January 6, 2006


A Tale of Two Kitties: Lovers of Aslan should heed the warnings from the creator of Hobbes. (E.J. Park, 01/06/2006, Christianity Today)

The new release of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (Andrews McMeel Publishing), a three-volume set collecting the comic strip's ten-year run, is a reminder that it is possible to resist the logic of commercialism. Bill Watterson, the reclusive creator of the strip, was dismayed by the ongoing pressure from his syndicate to license his characters. Such a license would place Calvin and Hobbes on calendars, greeting cards, coffee mugs, T-shirts, TV specials, movies, and so on. But Watterson adamantly and steadfastly refused, forfeiting millions of dollars. (Jim Davis's Garfield generates around $750 million in annual sales of Garfield-related products. Existing Calvin items, like car decals, are unauthorized.)

For Watterson's syndicate, it just made sense to capitalize on the enormous popularity of the comic strip. Licensing Calvin and Hobbes would expand the audience by offering more ways to mediate and consume the characters. For Watterson, however, this logic was both shortsighted and offensive, because it failed to take into consideration what would be lost in the process. In the introduction to The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book (1995), he wrote, "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's reality settled by a doll manufacturer. When everything fun and magical is turned into something for sale, the strip's world is diminished."

Watterson, who retired his still-popular strip on January 1, 1996, believes that forms matter. He argued that the content of Calvin and Hobbes would be cheapened if it took on a commercial form beyond the multi-dimensional strip. The daily form of comic strips offers a distinct view of the boy and tiger that would be undermined if their images suddenly appeared on key chains and bumper stickers. Watterson explained, "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 knickknacks that nobody needs? Who would trust the honesty of the strip's observations when the characters are hired out as advertising hucksters?"

In an age in which any notable spiritual movement immediately begets a plethora of associated products (calendars, Bible covers, journals, T-shirts), the logic and form of commercialism demand our critical attention, not merely our easy acceptance. When does the logic of commercialism not make sense? When is it a problem to turn certain ideas or realities into merchandise? When is defying popularity and consumer demand an act of integrity? When should form outweigh marketability? When should a lion remain bookish, and a tiger remain cartoonish?

There are two billion people wearing crosses and Christ seems to have weathered it. Meanwhile, our eight year old is a Calvin and Hobbes fanatic but there's no paraphernalia for him to play with. Mr. Watterson has taken himself too seriously at the expense of his biggest fans.

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 6, 2006 5:24 PM

My world has been diminished because Calvin and Hobbes don't join me for coffee every morning.

Posted by: erp at January 6, 2006 5:44 PM

Of the three principles in this parable ... oj, child, and cartoonist ... who is the most self-ish?

Posted by: ghostcat at January 6, 2006 5:51 PM

Watterson doesn't behave this way because of a principle. He behaves this way because he's weirdly anti-social.


Posted by: Brandon at January 6, 2006 6:22 PM

Of course it's Watterson's choice, but consider this: because Mr. Watterson doesn't want people to associate his characters with "overpriced knickknacks that nobody needs", he has insured that they'll instead remember the decal of Calvin pissing on a Ford logo, which will remain in circulation long after the comic strip has faded from memory. Until Mr. Watterson realizes that it's not bad for people to want keepsakes of his creation, that decal may be his most enduring legacy.

Posted by: John Barrett Jr. at January 6, 2006 6:29 PM

erp: you can still see the daily cartoons rerun at http://www.ucomics.com/calvinandhobbes/.

Posted by: jd watson [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 6, 2006 6:31 PM

While I don't know if this Watterson guy falls into this category, but I find that too often the people who advocate nuance and subtlety and shades-of-gray for everyone else, in their own life see everything in black and white. He sees what gets called "crass overcomercialization", and instead of trying to set an example of reasonableness, of how to make available his creation to its fans,assumes the exact opposite position, denying everyone their good feelings they have for these characters. Then he lectures us on how that makes him morally superior to those of who who don't think a poster or calendar with a cartoon character on it is "cash[ing] in."

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at January 6, 2006 6:34 PM

The strip itself is his most endearing/enduring legacy, don't you think?

And he's quite right about crass commercialism diluting the magic of the strip. Whether that's important is appropriately his choice as creator. He owes the rest us nothing but his art.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 6, 2006 6:36 PM

I agree with ghostcat on this one. When you think of the movie they made of Garfield and the almost mindless commercialization they did of that character, I can certainly see what he is thinking about and I do agree that it is the idea of whether Hobbes is real or not that makes the comic strip work as well as it does and I think it works very well myself. The thought of putting voices to what are real or not-real characters takes away some of the magic from them. Remember the Dennis the Menace show and what a POS that was!! Is that what you want for Calvin and Hobbes?

Posted by: dick at January 6, 2006 7:03 PM

Maybe JD Watson's link will work better this way.

Posted by: h-man at January 6, 2006 7:51 PM

Calvin thinks therefore Hobbes is!

Posted by: Jayson at January 6, 2006 8:41 PM


No. The characters are the legacy--they're bigger than the strip.

