Watterson Returns, Demands His Space

Comics Journal 148, February 1992, pp. 14-15.

Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes returned to newspapers on Feb. 2 - but not in every paper that had been running it before.

Last May, Watterson became the third Universal Press cartoonist to take an extended hiatus, following Garry Trudeau in 1983 and Gary Larson in 1989. Each time, the cartoonist returned under more favorable conditions. Larson cut back his output to five new panels and two repeats per week; Trudeau won a larger daily space. Watterson's demand was even greater, from the standpoint of the newspapers: a full half-page on Sunday.

Watterson conceived the new Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strip as a singular design unit, a sort of horizontal comic-book page. Papers can reduce it to a half-page tabloid size, but they can't chop it up or rearrange the panels.

Some 15 papers decided to cancel Calvin, rather than accept the challenge to their status quo. Topeka Capitol Journal spokesperson Dick King said, "We figured that if we had to put up Calvin and Hobbes on a half-page, we would have to eliminate something else." Lincoln, NB Journal-Star executive Gary Seacrest will run the new format strip, under protest: "We're opposed to it, and we told Universal Press our feelings," Seacrest told Editor & Publisher. "It just limits our options. We think that's the essence of editing - options." Knoxville, TN News-Sentinel editor Harry Moskos is worried that Watterson could set a precedent: "If every artist did that same thing, we would have to run fewer comics." However, Moskos does admire what Watterson's doing with the extra space. "They look very, very good," he said.

Universal Press editor Lee Salem said he expected to wind up with a net increase in the number of papers running Calvin and Hobbes. It's already the fourth most-published strip in the country, behind Peanuts, Garfield and Blondie. The seven-year-old strip currently appears in 1,800 papers here and abroad. During Watterson's absence, Universal Press charged papers the same price for repeat strips as it had charged for new ones.

Watterson has received two National Cartoonist Society Reuben Awards for "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year." Society president Mel Lazarus said of Watterson's space demand, "If he can get it, it's nice work. It'd be nice if we can all do it."

As syndicate president John P. McMeel wrote to subscribing papers, "By limiting the number of sizes available, Bill can focus on the clean graphic appeal of the Sunday strip and make it an even more valuable feature for you. This is not a question of larger talking heads or static backgrounds enlarged to fill up a space. This is the work of one of the most talented comic artists on the scene today. We hope you'll join us in this effort to improve Sunday comic sections and attract new readers in this day of intense visual competition. It is refreshing, with all the 'doom and gloom' about the health of our industry, that perhaps America's greatest comic artist creates fir newspapers exclusively." McMeel refers to the fact that Watterson refuses to merchandise the strip; Calvin and Hobbes exists only in newspapers and in compilation books.

Watterson prefers to be known to the public through his work. He gives few public appearances and even fewer interviews. On the few occasions when he has spoken out, he has referred to the frustrations inherent in the cut-and-paste Sunday strip. In a 1989 interview in Journal #127, he told Richard Samuel West that "the Sundays are frustrating - you have to waste the entire top third of the strip so that the panel can be dropped or reconfigured for certain-sized newspapers. This really limits what I can do." In a speech at Ohio State University (reprinted in Journal #137), he noted that "when Krazy Kat was drawn, comics were like posters. Now most papers commonly print strips at a quarter of a page on Sundays, and sometimes even smaller...Cartoons are just words and pictures, and you can only eliminate so much of either before a cartoon is deprived of its ability to entertain."

In a statement issued through the syndicate last December, Watterson said that a uniformly-sized Sunday strip "is something I've been advocating for years, although I never expected it to happen. As my strip evolved, I grew increasingly frustrated with the size restrictions and rigid format rules that newspapers impose. I couldn't draw the strip tha way I wanted it to look, and I was beginning to wonder why I was publishing my work in newspapers. I think Universal Press Syndicate recognized the future of the newspaper comic strip depends on the cartoonist's ability to make the space exciting."

Under the old format, Watterson said, "my Sunday strips have been drawn to allow newspapers the greatest flexibility in printing them... This gave papers the ability to fit the strip in a variety of layouts, but it greatly limited how I could present my ideas. If I wanted a big, detailed drawing, there was no room. If I needed more dialogue, there was no room. If I wanted more panels, there was no room...[Now] I think I can make the strip more fun to look at. I can promise no other comic strip will have bigger, uglier aliens."

"It's been well over a generation since a Sunday comic has regularly run this big everywhere. The American comic strip is almost 100 years old, but comics have been shrinking for the last several decades. Back in the early days, a Sunday comic would take up an entire newspaper page. The Sunday comics were gigantic, and the great strips really took advantage of it. Readers today don't even know what they're missing. I hope to give people a glimpse of what comics can be. Comics have a lot of untapped potential."

Watterson also said that, "editors will have to judge for themselves whether or not Calvin and Hobbes deserves the extra space. If they don't think the strip carries its own weight, they don't have to run it. I'm simply saying that if they want the strip, they can't chop it up and reduce it anymore. I'm trying to give everyone a better strip. I think a larger comic can add a real visual impact to the Sunday paper. The funnies, after all, are the one purely graphic part of the newspaper, and the value of the comics section is squandered when it's printed as a static grid of illegible boxes. It seems to me that if editors want comics to do their job of attracting readers, they need to give comics the space for funny drawings and good writing."