Saturday, July 16, 2011

Bill Watterson on Selling out

Bill Watterson, an artist who wouldn't merchandise his work despite heavy pressure and substantial enticements, and fought hard for having a real life:

"Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values, rules and rewards. The so-called "opportunity" I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I'd need. What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts."

The above, quoted by Nevin Martell in his unauthorized biography of Bill Watterson, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. I almost included two paragraphs of rather pointed analysis of said book but Upon Reflection, I'm not sure those thoughts are worth airing. I'll just say, "Hear, hear!" to Watterson's words.


Maria said...

I've got to say, while I respect Watterson's decision, I disagree. While upping a succesful book/comic book character or peice of art to a large scale *can* mean all those things, it can also be a wonderful group effort. Simply look at movie making at Pixar, or the later Wallace & Grommit movies to see that larger groups of (dare I say) profit interested, if not driven, individuals can make satisfying, thoughtful art and entertainment.
Remember that even Michelangelo was paid for his art. Professional artists by definition trade money for their art. In many ways higher pay=more creative freedom because a cash stockpile frees up more time for uncommissioned/uncontracted projects.

MamaBear said...

Watterson did get paid for his work. He succeeded in securing the full copyrights to calvin and hobbes, and continues to get royalties on book sales. I'm not objecting to teamwork in art, or profit in art. But Calvin and Hobbes was not a group project. As the artist, Watterson gets to say what happens to it. He could have worked with the best film and merchandising people in the business, but he chose not to. On the other hand, with his contractual situation, Universal could at one point have fired him and hired some other artist to carry on Calvin and Hobbes. They could have made anything they wanted out of the characters, and he could have had no say at all. He fought this tooth and nail and gained full copyright control over Calvin and Hobbes, and decided to only publish the strip, collections of the strip, and two limited edition calendars, with absolutely no other merchandising.

I don't know if your examples quite apply. Nick Park's studio (and all the many artists therein) working together to make Wallace and Grommet is the work of art. All the products that have been produced based on Wallace and Grommet? I don't know. It depends who produced them, how they were designed. Do they bear the same vision? Are they true to characters?
I could, (and it would be really fun to) illustrate a book and then make dolls of my characters, and calendars and stationary sets and gameboards and playsets and sell them. On Etsy or at craft fairs or even in a gallery if they were handmade, in store if mass produced, with total artistic integrity. I'm going to jump to an extreme example, and I know there are a lot of shades of gray in between, so don't think I mean that anything more than my former example has no integrity---

but how does it change my work if I illustrate a book and the publisher gets complete rights to my characters, someone else designs all the dolls and accompanying products, they are mass produced overseas; and I have no oversight over any of it? It depends on how the merchandising/corollary projects are done.

MamaBear said...

...sorry so long...

There's quality merchandising and crap-o merchandising, right? Have you seen the spin-off books of Curious George? some of them could almost pass for H. A. Rey, but lack a certain childlike quality and exhibit a different understanding of story, and a quite different underlying philosophy than the originals. Others of the spin-off books are really nothing like the originals, and are merely charicatures of the original characters. Recently we have seen the same thing with the Toot and Puddle books.

Isn't it fair and just that Watterson, the artist, be able to decide these things? I don't think that he should be obligated to go that route just because most comic strip artists want to. He didn't want to be a celebrity, or make a movie, or manage product design groups, or give away artistic control. He wanted to only be a comic strip artist. He admitted that some artists can do this but that he personally and artistically, could and would not. He did produce a bunch of collections of his works. I'm now reading the 10th anniversary Calvin and Hobbes, and it's full of lots of notes and explanations of the strip and his personal views as artist. He wrote back real letters, personally, to his fans who sent him mail. I think all that, and that the books are still in print, is very obliging to his reading public, and I think it's cool that he did what he wanted and felt was true to his artistic vision despite great pressure to the contrary.

So I guess I'm saying, while not all merchandising is selling out, some of it is; and isn't it the artist's perogative to decide what happens to the work?

I remember reading the last strip in the paper as it was published. He explained that he felt like he had finished the work, and that he didn't want to carry on and have it lessen in quality, and that he had given as much to it as he, personally, could afford to. I was a kid then, and I was sad to not have Calvin and Hobbes every morning anymore, but even then I remember totally respecting him for his decision.