I received a letter from a 10-year-old thismorning. He wrote, "Dear Mr Watterson, I have been readingCalvin and Hobbes for a long time, and I'd like to knowa few things. First, do you like the drawing of Calvin and HobbesI did at the bottom of the page? Are you married, and do you haveany kids? Have you ever been convicted of a felony?"
What interested me about this last question was that he didn'task if I'd been apprehended or arrested, but if I'd beenconvicted. Maybe a lot of cartoonists get off on technicalities,I don't know. It also interests me that he naturally assumed Iwasn't trifling with misdemeanors, but had gone straight toaggravated assaults and car thefts.
Seeing the high regard in which cartoonistsare held today, it may surprise you to know that I've alwayswanted to draw a comic strip. My dad had a couple ofPeanuts books that were among the first things Iremember reading. One book was called "Snoopy," and it had ablank title page. The next page had a picture of Snoopy. I apparently figured the publisher had supplied the blank title pageas a courtesy so the reader could use it to trace the drawing ofSnoopy underneath. I added my own frontispiece to my dad's book.and afterward my dad must not have wanted the book back because Istill have it.
Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat have inspired methe most over the years. These strips are different in almostevery way, but their worlds captivated me. Looking back on them,I think they can teach us something about comic strippotential.
Peanuts was my introduction to the world of the comicstrip, and Peanuts captured my imagination like nothingelse. Because it was the first strip I read, its many innovationswere lost on me, and I suspect most readers of Peanutstoday have forgotten how it single-handedly reconfigured thecomic strip landscape in a few short years. The flat, simpledrawings, the intellectual children, the animal with thoughts andimagination - all these things are commonplace now, and it's hardto imagine what a revolutionary strip it was in the '50s and'60s. All I knew was that it had a magic that other stripsdidn't.
A lot of the magic for me is in those deceptively simple,stylized drawings. For me, the few lines that make up eachcharacter, their faces, and gestures are remarkably expressive. Two dots with parentheses around them have become the cartoonshorthand for eyes looking uneasy or insecure. When CharlieBrown's eyes do that, you know his stomach hurts,
Peanuts has held my interest for many years because thestrip is very funny on one level and very sad on another. CharlieBrown suffers - and suffers in a small, private, honest way.Schultz draws those quiet moments of self-doubt: Charlie Brownsitting on the bench, eating peanut butter, trying to work up thenerve to talk to the little red-haired girl - and failing. As akid, I read Peanuts for the funny drawings and thejokes, and later I realized that the childhood struggles of thestrip are metaphors for adult struggles as well.
Peanuts is about the search for acceptance, security,and love, and how hard those self-affirming things are to find.The strip is also about alienation, about ambition, about heroes,about religion, and about the search for meaning and "happiness"in life. For a comic strip, it digs pretty deep.
Of course, the strip has a flair for weird humor, too. Snoopy ingoggles, his doghouse somehow riddled with bullet holes, yelling,"Curse you, Red Baron!" is, I submit, as bizarre an image asanything ever seen on the comics page. Peanuts definedthe contemporary comic strip.
And Pogo? Pogo was an almost opposite approachto the comic strip. The drawings were as lush as the foliage ofits Okefenokee setting, and the dialogue was as lush as thedrawings. With the possible exception of Porkypine, there was nota soul-searching character in the cast of hundreds. Pogo wastrusting, good-natured, and innocent, which generally meant itwas Pogo's larder that got ransacked whenever someone got hungry.Most of the other characters were bombastic, short-sighted, fullof self-importance, and not just a little stupid. What bettervehicle for political satire and commentary? Pogo waslargely before my time, so, like Peanuts, I can onlyhow controversial many papers find Doonesbury in the1980s, one has to wonder how Pogo got away with itspolitical criticism 30 years earlier.
