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Michelle's corner

Michelle Knight. Writer, photographer, programmer, truck driver and general, all round nut case. Life is a journey and that's what this blog will probably end up being. Let's see where we go, eh? ;-)

The battle of commercialisation and art

Today, I came across an article written by Luke Epplin in August 2015. - https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/selling-newspaper-comic-strip/ - warning, it's a long one; and necessarily so.


One of the things with writing is the question of, "why write?" For the sake of the art of doing something? For riches? For fame? Why? And I have found myself asking the question that, if I'm not going to achieve riches or fame, then why am I going to the extent and expense of publication? Why am I making any effort at all to protect the works and get some scraps of money for them, instead of just giving them to the world and getting on with life?


In Epplin's article, he focuses on the contrast between Watterson's artistic, non-commercialisation approach of, "Calvin and Hobbes," and Shultz's controlled commercial attitude to, "Peanuts." Thrown in for good measure is Jim Davis' unabashed exploitation of, "Garfield."


But one of the larger problems for Watterson was that syndicates forced cartoonists to give up the copyright and ownership of their strips before they agreed to peddle them to newspapers. Undoubtedly this arrangement helped aspiring cartoonists find their footing in the business, but it came with a significant concession: reduced leverage in how their creations were represented in the marketplace.


It does seem to be a case of sacrificing everything in order to get power... enough power to be able to command a return of all that you've sacrificed in the first place. A fight which ultimately drained Watterson.


In 1991, after nearly six years of sparring, Universal reluctantly granted Watterson complete control of the strip and assurance that no unauthorized Calvin and Hobbes products would be made. Despite this triumph, Watterson was too drained to celebrate. His efforts to reclaim his characters had soured him on the industry. Looking back two decades later, he wrote: “In my disillusionment and disgust at being pushed to the wall, I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend my life cartooning.” Four years and two nine-month sabbaticals later, Watterson put down his pen.

Tied up in all this, is the primary reason for creating the art work in the first place. And that is a question which I believe plagues all artists, in all fields.


The larger ambitions that Watterson harbored for his strip were bound up with artistic expression, not monetary gain. Watterson viewed comics as an art form that, when printed properly and taken seriously, rivaled any of the so-called fine arts.


But when is artistic expression, an expression of self, and when does artistic expression actually become that life? And at what cost?


Schulz died in early 2000, the night before his final strip was published. Until then, he had completed one strip per day for nearly 50 years, taking only one five-week break during that span. Neither divorce nor open-heart surgery caused him to miss his daily deadline.


If you have the time, I really recommend reading that article. It was quite an insight into their worlds; the article itself opining, at the end, that it was perhaps a unique fight which can never be fought again, because the battle ground has changed.


Personally, I have to disagree with Epplin on that score. True, the internet has widened the pool of skilled artists, just like it has done with photographers, writers, musicians and every other field... but so has it widened the audience. The opportunities for commercial exploitation of brands still exists; maybe it is even stronger than before. However, the ability to get works out there, without needing the weight of the print industry is now beyond measure.


Battles of popularity are now waged on many fronts on the internet, and no one, "has," to commercialise any more in order to garner a fan base. As long as they have another means of putting food on the table.


But to return to the question I posed myself. Why publish? I suppose it is protection of my work. The pirates are going to pirate, no doubt about that. But if someone attempts to turn my work into a commercial success, then publishing is a way of ensuring that at least some of that money comes my way. There is a difference between actively hunting for something, and having opportunity knock at your door.


To be honest, I'm not sure how I'd react if fame stumbled upon me. I've seen enough of social media fame to know that it comes at a price. But I take solace in something that Norman Lovett said to me at a fair some years ago. "Don't worry. You'll probably be famous after your dead."