‘Calvin and Hobbes’ Creator Bill Watterson On Creators’ Rights and Creative License

Credit: Comic Vine
Credit: Comic Vine

Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson hasn’t been quite as reclusive as J.D. Salinger, but after he ended his run on his legendary comic strip, he’s lead a largely private life. So it’s exciting to learn that Mental Floss scored an interview with Watterson, which will run at greater length in the December issue, but is excerpted online now.

One part of the interview I found particularly striking was Watterson’s explanation of what happened with his rights over the comic. His interviewer, Jake Rossen, suggested that Watterson had had considerable autonomy, and used them like Howard Roark, threatening to blow up his creation rather than let it be misused. Watterson issued a rather immediate corrective that’s a revealing look at what it takes to get a comic in major circulation in the first place. He explained:


Just to be clear, I did not have incredible autonomy until afterward. I had signed most of my rights away in order to get syndicated, so I had no control over what happened to my own work, and I had no legal position to argue anything. I could not take the strip with me if I quit, or even prevent the syndicate from replacing me, so I was truly scared I was going to lose everything I cared about either way. I made a lot of impassioned arguments for why a work of art should reflect the ideas and beliefs of its creator, but the simple fact was that my contract made that issue irrelevant. It was a grim, sad time. Desperation makes a person do crazy things.

In other words, just to get your work to an audience, you’re going to have to sacrifice considerable rights to the commercial exploitation of your creations, and considerable creative autonomy. That makes sense from a business perspective — if you’re going to devote real estate in hundreds of papers to a strip, and to try to develop that strip as a substantial hit, you’re probably going to want to lock down every possible profit avenue. But if you’re an artist, it’s got to be awfully depressing to try to pick between reach and control. Watterson’s lucky to have achieved the balance that he did. Not everyone’s going to have the level of success and mental fortitude to get to the same place.