“The Cheapening of the Comics” by Bill Watterson


This is the text of a speech Calvin’s real-life dad gave back in 1989.

Yes, almost 30 years ago. Before CIDU even existed. More importantly, before anybody was thinking in terms of the Internet becoming a delivery system for comic strips.

Feel free to add your own thoughts, of course…


  1. The first part of the first sentence is a link, although it doesn’t show as such until you mouse over it. (If you’re on a mobile device I guess not until you tap it, which seems inconvenient…)

  2. You have to click on the “This is the text” segment of the first line… it is a link, though it doesn’t look like it until you hover over it. Took me a few goes clicking the main title (which just leads to the permaversion of the post) before I found it!

  3. ” . . . why I refuse to dilute or corrupt the strip’s message with merchandising” – Not true anymore, unfortunately. I was disappointed to see all the C & H merchandise available.

  4. What C & H merchandise? The books? Strip reprints? I’d love to buy some Clavin & Hobbes merch — a stuffed Hobbes doll, for example — where is it?

  5. I think these are all very small time sellers. Watterson probably feels that going after them with the legal resources at his disposal would be like attacking a mouse with a sledgehammer. And, in practical terms, it would be about as effective.

  6. “so why aren’t all these merchandisers served with ‘cease & desist’ orders, I wondered”

    You have a question of just which law would be claimed.
    If the offending merchandise just uses a piece of Watterson’s art, that’s the easiest… it’s a straightforward copyright claim.
    If the offending merchandise uses a piece of “original” art (that is, created by the merchandiser rather than by Mr. Watterson), then you have a more difficult copyright claim, because it’s a derivative work, and copyright protects those.
    The other type of claim is a trademark disparagement claim, aka “counterfeit goods”. Those are harder to prosecute (on the other hand, the customs inspectors can and do routinely seize and destroy these goods if they’re made overseas and shipped to the U.S.

    All of these, however, rely on an assumption… that the defendant has assets which can be levied upon to obtain payment if a court provides a judgment in the syndicate’s favor. The syndicate has to pay all the costs of building a case… the investigators and lawyers do not work on spec, they like to get paid. If they win, AND the defendant has assets, this is a cashflow problem but not a serious one. If they put all the money into building a case, win, and the defendant DOESN’T have assets, the syndicate gets a judgment that can’t be turned into money. That’s not a good business plan.

    So… the most common C&H “merchandise” that I ever saw was a car window decal that consisted of Calvin peeing on a disfavored automobile manufacturer’s logo. Printing up stickers like this is cheap, and… not easy to track down, and a lot of them were done by amateurs with very small print runs. Not a lot of money to be made pursuing those, despite the fact that Mr. Watterson probably would have preferred that these decals did not exist, and the syndicate is a business. It makes decisions based on money… money to be made now, opportunities to make money later, and that’s about all that makes their radar. Keeping the creators happy is important inasmuch as there was money coming in from that creator’s productive output; but for the most part, syndicates don’t need the creators to be happy to make money from their work. There was only one Bill Watterson, and to the extent that that mattered to the syndicate’s customers, keeping Mr. Watterson happy was critical to the money stream that syndicating new C&H material represented. But the syndicate COULD HAVE fired Watterson, and hired another artist to produce C&H. Or they could have fired Watterson, and sold different strips to their customers instead of C&H. (The contracts that syndicated cartoonists work under are, um, VERY favorable to the syndicate.) Near the end of C&H, Watterson got a new contract that was more favorable to him. But he didn’t have that for most of the C&H run.

  7. Andréa: Even if they are big-time sellers, Watterson may reasonably not want to go through the effor of fighting them. Those C&D letters wouldn’t get written for free, after all. And usually they’re written because the owner has some merchandising that they do want to protect, not just because of some abstract interest in the purity of their product. So I guess in some ways, not having legal mechandising creates a void for illegal merchandising that’s hard to incentivize stopping.

    Aside: I always hated those Calvin peeing on things decals, not just because they were infringement, but because they get the character so wrong. Calvin was a “bad” kid, in the sense that he didn’t listen or behave, but only because he was so excited and kid-like. Those decals make him malicious in a way that doesn’t match the character at all.

  8. ” Watterson may reasonably not want to go through the effor of fighting them.”

    Not his call to make. The syndicate would have been happy to sign deals for the production of, say, plushie Hobbes, maybe some posters and calendars, Syndicate branded inflatable Snow Goons, and an animated Spaceman Spiff television show. Except, of course, that although they had the legal right to do any of those things, doing so risks angering Mr. Watterson, and C&H wouldn’t be as valuable (in the core market the syndicates are in, which is licensing content for print publications) if Watterson’s heart isn’t in it, or if (even worse) Watterson himself isn’t in it.

    I sympathize with Mr. Watterson’s opinion on the subject, but still with there was an officially-licensed Hobbes plushie.

  9. I find it somewhat inappropriate to read such eloquent text from a respected artist that has been copied and pasted onto a private (but still commercial) website. The fact that Watterson waged extended battles over copyrights and licensing makes it even more disturbing.

    P.S. Watterson regained the rights to Calvin & Hobbes at the time of his first sabbatical (1991), after which the Sunday strips started appearing as (very large) single panels. This was about the halfway point of the strip as far as the calendar is concerned, but with the sabbaticals, Watterson produced just over a third of his total output after the change. However, as far as I have noticed, the re-runs at GoComics (for which Calvin is still the #1 strip) are made up exclusively of “pre-sabbatical” material.

  10. Grr. Still “wish”. I WISH there was an official Hobbes plushie. Stupid middle-of-the-night keyboard, that registers the keys I actually hit instead of the ones that would form a coherent sentence.

