Selling Out the Newspaper Comic Strip
By Luke EpplinAugust 15, 2015
Calvin: The hard part for us avant-garde post-modern artists is deciding whether or not to embrace commercialism. Do we allow our work to be hyped and exploited by a market that’s simply hungry for the next new thing? Do we participate in a system that turns high art into low art so it’s better suited for mass consumption? Of course, when an artist goes commercial, he makes a mockery of his status as an outsider and free thinker. He buys into the crass and shallow values art should transcend. He trades the integrity of his art for riches and fame. (Thinks.) Oh, what the heck. I’ll do it.
Hobbes (rolling his eyes): That wasn’t so hard.
— Calvin and Hobbes strip from November 2, 1990
IN 1989, ORGANIZERS of the Festival of Cartoon Art, a triennial gathering of cartoonists and their fans at The Ohio State University, tapped Bill Watterson, the creator of the newspaper comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, to deliver one of the keynote addresses. The reclusive Ohio native put forth a list of demands that was in keeping with his burgeoning reputation as the J.D. Salinger of cartoonists: no audiovisual recordings, no photographs, no signing session afterward.
To a packed room of his peers Watterson delivered a fiery manifesto against his commercialized industry. “In comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art,” he declared. “Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created.” For Watterson, cartoonists, upon their first taste of mainstream success, too readily transformed from solitary artists into CEOs of ravenous commercial enterprises, flooding the market with derivative knickknacks that bore the likeness of their beloved characters. As a result, “strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in.” Art, in other words, gave way to brand management.
Watterson’s speech divided the audience. Many younger cartoonists cheered him, while the older guard mostly bristled at his perceived condescension. Mort Walker, the creator of Beetle Bailey — a strip that debuted in 1950, eight years before Watterson was born — rebutted Watterson's claims in his address the following night. “I love to see cartoon toys and t-shirts […] They add color, life, and good humor to the world,” Walker stated. “If you don’t want to [license your characters], OK […] but you shouldn’t say others can’t do it,” he continued.
Notably absent from this discussion was Charles M. Schulz, the iconic creator of Peanuts. Peanuts launched a mere month after Walker’s Beetle Bailey and had become, four decades later, one of the most widely syndicated strips ever. Even though Watterson cited Peanuts as a chief artistic influence, some of his barbed arrows appeared to be aimed unmistakably at his venerated idol. After all, with more than one billion dollars in annual merchandising sales, Peanuts too often seemed to sacrifice the strip’s subtle humor and bleak sensibility for bland corporate marketing.
In his rare public statements, Watterson maintained a subliminal dialogue with the cartoonist whose commanding legacy he might have equaled had he not abruptly retired in 1995. Calvin and Hobbes, which centered on a headstrong child and a stuffed tiger that comes to life under his gaze, shared many similarities with Peanuts: articulate children, fantasy sequences, episodic storylines, philosophical undercurrents, and an aversion to facile punch lines. But Schulz and Watterson harbored fundamental disagreements about the nature and direction of their medium, and their entrenched beliefs shaped their divergent approaches to comics as both an art and a business.
Unlike Schulz, Watterson was unable to reconcile his creative ambitions with the lucrative opportunities that success had opened up. He was every bit Schulz’s artistic heir, but he had little interest in inheriting the fertile commercial landscape that Schulz had so carefully cultivated. Twenty-five years later, their disagreements come across as equal parts quaint and timely — a remnant from the last era when newspaper cartoonists commanded widespread readerships and profitable product lines, and an ageless meditation on what selling out and authenticity mean in a commercial art form.
Hobbes (demonstrating a clay sculpture): There! I made a tiger.
Calvin: That’s no good! Who’s going to buy something like that? It’s subtle! It’s boring! It’s incomprehensible! How will this ever appeal to the lowest common denominator? It’s completely unadaptable to merchandising tie-ins!
Hobbes: Who cares? I just wanted to make it.
Calvin: What?! Is this some snobby, elitist, aesthetic thing?!?
