have appeared before in literature and youíd be the last one to say that a child with an imaginary animal friend sprang virgin like from your brain.
WATTERSON: Right. And many of the situations I deal with - monsters under the bed, these sorts of things - are well-worn themes. Hopefully, Iím doing something new with them or putting a different life into them just because itís being filtered through my personality, but, yeah, I would never claim that nothing like this had ever been seen on the face of the earth before.
WEST: The parents are really an interesting part of the strip. In a way theyíre foils, but the thing that interests me is that itís extremely rare for them to express any love for Calvin. Is that simply because it doesnít have any comic potential, or is it something inherent in their characters?
WATTERSON: Again, I feel like Iím falling into the trap of psychoanalyzing the characters and I donít want to say, ďWell, this character acts this wayď because thatís con≠fining. I think the way they relate to Calvin is more a reflection of my misanthropic tendencies than any literary concern.
Many strips have, you know, the funny character, the straight man, the foil - those characters are stereotypes and fairly flat. The role of these characters in the strip is entirely defined by their function as a member of a social group or age group, or whatever, and Iím trying to avoid that as much as I possibly can. I try to make each character, even the ones that arenít that important, a unique personality that, over time, will develop. Some of the minor characters appear less often than Calvin and Hobbes, but, hopefully, over years, each one will become a unique personality that will be every bit as complex and interesting as Calvin and Hobbes.
In other words, I donít want the parents to simply function as parents. I want them to be unique individuals as well. They are parents, of course, and, as sane people, they have to react to Calvinís personality. What I try to do in writing any character is to put myself in his posi≠tion, to the extent that I can, and I know that if I was Calvin's dad or Calvin's mom that I would not react to him with the gooey sentimentality that sometimes appears in other strips. Given Calvin's usual behavior, I think his parents show admirable restraint in theirs.
WEST: Is it easier for you to imagine being the father than it is to imagine being Calvin?
WATTERSON: The dad is, in some ways, a parody of my own dad and he's also part of myself. Iím also part of the mother, too, and Susie, and everyone else. Iím pulling out different aspects of my personality in writing each character and, if Iím doing my job well, Iím being true to the situation and true to the character. Hopefully, the mother is not just the disciplinarian, but is more well-rounded than that - the same thing with the father or Susie, and so on. My aim is to make each one complete and real.
WEST: Youíve resisted saying anything as simple as Calvin was you as a child.
WATTERSON: Well, Calvin's not the way I actually behaved, but thereís a part of me that would behave that way if I had no concern at all for anyone else. The socialization that we all go through to become adults teaches you not to say certain things because you later suffer the consequences. Calvin doesnít know that rule of thumb yet.
WEST: Is there room in the strip for another child?
WATTERSON: I think that would jeopardize the rela≠tionship between Calvin and Hobbes.
WEST: And, considering Calvinís personality, it might be totally unrealistic that the parents would want to have a second child.
WATTERSON: Yeah, well, thatís sort of the running joke through the whole thing: that Calvin is such an awful nuisance that theyíre not eager to repeat that mistake.
In a way, itís surprised me that the strip hasnít exhausted its cast very much at all. The baby sitter came after a few months but, really, aside from that, the strip has stayed the same as I originally planned it. Most strips grow when new characters are added periodically, and I expect to do that once in a while, but I think they will always be minor characters. I donít expect to add a major character into the center of the strip. The stripís world is a very small insulated one, which, I think, is more natural to me.
What I found to be true of the earlier strips I developed was that I was often making my cast much greater than I had the authority to speak about. I was trying to deal with friendships and relationships that I donít understand. With Calvin and Hobbes, I donít really think of them as a comedy team that dances on stage and does an act for you. Itís a very natural and personal friendship of the type that Iím most familiar and comfortable with myself.
WEST: Well, talking about the evolution of the strip, almost everywhere you look in comic strip annals, the star of the strip emerges well into the life of the strip. Pogo really began with Albert the Alligator as the star Peanuts began with Charlie Brown as the star, now heís second fiddle to Snoopy; even in Bloom County, Opus who wasnít even a part of the original cast is now pretty much the center of the strip. Can that happen in Calvin and Hobbes?
