What You Can Learn from Calvin and Hobbes about the Message and the Medium

from the Scriptorium Daily by Fred Sanders

Anybody who has a message that they care about communicating should pay attention to the great lesson taught by Calvin and Hobbes: The lesson is that not every message can be communicated in every medium.

Yes, I mean Bill Watterson’s comic strip about the tiger and his boy, not the theologian and the philosopher. The confusion between the cartoon and the thinkers is excusable, because the strip was named after the thinkers, of course. Watterson has said that the title was “an inside joke for poli-sci majors.” Watterson was himself a political science major in college, and like every other poli-sci major must have been assigned Richard Hofstadter’s book The American Political Tradition and the Men who Made It, which begins with the sentences: “Long ago Horace White observed that the Constitution of the United States ‘is based upon the philosophy of Hobbes and the religion of Calvin. It assumes that the natural state of mankind is a state of war, and that the carnal mind is at enmity with God.’”

Calvin Hobbes math atheistBut it’s the famous strip, not the famous thinkers, which has the important lesson to which we should pay close attention. Bill Watterson’s strip ran in papers from 1985 to 1995, an amazing ten-year arc that set a new, higher standard for newspaper cartooning. Calvin and Hobbesjumped to the top of the charts, hovered there for years, and then stopped suddenly as its creator retired from cartooning before age 40. Like Seinfeld and Gary Larson’sThe Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes went out while it was on top. Its disappearance from the papers left a huge audience doing a thunderous standing ovation, demanding more. But there was no encore. There’s no more Calvin and Hobbes coming, because Watterson declared that he was done, and one of the few things we know for certain about this cartoonist is that he means what he says.

calvin hobbes boinkThe first time Watterson showed that he was a man of principle was when he refused to let his publishers exploit Calvin and Hobbes by making merchandise out of it. In an early interview (LA Times 1987), Watterson considered the constant requests he had already received for C&H sweat shirts, greeting cards, toys, and bumper stickers. “Calvin and Hobbes will not exist intact if I do not exist intact … And I will not exist intact if I have to put up with all this stuff.” “I’m very happy that people enjoy the strip and have become devoted to it … But it seems that with a lot of the marketing stuff, the incentive is just to cash in. It’s not understanding what makes the strip work.” The interviewer noted that Watterson was taking this stand “despite dangled millions,” and that the only explanation was: “Preserving the integrity and fullness of his characters is cardinal with Watterson.”

“Integrity and fullness.” Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip about a friendship and a world of imaginative play. That’s not the most important thing in the world, but if it is to retain its integrity and show forth its fullness, these things have to be guarded jealously. Watterson is one of the few creators I can think of who understood this, and who stuck to it even when the millions were dangled in front of him.

The fullest public justification Watterson ever gave for his stance was in a long interview in the February 1989 issue of The Comics Journal. The interviewer asked him why he had resisted (for four years now!) licensing his characters for merchandising. Watterson replied:

Basically I’ve decided that licensing is inconsistent with what I’m trying to do with Calvin and Hobbes. I take cartoons seriously as an art form, so I think with an issue like licensing, it’s important to analyze what my strip is about, and what makes it work.

It’s 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 it’s printed on, and the joke is what the strip is about. Nothing is lost.

My strip works differently. Calvin and Hobbes isn’t 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 personalities and relationships. These aren’t 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 aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here. I’m 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 persuasive to them.

I have no aversion to obscene wealth, but that’s not my motivation either. I think to licenseCalvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.

Watterson speaks very simply but it is from a great wealth of self-knowledge and love of the cartoons. Every phrase in the interview reveals that he has turned the questions over and over in his mind: Licensing is inconsistent with what I’m trying to do … I take cartoons seriously as an art form … it’s important to analyze what my strip is about … These aren’t concerns you can wrap up neatly in a clever little saying for people to send each other or to hang up on their walls … Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here … I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product.

Calvin Hobbes careeningThe interviewer pushes back a little bit: “I’m sure some of the readers will say to all this, ‘Come on. The comic strip is a popular art form. What’s wrong with indulging the public’s interest?’” And Watterson replies:

Nothing, so long as it doesn’t compromise the art itself. In my case, I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens.

Read the rest at http://scriptoriumdaily.com/what-you-can-learn-from-calvin-and-hobbes-about-the-message-and-the-medium/

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