— Calvin and Hobbes strip from June 26, 1992
By the time he delivered his speech to the Festival of Cartoon Art, Watterson had already ascended to the summit of his profession. Calvin and Hobbes, which had debuted in only 35 newspapers in 1985, ran in an astounding 900 papers nationwide in 1989. Watterson, however, was unable to enjoy his rapid success. Behind the scenes, he was engaged in an escalating standoff against Universal Press Syndicate, which distributed his strip. Like nearly every cartoonist whose work graced the funny pages, Watterson had signed away the rights to his characters in exchange for syndicate representation. Now that Calvin and Hobbes had garnered widespread adulation, Universal began receiving lucrative offers to license the characters through various platforms: animated specials, lunchboxes, T-shirts, greeting cards, and coffee mugs. Even though he stood to rake in millions, Watterson threatened to abandon the strip if any plush Hobbes dolls landed on supermarket shelves.
Watterson had good reason to distrust comic-strip syndicates. After graduating from Kenyon College with a degree in political science, he labored as a political cartoonist at The Cincinnati Post before being fired after only six months. He then moved back to his hometown of Chagrin Falls, a suburb of Cleveland, and accepted a low-paying job designing ad layouts for a free weekly shopping catalog. For years, he kept a regular schedule: sketch cartoons in his free time, submit to syndicates, wait for rejection letters.
One of the first organizations to show serious interest in his work was United Feature Syndicate, Inc., which also distributed Schulz’s Peanuts. United Feature was intrigued by two ancillary characters in his samples — a smart-alecky kid and his stuffed tiger — and encouraged Watterson to make them the focus of his proposed strip. Watterson resubmitted his work according to their recommendations, but the syndicate, uncertain of its marketability, ultimately rejected the strip.
Months later, United Feature unexpectedly reached out to Watterson again. They were interested in reconsidering Calvin and Hobbes, albeit with a catch. They requested that Watterson introduce a character named Robotman into Calvin’s imaginative play. The syndicate had recently acquired the rights to this generic character and already had a licensing plan in place. They just needed the right platform from which to launch him. Watterson turned down the offer without hesitation.
Even with his dead-end job and uncertain prospects, it wasn’t a tough decision. If his strip were nothing more than a conduit for hawking plastic robots, then he’d rather rearrange grocery coupons. As he asserted more generally in a 1990 commencement speech at Kenyon College, buying into someone else’s vision would have meant “giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things.”
Watterson wouldn’t wait long for his next shot. Universal soon scooped up his Calvin and Hobbes samples, and Watterson was soon able to dedicate himself fully to cartooning. Nonetheless, his introduction to the big business of comic strips had eroded his trust of syndicates, and he would not forget this lesson.
Linus (talking to Charlie Brown): Of course, I realize there will always be criticism..All mediums of entertainment go through this..Even our highest art forms have their detractors…The theatre seems especially vulnerable..And goodness knows how much criticism is leveled at our television programming..One sometimes wonders if it is possible ever to please the vast majority of people…The most recent criticism is that there is too little action and far too much talking in the modern-day comic strip…What do you think about this?
Charlie Brown: Ridiculous!
— Peanuts strip from March 8, 1962
Charles Schulz’s introduction to syndicates proved just as rocky as Watterson’s. An only child from St. Paul, Minnesota, Schulz came of age during the Great Depression, spending much of his adolescence within walking distance of his German-born father’s barbershop. He eschewed pursuing a college degree in the fine arts for a mail-in correspondence course from the dubious institution that sponsored the “Draw Me” competition. While serving as an instructor there, Schulz submitted one-panel cartoons of lollipop-headed children to publications and syndicates across the country.
After achieving modest success with a short-lived strip called Li’l Folks, Schulz was invited to New York City in 1950 on behalf of United Feature. The syndicate was interested in his submitted samples, but skeptical that Schulz’s understated humor would thrive amid the broad gags on midcentury comics pages.
United Feature was willing to give Schulz a shot, but only under certain conditions. First, in a sign of how little faith they had in his work, the syndicate requested that Schulz scrap his one-panel format for four tiny, equally sized boxes that were, by Schulz’s estimation, no bigger than “four air mail stamps.” These panels would be able to fit wherever newspapers needed to fill space, not necessarily in the comics section. What’s worse, the syndicate dubbed this new feature “Peanuts” under the assumption that the adorable title would help sway uncertain newspaper editors.
