These three strips [Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat] showed me the incredible possibilities of the cartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring. All these strips work on many levels, entertaining while they deal with other issues. These strips reflect uniquely personal views of the world, and we are richer for the artists’ visions. Reading these strips, we see life through new eyes, and maybe understand a little more – or at least appreciate a little more – some of the absurdities of our world. These strips are just three of my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how good comics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.
In a way, it’s surprising that comic strips have ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That’s not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and of course many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. But more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.
Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today. but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn’t even know it.
Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don’t buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don’t care.
And then we have established cartoonists who have grown so cavalier about their jobs that they sign strips they haven’t written or drawn. Anonymous assistants do the work while the person getting the credit is out on the golf course. Aside from the fundamental dishonesty involved, these cartoonists again encourage the mistaken view that once the strip’s characters are invented, any facile hireling can churn out the material. In these strips, jokes are written by committee with the goal of not advancing the characters, but of keeping them exactly where they’ve always been. So long as the characters never develop, they’re utterly predictable, and hence, so easy to write that a committee can do it. The staff of illustrators has the same task: to keep each drawing so slick and perfect that it loses all trace of individual quirk. That way, no one can tell who’s doing it. It’s an assembly line production. It’s efficient, but it makes for mindless, repetitive, joyless comics. We need to see more creators taking pride in their craft, and doing the work they get paid for. If writing and drawing cartoons has become a burden for them, let’s see some early retirements and some room for new talent.
– Bill Watterson, from his speech “The Cheapening Of Comics,” addressed to the Festival Of Cartoon Art, 1989.
I recently watched the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, and was immediately overwhelmed by a childhood’s worth of nostalgia and creative passion. The film is parts recollections on the personal impact of Calvin And Hobbes and part biography of the short and fascinating public life of Bill Watterson, a man shot to improbable fame before becoming a critic of his industry, retiring early, and successfully seeking reclusion. It’s a great film and it is available on Netflix among most other popular sources. Go watch it immediately if you find comic strips or artistic bios interesting in any way.
The film observes two aspects of Watterson’s perspective that I see as really being opposite sides of the same coin. Watterson was a very vocal as a critique of licensing and the stranglehold syndicates required of cartoonists before the internet age. The other point I came away with was that comics have never been considered a legitimate or “high art” form, regardless of their innovations in scripting and illustration. These two problems seem to be really one and the same, as Watterson indicates.
Comics were bred as a form of bizarro advertising. Think of them as visual editorial columns, intended to draw the eye and lure readers to commit to a certain competing newspaper through the use of staff illustrators. After a lot of natural evolution, the comics became individual artistic creations sold to multitudes of papers through syndications. This makes for a lot of odd standards as far as what relationships are considered normal. Watterson wanted integrity for comics as an art form, which was undermined completely by the continuation of their advertising roots. The art form quickly grew away from that starting point in a golden era but slowly waned back toward simple advertising through licensing when the money moved away from the papers themselves.
Watterson can feel a bit extreme in his condemnations at times, but he stands as a living example of exactly how much value a work can retain in itself when it doesn’t go to auction for the production lines. His tested his argument for himself and found greater success and finer work. The problem is how do you convince and entire industry to hold creative integrity over financial profit?