Again, much of Pogo's magic for me was in the beautifuldrawings. where the animals looked so real and animated youimagined their noses were probably cold to the touch. Part of themagic was the amazing dialects they spoke, which mangled Englishwith awful puns and unintended meanings. Part of it was thegutsiness of attacking the fur right on the "funny" pages andpulling no punch. Part of it was the strip's basic faith in humandecency underneath all the smoke and bluster. Part of it was therambling storytelling, where every main road to the conclusionwas avoided in favor of endless detours. Part of it was thatGrundoon talked only in consonants, P.T. Bridgeport talked incircus posters, and Deacon Mushrat talked in Gothic type. And, ofcourse, part of it was that it was very, very funny. The striphad a mood, a pace, and atmosphere that has not been seen sincein comics.
I discovered Krazy Kat when a large anthology of thestrip was published in 1969. The book is an editorial disaster,but it did show a lot of Krazy Kat strips, and I admiredthe work immediately. Krazy Kat seems to be one ofthose strips people either love or don't get at all. KrazyKat is nothing but variations on a simple theme, so themagic of the strip is not so much in what it says but in how itsays it. Ignatz Mouse throws bricks at Krazy out of contempt, butKrazy interprets this as a gesture of affection instead.Meanwhile, the law - Offissa Pupp - futilely tries to interferewith a process that's completely satisfying to all parties forall the wrong reasons. This weird, recycling plot can beinterpreted as a metaphor for love or politics - or it can justbe enjoyed for its own lunatic charms. The strip constantly playswith its own form, and becomes a sort of essay on cartoonexistentialism. The background scenery changes from panel topanel, and day can turn to night and back again during a briefconversation.
Similarly, Herriman played with language and dialect, insertingSpanish, phonetically spelled mispronounced words, slang, andodd, alliterative phrases, giving the strip a unique atmosphere. The drawings are scratchy and peculiar, but they provide abeautiful visual context to the equally idiosyncratic writing.Krazy Kat's sparse Arizona landscape, likePogo's dense Georgia swamp, is more than a backdrop. Theland is really a character in the story, and it gives a specificmood and flavor to all the proceedings. The constraint ofKrazy Kat's narrow plot seems to have set free everyother aspect of the cartoon to become poetry, and the strip is,to my mind, cartooning at its most pure.
These three strips showed me the incredible possibilities of thecartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring. All thesestrips work on many levels, entertaining while they deal withother issues. These strips reflect uniquely personalviews of the world, and we are richer for the artists' visions.Reading these strips, we see life through new eyes, and maybeunderstand a little more - or at least appreciate a little more -some of the absurdities of our world. These strips are just threeof my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how goodcomics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehiclesfor beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.
In a way, it's surprising that comic stripshave ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercialpurposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to helpsell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraintson an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That's not themost conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and ofcourse many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. Butmore than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.
Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in themedium's history. The early cartoonists, with no path beforethem, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty thatit increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is workingbackward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordialgoo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it's a bithumiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and findit more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We've lostmany of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers todayhave never seen the best comics of the past, so they don't evenknow what they're missing. Not only can comics be morethan we're getting today. but the comics already havebeen more than we're getting today. The reader is beinggypped and he doesn't even know it.
Consider only the most successful strips in the papers today. Whyate so many of them poorly drawn? Why do so many offer only thesimplest interchangeable gags and puns? Why are some stripswritten by committees and drawn by assistants? Why are somestrips still stumbling around decades after their originalcreators have retired or died? Why are some strips little morethan advertisements for dolls and greeting cards? Why do so manyof the comics look the same?
If comics can be so much, why are we settling for so little?Can't we expect more from our comics pages?
Well, these days, probably not. Let's look at why.
The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of thecartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them,and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs theother, and all haves common interest in providing comics featuresof a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business andart almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic stripstoday the interests of business are undermining the concerns ofthe art.
Part of the problem is that the very idea that cartoons could beart has been slow to take hold. I talked about Krazy Kat,Pogo, and Peanuts to show that the best cartoonshave a serious purpose underneath the jokes and funny pictures.True, comics are a popular art, and yes, I believe their primaryobligation is to entertain, but comics can go beyond that, andwhen they do, they move from silliness to significance.
