Cartoonists Discuss 'Calvin' Requirement

Some of the creators interviewed by E&P support Bill Watterson's new Sunday size/format requirement while others oppose it

By David Astor for Editor & Publisher
March 7, 1992 edition; pg.34

While most newspaper editors going public with their feelings have criticized the Sunday Calvin and Hobbes size/format requirement, cartoonists have mixed opinions.

For instance, The Family Circus creator Bil Keane vehemently opposes Bill Watterson's half-page requirement while Fox Trot creator Bill Amend enthusiastically supports it.

"Newspaper editors complain that the Sunday Calvin and Hobbes restricts their options," stated Amend. "My response is that cartoonists have been operating under tight restrictions for many, many years. I embrace any progress toward loosening that."

Amend said cartoonists often see the top row of their Sunday comics lopped off, their panels arranged in various configurations, and their strips as a whole reduced in size.

He observed that all this affects the creative process, including the way cartoonists use color, where they place their characters, and so on. Amend added that cartoonists have to make sure all their art and dialogue can withstand extensive shrinkage, which can lead to simplified and mediocre efforts.

Amend -- who, like Watterson, is with Universal Press Syndicate -- said he would rather see Sunday comics sections carry a smaller number of big, well-done strips than a lot of "generic things the size of post cards."

Many newspapers, Amend stated, are too concerned with quantity and variety in their comics sections. "Quality ought to count as well," he declared.

Amend noted that many broadsheet papers have been conducting "business as usual" since Watterson returned from sabbatical February 2 by cramming the half-page tabloid version of Calvin into their pages. While Amend observed that Watterson's format is still intact -- clients can no longer drop or rearrange Calvin panels -- he believes these broadsheets are still doing a disservice to their readers.

"I hope they'll sit back and see that if they have this big, beautiful comic, why ruin the page by squishing a vertical strip next to it?" said Amend.

Watterson, he continued, will be "putting on a little clinic" during the next few months -- showing newspaper editors, cartoonists, and readers what can be done with the new Calvin size and format.

"As a trailblazer, Bill is the perfect guy to do it," declared Amend. "If anyone is up to the challenge to deliver the goods artistically, he's the one."

Amend said he himself has a "feeling of anticipation" when turning to the post-sabbatical Calvin every Sunday, wondering what "unexpected" things Watterson will do with the size of his panels and so on. He added that he hopes readers getting the same sort of enjoyment from Calvin will express this to their newspapers.

What about the perception that it was arrogant of Watterson to seek the half-page requirement? "He wasn't just asking for the space out of some ego trip," said Amend, who corresponds periodically with the reclusive cartoonist. "He really has a vision of what he wants to do with the space, and he knows he has a serious responsibility now that he's gotten it...Bill is a conscientious artist with a great passion for the art form."

The Fox Trot creator added, "Bill would be one of the first to jump for joy if all cartoonists were given a half page to work with. But Calvin and Hobbes is the only comic he has a say over. I'm thrilled Universal backed him."

Keane was not as complimentary about Watterson and his size/format requirement.

"I don't agree with it," said the King Features Syndicate creator. "I can see why he wants to do it for himself, but it is a disservice to other cartoonists. It diminishes the space other cartoonists get or forces newspapers to drop strips."

While papers could theoretically enlarge their Sunday comics sections to prevent this, Keane noted that the bad economy and the cost of newsprint makes such an expansion unlikely.

Newspapers, he continued, helped Watterson reach his current "powerful position" by giving him space, an audience, and payments for his strip. "Now he's biting the hand that feeds him," commented Keane, who said this is particularly "audacious" after the cartoonist had taken a sabbatical and Universal had charge clients full price for Calvin reruns during those nine months.

Keane said the things Watterson and Universal have done are creating a "bad atmosphere" for all cartoonists and syndicates when it comes to relations with their newspaper customers.

"I strive to have good relations with newspapers," he stated. "I appear for them, I do drawings for them -- and I'm happy to do so. It helps to make a good environment for all cartoonists and all syndicates."

Keane added that he has the clout to make a size/format demand himself -- the 1,400-client Family Circus is one of the 10 most popular comics in syndication -- but would never do so because it would be "selfish".

Besides, Keane said he doesn't need a size/format requirement to be creative in his Sunday comic via such means as big pictures, large thought balloons, elaborate retrace-the-kid's-steps sequences, and so on. And he doesn't think Watterson needs it, either.

As a matter of fact, Keane noted that he preferred the pre-sabbatical Sunday Calvin to the current one. He said the post-sabbatical comic is "ironically" smaller than before in some broadsheets using the tabloid version, and added that he found some of Watterson's February strips to have too many panels, too many words, and content that might sort of tease youngsters.

Keane, for instance, said one Sunday Calvin last month featured a huge dinosaur that undoubtedly attracted children but also a long poem with several difficult words that probably caused many of these readers to tune out.

Another veteran cartoonist, B.C. / The Wizard of Id creator Johnny Hart, supports Watterson.

"Cartoonists are very malleable," he wrote in a statement. "Through the years we have been domesticated by the whim of one control group or another. We have been systematically restricted, altered, adapted, and degraded to a species that is visibly micro in scope.