Schulz was mortified. The space constraints limited his artistic expression, and the title struck him as undignified and meaningless. Twenty-five years into the strip, Schulz still seethed at these initial indignities. In an introduction to the 1975 compilation Peanuts Jubilee, he wrote: “Just as I have resented the size that I have been forced to work in, I have resented the title Peanuts that was forced upon me. I still am convinced that it is the worst title ever thought of for a comic strip.” Unlike Watterson, however, Schulz not only accepted the syndicate’s conditions, but made the diminished size work for him by ridding his strip of extraneous graphic elements, giving it an austere style that synced perfectly with his alienated characters. Perversely, the runaway success of Peanuts helped convince editors that comic strips didn’t require ample space to lure an audience. What had started as an anomalous space-saving strategy soon became the standard size for newspaper comics, much to Watterson’s later dismay.
Even when he gained more leverage with the syndicate, Schulz declined to change the title of the strip to his initial preference: “Good Ol’ Charlie Brown.” Similarly, he maintained the space-saving format until 1988, when he finally scrapped the rigid four-panel structure. Those decisions had been settled in the beginning, and he was hesitant to make demands on editors who had supported his work through the decades. Besides, as Peanuts became a worldwide phenomenon, it was in Schulz’s best interest to maintain a certain brand consistency.
Charlie Brown: Why did you write “Charlie Brown is a blockhead” on the sidewalk?
Lucy: Because I sincerely believe you are a blockhead! I have to write what I believe is true..It’s my moral responsibility.
Charlie Brown: Deep down I admire her integrity..
— Peanuts strip from August 27, 1965
On the surface, Peanuts seems an unlikely strip to spawn a global merchandising empire. Its cast of neurotic characters includes a depressed Everyman, a blanket-toting introvert, a domineering fussbudget, a single-minded pianist, and an anthropomorphic beagle that acts out fantasies atop his doghouse. Subverting the gag-cartooning formula, Peanuts strips often conclude not with a punch line but with an anguished expression of despair. “Why don’t I go over and talk to that little red-haired girl?” Charlie Brown asks himself in a typical strip from 1964. “I can’t…I just can’t…I hate myself for not having enough nerve to talk to her! Well, that isn’t exactly true…I hate myself for a lot of other reasons, too…” Insecure, apprehensive, and already seeking amateur psychiatric help at age eight, Charlie Brown became an improbable countercultural icon during a postwar era marked by public strength and private anxiety.
Even though he had earned the devotion of groups as disparate as academics, disaffected youths, theologians, and middle-aged suburbanites, Schulz shied away from lofty pronouncements about his work. He claimed not to know what was meant by “existentialism” — a term frequently affixed to Peanuts — and he played down Lucy’s psychiatric booth as a mere parody of a child’s lemonade stand. His Midwestern sensibility carried with it an innate aversion to anything pretentious or elitist. “When people say to me, ‘I really admire your philosophy,’” Schulz told Nemo magazine in 1987, “I literally and honestly do not know what they are talking about because I don’t even know what my philosophy is.” What Schulz knew instinctively, however, is that success simply isn’t funny. Instead, failure and self-doubt became the building blocks of his comedic style.
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.”
This is not to say that Schulz thought his work had no artistic merit. He was keenly aware that his minimalist style and unflinching depiction of childhood grief had revolutionized the medium. But he never lost sight of the fact that he was servicing clients first and foremost. “The main thing is to give the [newspaper] editor what he has purchased,” Schulz explained to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
If out of your ability to create something funny, you are also able to say something meaningful that is not offensive or is not a personal vendetta of some kind, that’s fine […] But the main thing, of course, is to be entertaining each day so that you can help the editor sell the newspaper.
Schulz believed in the supposed boundaries between high and low art, or between what he deemed “true” or “pure” art and commercial art. In Peanuts Jubilee, Schulz gave several reasons for why comic strips could not be considered true art: strips are bunched together haphazardly in newspapers and reproduced on shoddy paper; syndicates wield significant editorial power; and copyright stickers and title lines deface each strip. “The true artist, working on his canvas, does not have to put up with such desecrations,” Schulz opined. Because of this, Schulz considered himself more of a craftsman than an artist, someone whose work was meant to be consumed, not merely appreciated. For Schulz, it was pointless to fret about selling out when the daily publication of a cartoonist’s work is, in itself, an act of selling out. “How can [critics] criticize a commercial enterprise for being commercial?” he asked in a 1971 interview with Penthouse magazine. “We would like [our strips] to be regarded as art, and I think it would be nice if they said, ‘Gee, what you are doing is pure art,’ but no one has ever said that. It is just a plain old comic strip, which helps to sell newspapers.”