The first comic strip cartoonists were staff artists of majornewspapers, and consequently, from the beginning, cartoonistswere regarded as simple employees of their publishers rather thanartists. when the creator of a popular strip left his employer,the cartoonist was rarely able to take his creation with himintact. Very early strips, such as The Yellow Kid, TheKatzenjammer Kids, and Buster Brown, all appearedin two versions, one by the original creator and one by animitator hired by the publisher who lost the creator. The comicstrip came into being as a staff-produced graphic, and comicshave never escaped the perception that they are a newspaper"feature," like a weather reap, instead of a forum for individualexpression. In fact, despite the grim violence of DickTracy, the conservative politics of Little OrphanAnnie, the social satire of Li'l Abner, and theshapely women that have graced dozens of other strips, the comicshave somehow come to be thought of as entertainment for children. Cartoonists are widely regarded as the newspaper equivalent ofCaptain Kangaroo. The idea that comics are potentially one ofthe most versatile artforms is sadly foreign. Our expectationsand demands for comics are not high.
Today, comic strip cartoonists work forsyndicates, not individual newspapers, but 100 years into themedium it's still the very rare cartoonist who owns his creation.Before agreeing to sell a comic strip, syndicates generallydemand ownership of the characters, copyright, and allexploitation rights. The cartoonist is never paid or otherwisecompensated for giving up these rights: he either gives them upor he doesn't get syndicated.
The syndicates take the strip and sell it to newspapers and splitthe income with the cartoonists. Syndicates are essentiallyagents. Now, can you imagine a novelist giving his literary agentthe ownership of his characters and all reprint, television, andmovie rights before the agent takes the manuscript to apublisher? Obviously, an author would have to be a ravinglunatic to agree to such a deal, but virtually every cartoonistdoes exactly that when a syndicate demands ownership beforeagreeing to sell the strip to newspapers. Some syndicates takethese rights forever, some syndicates for shorter periods, but inany event, the syndicate has final authority and control overartwork it had no hand in creating or producing. Without creatorcontrol over the work, the comics remain a product to beexploited, not an art.
Why does this happen? As the syndicates will tell you, nocartoonist is forced to sign the ridiculous contracts thesyndicates offer. The cartoonist is free to stay in his $3.50 anhour bag boy job until he can think of a better way to get hisstrip in the newspapers. Simply put, the syndicates offervirtually the only shot for an unknown cartoonist to break intothe daily newspaper market. The syndicates therefore use theirposition of power to extort rights they do not deserve.
Sacrificing ownership has serious consequences for the artist.For starters, it allows the syndicate to view the creator as areplaceable part. To most syndicates, the creator of a popularstrip is no more valuable than a hired flunky who can mimic theoriginal. Some syndicates can replace a cartoonist at will, andmost syndicates can replace a cartoonist as soon as he quits,retires, or dies. This attitude is simply unconscionable, butit's the standard practice of business.
Cartoonists and syndicates alike tend to exaggerate thesyndicate's role in making strips successful. Ultimately, though,the level of sales is determined a lot more by how good the stripis than by who sells it. Reader polls across the country showssurprising consensus about which strips are good, and editors dotheir best to print what the readers want. The syndicates bringthe cartoon to the market, but they can't keep it there. Only thecartoonist can do that. Syndicates simply do not need or deservecomic strip ownership for the job they do.
By having complete control over the comic strip, the syndicatecan ruin the work. Although there has never, ever been asuccessor to a comic strip half as good as the original creator,passing strips down through generations like secondhand clotheshas been the standard practice of the business since it began.Incredibly, syndicates still today tell young artists thatthey're not good enough to draw their own strip, but they aregood enough to carry on the work of some legendary strip instead.Too often, syndicates would rather have the dwindling income of adoddering dinosaur than let the strip die and risk losing thespot to a rival syndicate. Consequently, the comics pages arefull of dead wood. Strips that had some relevance to the worldduring the depression are now being continued by baby boomers,and the results are embarrassing.
