It’s not your decision
I lot of people were sharing a blog post last week by Gavin Aung Than called “BILL WATTERSON: A cartoonist’s advice.” Watterson is the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, and Than being a web cartoonist, has long admired him. I read someone else’s re-blog of the text and tweeted it out to my followers. I didn’t realize that the text was only part of the post. He also drew a comic in Bill Watterson’s style, using excerpts for a commencement speech Watterson gave way back in 1990.
It’s an awesome cartoon and you should go look at it.
In the accompanying post, Than quotes some things Watterson wrote by way of introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes.
As the blog was linked and re-linked, I saw a few people, some of them Big-ish Name types, who seemed to be angry about Watterson’s decision, made years ago, never to license Calvin and Hobbes for any merchandising. There were never any Hobbes dolls on store shelves, never any Calvin and Hobbes lunch boxes or action figures. Just the comic strips, and various books collecting those strips together.
Watterson stopped writing and drawing the strip years ago, and because he refused to license either the characters or the strip, that means that Calvin and Hobbes came to an end.
The angry people take issue with Watterson’s decision (made many years ago) to eschew merchandising deals. If I follow their logic, they think it is hypocritical of Watterson not to license his property because the book collections are a form of merchandising. If he was willing to publish books, then why object to anything else?
I have several responses to that, but I’ll try to keep it to three:
1. Reprinting is not merchandising. The original strip was visual art and text published in newspapers. The books were collections of the exact same visual art and text. Republishing your original art exactly as it was is not the same thing as letting someone else make action figures which may include things you would have never had the characters use, for instance.
When this was pointed out, I saw at least one commentary complain bitterly about the fact that a certain number of unlicensed window clings are out there, showing Calvin pissing on a corporate logo, or praying in front of a cross. “And that’s all we’ve got!” Unlicensed things will happen whether Watterson licensed the characters or not. That is happening outside of his control, and it seems more than a bit illogical to blame him for that.
But the heart of the objection is revealed in that “that’s all we’ve got!” In other words, they’re angry because they can’t buy those hypothetical lunchboxes or dolls. This gets me to the second point, in which I will paraphrase Neil Gaiman:
2. Bill Watterson is not our bitch. Neil Gaiman famously explained to a fan who was complaining about George R.R. Martin not writing the next Game of Thrones novel as soon as the fan wanted that he isn’t entitled to complain. To translate Neil’s argument here: the people are complaining about Watterson’s decision as if their reading of the strip and/or buying the books constituted a contract: they bought the books, and now Watterson is obligated to do everything in his power to create (or allow to be created) things that they want.
Bill Watterson doesn’t owe us anything. While he was still creating the script, he did his best to tell us an engaging story. That is the only obligation any artist has to their audience: to do their best. He created characters that millions of people loved, and he told stories about them that millions of people enjoyed. How can you complain about that?
3. Bill Watterson’s life is his to live as he chooses. We don’t get to dictate what project he undertakes or what goals he pursues. He chose to end the story of Calvin and Hobbes while it was still doing well, because he didn’t want the quality of the stories to degrade, as has happened with other series which continued too long. In doing that, he was still fulfilling the only obligation he had: he was doing his best. He knew that continuing the story would not be his best. So he stopped.
We can disagree with his choice. We can be disappointed that there isn’t another Calvin and Hobbes strip, or a Calvin and Hobbes movie, or whatever. But we aren’t entitled to begrudge his choice.
You liked his work? You are free to re-read it. You want something new? There are artists out there creating new stuff. Go find something you like, and support a new artist or writer or singer or dancer or something.
I would usually at this point proceed to advise, “if you can’t find something you like, maybe you need to try creating something of your own, not fan art or fan fiction, but something that’s yours.”
Except the sorts of people who feel as entitled as these complainers do, they need to work out their overblown entitlement issues before they can create anything worth our time and attention.