Schulz’s insistence that Peanuts was not “pure art” in some ways justified the vast merchandising empire his strip spawned. If his creation was inherently commercial, then why shouldn’t he reap enormous profits from it? Walt Disney had already demonstrated that commercial artists could build lucrative brands without necessarily sacrificing the quality of their work. And as David Michaelis claimed in his biography, Schulz and Peanuts, Schulz tempered any guilt he felt from his business success by maintaining strict control over product development and by splitting profits equally with his licensees and syndicate. It was a further example of his inclusive corporate mentality: if he prospered, so too should the companies and individuals that aided him.
According to Michaelis’s biography, Schulz had already introduced more than 20,000 Peanuts-stamped products into the marketplace by the time Watterson delivered his speech to the Festival of Cartoon Art in 1989. Schulz’s characters had appeared on everything from toothbrushes to Cartier silver figurines, beer steins, punching bags, sno-cone makers, tabletop hockey sets, chopsticks, and boxer shorts. They showed up on television commercials to hawk Ford cars, Dolly Madison snack cakes, and Metropolitan Life Insurance. Performers dressed in Snoopy and Charlie Brown costumes roamed the Knott’s Berry Farm theme park outside Anaheim. In total, 39 Peanuts television specials, four motion pictures, a Saturday morning television series, and an eight-part TV miniseries aired in Schulz’s lifetime.
By the 1980s, Peanuts had become the model for commercial success in the comics industry, both for cartoonists and syndicates alike. Of course, comic-strip characters had advertised products since the advent of the medium, starting with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown and continuing through Krazy Kat and Little Orphan Annie. But none had come close to the scope and profitability of Peanuts. Younger cartoonists took notice. Jim Davis, the creator of Garfield, set out specifically to match not Schulz’s quality but his financial success. In contrast to Schulz, Davis has acknowledged that PAWS, Inc., his licensing arm, takes precedence over the strip itself. In an interview on his Garfield.com website, he states: “I set aside one week each month to focus on writing the comic strip. Once I get in writing mode, the gags can sometimes really flow and I might write 4-6 weeks worth of material in one week.” He then leaves the more tedious tasks like coloring and lettering to his teams of assistants. He devotes the rest of the month to finding creative ways to expand the Garfield brand.
To his credit, Schulz insisted until the end that the strip remained his primary concern. Lifelong devotion to his craft, not to mention an aversion to travel, enabled him to complete singlehandedly nearly 18,000 strips, which he felt should have inoculated him from accusations of selling out. “Nobody is forcing anybody to buy the T-shirts or anything,” he told Newsday. “The strip is there to be read in the paper. I still draw it, I still think of all the ideas, I do all the lettering, I do the whole thing. So what’s the complaint?”
Calvin: The whole problem with modern times is that there’s no pride in craftsmanship. When most kids make a snowball, they just mush a bunch of snow together. Everyone’s a slave to efficiency! No time for aesthetics! No love of things for their own sake! But when I make a snowball, it’s a work of art! […] My snowballs aren’t assembly line productions! They take me longer to make, but each one is a unique masterpiece! That’s why I sign them. Watch this — Hey, Susie!
(Susie, his tormented classmate, pelts Calvin with a series of snowballs.)
Calvin (face-down in the snow): It’s a crass culture, Hobbes. Shoddy and quick is all anybody knows.
Hobbes: Artists always suffer.
— Calvin and Hobbes strip from February 16, 1992
From the start, it was clear that Watterson was an iconoclast. Sensitive and uproarious in his strip, he often came across as sanctimonious and humorless in the rare interviews he granted. “If cartoonists would look at [comic strips] more as an art than as a part time job or a get-rich-quick scheme, I think comics overall would be better,” he proclaimed to Honk! magazine in 1987. He was uncompromising, combative, standoffish, preoccupied with artistic integrity, and seemingly unmotivated by money — a highbrow aesthete in a popularizer’s clothes. During his strip’s stormy tenure, he exerted enormous energy in trying to transform the inner workings of the comic-strip industry. In the process, he sacrificed enough coinage to fill several Scrooge McDuck bank vaults.