Suppose you're a painter and you go to an art gallery to see if they'llrepresent you. They look at your work and shake their heads. But, sinceyou show some basic familiarity with a paintbrush, they ask if you'd liketo continue Rembrandt's work. After all, you can paint. Rembrandt's dead,and some buyers would rather have a Rembrandt forgery than no Rembrandt atall. It's an absurd scenario, but this is what goes on in comic stripsyndication.
Comic strips have a natural lifetime. and any cartoonist ought tobe able to quit or retire without fear that his syndicate willhire some hack illustrator to keep the work going. It's time syndicates stopped maiming their comic strips by passing them on toofficial plagiarists. It's also time that the would-be successorsof comic strips had more respect for their own talents and forthe work of those who created something original. If someonewants to be a cartoonist, let's see him develop his own stripinstead of taking over the duties of someone else's. We've gottoo many comic strip corpses being propped up and passed forliving by new cartoonists who ought to be doing something oftheir own. If a cartoonist isn't good enough to make it on hisown work, he has no business being in the newspaper.
Syndicate ownership of strips also givesthem control over comic strip merchandising. Today, newspapersales can't bring in a fraction of the money that licensing canbring. As the number of newspapers has diminished, and as theremaining papers run pretty much the same 20 strips everywhere,the growth of a syndicate now depends on dolls and greeting cardsmore than newspaper sales. Consequently, the quickest contractsare going to strips with licensing potential. One syndicatedeveloped a comic strip after it had settled on theproducts: the strip was essentially to be an advertisement forthe dolls and TV shows already planned. The syndicate developedthe characters and then found someone to draw the strip. Lots ofheart and integrity in that kind of strip, yes sir. Evenin strips with more honorable beginnings, the syndicates are onlytoo happy to sell out a comic strip for a quick and temporarybuck, and their ownership and control allows them to do justthat.
Of course, to be fair to the syndicates, most cartoonists arehappy to sell out, too. Although not to the present extent,licensing has been around since the beginning of the comic strip,and many cartoonists have benefitted from the increased exposure.The character merchandise not only provides the cartoonist withadditional income, but it puts his characters in new markets andhas the potential to broaden the base of the strip and attractnew readers. I'm not against all licensing for all strips. Underthe control of a conscientious cartoonist, certain kinds ofstrips can be licensed tastefully and with respect to thecreation. That said, I'll add that it's very rarely done thatway. With the kind of money in licensing nowadays, it's notsurprising many cartoonists are as eager as the syndicates foreasy millions, and are willing to sacrifice the heart and soul ofthe strip to get it. I say it's not surprising, but it isdisappointing.
Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensedproducts, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties ofthe original strip, and the merchandise can alter the publicperception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimedat a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns ofsome strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gagrequirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonisthas the time to write and draw a daily strip and do allthe work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants andbusiness people are required, and having so many cooks in thekitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Stripsthat once had integrity and heart become simply cute as thebusiness moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are ridingon the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and newdirections that keep a strip vital. Characters lose theirbelievability as they start endorsing major companies and lendtheir faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealinginnocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted whenthey use those qualities to peddle products. One starts toquestion whether characters say things because they mean it orbecause their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards.Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at aconsiderable loss to the precious little world they created. Idon't buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttlewithout affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster.Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and thesyndicates don't care.
And then we have established cartoonists whohave grown so cavalier about their jobs that they sign stripsthey haven't written or drawn. Anonymous assistants do the workwhile the person getting the credit is out on the golf course. Aside from the fundamental dishonesty involved, these cartoonistsagain encourage the mistaken view that once the strip'scharacters are invented, any facile hireling can churn out thematerial. In these strips, jokes are written by committee withthe goal of not advancing the characters, but of keepingthem exactly where they've always been. So long as the charactersnever develop, they're utterly predictable, and hence, so easy towrite that a committee can do it. The staff of illustrators hasthe same task: to keep each drawing so slick and perfect that itloses all trace of individual quirk. That way, no one can tellwho's doing it. It's an assembly line production. It's efficient,but it makes for mindless, repetitive, joyless comics. We need tosee more creators taking pride in their craft, and doing the workthey get paid for. If writing and drawing cartoons has become aburden for them, let's see some early retirements and some roomfor new talent.
