Issues in Cartooning

I recently reread a cherished book from my childhood, the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, which as a child I only read for the strips. But this time I started reading the long introduction and was shocked. He opened the collection with a long diatribe about the state of the comics industry, his enormous problems with syndicates and licensing, and the untapped potential of the medium. Heavy stuff for a 10-year-old. His problems essentially stem from his struggle for the world to take his art as seriously as he does, and to recognize that licensing would cheapen that art. It is an expanded essay from his October 27, 1989 speech The Cheapening of Comics, at Ohio State University. (For a deeper background here is an interview from Watterson’s first year as a cartoonist where he comments that he’d like to continue forever.)

Watterson really is a fascinating individual, and loves (perhaps loved as his strip ended ten years ago and he has produced nothing since) the comic medium very deeply. Or at least the newspaper strips. I found myself outraged by one strip in the Tenth Anniversary Book. Calvin is reading comic books, and comments that his mother does not understand comics.

She doesn’t realize that comic books deal with serious issues of the day. Today’s superheroes face tough moral dilemmas. Comic Books aren’t just escapist fantasy. They’re sophisticated social critiques.

To this Hobbes queries: “Is Amazon Girl’s super power the ability to squeeze that figure into that suit?” and Calvin answers, “Nah, they all can do that.” The strip is fair and amusing in and of itself. It’s the captioned comments of the Tenth Anniversary Book that bother me:

You can make your superhero a psychopath, you can draw gut-splattering violence, and you can call it a “graphic novel,” but comic books are still incredibly stupid.

This I found unbelievable. Watterson, the endless crusader to have his work recognized as the great art he believes it to be, would undermine similar efforts by comic artists in other genres. Newspaper funnies are apparently art, yet comic book superheroes are necessarily garbage. I believe his reasoning is the lack of creator control, as he is a very heavy proponent that creators should retain the rights to their characters. He believes that strips should end with the retirement or death of their creators and should not continue by the pen of other artists and writers. However corrupt the system that allowed this to happen, great iconic characters are available to tell wonderful stories of a range of different values and emotions, and this should not be so easily dismissed by one who has fought so hard to have his art recognized.

Comics is a versatile medium capable of telling a variety of different stories very powerfully. While that point bothered me so I had to respond, Watterson hit the nail on the head with his critique of the newspaper industry and comics’ role in it. His reasoning was ahead of its time, and this is why I will not submit any of my work to syndicates in the immediate future.

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