Watterson’s speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art succinctly laid out his grievances against comics as a business. First, to cut expenses, newspapers crammed strips into unreasonably tight spaces, interlocking them together into something resembling a muddled jigsaw puzzle. Whereas early 20th-century works like Krazy Kat and Little Nemo in Slumberland had once garnered full pages in some Sunday papers, the best strips in Watterson’s era were lucky to run a quarter-page. The shrunken canvases limited the expressive and narrative possibilities of the strips. Too often, in Watterson’s mind, contemporary strips consisted of “cartoon characters who sit in blank backgrounds spouting silly puns.”
But one of the larger problems for Watterson was that syndicates forced cartoonists to give up the copyright and ownership of their strips before they agreed to peddle them to newspapers. Undoubtedly this arrangement helped aspiring cartoonists find their footing in the business, but it came with a significant concession: reduced leverage in how their creations were represented in the marketplace. For most cartoonists, this wasn’t a concern. In the cutthroat comics industry, few strips garnered a sizable audience, and even the successful ones possessed limited licensing opportunities. When given the chance to make quick cash for producing a line of seasonal greeting cards with their characters, the choice for most was clear: sell out.
Watterson faced this predicament earlier than his peers. Within three years, Calvin and Hobbes had amassed an enviable readership. Barely 30 years old, Watterson seemed on the verge of establishing a multimedia cartoon empire to rival Schulz’s, only he wouldn’t need decades to build it up. His smart, dynamic strip already appealed to adults and children alike, inspiring hope that Calvin and Hobbes merchandise would span generational lines. It had all the makings of a marketing juggernaut. Little did his syndicate know how much this horrified Watterson.
The larger ambitions that Watterson harbored for his strip were bound up with artistic expression, not monetary gain. Watterson viewed comics as an art form that, when printed properly and taken seriously, rivaled any of the so-called fine arts. For Watterson, licensing represented a sort of purity test that, once failed, polluted the supposedly fragile worlds that cartoonists created. It reduced rounded characters to cute, one-dimensional dispensers of out-of-context punch lines. Or so he argued in a 1989 interview with The Comics Journal, the last he gave as an active cartoonist:
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 think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.
Universal thought differently. With millions of dollars at stake, the syndicate tried for years to devise a licensing plan that would uphold the strip’s integrity. Watterson relented at times, allowing a line of Calvin and Hobbes calendars and a tutorial book to be produced, but he mainly stuck to his no-licensing pledge. The battles with his syndicate carried over into his work, with the strip becoming increasingly didactic in its pronouncements about consumer culture.
In 1991, after nearly six years of sparring, Universal reluctantly granted Watterson complete control of the strip and assurance that no unauthorized Calvin and Hobbes products would be made. Despite this triumph, Watterson was too drained to celebrate. His efforts to reclaim his characters had soured him on the industry. Looking back two decades later, he wrote: “In my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend my life cartooning.” Four years and two nine-month sabbaticals later, Watterson put down his pen.
Calvin (pointing to a generic snowman): Look at this snowman. What a pathetic cliché! Am I supposed to identify with this complacent moron and his shovel?? This snowman says nothing about the human condition! Is this all the kid has to say about contemporary suburban life?! The soulless banality of this snowman is a sad comment on today’s art world. Now come look at my snowman (an anguished figure in the vein of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”). I call it, “The Torment of Existence Weighed Against the Horror of Nonbeing.” As he melts the sculpture will become even more poignant.
Hobbes: I admire your willingness to put artistic integrity before marketability.
(Calvin thinks, then starts building a snowman identical to the one he criticized.)
— Calvin and Hobbes strip from December 5, 1993
“Cartoonists who think they can be taken seriously as artists while using the strip’s protagonists to sell boxers shorts are deluding themselves,” Watterson asserted in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. It couldn’t have been lost on him that the Peanuts characters had appeared on undergarments for years.