WATTERSON: I donít think so. In the first place, I feel comfortable with the way the cast works out. Calvin and Hobbes together are more than the sum of their parts. Each ticks because the other is around to share in the little conspiracies, or to argue and fight with. In many comic strips the animal eventually steals the show, just because animals offer more freedom to the cartoonist. As we were talking about earlier, the improbability of certain thoughts coming from the mouth of a child provides a kind of humor just from the context. Well, itís even more the case with an animal because itís even more unprobable.≠
Also, there is more latitude that way. You know, you can draw a penguin on a toilet reading The New York Times and itís adorable, but try doing it with an adult male character, and itís disgusting. I think there is always the temptation to go with the most flexible and fun char≠acter, and thatís almost always the animal. With Calvin and Hobbes, though, Hobbes is the more subtle of the two while Calvin is the loud, obnoxious one. Each is funnier in contrast to the other than they would be by themselves. In fact, because Hobbes is the much more subtle and quiet character, it sometimes surprises me that people respond so warmly to him because I think his character is much harder to get a grasp on. It may just be because he's cute.
WEST: Or a cat.
WATTERSON: Yeah, right. I donít foresee the dynamic between them reversing itself or moving in wild direc≠tions. I hope to develop the dynamic and make it more subtle, more complex, but I donít really see the direction of the strip moving in radical directions.
WEST: In looking at Krazy Kat, do you draw any strength from what Herriman did in terms of the relationships of his characters?
WATTERSON: Krazy Kat is a completely unique strip. I think itís the best comic strip ever drawn. Ultimately, though, itís such a peculiar and idiosyncratic vision that it has little to say to me directly. I marvel at it because itís beyond duplication. Itís like trying to paint a sunrise - you're better off not even trying. Peanuts and Pogo have been inspirations, too, but these strips are much more down to earth, and are much closed to my own way of thinking, and have had much more direct influence. Even so, I try to keep the instances of blatant plagiarism to a minimum.
Looking back, youíll see that some of the old strips are one-gag formulas, endlessly varied. Krazy Kat revolves around the tossing of the brick. Little Nemo was always a dream and you knew the kid is going to wake up in a heap at the bottom of his bed in every single strip. I find Herriman a lot more interesting than McCay, but both are working within a very limited construct. Itís a very different approach to cartooning that what we do now. I would go insane working with limited formulas like theirs, but on the other hand, Herriman and McCay gave us something better than gags. Back then, the fun was in the getting there. The destination of each strip was the same, but every day you went there by a different road. Today, we want the strip over as soon as possible - ĒJust hand me the punchline, please.Ē The fewer panels, words, and drawings, the better. I think Pogo was the last of the enjoy-the-ride strips. Itís a shame. Weíve really lost what comics do best.
WEST: Canít you still do that with the Sundays?
WATTERSON: The Sundays are frustrating - you have to waste the entire top third of the strip so that the panels can be dropped or reconfigured for certain-sized newspapers. This really limits what I can do. Krazy kat had a whole page to itself, as did Nemo. Even so, there's more flexibility on Sundays than in the daily strips. Iíve always tried to make the strip animated, even when the characters arenít moving, with expressions or perspec≠tives or some sort of exaggeration. Thereís great poten≠tial for that which has yet to be fully mined.
WEST: For you personally, or do you mean in the comics in general?
WATTERSON: For me personally, and for comics in general. I would love to take it much further, although again, this.is something where I feel limited by my imagination and abilities at times, but comics, with the shrinkage, have gone away from that. The visual aspect of comics is what got me into the profession in the first place. It seems ridiculous to not take advantage of that to the fullest extent you can. Animation is, I think, the fulfillment of the cartoon. There is nothing you cannot do in animation. Unfortunately, animation has not taken advantage of that either, and usually ends up with stupid stories or crude art. The whole cartoon industry has degenerated over the years.
WEST: Well, if you can create the impression of an animated world in a comic strip, and I think it could be said that youíve done that with a fair degree of success whatís the point of doing animation?
