'Calvin and Hobbes' big return sparks serious debate about comic strips

January 15, 1992|By Neal Rubin | Neal Rubin,Knight-Ridder

As debut day approaches for the new and improved "Calvin and Hobbes," cartoonist Bill Watterson makes this solemn promise: "No other comic strip will have bigger, uglier aliens."

That's partly because no Sunday comic will be bigger, period.

The slender, reclusive Watterson, normally as bookish as Calvin's dad, is throwing his weight around like a rampaging Calvinosaurus. Come Feb. 2, when he returns from a nine-month sabbatical, "Calvin and Hobbes" will gobble up half a page each Sunday -- or else.

"Or else" means Watterson will take his characters and go home. more Calvin for you, bub. Which leaves newspapers stuck between Snoopy and a fire hydrant.

Giving more space to "Calvin and Hobbes" means making other comics smaller, eliminating one or two altogether, or adding some pages to the comics section. Because newsprint and salaries make up two-thirds of the cost of producing a newspaper, editors part with paper about as freely as they dispense lavish bonuses. In fact, Sunday strips have been shrinking for decades.

So: Will newspapers indulge what Watterson calls "one uppity cartoonist," regardless of cost, or will they infuriate thousands of readers.

The Sunday Sun will run the larger ''Calvin and Hobbes,'' beginning Feb. 2.

At least a dozen papers have dropped the Sunday strip in protest, however, and the dispute -- artist vs. patron, expression vs. economy, Spaceman Spiff vs. Capt. Corporate -- could shake the very foundation of American journalism. It is a mirror of the times, a microcosmic glimpse at the pitfalls of the information age, with implications that reach all the way to the Oval Office.

Not really. We're only talking about the funny pages. But it's still pretty keen stuff, and George and Barbara do get "Calvin and Hobbes" delivered to the White House.

The Washington Post is one of 1,800 newspapers to carry the strip. Only "Peanuts," "Garfield" and "Blondie" are more widely distributed, and Blondie has been around for as many decades -- six -- as "Calvin and Hobbes" has years.

Watterson, 33, is clearly a comic genius. He is also a financial dolt, if you can say that about someone who made more than $1 million last year and stopped working in May, when the strip went into reruns.

Unlike "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, who allows his characters to advertise everything short of dioxin, Watterson has refused to commercialize demon-child Calvin and his stuffed tiger accomplice.

"This is a man who has decided very consciously not to undertake all the trappings," says Lee Salem of Universal Press Syndicate, which distributes Watterson's work. "His characters do not appear on sucky-feet in car windows. He has turned down offers you and I would be amazed at from Hollywood and television."

Watterson says his devotion to newspapers entitles him to demand more space, which he will use to create better-drawn and more imaginative strips. Actually, what entitles him to make demands is readers' devotion to "Calvin and Hobbes."

As Albuquerque Tribune editor Tim Gallagher put it, "We had two choices. We could either keep 'Calvin,' or take out more fire insurance." In a 1990 Detroit Free Press comics survey, readers voted "Calvin and Hobbes" first overall, first among women, first among men, first in every age group except the 15-and-under "Garfield" bracket, and first in the NFC Central.

Editors concede the strip's value, but some are unwilling to concede control over their comics sections. "It's both a practical consideration and a matter of principle," says managing editor Leonard Gregory of the Chieftain in Pueblo, Colo., which will no longer run the Sunday cartoon. "I don't think it's a very good idea to have these artists dictate standards to us."

The last cartoonist to hold a pen to editors' heads was Garry Trudeau, who returned from a 1984 sabbatical with an edict that the daily "Doonesbury" could not be shrunk. About half a dozen papers dropped the strip, Salem says.

Little about Watterson is available, actually. Formerly an Ohioan, he now lives in New Mexico, where he draws, paints and declines to do interviews or make talk-show appearances to plug his strip. His comments about the new size requirement came via a press release.

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