Border Dispute

Nine months of Calvin and Hobbes reruns end this weekend in a blaze of effrontery. The first freshly minted Calvin since May will show up in Sunday’s funnies in a shape that cartoonist Bill Watterson is shoving down the papers’ throats. It’s a virtual square a half-page large, which Watterson decided during his sabbatical to insist on so he could finally draw the strip the way he wants to.

“This is something I’ve been advocating for years, although I never expected it to happen,” the reclusive Watterson explained in a statement released through his syndicate, Universal Press. “As my strip evolved, I grew increasingly frustrated with the size restrictions and rigid format rules that newspapers impose. I couldn’t draw the strip the way I wanted it to look, and I was beginning to wonder why I was publishing my work in newspapers.”

The thousand-some papers that carry Calvin got ticked off last year when Universal began offering reruns without cutting the price of the strip. Now the papers’ faces are being rubbed in it again. Comics editors have two choices: they can run the Sunday strip in a standard half-page size, a standard page being the size of a comics page in the Chicago Tribune, which carries Calvin locally. Or they can run the strip in a half-page tabloid size.

It used to be that Calvin, like every other strip, appeared Sunday as a third of a page, or a quarter of a page, or however the editor managed to shoehorn it in. And the editor could throw out panels or rearrange them to make things fit. But now Watterson’s square is inviolate. He can do anything he wants within it, including not drawing panels at all.

“Until now,” the cartoonist stated, “my Sunday strips have been drawn to allow newspapers the greatest flexibility in printing them. . . . This gave papers the ability to fit the strip in a variety of layouts, but it greatly limited how I could present my ideas. If I wanted a big detailed drawing, there was no room. If I wanted more panels, there was no room.

“It’s been well over a generation since a Sunday comic has regularly run this big everywhere. The American comic strip is almost 100 years old, but comics have been shrinking for the last several decades. Back in the early days a Sunday comic would take up an entire newspaper page. The Sunday comics were gigantic, and the great strips really took advantage of it. Readers today don’t even know what they’re missing. I hope to give people a glimpse of what comics can be.”

This strikes us as very, very good news. But the editors who must learn to live with Watterson’s demands have reacted differently. They don’t like their hands tied. Barbara Schuler, who’s president of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, wrote Universal Press a letter of protest. Schuler, a features editor at Newsday, said the half-page requirement “appears to be yet one more attempt by Universal to dictate how we edit our sections.” Schuler has a long memory. She was referring to a demand made in 1984 by another Universal cartoonist, Garry Trudeau, that the daily Doonesbury strip run an old-fashioned 44 picas (7 1/3 inches) wide.

Schuler’s letter went on, “And it comes at a time when most of us are struggling on a daily basis with a shrinking news hole and are frequently being forced to reduce or eliminate popular, newsworthy features from our sections.”

Lee Salem, Universal’s editorial director, tells us that seven papers decided not to run the Sunday Calvin strip at all. Another three papers let Salem know they’ll hang on to Calvin–they weren’t going to cut off their noses to spite their faces. But since they have to make room for it, they’re dropping another Universal strip.

One of these papers is the New Haven Register, whose top man, editor Dave Butler, booted Ziggy out of the Sunday edition. “We had no choice,” Butler told us. “The Sunday comics section is six pages and we already have comics running at the smallest size they’re offered. So we appropriately dumped the weakest of the Universal strips.”

It had to be Universal? we asked.

“Yeah. Yeah. It seemed to me that since they were the ones who caved in to the cartoonist without any consultation at all among the editors, it was only appropriate that one of their features would go. I would hope the other cartoonists at Universal would put some pressure on Universal not to do something like this again. It’s not that I don’t like Calvin and Hobbes. I do. I don’t like things rammed down my throat with no consultation and no consideration of the impact on readers.”

Which is? we asked Butler.

“The impact on readers of this paper and many others is that they’ll have one less comic strip.” Most papers, said Butler, already are running their comics at the smallest size possible. “Those who aren’t will have to reduce something else to take Calvin and Hobbes. We had nothing to reduce. Our only choice was to drop something. So we did.”