WATTERSON: Animation is an art all its own. If you look at the old cartoons by Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, youíll see that there are a lot of things single drawings just canít do. Animators can get away with incredible distortion and exaggeration - for example, to show sur≠prise a character might turn into a giant eyeball for a fraction of a second - and the character can do this because the animator can control the length of time you see something. The bizarre exaggeration barely has time to register, and the viewer doesnít ponder the incredible license he's witnessed.
In a comic strip, you just show the highlights of action - you canít show the buildup and release... or at least not without slowing down the pace of everything to the point where itís like looking at individual frames of a movie, in which case youíve probably lost the effect you were trying to achieve. In a comic strip, you can suggest motion and time, but itís very crude compared to what an animator can do. I have a real awe for good animation.
WEST: Isnít it a bit scary to think of hearing Calvinís voice?
WATTERSON: Very scary. For all my admiration of the art, I really canít decide if I ever want to see Calvin and Hobbes animated. I know Iíd enjoy working with the visual opportunities animation offers, but you change the world youíve created when you change the medium in which itís presented. Books are almost always better than the movies made from them, because there are things books do well and things movies do well, but usually those things donít overlap. The: same with comics and animation. Another, more personal reservation I have is that anima≠tion, by necessity is a team sport, and the fewer people with input into my work, the better I like it. And, finally, to see it done right, it would also take an awful lot of time and energy on my part, neither of which Iíve got a lot to spare.
WEST: Youíve rejected licensing your stripís characters. Why?
WATTERSON: Basically Iíve decided that licensing is inconsistent with what Iím trying to do with Calvin and Hobbes. I take cartoons seriously as an art form, so I think with an issue like licensing, itís important to analyze what my strip is about, and what makes it work.
Itís easy to transfer the essence of a gag-oriented strip; especially a one-panel gag strip, from the newspaper page to a t-shirt, a mug, a greeting card, and so on. The joke reads the same no matter what itís printed on, and the joke is what the strip is about. Nothing is lost.
My strip works differently. Calvin and Hobbes isnít a gag strip. It has a punchline, but the strip is about more than that. The humor is situational, and often episodic. It relies on conversation, and the development of per≠sonalities and relationships. These arenít concerns you can wrap up neatly in a clever little saying for people to send each other or to hang up on their walls. To explore character, you need lots of time and space. Note pads and coffee mugs just arenít appropriate vehicles for what Iím trying to do here. Iím not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product. The strip is about more than jokes. I think the syndicate would admit this if they would start looking at my strip instead of just the royalty checks. Unfortunately, they are in the cartoon business only because it makes money, so arguments about artistic intentions are never very per≠suasive to them.
I have no aversion to obscene wealth, but thatís not my motivation either. I think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you canít buy those qualities back.
WEST: Well, what about something like a doll? Thatís not a product like a coffee mag, which would be there whether the strip characters were printed on it or not. Why doesnĎt a doll fit into your definition of appropriate licensing?
WATTERSON: A doll communicates even less of the strip than the things mentioned before. A doll only cashes in on the recognizability of the character. Products like that take the character out of the world for which he was intended. If you stick thirty Hobbes dolls on a drugstore shelf, you're no longer talking about a character I created. At that point, youíve transformed him into just another overpriced knickknack. I have no interest in turning my characters into commodities. If Iíd wanted to sell plush garbage, Iíd have gone to work as a carny.
The idea of a Hobbes doll is especially noxious, because the whole intrigue of Hobbes is that he may or may not be a real tiger. The strip deliberately sets up two versions of reality without committing itself to either one. If lím not going to answer the question of who or what Hobbes is, Iím certainly not going to let Dakin answer it. It makes no sense to allow someone to make Hobbes into a stuffed toy for real, and deprive the strip of an element of its magic.
WEST: Iím sure some of the renders will say to all this, ďCome on. The comic strip is a popular art form.Ē Whatís wrong with indulging the publicís interest?
