In a time when many newspapers cram five strips a page into their Sunday comics sections, Bill Watterson is trying to buck the tide. His Calvin and Hobbes strip will return from sabbatical February 2 with a requirement that it run half a page.
This should please Watterson's huge flock of readers, but a number of newspapers are upset. As of mid-December, about 70 clients complained to Universal Press Syndicate about the size requirement -- with 12-15 of them canceling the upcoming Sunday "Calvin."
Even so, Universal is expecting "Calvin" to return this February with more clients than it had when Watterson began his nine-month hiatus on May 5. There were 1,800-plus daily and Sunday subscribers back then, making it the fourth most widely syndicated strip behind the older Peanuts, Garfield, and Blondie.
Universal vice president/editorial director Lee Salem said Watterson "initiated the conversation" about the larger Sunday format. "He made some persuasive, cogent arguments, and we decided to support him," recalled the syndicate executive. "[The bigger size] provides Bill with the freedom and flexibility to make the art even stronger.
Watterson's art has been considered among the best in syndication since "Calvin" began in 1985.
Salem said he understands why some "Calvin" clients are upset and added that the syndicate regrets the difficulties the new format may cause them.
Come February, Watterson's Sunday clients will have several options, including expanding their Sunday comics sections, rearranging them, canceling "Calvin," or dropping or shrinking other strips.
The new Sunday "Calvin" can actually run in two sizes -- half-page broadsheet and half-page tabloid. Salem noted that this gives broadsheets a certain amount of flexibility because they have the option of publishing "Calvin" in the smaller half-page tabloid size. But Universal is hoping these newspapers won't do this.
The Sunday Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star is one broadsheet paper currently trying to figure out what to do with the half-page "Calvin." One thing it is trying to avoid is canceling the popular strip, according to Journal executive editor Gary Seacrest.
What does the paper think about the new "Calvin" size requirement? "We're opposed to it, and we told Universal Press our feelings," said Seacrest. "It just limits our options. We think that's the essence of editing -- options."
He added that his paper is worried about the precedent the "Calvin" size requirement might set. Seacrest wondered if Universal or other syndicates would ask papers to run other Sunday comics a half page, and also wondered if there may someday be a requirement that comics run even larger than a half page.
"It doesn't create a major problem when only one or two have special requirements," commented Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel editor Harry Moskos. "But if every artist did the same thing, we would have to run fewer comics."
He added, "It is distressing that there is not enough space to run all comics larger. But the economics don't allow it."
Moskos said the News-Sentinel is fortunate that the new "Calvin" size will not cause it difficulties. Currently, the front page of the broadsheet paper's Sunday comics section features a four-inch header, a half-page Garfield by Jim Davis of United Feature Syndicate, and a third-of-a-page Calvin. Moskos reported that the header will shrink to create more room for the bigger Watterson strip.
The editor noted that the new "Calvin" size will prevent the News-Sentinel from running advertisements on the front page of its Sunday comics section, but said these Page One ads are rare anyway.
Moskos, like the editors at Watterson's other client papers, has received two samples of the new Sunday "Calvin" from Universal. What does he think of them?
"They look very, very, very good," replied Moskos, who said he is an avid fan of Watterson's strip.
"He's not limiting himself to the typical boxes," added Seacrest. "There is more of a free-form type of art."
One Sunday strip contains eight unusually arranged panels of different sizes and shapes, including a round one.
The other strip features a huge dinosaur in a slightly tilted opening panel and a fairly detailed street scene in a smaller second box. The wording in this five-panel comic mostly consists of a 44-line poem.
Speaking of 44, subscribers to another major strip with a size requirement -- Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau of Universal -- have to run it at least 44 picas. That minimum width, instituted when Trudeau returned from his sabbatical in 1984, is for the daily Doonesbury. The daily Calvin will not have such a size requirement when it resumes February 3.
What has Watterson been doing during his leave of absence? Salem said he is not completely sure, but does know that the cartoonist has painted and worked on the new "Calvin" at least part of the time.
Meanwhile, a certain amount of controversy swirled around the comic due to Universal's decision to charge papers full price for the "Calvin" reruns syndicated during the sabbatical. Some editors were angry, although others felt old Watterson strips were worth more than the new work of many other cartoonists.
"Calvin" is indeed a popular comic. It has won numerous newspaper reader surveys, spawned several best-selling book collections, and brought Watterson two National Cartoonists Society Reuben Awards for "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year."
The reclusive Watterson, who is in his 30's, does not give media interviews. But the kit Universal mailed to newspapers last month included comments from Watterson about the half-page requirement.
"This is something I've been advocating for years, although I never expected it to happen," he stated. "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 the way I wanted it to look, and I was beginning to wonder why I was publishing my work in newspapers. I have a great love and respect for the newspaper comic strip, but a tradition of wonderul craftsmanship has been lost as comics have gotten smaller and smaller. I think Universal Press Syndicate recognized that the future of the newspaper comic strip depends on the cartoonist's ability to make the strip exciting..."
Watterson went on to add, "The biggest change will be that I can explore some visual possibilities that were previously impossible. Until now, my Sunday strips have been drawn to allow newspapers the greatest flexibility in printing them. Papers were permitted to eliminate the top third of each strip, and to reduce and rearrange the remaining panels. 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."
The cartoonist continued, "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."
As for newspaper reaction, Watterson said "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..."