Bill Watterson is renowned for his insistence that cartoon strips should stand on their own as an art form, and he has rigorously forbade the use of Calvin and Hobbes in merchandising of any sort. This insistence stuck despite what was probably a cost of millions of dollars per year in additional income for himself and the Universal Press Syndicate. He thought it would cheapen the strip when merchandised.
Watterson shared some of his issues with licensing in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book.
Watterson's first reason for not wanting to license was his belief that saturating the market with Calvin and Hobbes merchandise would make the public grow inevitably bored and irritated, reducing the value of the strip itself. His second reason was his belief that the created merchandise rarely respected how the original media worked, sacrificing a lot of multi-dimensional subtleties for the one-dimensional needs of the product. His third reason was the fact that he would have to be in charge of a bunch of assistants who would do all the work of creating the licensed products. Watterson took great pride in the fact that he drew, inked, and colored the strip by himself, and did not want to just approve someone else's work.
His major issue with licensing, however, is the fact that if he agree to license, he would corrupt his strip's integrity. It would no longer be his strip, as his only job would be to only do whatever it took to keep his character's profitable. He saw this as "selling out his own creation," and obstinately refused to do so.
After two syndicates had rejected Calvin and Hobbes, Universal Press Syndicate offered Watterson a contract with the caveat that they would have all the exploitation rights to Calvin and Hobbes into the next century. Watterson was eager for the opportunity to publish his work, so he signed the contract. Before the strip was even a year old, licensing opportunities were being offered, and before long, the pressure to capitalize on the strip's success was mounting on a daily basis.
Watterson held his ground on his notions on artistic integrity, but he had no legal recourse to stop the syndicate from licensing his work due to his contract. The syndicate tried to pressure Watterson into a compromise, where they would rule out the most offensive products if he would agree to go along with the rest, but Watterson refused to compromise and things only got uglier as the stakes got higher.
Finally, by the strip's fifth year, Watterson had finally had enough and was prepared to quit altogether. At this point, the syndicate conceded and renegotiated Watterson's contract, returning the exploitation rights to him. With this settlement, the licensing fight came to an end.
Watterson did ponder animating Calvin and Hobbes, and has expressed admiration for the art form. In a 1989 interview in The Comics Journal, Watterson states:
- If you look at the old cartoons by Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, you’ll see that there are a lot of things single drawings just can’t do. Animators can get away with incredible distortion and exaggeration [...] because the animator can control the length of time you see something. The bizarre exaggeration barely has time to register, and the viewer doesn’t ponder the incredible license he's witnessed.
- In a comic strip, you just show the highlights of action - you can’t show the buildup and release... or at least not without slowing down the pace of everything to the point where it’s like looking at individual frames of a movie, in which case you’ve probably lost the effect you were trying to achieve. In a comic strip, you can suggest motion and time, but it’s very crude compared to what an animator can do. I have a real awe for good animation. (Richard Samuel West, "Interview: Bill Watterson", Comics Journal, February 1989.)
After this he was asked if it was "a little scary to think of hearing Calvin's voice." He responded that it was "very scary," and although he loved the visual possibilities animation had, the thought of casting voice actors to play his characters was something he felt uncomfortable doing. Plus, he wasn't sure he wanted to work with an animation team, as he'd done all previous work by himself. Ultimately, Calvin and Hobbes was never made into an animated series.
Except for the books, two 16-month calendars (1988–1989 and 1989–1990), and a children's textbook, virtually all Calvin and Hobbes merchandise is bootleg, as there has never been any major merchandising of the strip.
Some legitimate special items were produced, such as promotional packages to sell the strip to newspapers, but these were never sold outright.
In keeping with Bill Watterson's reculsiveness, he has almost never given out autographs. Watterson had been known to sneak autographed copies of Calvin and Hobbes collections into bookstores with intent of surprising a few lucky fans; however he put an end to this practice after realizing said books were being sold for top dollar on eBay.
Some bootlegs, such as Calvin and Hobbes on T-shirts depicted as binge drinking or Calvin micturating upon a sports team or corporate logo, are blatantly unauthorized. After threat of a lawsuit alleging infringement of copyright and trademark, some of the sticker makers replaced Calvin with a different boy, while other makers ignored the issue. Watterson once wryly commented "I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo." Other stickers show a more pious Calvin, such as an image of Calvin kneeling before a Christian cross and praying "Dear God, forgive me for my destructive behavior on other people's windshields". (The drawing is unauthorized, and not by Bill Watterson's hand; Some state, incorrectly, that this image was copied from a strip, published 1992-08-06, where Calvin presents a bowl of pudding as an offering to a TV set.)