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Cage match: Watterson vs Schulz; and the selling out of the comic strip

Over the weekend an article was posted in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Luke Epplin contrasting the careers of Bill Watterson and Charles Schulz and their approach to commercializing their strips (or not). It’s an interesting read and I know there is no shortage of opinions on which of the two was “right”.

Here’s a quote:

No matter how humbly he came across in interviews, Schulz was fanatically devoted to cartooning, even if he didn?t valorize the medium in the same way that Watterson did. As passionate as Watterson would later be about the literary and artistic potential of comic strips, Schulz was equally adamant that cartoonists? artistic concerns could not be uncoupled from their commercial obligations to syndicates and newspaper editors. ?Comic strips aren?t art, they never will be art,? he proclaimed in a 1977 Newsday profile. ?Comic strips are not made to last; they are made to be funny today in the paper, thrown away. And that is its purpose, to sell that edition of the newspaper.?

Ginger Meggs cartoonist Jason Chatfield has posted his response on Medium. I like his point that while we can argue the finer points of the argument of comic strip commercialism in 2015, the reality of the way comics are consumed, if you want to live off your art, Watterson’s position isn’t a very strong one.

The old newspaper syndication model did not make the jump across the vast abyss and onto the web, so nowadays young web comic creators have no choice BUT to monetise their creation by creating merchandise. Crowdfunding as a one-off payment for a comic strip?s creation doesn?t appear to have worked as a viable means of employment for a web comic creator.

Community Comments

#1 Tom Falco
August/19/2015
@ 11:15 am

If the quality of the comic strip does not go down, what’s the difference if it’s commercialized or not? I know the article said that Schulz went downhill after the 1970s and whether that is true or not has nothing to with the commercialization.

Now current day: I do have a problem with the new movie. His family should let the strip remain the way it is without trying to capitalize on it after Schulz’s death. That doesn’t sit right with me.

#2 Pete McDonnell
August/19/2015
@ 12:44 pm

Luke Epplin’s essay is the best thing I’ve ever read that discusses Schulz & Watterson’s diametrically opposed viewpoints on cartooning vs. commerce. It’s very well reasoned and written…I highly recommend that you read it!

#3 Keith Brown
August/19/2015
@ 6:24 pm

Man….I would sell out in a heartbeat!

#4 Carl Moore
August/19/2015
@ 6:28 pm

I concur with Pete McDonnell. This is an excellent article, clearly written and stuffed with content.

I’m with Schulz. Cartooning is a craft, a commercial craft, not fine art. Calvin and Hobbes was a terrific strip, but it was not fine art and no amount of Watterson’s trying to push the round peg of cartooning into the square hole of fine art will change that obvious fact. As much as one can admire Watterson’s great talent, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of snobbery in his anti-money, anti-commerce, hey-look-at-me-how-free-I-am-of-you-money-grubbing-slobs rants. Unfortunately, it detracts from an otherwise great strip… By the way, since when is Calvin not a “cute” character? And Hobbes too. The Calvin and Hobbes strip – though from a far different angle – has every bit the cuteness in its DNA that Peanuts does. Sorry, Mr. Watterson, your strip was a least 75% successful due to its cuteness factor.

#5 Charles Brubaker
August/19/2015
@ 8:09 pm

In the end, it really boils down to how much the creator wants to control how their work is exploited (or not exploited). Both creators were within their rights to do what they please.

Personally speaking, if anyone expresses interest in commercializing “Ask a Cat”, I’d agree to it.

#6 Dan Rosandich
August/20/2015
@ 5:44 am

At the very least, why didn’t Watterson foresake those earnings and have that stream of money put into a foundation named after him where that cash could have been dispersed for underprivilged
youth, i.e. college funds, educational programs, art school and the list goes on. He certainly didn’t think it through clearly enough and had no foresight or leap logic. His snobbery trumped his logic.

#7 Alyssa Martin
August/20/2015
@ 12:28 pm

The article completely overlooks a crucial aspect of Watterson’s position:

When he made most of the more aggressive anti-licensing comments, was entrenched in a long battle with his syndicate, despite having very legal basis for his standpoint.

If you actually go back, and look at the way he felt before licensing was an issue for him, and his more RECENT comments on the subject (see the book about his exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum), he’s actually not that against licensing. Heck, before they wanted to give Calvin and Hobbes the Garfield treatment, he actually approved two wall calendars. (He has also approved of a children’s textbook, and a MoMa t shirt.)

What Watterson is against- is having a total lack of control over the licensing done with one’s work. Before he had that fight with Universal- most cartoonists did not own their own work. They didn’t get any say over what their characters were used for.

But if he’d have taken the moderate position in his fight with the syndicates, he’d have lost. He had to take an all-or-nothing stance, otherwise his position would have been seen as weak and the syndicate would have been able to manipulate him into approving products he wasn’t happy with. Watterson didn’t have a choice- he had to turn it into a moral argument, and then stick to it.

#8 Dan Rosandich
August/21/2015
@ 8:59 am

Alyssa: Your insight gives a different perspective. The “no control” aspect puts a completely different spin on it.

#9 Anne Morse Hambrock
August/21/2015
@ 4:13 pm

As good as the original article is, I was equally interested in Jason Chatfield’s take on it. I learned a lot about Ginger Meggs and it’s place in the firmament of commercialized comic properties.

When I attended the 2010 toonfest and listened to the presentation given by Marcus Hamilton I learned that Hank Ketcham had been using gag writers as early as the 3rd year of production of Dennis The Menace. In essence, for most of his cartooning career, Ketcham was simply an illustrator of other people’s jokes. He illustrated the jokes in his own way with a character of his own creation, but he was hardly a one man shop like Schulz or Watterson.

And the more deeply you dig into the business of producing comics the more you find how unusual the “one man shop” model is. Many, many comic strips are produced by teams – something that, during the heyday of strips like L’il Abner was the norm. Heck, Li’l Abner and The Spirit were produced by an entire staff.

Are comics art? Of course they are. They are drawn by artists, some of whom have the artistic talent to rival almost any fine artist you can name. But are they also a commercial product? Unless the creator of the comic is independently wealthy and never takes a dime, either for the original content or for ancillary properties, every comic is produced for commercial use – print or web.

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