To be sure, Peanuts presented a dilemma for Watterson, challenging his belief that rife commercialization necessarily corrupts art. Even though the strip’s quality waned in its later decades, it remained the most artistically and commercially admired strip of its era. That its characters hawked Hallmark cards and Happy Meals didn’t prevent Peanuts from being the first comic strip of its generation to receive an exposition at the Louvre. If anything, Schulz’s path proved more seductive than the severe one Watterson proposed, promising respect and riches.
Straining to separate art from commerce, Watterson adopted a sort of doublespeak when discussing Peanuts. In one breath, he cited Peanuts’s emotional honesty and aesthetic innovations as chief influences on his own work — indeed, it was the very strip that sparked his love for cartooning as a child. In the next moment, however, he questioned its equally influential licensing program. During his reclusive retirement, Watterson published only two newspaper articles, both about Peanuts and its legacy. In a 2007 Wall Street Journal review of David Michaelis’s biography Schulz and Peanuts, Watterson trod a shaky middle ground: he praised Peanuts as a “model of artistic depth and integrity,” but lamented that “the overwhelming commercial success of the strip often overshadows its artistic triumph.” He also criticized Michaelis for not devoting “more space to analyzing [Peanuts] on its own terms as an art.”
What made his critiques so pointed was that Watterson once was considered Schulz’s foremost creative rival, the rebellious heir who both lionized his elder master and questioned his mercantile instincts. In railing against the commercialization of comics, Watterson was really railing against the lucrative opportunities that Schulz’s success had opened up for cartoonists.
These implicit messages were not lost on Schulz. If Watterson insisted on praising his mentor as an artist, then Schulz would laud his pupil as an artisan. In a three-paragraph foreword to Watterson’s first treasury collection, The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, Schulz commended Watterson for his “great water splashes and living room couches and chairs and lamps and yawns and screams, and all the things that make a comic strip fun to look at.” It's an odd way to express admiration — akin to praising a novel not for its content but for its lovely adjectives and readability. But it’s consistent with Schulz’s emphasis on craft over art, workaday details over larger meanings. By characterizing Watterson’s strip as “fun,” Schulz placed it squarely in the realm of popular entertainment.
Because of his venerated status, Schulz also had fewer qualms about criticizing Watterson directly. Humble and diffident when discussing his strip’s larger impact, Schulz turned defensive when questioned about his merchandising empire, as in this illuminating 1997 interview with The Comics Journal:
One day some company wanted to make these little rubber dolls of the [Peanuts] characters. Well, what was wrong with that? Those were cute. And I suppose Bill Watterson came along later with his stand against licensing which is really ridiculous, but I don’t know Bill, and I’m sure his life is different from mine. And he didn’t have five kids to support and a lot of other things like that. And so it’s always risky to take a stand on some things like that.
What this response reveals is how much the differences between Watterson and Schulz were generational. As a working-class child of the Great Depression, Schulz never stopped worrying about money. Before Peanuts broke into the mainstream, Schulz fretted over how he would support his growing family if the strip failed. Even after striking it rich, he expressed concern for the individuals whose livelihoods depended on printing and peddling Peanuts products, not to mention the expenses he incurred from operating an ice rink in northern California. When asked why he would license his characters to Metropolitan Life Insurance, Schulz quipped: “Well, but they pay a lot of money.” That he already had enough money to last several lifetimes was beside the point.
But it was more than just money. As a World War II veteran who entered adulthood in the buttoned-up 1950s, Schulz had a more yielding attitude toward authority and mass culture. Which is not to say he never challenged his syndicate. In 1974, fresh off an Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming, Schulz refused to sign a new contract with United Feature until it granted him complete editorial and licensing control of Peanuts. As he told The Comics Journal, Schulz lashed out at a syndicate representative with uncharacteristic ire: “You know, all my life I’ve been pushed around by your kind and told, you have to do this, you can’t do that, and all that. I said, no more. From now on, I control the licensing myself and what I say goes. Either I get exactly what I want, or I quit.”