Posted by: oj at January 6, 2006 8:52 PM

I thoroughly disagree, oj. The interplay of the characters ... most definitely including mom ... is key to the magic. Each character is a peach in his/her/its own right, but the satisfying flavor lies in their interaction.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 6, 2006 9:00 PM

the parents are ciphers, but necessarily so.

Posted by: oj at January 6, 2006 9:42 PM

Everybody loves a foil.

Posted by: ghostcat at January 6, 2006 10:08 PM

Just get the boy a stuffed Tigger and tell him that's what Hobbes really was all along.

Posted by: Guy T. at January 6, 2006 10:30 PM

I agree with ghostcat,it's his intellectual property, he does with it as he wishes.

It's a comic strip I love and read daily at the link provided by JD and corrected by H-Man. Well, actually I have it emailed to me every day.

Today, however, proving oj's thesis that all humour is conservative, we have the following great,imho, comic strips.
In no particular order:
Zits, Rose is Rose, Dilbert, Mother Goose & Grim, Mutts, B.C, Pickles, Jumpstart, Baby Blues, Drabble, Grand Ave., and Fox Trot

Posted by: Mike Daley at January 6, 2006 11:02 PM

At the end of the day it's his idea, his creation and if he dosen't want it on a bunch of crappy merchandise that's his choice. Everyone else is perfectly free to go create their own charming, witty and original cartoon characters then stick them on a T-shirt.. oh wait, I forgot, most people are completely talentless.

Most artists who complement themselves on not being sellouts are deep down aware that's just because no one offered to buy. Watterson deserves credit for fistly having principles and then actually sticking to them while people wave millions of dollars in his face.

He probably does take himself too seriously, but then someone who didn't take his art seriously probably wouldn't have made something as good as Calvin and Hobbes.

Posted by: Amos at January 6, 2006 11:03 PM

From the article linked to by Brandon:

Harry Knowles has heard whispers of a return. "There were these rumors . . . ages ago, about Bill single-handedly animating a feature-length Calvin and Hobbes film. I was addicted to the concept of this happening.

From a comment posted previously on BrothersJudd:

When I was young, and mischevious, I emailed in a hoax to a movie rumor website that Watterson was hand animating a C&H movie. I still think it would be a great thing if done right.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at January 6, 2006 11:35 PM


You never cease to amaze.

Of all the things you advoacate, one would assume you would laud the creator's wish to to keep his creation unsullied by the hands of commercialism...yet you don't.

How sad.

I have a libertarianish friend in Silicon Valley (trasplanted from Chicago's North Shore) who spouts Randian "it all economics" dogma.

His big joke/insight about the valley is that their entire worldview is "it would be better for me....etc. etc. etc."

I always counter with bits of wisdom from OJ. (that culture trumps economics)

Now OJ says "it would be better for me if Watterson just ...etc etc."

It's a sad day in Juddsville.

PS - Christ weathered the crosses because he's Christ. As good a C & H is, they don't quite measure up to those standards.

What you advocate is "Calvin & Sponge Bob."

PPS - I doubt Mr. Watterson would sue if you made some your own paraphernalia (Halloween Costumes come to mind)

Posted by: Bruno at January 7, 2006 12:14 AM

There are some out there in the real world who have higher priorities and different ways of measuring things than by how much money can be generated from it believe it or not. They're called human beings. What OJ is REALLY saying doing here is attempting to trash the artist with priciple for not selling his principle to the highest bidder, as he's quite well aware how watered down and pathetic this makes things, such as the crosses which he mentions, which he evidently doesn't recognized have probably had the same affect on Christianity, turning it into the very thing it isn't. But who cares? He could have made more money, and that's what's important. I mean, unless you're a "communist" or something. He should have made the final cartoon directed at the very idea, and the knuckheads who have them, that oj. He could have had some advertizing firm executive getting his head used for a litter box or something.KB

Posted by: kb at January 7, 2006 12:14 AM

Or you could be projecting.

Posted by: David Cohen at January 7, 2006 12:36 AM

Watterson went to college with my wife. We have a non-C& H cartoon he did there.

I love C & H but I think Watterson takes it a little too seriously. It's not the Mona Lisa.

It is possible to have some level of merchandise without going full-Garfield. A few stuffed animals wouldn't have killed him.

Posted by: Bob at January 7, 2006 12:53 AM

A few stuffed animals wouldn't have killed him.

Indeed. And as the person controlling the licensing, Watterson could have complete control over what was done and not done. Licensing is not an all-or-nothing business, unless the licenser decides to make it so.

But it's still up to Watterson.

Posted by: PapayaSF at January 7, 2006 2:24 AM


Got kids?

Posted by: oj at January 7, 2006 8:02 AM


It would be fine by me if he sold the stuff at cost. It is about culture, not economics.

Posted by: oj at January 7, 2006 8:04 AM

jd - Thanks for the website. I'll resume enjoying my morning coffee with C&H tomorrow.

Posted by: erp at January 7, 2006 12:17 PM