WATTERSON: 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 license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.
WEST: Well, what about something like a doll? That’s not a product like a coffee mag, which would be there whether the strip characters were printed on it or not. Why doesn‘t a doll fit into your definition of appropriate licensing?
WATTERSON: A doll communicates even less of the strip than the things mentioned before. A doll only cashes in on the recognizability of the character. Products like that take the character out of the world for which he was intended. If you stick thirty Hobbes dolls on a drugstore shelf, you’re no longer talking about a character I created. At that point, you’ve transformed him into just another overpriced knickknack. I have no interest in turning my characters into commodities. If I’d wanted to sell plush garbage, I’d have gone to work as a carny.
The idea of a Hobbes doll is especially noxious, because the whole intrigue of Hobbes is that he may or may not be a real tiger. The strip deliberately sets up two versions of reality without committing itself to either one. If l’m not going to answer the question of who or what Hobbes is, I’m certainly not going to let Dakin answer it. It makes no sense to allow someone to make Hobbes into a stuffed toy for real, and deprive the strip of an element of its magic.
WEST: I’m sure some of the renders will say to all this, “Come on. The comic strip is a popular art form.” What’s wrong with indulging the public’s interest?
WATTERSON: 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. Instead of asking what’s wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to be asking, “What justifies it?” Popular art does not have to pander to the lowest level of intelligence and taste.
WEST: Snoopy is selling insurance, Garfield is on everything from cereal boxes to car window visors. How do you feel about what your colleagues are doing?
WATTERSON: I would probably have done things differently than other cartoonists have, but other people’s strips aren’t my job. As I said, some strips lend themselves to certain merchandising projects better than others. I’m not condemning licensing across the board; I’m saying licensing doesn’t work for Calvin and Hobbes, and I want the freedom to do with the strip as I see fit. Obviously, some cartoonists see things differently than I do, and that’s their right. My concern is that I be afforded the right to refuse licensing if I feel it hurts my strip. I think it is wrong that a syndicate should own characters it had no hand in creating, and that a syndicate should use that ownership to thwart the intentions of the cartoonist who did create the characters.
The exchange above is only a small part of the only in-depth interview of Bill Watterson that can be found online.
The interview was granted to Richard Samuel West from Comics Journal in February, 1989.