Actually, Butler dropped two Universal strips. For good measure he pulled Herman from the daily paper.

“I wanted to make a point to Universal I was displeased,” Butler said.

So what was the syndicate’s reaction? we asked him.

“I can take it or leave it. It’s been, shall we say, unempathetic. They just don’t quite get it in terms of the difficult situations newspapers find themselves in in terms of space. They also don’t seem to understand the implications of allowing syndicated services to dictate the size of a comic strip.”

But make no mistake–this isn’t Universal’s idea. It’s Watterson’s. He’s standing up for his art, not to mention his audience. If he’d really wanted to make mischief, he’d have demanded that Calvin run a full page, which is how the top strips used to appear. To cartoonists the postage-stamp sizes preferred by the New Haven Register and other papers degrade their craft; instead of the old-time feast of color and imagination, readers are offered squiggles.

The Chicago Tribune intends to carry Calvin in the half-page tabloid size, however ungainly that looks on a standard-size comics page. “Most editors I’ve talked to around the country have decided to do it that way,” comics editor John Lux told us.

Heretofore the Tribune carried Calvin at a third of its standard page. Shifting to half a tabloid page means Calvin will actually shrink. “What Watterson is doing to himself is that in most papers his comic will not be as large as it was before,” Lux said. “It won’t be as readable as it was before. In my opinion, what’ll happen is that Calvin will come off page one in many papers. Calvin will look dumb on page one in the tabloid format, so it’ll move inside.”

So we asked Lee Salem if Watterson’s stand was backfiring on him. No, said Salem, because the size of the strip matters less to Watterson than the freedom to do as he pleases within its borders. Salem conceded that the tabloid version of Calvin “somewhat diminishes the art.” He said, “When readers realize the difference, they themselves may ask for a larger size.”

Snake Bit

Bart Moy deserves some ink. The director of the city’s Advisory Council on Asian Affairs intervened decisively this month to quell a panic–not that you heard anything about it, there being some parts of town that the mass media do not fathom at all.

Fortunately, a copy of the weekly Pilipino News-Balita landed on our desk. Here’s the banner headline: “‘Snake Bite’ Story Exposed as a Hoax.” And here’s the snakebite story, as we’ve pieced it together from Moy and the News-Balita.

Rumor had it that a pregnant Filipino nurse was bitten by a snake hiding in the vegetable bin of Viet Hoa Plaza, a popular Asian grocery on Argyle Street. The woman immediately became sick, her husband led her out to her car, and she died. Police sealed off the store and found a snake–by some accounts a baby cobra–curled among the greens. The husband filed suit for $6 million.

There was also word of a second victim, a Vietnamese woman. And by some accounts police found two more of the deadly snakes.

In addition to the News-Balita’s page-one report, editor-publisher Orlando Bernardino’s page-three column examined the snake hysteria. Bernardino said it “swept across the Filipino community like wildfire.” Moy tells us it “apparently ran rampant” within the largely Vietnamese community around Argyle Street.

Business at Viet Hoa Plaza dropped by 50 percent, and owner Joe Trinh called Moy for help.

Moy called the police, nearby hospitals, the Cook County medical examiner, and Chicago’s Commission on Animal Care and Control. No one knew anything about any snakes on Argyle Street. Next Moy helped Trinh stage a public meeting at the neighborhood’s Le Bistro restaurant, at which Trinh, Moy, and various public officials assured area merchants and worried residents that the store was safe. Moy says about 150 people crowded into the meeting and others had to be turned away.

Where’d the story come from? we asked Moy. “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said. “There’s a theory it was one of the competitors on the street, one of the smaller grocery stores. It’s the largest Asian grocery store on the north side there, so you can see there’d probably be some jealousy.”

Trinh did get a call from a reporter at one of the dailies. Trinh convinced the reporter that the story was a lie and nobody died of a snakebite in his grocery store. The reporter hung up, apparently having decided there was no news.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.