And while cartoonists and syndicates continueto cheapen their own product, newspapers worsen the situation bycontinually shrinking the comics to ever smaller sizes.
The newspaper business has changed. Afternoon papers are failingeverywhere, and few papers are in the competitive situation thatcomics were invented to promote. Television brings that latestnews at six and 11 in full-color action. Newspaper circulation isnot increasing with the population, while newspaper costscontinue to grow. Consequently, over the last several decades,newspapers have been squeezing the comics into less and lessspace to cut expenses.
When Krazy Kat was drawn, comics regularly ran a fullpage on Sunday - an entire newspaper page all to itself. Comicswere like posters. Now most papers commonly print strips aquarter of a page on Sundays, and sometimes even smaller. Dailystrips have shrunk, too. Strips had already lost a lot of spaceby the time I cut out a Pogo strip in 1969. Today, 20 years later, I work with almost a third less space thanthat. As comic strips are printed smaller and smaller,the drawings and dialogue have to get simpler and simpler to staylegible. Cartoons are just words and pictures, and you can onlyeliminate so much of either before a cartoon is deprived of itsability to entertain.
The adventure strip, a newspaper staple in the '40s, has all butpasted away, and we've lost much of the diversity of which thecomics are capable. It's not too surprising. At current sizes,there is no room for real dialogue, no room to show action, noroom to show exotic worlds or foreign lands, no room to tell adecent story. Consequently, today's comics pages are filled withcartoon characters who sit in blank backgrounds spouting sillypuns. Conversation in a comic strip is a thing of the past. Thewonderful dialects and wordplays of Krazy Kat andPogo are as impossible now as the beautifuldraftsmanship that characterized those strips and others. All thetalk about how "sophisticated" comics have become shows a woefulignorance of what comics used to be like. Comics are simpler anddumber than ever.
The situation is ironic. All across the country, newspapers aregoing to great expense to add color photographs, fancy graphics,and bold design to their pages in order to entice readers awayfrom the steady blue light of their TV screens. It is strangethat after all that expense and work, newspapers refuse to takeadvantage of the comic strip, the one newspaper graphic thattelevision cannot imitate. When 20 strips are reduced and crammedinto two monotonous columns on one page, the result is singularlyunattractive and uneffective. Newspapers pay for their comicsand then refuse to let comics do their job.
Here, then, is the situation: despite theproven popularity of the comics, newspapers print them miserably,while syndicates have taken it on themselves to control, exploit,and cheapen their product. Between the two, cartoonists all butabandon the artistic responsibilities of their craft. Somehow, Ican't shake the idea that this isn't how cartooning is supposedto be... and that cartooning will never be more than a cheap,brainless commodity until it's published differently.
What can be done? I'm not a businessman, but I'll toss out someideas just to start some discussion.
First of all, we should keep in mind that newspapers andsyndicates are by no means essential to the production of comics,There are all sorts of ways to publish cartoons, and ifsyndicates and newspapers won't hold up their end of the bargain,maybe there's an opportunity for a new kind of publisherlet's start with eliminating both the syndicate and thenewspaper. Consider for a moment that there may well be a marketfor comic books that has never been tapped simply because comicbooks have traditionally been an even sloppier; dumber, and moreexploitive market than newspaper comics. But suppose someonepublished a quality cartoon magazine. Imagine full-color, bigcomics in a lush, glossy format. Why not? Just because cartoonshave always been treated as schlock doesn't mean that sleazypackaging, cheap paper, poor color; bad writing, and crude artare what comics are all about. Imagine a publisher who recognizesthat the way to attract readers is to give them qualitycartoons... and that the way to get quality cartoons is to offerartists a quality format and artistic freedom. Is itinconceivable such a venture would work?
