Watterson Knocks the Shrinking of Comics

By David Astor for Editor & Publisher
December 3, 1988 edition; pg.40

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson has suggested that readers complain to their newspapers about the shrinking size of comics.

"You are the ones being short-changed," Watterson told attendees at an Ohio State University event marking the 75th anniversary of Pogo creator Walt Kelly's birth. "I urge you to complain to your newspaper about the amount of space it devotes to comics. Newspapers are in the business of serving you. Make them do it."

The Universal Press Syndicate-distributed cartoonist noted that papers are attempting to match television's appeal by increasingly using color graphics, charts, and photos. But in "one of the great ironies of the business," he continued, these same papers are saving space and cutting costs by reducing comics -- "the one truly visual part of the newspaper that television cannot imitate."

Watterson, who won the National Cartoonists Society's Reuben award as "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year" in 1987, added: "The effect on comics has been disastrous. Comics today have fewer panels, fewer words, and simpler drawings than ever before. White space attracts the eye, and when 20 comics are printed down two rows on one newspaper page, the comic with the least there is the most attractive. Adventure strips are in their death throes because there is no longer any room to tell a decent story...The comic strip is a retrictive medium to begin with, but the restrictions have become absurd."

Most comics today are "vapid and lifeless," contended Watterson, because they don't have enough room.

"Imagine a Sunday cartoon taking up an entire newspaper page, as comics used to do in the '30's," he said. "As a cartoonist, it boggles my mind to think what I would do with that much space. Or even half that much space."

Watterson observed that it is "generally assumed" that if papers ran comics larger, "they would simply keep the same amount of newspaper space and drop all but the most popular strips. This cowers syndicates and cartoonists alike into accepting almost any reduction."

But without a "radical change" in the size situation, Watterson said, "the future of cartooning will lie in some other form of publication."

Watterson was also critical of the merchandising of some comics, stating: "I think the comic strip world is much more fragile than most people realize and that wonderful, lifelike characters are easily corrupted and cheapened by having them appear on every...shelf and rack...Several fine strips have turned themselves into shameless advertisements for products."

But Watterson devoted the bulk of his speech to praising Walt Kelly and the original version of Pogo. (A new version of Pogo by two young cartoonists is being offered by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate beginning next month.)

"As I grew up, my two favorite comics were Peanuts [by Charles M. Schulz of United Features Syndicate] and Pogo," recalled Watterson, who noted that Kelly's creation was "one of the most beautifully lush strips ever drawn."

Watterson added that the main Pogo characters had personalities that were unusually three-dimensional for a comic, and that the writing was excellent.

"Pogo celebrated conversation and dialogue for its own sake," he declared. "The strip rarely had a punchline per se...It was a wonderful, rich parody of what passes for communication between human beings."

And Watterson praised the political nature of Kelly's creation. "We still seem to have trouble accepting that comic strips are legitimate vehicles for comment, satire, and criticism," he said. "This is unfortunate because it's one of the things cartoons do best."

Returning to a discussion of Kelly's art, Watterson commented: "The standard cartoon wisdom is that 'a good drawing will not save a bad idea,' and it has come to be accepted that a bad drawing will not hurt a good idea. This is generally true enough. What many people have forgotten, though, is that a good drawing can send a good idea to the moon and back. [The Pogo writing was funny, but the drawings made the characters come alive."

Watterson concluded: "With the exception of Krazy Kat, I can think of no other strip that has used words and pictures so effectively or so powerfully."

In a related matter, a recent column in the Detroit Free Press by publisher David Lawrence Jr. discussed Calvin and Hobbes.

The Free Press had received a letter from a reverend criticizing a Sunday strip in which Calvin had fantasized about blowing up his elementary school. "Oh, I realize this is supposed to be funny," wrote the reverend. "But I fail to see any redeeming quality in it. Our school administrators and teachers have a hard enough time as it is trying to convince the kids that school is a good place to be...We have enough vandalism in our schools without giving those who perpetrate it worse ideas about it."

Lawrence responded: "I share his concern for promoting respect for education and educators. But I must say that comic seems pretty harmless. Even kids who love school love to complain about it sometimes..."