On Bill Watterson’s Refusal To License Calvin and Hobbes

Maybe the best way to build a lasting and beloved brand is to not spend any time building one.

When Calvin and Hobbes went out of print twenty years ago, I think most people assumed it would eventually return. I know I certainly did. Calvin and Hobbes was a formative part of my youth - the sly brilliant writing and stark black and white illustrations providing color to my sense of childhood wonder and adventure. Watterson had the innate ability to put on the page something that spoke directly to the brash creative misfit lurking deep inside of me (or maybe not so deep if my mother is to be believed), like he was illustrating the comic for an audience of one. With something so clearly loved by its creator and so personal, I just couldn’t envision a world where there would be no more new ones. And if Calvin and Hobbes had been created by anyone other than Bill Watterson, we probably wouldn’t have heard the last of it. 

But Watterson famously refused to license his creation to anyone for any reason other than publishing. No movies, no cartoons (although he almost relented when approached by Pixar), no toys, no hats or t-shirts. Nothing. When asked in an interview why licensing his characters was out of the question, Watterson said:

[L]icensing is inconsistent with what I’m trying to do with Calvin and Hobbes… [it] isn’t a gag strip… The humor is situational, and often episodic. It relies on conversation, and the development of personalities and relationships… To explore character, you need lots of time and space. Note pads and coffee mugs just aren’t appropriate vehicles for what I’m trying to do here. I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product… I have no aversion to obscene wealth, but that’s not my motivation either. I think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.

But the public loves the strip, so why not indulge them?

I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of Calvin and Hobbes. The world of a comic strip is much more fragile than most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens. Instead of asking what’s wrong with rampant commercialism, we ought to be asking, “What justifies it?”

In the old days, there was this idea of “selling out” and we as a culture decided that it was bad. Monetizing a thing immediately called into question its integrity, and more importantly, the integrity of the artist. But then an interesting thing began happening in the late 90’s and early 00’s. The idea of selling out lost its negative connotation. Got your song featured on a prominent TV show? Had your artwork featured on a toy ad? Sold your graffiti mural to a major tech company to use in the lobby of its corporate headquarters? These all became good things because they raised awareness of your brand and they allowed you to financially capitalize on that name recognition.

Which is what makes Watterson’s position so fundamentally at odds with what we consider normal behavior. How could he not want to profit from Calvin and Hobbes? Even after all this time it’s still popular, and lord knows people have tried to get him to come around. One - possibly apocryphal - story has him setting ablaze a box of stuffed toy Hobbeses that a doll manufacturer had mailed him to convince him to change his mind. He’s been reclusive, giving maybe a half dozen interview in the intervening years. Any image that you’ve ever seen of either Calvin or Hobbes that doesn’t come directly from one of his books - like those awful “Calvin peeing” and “Calvin praying” car decals - are unlicensed and illegal. He once quipped that he should hire a copyright lawyer to prevent unauthorized reproductions, but he mostly expressed bemusement at them, joking in a recent interview that “long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.”

In the twenty years since Calvin and Hobbes disappeared from newspapers, Watterson never signed on to this modern way of thinking. He stuck to his guns in a stubborn, and frankly impressive, attempt to ensure the long term integrity of his creation. I’ve talked in the past about creators who exert immense control over their properties. The Tolkien estate famously hated The Lord of the Rings movies and refuses to license anymore of J.R.R.’s works (J.R.R. Tolkien had personally licensed the movie rights to LOTR and The Hobbit, a decision his son and grandson regretted). The Conan Doyle estate levies substantial licensing fees against anyone who wants to make a Sherlock Holmes show, movie, or book. George R.R. Martin claims that he will not let the Westeros saga leave his family’s hands. Before he sold Lucasfilm to Disney, George Lucas had complete say over everything that happened in the Star Wars universe. Ditto for J.K. Rowling’s influence over the Potterverse. All of these creators make decisions they think will protect the integrity of their work. And the reason we’re okay with them having so much control is because it’s ultimately in our best interest. The audience benefits from these decisions because it means we get to enjoy the movies, TV shows, comic books, toys, and other useless merchandising crap spawned from them. 

Whatever decisions Lucas and Rowling and Martin made regarding the integrity of their work, they were tempered by the need to ensure their properties were also profitable. Conventional wisdom says that’s how you build brand recognition. But Watterson stands apart from his fellow creators because he rejected that wisdom. Which ironically has led to the exact thing Watterson didn’t want… the creation of a brand identity. People remember Watterson for his refusal to play the game as much as his artwork. 

His refusal to license is only one part of the equation, however; the other being his choice not to draw anymore strips. The only Calvin and Hobbes we will ever get occurred between 1985 and 1995. We will never see how Calvin reacts to the internet or iPhones or hoverboards. Calvin and Hobbes is a self-contained work that requires no follow up. It is relevant regardless of time, age, or political affiliation. It is as meaningful in 2016 as it was in 1986. To make anymore would cheapen the whole enterprise, wreck its fundamental integrity.

I’ve always been a little skeptical of letting creators have so much control, because that’s how you end up with things like the Star Wars Special Editions or Jo Rowling claiming she should’ve killed off Ron so Harry and Hermione could get together. If enough time passes, creators can lose touch with what makes their work so special in the first place. That’s why I support a “death of the author” approach over the long haul - maybe the author’s intent isn’t as important as we assume. Once the work is out there, it belongs to the people, regardless of what copyright law says. I’ve even advocated for shortening copyright terms to a flat 75 years in order to limit that control. 

But that’s what makes Watterson’s position so fascinating and unique. Maybe he’s one of the few creators who can truly make unbiased choices about his work. After all, he’s resisted the twin siren calls of licensing and marketing for his entire career. I don’t think Watterson’s path is the only one, or even necessarily the right one. But someone that disciplined and resolute in his convictions can probably teach us all something about integrity. That’s how you build a lasting brand. That’s how you build meaning.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA