The Non-Cartoonist Cartoonist ~ Comic Strip Evolution

By James Donahue

Does a comic strip evolve naturally or does it evolve from the desire for commercial success? Is there a point at which the evolution should stop or is it an ongoing process? Can a cartoonist continue to change and advance his style yet still please the reader?

Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible didn’t change much over the years. Certainly, they changed from the very earliest strips, but once they reached a certain point—a certain level of success—the changes stopped. This isn’t because the artist couldn’t do any better, but rather because the audience expected to see something familiar each and every day.

Two of the most successful strips over the last few decades took very different approaches on handling evolution and change in the world of the daily comic strip. The two strips I want to compare are Garfield by Jim Davis and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson.

When the Garfield strip first began, Garfield himself was much more cat-like: He had a bigger body and smaller head, walked on all fours, and looked more like a real-life but caricatured cat with a smarmy attitude. But he underwent an amazing evolution after 1984: His head and body became more proportional, he stood on his hind legs, used his “arms” more, and in all honesty was a much more marketable-looking character.

Left panel from 1980, right panel from 1990.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Copyright PAWS, Inc.

Once it became successful, the strip didn’t really change much from that point on, and remains simple and inoffensive today. Merchandise earnings of $750 million to $1 billion annually would be a good argument not to mess with a successful formula, and creator Jim Davis makes no secret of the fact that all along he had intentionally developed Garfield to be a marketable entity.

The strip centers on Garfield the cat’s enjoyment in torturing his owner (Jon), the dog (Odie), and other household pests. He likes to eat, hates the vet, and rarely leaves the countertop where most of the storylines take place. He evolved to a certain point—a point at which he was successful and marketable. Then the changes essentially stopped, though the strip still continues to appear in more than 2,500 daily newspapers worldwide and is largely drawn by Davis’s assistants.

Calvin and Hobbes also underwent evolution during its ten-year run. A vastly different story than Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes started out in a simple, almost Peanuts-like style, but underwent almost constant evolution. The characters themselves did not change much but the topics, environments, and exploration of different artistic styles were nearly limitless.

The only thing that seemed to limit Bill Watterson was the space he was given to work with. He became increasingly frustrated with the size constraints offered to the daily comic strip artist and fought for the limits to be expanded. As such, his later Sunday strips became unbreakable half-pages that allowed him a great deal of artistic and panel flexibility. He could design his Sunday strip in close to any manner he chose.

The first Calvin & Hobbes Sunday strip, from November 1985.

The last Calvin & Hobbes strip, from December 1995.

The last Calvin & Hobbes strip, from December 1995.

Watterson also rejected almost any form of merchandising, though he was strongly pushed to do so throughout the life of the strip. Barely any legitimate merchandise exists aside from the daily strips collected in book format. After ten years, Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes, citing the need to do different work without daily deadlines and the restriction of small panels.

I chose these two examples because people often ask me when my own comic strip will change. I think it will, and it already has in small ways both artistic and content-wise. When I’ll Kick Your Ass first began, it was about pointless violence, but has since become much more purpose-driven.

Ass Kickin’ Jim picks on people who deserve an ass-kickin’ and doesn’t kick ass just for no reason. Artistically, it’s a battle between wanting commercial success without compromising my original ideas and meeting somewhere in the middle. In some ways, I would like to be able to keep the strip simple without having to change its look much. I’d like to continue adding color on occasion and perhaps tell longer stories. Instead of only three or six panels, it could be nine.

Ideally, I’d like to be published in smaller newspapers or added to more websites—maybe even print a book of its own some day if it continues to change. Animation has been suggested to me, with AKJ interacting with his victims through dialog.

I’ve come to realize that all these different viewpoints and opinions are a good thing because it means people are paying attention. In some ways I have the Jim Davis attitude of wanting to create a marketable character. I wouldn’t mind seeing AKJ on tee shirts, mugs, or beer glasses as long as I could continue to keep the integrity of the strip intact. I wouldn’t want to turn AKJ into a cute and cuddly kid-friendly character with no connection to the original concept…but an action figure would be pretty cool.

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