"We have bowed gracefully and willingly to pleas for reduction in space and rising costs of paper, yet have always been the first to donate art, promote the industry, and appear publicly for any cause."

After noting how big comics used to run, Hart continued, "Every now and then a Trudeau or a Watterson emerges from the funk to stir our remembrances of respectability. [Garry Trudeau and Universal instituted a 44-pica width requirement for the daily Doonesbury in 1984.] They risk their careers to combat the injustice, and lay hard-earned clients on the line for scant inches of space.

It is a judgment call as to whether such motivation is in the interests of cartoonists in general or tailored to personal need. I'm inclined to think it is the latter. We all have our problems, you know. The step, however, is bold and gutsy and not without risk. It takes great courage to go up against the pica moguls.

"All Watterson has done that I can see is ask for a regulated shape in format. He has conceded size. At worst it is an inconvenience to those who must consider restructuring a page -- a chore which doesn't seem to bother them when they are wrapping somebody's art around the edges of a bicycle ad."

Hart added in a phone interview that he would love to see even one major newspaper devote a lot more space and pages to comics and then promote the expanded section hard. He noted that such a section might be so successful -- comics, after all, are among the best-read parts of a newspaper -- that other papers might follow suit.

"Things could be so much more exciting if everyone had that big block of space," declared Hart, who emphasized that he doesn't want to see any cartoonists bumped because of the Calvin size/format requirement.

The Creators Syndicate-distributed Hart added that bigger comics would, for one thing, make it a lot easier for readers who have trouble making out the lettering in shrunken strips.

"Cartoonists have to sacrifice drawing for lettering," observed Hart. "Lettering has to be so big that the balloons take up most of the panel."

As for Watterson, Hart said he is a "great artist" with the kind of "line" that only Shoe creator Jeff MacNelly of Tribune Media Services (TMS) and a few other syndicated cartoonists possess.

"They know that they're good," observed Hart. "They don't hem and haw and put on the false humility bit. Watterson is saying give me the space and I'll give you better stuff."

Another cartoonist who supports Watterson is Where I'm Coming From creator Barbara Brandon of Universal.

"I give him a lot of credit for going ahead and doing it," she said. "He's got a lot of spine."

Brandon -- who has bucked newspaper cartooning tradition herself by doing a large-format comic that appears only once a week -- added that the Calvin size/format requirement is making an excellent strip even better. "I think it's more inviting visually," she said.

Francie creator Sherrie Shepherd agreed that the post-sabbatical Sunday Calvin looks better artistically. "It really stands out on a page," she observed. "It looks more like a comic book layout." Shepherd did note that the arrangement of panels can be a little confusing.

The United Feature Syndicate cartoonist added that she doesn't think the new size/format requirement has improved the Calvin ideas and writing -- which she said was and is "consistently funny."

But Shepherd feels the half-page requirement may not be helpful to less-popular cartoonists. "I think it's a good idea for Bill Watterson, and he has the leverage to do it," she stated. "But other strips may be dropped. That's kind of sad."

It's real good for him," agreed Herb & Jamaal creator Steve Bentley, "but it cuts down on the amount of space for other cartoonists. I don't see papers expanding their comics sections. It's not their number one priority...Calvin and Hobbes is not the only comic out there. Other cartoonists need to make their marks as well."

Bentley further noted that when Sunday strips other than Calvin are shrunk or dropped, it is not fair to those comics' readers.

The TMS cartoonist said any cartoonist would like to have more space after "you put your heart into" creating a strip, so he understands where Watterson is coming from. "I can see his feeling about wanting his comic to be viewed as a work of art," stated Bentley. "I respect his integrity for wanting to maintain the craft, but it hurts the rest of us."

Snafu creator Bruce Beattie agreed that the Calvin size/format requirement reduces Sunday comics space for cartoonists without Watterson's clout. "There's only so much room on the boat," stated the Newspaper Enterprise Association cartoonist, who noted that even less popular strips have loyal reader followings.

He added, "From what I've seen, the extra space is not all that necessary for [Watterson]...I don't think [the requirement] is a terribly good idea.

"In the best of all possible worlds," Beattie continued, "you'd have Sunday comics sections with a lot more strips and a lot more larger strips, but that's not the case."

Beattie said he understands the frustration of newspaper editors faced with "tight comics holes" that they are not allowed to expand. But he wondered why the owners of larger papers don't allocate more resources for comics sections, given their popularity with readers.

While acknowledging that Watterson has the "power" to have his way, Beattie also said it is "fairly incredible" that the cartoonist got a nine-month sabbatical, full payment for reruns, and the size/format requirement in rapid succession. "But, then again, he has a fairly incredible strip," Beattie stated.

Virtually all interviewees said they didn't think the Calvin requirement will set a major precedent because few cartoonists have the clout to do what Watterson did while keeping most of their newspaper clients.

"Most of us can't make the same demands," noted Bentley.

"We know we would get dropped," said Shepherd. "Most cartoonists are just happy to get any kind of space in the paper."