WATTERSON: Nothing, so long as it doesnít com≠promise the art itself. In my case, Iím convinced that licen≠sing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once youíve given up its integrity, thatís it. I want to make sure that never happens. Instead of ask≠ing what's wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to be asking, ďWhat justifies it?Ē Popular art does not have to pander to the lowest level of intelligence and taste.
WEST: Snoopy is selling insurance, Garfield is on everything from cereal boxes to car window visors. How do you feel about what your colleagues are doing?
WATTERSON: I would probably have done things dif≠ferently than other cartoonists have, but other peopleís strips arenít my job. As I said, some strips lend themselves to certain merchandising projects better than others. Iím not condemning licensing across the board; Iím saying licensing doesnít work for Calvin and Hobbes, and I want the freedom to do with the strip as I see fit.
Obviously, some cartoonists see things differently than I do, and thatís their right. My concern is that I be afforded the right to refuse licensing if I feel it hurts my strip. I think it is wrong that a syndicate should own characters it had no hand in creating, and that a syndicate should use that ownership to thwart the intentions of the cartoonist who did create the characters.
WEST: Aside from aesthetic questions, what happens to a strip when its characters become ubiquitous?
WATTERSON: Well, the obvious risk is satiating the interest. I think people can only stand so much of seeing the character around and I think that, after awhile, resent≠ment builds.
WEST: What can, you envision as suitable licensing for Calvin and Hobbes? Nothing?
WATTERSON: I can't think of a thing. Iím reserving judgment on animation. Calvin and Hobbes was designed as a comic strip and Iíve found nothing that presents my comic strip as well as newspapers and books. Actually books do the best job of all. Books show the work as a body, in sequence, on better paper and at a larger size than the newspapers run it. Books are also more per≠manent, which is essential to the growth of comic strip art. Walt Kelly died a few years after I discovered Pogo and if it werenít for the Pogo books Iíd have been depriv≠ed of a great influence. The same goes for Krazy Kat. New cartoonists donít have to reinvent the wheel. They can build on othersí accomplishments. Books allow car≠toons to live longer and thatís a real service.
WEST: You mention size. Whatís all the fuss about the size of comic strips?
WATTERSON: The size issue is crucial to anyone who cares about quality in cartoons. To save space, newsprint, and money, newspapers have been reducing the size of comics for years. It has gotten to the point now, where cartoons can no longer do what they do best. Comic strips are words and pictures, but there is little room for either any more. Most cartoonists, to make their work legible at tiny reproduction, have eliminated panels, linework, and words, and the result is a drastic loss in character developmentí storytelling ability, and intelligent humor. A beautiful strip like Pogo would be impossible to read at today's sizes. Adventure strips are dead. Comics have been deprived of much of their ability to entertain. Now≠ we have a lot of talking heads and gags that could be read with equal effect on the radio.
The visual attraction of the comics is largely a thing of the past. Until something is done to restore the size of comics, they will only continue to get more insipid, and have less pull on their audiences. To save a few inches of space, newspapers are killing the appeal of comics. Unfortunately, the syndicates and cartoonists are afraid newspapers would drop strips rather than add space if car≠toons were printed larger, so few are willing to take a stand on this issue. Nobody wants to lose his strip over a few little picas.
WEST: When you look at the comics today, whose work excites you?
WATTERSON: Doonesbury, of course, has had a tremen≠dous impact and influence on comics, and I greatly admire Trudeauís work. He is probably the best writer in the field today. He can handle virtually anything - tragedy, social commentary, personal relationships, you name it - with sensitivity, intelligence, and devastating wit. He has shown that comics are not solely the domain of prepubescents. Lately, Trudeauís artwork has become quite daring and inventive as well.
I enjoy Bloom Countyís unpredictability and irreverence. In a generally brain-dead comics page, I usually find Bloom Countyís to-hell-with-everybody anarchy refreshing. Opus, of course, is an inspired character.
Peanuts is long overdue for a serious reappraisal. Its ubiquitous licensing program unfortunately obscures what a well-crafted, beautifully written and drawn strip it is. Peanuts is one of the very rare strips with true heart. The sophistication and subtlety of the work is unbelievable. Comics donít come better than this.