This all-or-nothing stance anticipated the one Watterson would take decades later, but with telling differences. Unlike Watterson, Schulz kept his negotiations largely private, and didn’t frame them as symptoms that the comics industry was either irrevocably broken or a hindrance to artistic creation. It also took nearly 25 years before Schulz felt he had earned the right to control the Peanuts brand. Watterson began making similar demands mere years after the launch of Calvin and Hobbes.
Watterson also appeared more conflicted than Schulz about his privileged place among newspaper cartoonists. He valued his wide readership but worried that his stratospheric success might compromise his characters and artistic vision. What he seemed to fear most was selling out — a particularly acute fear among earnest artists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when corporate behemoths held massive sway in the entertainment industries, before the internet chipped away at their bottom lines and balkanized audiences into self-selecting niches. How to remain true to his artistic ideals, to retain a semblance of authenticity in the mainstream realm of newspaper cartooning, gnawed at Watterson. His model cartoonist was publicity-shy, protective of his work, narratively and aesthetically ambitious, impervious to moguldom, and, above all, solitary. He was like a comedian who spurned collaborative work on sitcoms for lonely nights on stage honing his idiosyncratic act.
For Schulz, craft and commerce, far from diametrically opposed, were two sides of the same coin. His model cartoonist merged daily industriousness with an entrepreneurial spirit. Just as Watterson failed to understand Schulz’s merchandising empire, Schulz couldn’t comprehend Watterson’s sabbaticals and sudden retirement. When asked by Editor & Publisher magazine about Watterson’s second sabbatical in three years, Schulz didn’t mince words:
Cartooning is what I always wanted to do all my life […] And taking time off would be unfair to the newspapers, to the syndicate and to the syndicate salespeople who work so hard to market your comic […] It’s [Watterson’s] business to do what he wants to do, but it’s just a puzzle to me.
Whereas Watterson contended that true artists didn’t sell boxer shorts, Schulz insisted that true cartoonists must meet their ceaseless deadlines. Unstinting devotion to the profession and sheer endurance were marks of seriousness for Schulz. He seemed to view cartoonists as analogous to the Peanuts character Schroeder — dogged practitioners who, at their best, managed to play expressive music on toy pianos that lacked pedals and black keys.
Lucy: What happens when you practice for twenty years, and then end up not being rich and famous?
Schroeder: The joy is in the playing.
Lucy: You're kidding!
— Peanuts strip from January 27, 1973
Schulz died in early 2000, the night before his final strip was published. Until then, he had completed one strip per day for nearly 50 years, taking only one five-week break during that span. Neither divorce nor open-heart surgery caused him to miss his daily deadline. Fourteen years later, he ranked third, behind Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, on Forbes’s list of the world’s top-earning deceased celebrities, pulling in more than $40 million annually.
The pervasive licensing of Peanuts is at least partly responsible for the ongoing redefinition of the strip’s characters. Charlie Brown smiles more in greeting cards than he ever did in the newspaper. In MetLife commercials, he comes across as cheerfully competent. This is hardly surprising. After all, Charlie Brown’s depressive disposition translates poorly to advertising and children’s products. To remain commercially viable, he needed to be stripped of his most identifiable personality traits, dulled beyond recognition. Gradually, Charlie Brown has turned into a benign simulacrum of the character who once defined himself as a friendless nothing.
Even today, the tension between Schulz’s craft and commerce remains unresolved. Since 2004, Fantagraphics Books, an independent publisher in Seattle, has released two lovingly designed hardcover volumes of the strip’s complete run per year. Cultural luminaries like Jonathan Franzen, Walter Cronkite, Billie Jean King, and John Waters have penned introductions for the volumes. At the same time, Running Press Kids, a Philadelphia-based publisher, has churned out children’s books with sunny titles like Peanuts: You Can Be Anything! — the exact sentiment that the hapless Charlie Brown once called into question.
With Schulz no longer around to supply original ideas, the branded versions of his characters will continue to eclipse the strip versions. In 2010, the Iconix Brand Group, Inc., acquired an 80 percent stake in the Peanuts empire. A string of iPhone apps, social media handles, and video games followed. But the biggest splash will come this November, when the first CGI Peanuts movie is released in theaters. The teaser trailer doesn’t look promising. In it, a playful Snoopy runs circles around Charlie Brown, silencing his flustered owner each time he tries to speak. The spot concludes with a saccharine hug between the two. It’s an inadvertently perfect metaphor for the post-Schulz evolution of the Peanuts brand. In the end, Schulz’s characters, so thoughtful and complicated on the page, have become the very thing that Watterson predicted: cute.