  11. “Watterson regained the rights to Calvin & Hobbes at the time of his first sabbatical (1991)”

    According to the text in one of the books, he got control of the strip just before he retired from producing it, although he claims these are not actually directly related.

    I think what you’re referring to is that he gained some creative control, in the sense that “stock” syndicated cartoons have a fairly rigid design structure to accommodate the newspapers who can re-arrange the panels to fit different “holes” in their comics sections, including the fact that some choose to discard two panels in order to have room to print more comics.
    This means that every Sunday comic has to be written in such a way that it makes sense if the panels are included, and makes sense if the panels are dropped. Watterson sought, and obtained, freedom to design his Sunday comics as he preferred, with the syndicate selling it “as is”, which is to say, lacking the flexibility normally available to the papers that buy the comics for their Sunday comics sections… they either had to run the full C&H comic as Watterson drew it, or drop it entirely. Some papers chose to drop it.

  12. I’ll have to look it up to be sure, but in the 10th anniversary book Watterson discussed the transfer as happening in connection with the first sabbatical. The switch in the Sunday layout was a separate issue, but it happened at the same time. His editor sais that they expected to lose revenue with the change (because of dropouts), and newspaper resistance was high enough that they finally compromised on an alternative that was reduced by a third in size (Watterson did not make it clear whether the remaining “2/3rds” was based on area, or the length of the rectangle’s side, but he did say that in some papers, it meant that the area given to Calvin and Hobbes was smaller with the new layout).

    I was lucky, the Post printed the new Sunday “Calvin” one the front page of the comic section, giving it a full half-page. Unfortunately, the paper’s masthead meant that Calvin extended over the fold, making it impossible to get a nice clean crease-free copy, but still, they were very impressive.

  13. P.S. @ Bill – There’s one new feature in the new CIDU template that I definitely dislike: hyphenation.
    For this and other reasons, the previous “flexible” template gets my vote over this one.

  14. It can’t be an accident that two of the most popular comics are Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. Both were drawn by artists who retired when they were tired to the strip (rather than farm it out) and did not excessively merchandise.

    At the other extreme, we have Garfield, IMO.

  15. “did not excessively merchandise.”

    My memory substantially differs from yours. Far Side merch used to be EVERYWHERE. I still have a number of Far Side posters.
    In any case, your theory fails to account for Peanuts, one of the most heavily merchandised cartoons of ever, which Mr. Schulz continued almost his entire life. AFAIK, Peanuts was he first strip to continue on, in print, entirely with rerun strips. Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side remain highly popular in collected form. Are either one still appearing in newspapers?

  16. No one should be selling anything that they have not made on Etsy – it is suppose to be limited to handmade items – but of course, the latest owner ignores this completely to the detriment of those, such as Robert, who work hard making the items they put up for sale – sales dropped noticeably from “bad” to almost non-existent since the latest takeover. In the old days when Etsy was run by crafts artists they enforced the no violation of copyright/trademark rule.

    People copying other people’s work is a problem everywhere. We used to do craft shows and Robert had designed a line of assorted sports ball banks that he made. The second year we were selling them the woman in the space across from us at one show (every year) actually had copied his banks – did she think we would not mind? would not notice? I went over and threatened to sue her and she took them down – but I am sure she put them up at her other shows. (And I still have a box of them in the basement – hmmm,wonder if he should put them up on Etsy site – but that is unrelated.)

    I watch “Comic Book Men” on AMC – for those who don’t know it – it is set at “Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash” the store in Red Bank,NJ that is owned by Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes of (among other things) “Clerks” fame and run by some of their friends. The assortment of items related to comic books that come through there – legitimate and “fan made” is amazing – and I would think that the fan made items should be considered copyright/ trademark violations but do not seem to be.

  17. “I would think that the fan made items should be considered copyright/ trademark violations but do not seem to be.”
    One of the challenges of copyright is balancing two different parts of the Constitution. One the one hand, the Constitution specifically authorizes Congress to make a law that gives creators the exclusive right to profit from their works. This is known, generally, as the “copyright clause” although it doesn’t have the word “copyright” in it.
    On the other hand, the Constitution ALSO says that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech. The interplay of these two Constitutional provisions is “fair use”. The exact definition of “fair use” is intentionally left rather vague, but the effect is not. Categorically, fair use of copyrighted materials is not infringement of copyright. You can get the exact formulation of fair use (such as it is) by looking up 17 USC 107, which is the statute that defines it.
    So if you take an old Ford truck and completely restyle it so that resembles a Halo Warthog, just so that you can have the fun of driving around town in a truck that looks like the iconic vehicle of a popular videogame, there isn’t much the creator of that videogame can do about it.

  18. My greatest disappointment about Mr Watterson is that as far as I know.He never perused any of those ideas either with Calvin and Hobbes or any new intellectual properties. I wish he had tried creating and selling more stories.

  19. The comic book business in Norway would be what Watterson was wanting for himself and his colleagues. It has mostly an adult readership, and we have a lot of magazines. As a result, we have a lot of talented Norwegian cartoonists, with more constantly waiting for their chance to try, and often getting it. The most successful artist in Norway is the main feature of two of the comic books (two different strips). Each comic book also features an article or two and most also have other regular contributors. The stories and art are good, so is the printing, and for many they become collector’s items. Look up comic strips “Pondus” or “Nemi” for examples.

  20. @ R2T – Watterson has not released any major new works, but he has been involved in a number of hilarious comic smashups, notably with Stephen Pastis (see PbS starting 2-Jun-14), as well as with Berke Breathed (Bloom County).

    P.S. @ Keera – I was surprised to suddenly see your full name in cleartext, but seeing as it also appears on your website, I suppose there’s no harm in including it here. Nice pictures!

  21. P.P.S. I definitely dislike the fact that this template does not highlight links in any manner. They should be a different color (preferably blue), and underlined as well.

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