For Better or For Worse is very interesting to me because of its realism. I can think of no comic that has treated common, everyday domestic life with less artifice and stereotyping. I am impressed with the stripís perception, honesty, and directness. It is also nicely drawn.
The Far Side is another great one. I laugh out loud at this strip more than any other. The drawings somehow suit it exactly. Wonderful stuff.
Cathy is visually gray, but itís cleverly written and it has a level of honesty to it that you donít often see on the comics pages.
After these, you have to reach pretty far into the barrel.
WEST: YouĎre excited by some of the early German ex≠pressionists, like Egon Schiele in particular. How does that affect how you approach the graphic challenges of Calvin and Hobbes?
WATTERSON: I try to look at a lot of different kinds of art. I enjoy the work of the German expressionists, par≠ticularly the woodcuts of the Bruecke group and Lyonel Feininger. Egon Schiele is also a favorite. I find all of his work very immediate and honest, and I suppose I respond most to the directness and rawness of these images. Prints of almost any kind have a special appeal to me. The physical difficulty in making an image usually seems to distill it, and the artist is less able to hide behind a lot of fancy technique. I like watercolor for the same reason. Once itís down, youíre stuck with it.
As to what influence these and other artists have on my cartoons, Iím hard pressed to say. Mainly they help me realize the many different ways one can visually express oneself. Too often cartoonists just look at other cartoonists and, after a lot of inbreeding, everyone has the same funny look. The challenge of drawing is that there is no one right way to visually describe something. Itís a good thing to confront your limitations and preconceptions every so often.
WEST: You work in acrylic, you do watercolors, you do some block printsÖ
WATTERSON: Those are just personal outlets and pro≠bably half of it is trying to learn the technical skills. Iím not a fine artist who has come to cartooning. I drew cartoons all my life and never learned how to really draw until fairly recently, so Iím still in the process of master≠ing technique and learning to work with color and that kind of thing. I find it very exciting because itís all new, but itís also frustrating because Iím not good at it. And, also, I enjoy the completely different approach to art where you donít have to worry about writing at the same time.
WEST: Are they different or greater challenges than the comic strip?
WATTERSON: Probably different. Thereís sort of a dif≠ferent thought process that goes into it, but I donít know if you can really compare them. They all feed into each other: the cartoons feed into the painting and whatnot, and the paintings feed into the cartoons.
WEST: Kind of like toning the drawing muscle, explor≠ing certain means of expression through other avenues.
WATTERSON: Or like vocabulary. The more words you have at your disposal, the more precisely you can express yourself.
WEST: Before Calvin and Hobbes, you submitted four or five comic strips to the syndicates, the later ones being kind of training grounds for Calvin and Hobbes. How do you look back on that time?
WATTERSON: When I was sending the strips out, I looked no farther forward than getting interest from the syndicate, so in drawing up three weeksí or four weeksí material I would hope to show enough versatility and enough basic competence in writing and drawing skills that would interest them. But I lacked foresight in think≠ing about the depth of the characters and whether they would actually be able not only to continue but expand as they went on. I think thatís probably the mistake that many would-be cartoonists make, that their characters are vehicles for gags, rather than distinct personalities that can grow and develop over the years.
It was a learning process. You canít learn to stand up and walk without falling down a lot, so itís very fortunate that I was able to do that without anybody seeing these strips except friends.
WEST: Well, one thing that you didnít do out of the public spotlight was editorial cartoons, professionally, for six months, with The Cincinnati Post. How do you think back on that experience?
WATTERSON: The experience itself was horrible, but getting fired forced me to reexamine how committed I was to political cartooning, and I finally admitted to myself that it had always been very difficult for me. I was never really very good at it.
WEST: You grew up in northern Ohio, and spent most of your life in that part of the world. Wouldnít it be accurate to say that Calvin and Hobbes live in a northern≠-Ohio-like world?
WATTERSON: Yeah. Itís a midwestern strip. I think I have midwestern sensibilities, and I think the strip clearly reflects that. Iím comfortable with that aspect of it, especially from the standpoint that it would ring false if I tried to do something else.