Calvin (playing with clay): Fine art is dead, Hobbes. Nobody understands it. Nobody likes it. Nobody sees it. It’s irrelevant in today’s culture. If you want to influence people, popular art is the way to go. Mass market commercial art is the future. Besides, it’s the only way to make serious money and that’s what’s important about being an artist.
Hobbes: So what kind of sculpture are you making?
Calvin: Please! It’s not “sculpture,” it’s “collectible figurines.”
— Calvin and Hobbes strip from June 24, 1992
After years of struggle, Watterson attained seemingly everything he had fought for: control of Calvin and Hobbes, lengthy sabbaticals, and the privilege of selling his Sunday strip as an unbreakable half-page feature. But it still wasn’t enough. He had all he needed to succeed as a cartoonist, but not as an artist. In a letter to newspaper editors announcing the end of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson wrote: “I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.” The final installment appeared on December 31, 1995, capping the strip’s decade-long run.
Nearly two decades later, Calvin and Hobbes remains as beloved as ever. Because he was largely able to safeguard his characters — neither Watterson nor his syndicate could stamp out the bootleg decals of Calvin peeing on random objects — Watterson can feel secure that when fans gush about his work, they’re referring solely to the strip. There are no holiday specials, no Hobbes dolls, no collectible figurines. Readers are free to decide for themselves what Calvin’s voice sounds like, or whether Hobbes is a figment of Calvin’s hyperactive imagination. Calvin and Hobbes is a rarity in its blockbuster-driven industry: a hit strip that has not been turned into a corporate brand.
All the same, it’s not unfair to view Watterson as, in hindsight, a failed revolutionary. At the conclusion of his speech at the Cartoon Festival of Art, Watterson put forth several radical ideas for how newspaper cartoonists could transform the industry: selling strips to newspapers as preprinted inserts, abandoning newspapers for start-up magazines, offering weekly subscriptions directly to fans, and — if all else failed — self-publishing. “My point,” Watterson asserted, “is simply that cartoons are not necessarily doomed to increasing stupidity and crude craftsmanship.”
Although he couldn’t have known it at the moment, his speech came at a pivotal time for comics. Digital technologies soon would nibble away at newspaper circulation and upend the industry’s core business model, causing editors to shrink strip size even further. With his clout and vision, Watterson could have blazed a trail forward for his fellow cartoonists, leading an exodus from newspaper pages to either the internet or a boutique publisher, where he could have secured ample white space for his art. Instead, he abandoned comics precisely when his iconoclasm was most needed.
No daily strip since Watterson’s retirement has come close to matching Calvin and Hobbes’s cultural influence. Today, ambitious cartoonists bypass newspapers altogether for more flexible and expressive mediums: graphic novels, comic books, and online comics sites. With few exceptions, syndicated comic strips now seem like artifacts from the last century. The proliferation of anthologies that reprint the entirety of terminated strips speaks to the ongoing museumification of the medium. The dispute between Schulz and Watterson is the last of its kind because no newspaper cartoonist will ever garner the loyalty, readership, or prestige that those two enjoyed. They were, in effect, the last consensus cartoonists.
Having exhausted the world of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson retreated into silence and solitude. He claims to have taken up painting, but has never exhibited his work. Recently, he published his first cartoons since he retired, but gave no indication that more would follow. He has become, perhaps, what he desired all along: an audience of one, laboring over artwork that will never be corrupted or compromised because it will never be consumed. He has, finally, complete control over the pristine worlds he creates.
Luke Epplin is a freelance writer in Astoria, New York.
Luke Epplin is a freelance writer in Astoria, New York. His writing has appeared online in such places as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, n+1, Salon, the Daily Beast, and the Paris Review Daily. @LukeEpplin, www.lukeepplin.com.
LARB Staff Recommendations
"Mad Max: Fury" Road" is a live-action film with a distinctly cartoon sensibility....
Like their counterparts in the West, South Asians are using comics and its superhero genre to challenge cultural norms and construct alternative narratives....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.