Or let's say we keep the syndicates but abandon the newspapers.So long as newspapers refuse to respect the legitimate needs ofthe comic strip, why don't the syndicates take control of theirproduct and publish the comics themselves? Each syndicate couldput out a weekly comic book of all its strips. Comic booksoriginally started as reprints of newspaper comics, and they wereso popular an industry was created to produce new comic books tofill the demand. Suppose the syndicate gives each of itscartoonists five pages to draw and color any way he wants, thenbinds the results, and sells them at chain bookstores and insupermarkets with the magazines and tabloids. Offersubscriptions, too, what the heck. Think of all the kids whounload $10 a week collecting miserably done super-hero comics,and you know there's got to be a market out there somewhere. Whatsyndicate is going to try something new to showcase the talentit's collected?
Or let's say we keep the syndicates and the newspapers. There arestill ways to improve comics. For one thing, the syndicates couldagain take over the printing, and the comics could be sold topapers as a preprinted insert. Or the syndicates could print theinsert with advertising, and let the ads pay for its inclusion inthe newspaper. Either way, the syndicates could start printingtheir comics big, in color, and on good quality paper that peoplecould keep and collect. If advertisers are paying for the comicssection inserts, for example, editors can hardly complain thatthey don't get a citywide exclusive on their strips.
Or, if we assume no syndicate has the foresight to promote thequality of its own product, at the very least one would think animaginative newspaper editor could come up with a way to addanother half-page of space to the comics section and print thework as it was intended to be published. Given the readership ofthe comics page, couldn't an advertiser or two be persuaded tosponsor the comics section for a single ad of his alone at thetop of the page? I don't believe all the possibilities have beenexhausted.
I admit my ideas here are rough. Obviously, ifI had any business savvy at all myself, I'd lump the wholebusiness tomorrow and self-publish. See, that's anotheralternative! My point is simply that cartoons are not necessarilydoomed to increasing stupidity and crude craftsmanship. With theright publishing, comics can move into whole new worlds we'venever seen. Moreover, I think any effort to improve the qualityof comics would very likely be rewarded in the marketplace. Thinkof the people who cut out certain comics to put on refrigerators,or to put in scrapbooks, or to send in letters, or to stick ontheir office walls. Give them a nicely printed, big color comicon good paper and see if they don't jump. I think the publicwould respond if there was a publisher out there with an ounce ofvision. For too long, syndicates and cartoonists have beencongratulating themselves whenever things don't get worse. I don't think that's good enough. This very weekend we've got syndicate executives, cartoonists, readers, and newspaper people all together. Let's knock some heads together and see what we cando. Let's ask people what they're doing to improve thestate of comics.
I started out talking about Peanuts, Pogo, and KrazyKat. These strips suggest a world of possibilities that cartoons canoffer. Comics are capable of being anything the mind can imagine. Iconsider it a great privilege to be a cartoonist. I love my work, and I amgrateful for the incredible forum I have to express my thoughts. Peoplegive me their attention for a few seconds every day, and I take that as anhonor and a responsibility. I try to give readers the best strip I'mcapable of doing. I look at cartoons as an art, as a form of personalexpression. That's why I don't hire assistants, why I write and draw everyline myself, why I draw and paint special art for each of my books, andwhy I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip's message with merchandising.I want to draw cartoons, not supervise a factory. I had a lot of fun as akid reading comics, and now I'm in the position where I can return some ofthat fun. I try to draw the kind of strip I'd like to read, but I'm notentirely able to. This business keeps me from doing the quality work I'dlike to be doing... and because I'm being cheated, so arc my readers.
Newspapers can do better. Syndicates can do better. Cartoonistscan do better. The business interests, in the name of efficiency,mass marketability, and profit, profit, profit are catering tothe lowest common denominator of readership and arc keeping thisartform from growing. There will always be mediocre comic strips,but we have lost much of the potential for anything else. We needmore variety on the comics page, not less. Those of us who careabout the comics need to start speaking up. This is an excellentplace and time to do it.