Toon Musings: Wagging the Dog


Tail waggin' the dog illustration
Phil Maish

Wagging the Dog: Mercantilization in the Funnies

This is a true story, relatively well-known in cartoonist circles, but not so much amongst the comics laity.

Prior to the Internet, comic strips were disseminated to the public in print media, primarily newspapers. Syndication was the usual route, with the syndicates taking submissions from aspiring cartoonists, vetting the talent and signing the most promising prospects to exclusive contracts. Then each syndicate would send sales personnel to visit the features editors of newspapers to sell its stable of comic strips. The newspapers would pay a certain fee for each strip, of which about half typically went to the creator.

The syndicates received thousands of submissions each year from aspiring cartoonists, of which only one or two were chosen for development. As you can imagine, a contract offer from a syndicate was a rare and wondrous thing: a Golden Ticket to a life of Riches and Fame, getting paid Real Cash Money to draw silly pictures for strangers that you’d probably draw anyway, in the margins, for shits and giggles. Or so many hopeful cartoonists saw it. Hopeful, sweet, naive, pathetic cartoonists.

One fine day, a young aspiring cartoonist was offered a development contract by a major syndicate. There was only one catch: he had to incorporate a certain character into the strip. The syndicate had it in mind to market a line of plush toys and records and books and animated cartoons, and it needed this comic strip as a hook. After some deliberation, the cartoonist decided that being a shill for some Vast Marketing Dreadnaught was not what he had in mind, and declined the syndicate’s offer.

He turned them down. He wadded up the golden ticket.

Here’s the inspiring bit. The cartoonist’s name is Bill Watterson, and he went on to create Calvin and Hobbes, one of the most successful, critically acclaimed, and best-loved comic strips in modern history.

But get this: there was another cartoonist who took the deal. He drew the strip, with the marketer’s creation as a central character, but with his own distinctive, edgy sense of humor. As years went by, he gradually introduced new original characters. When the marketing master plan cratered, he —at the syndicate’s request—wrote out the marketers’ character, Robotman. That cartoonist’s name is Jim Meddick, and his strip Monty is now one of the best strips in the papers, and is still going strong. At nearly twenty years old, the strip is a success by any measure.

What is a person to conclude from this? Maybe that there are many possible roads to success, if you’re good enough at what you do. Put another way, letting marketers create things is letting the tail wag the dog… but sometimes the Exceptional Dog still has his day.

Want to read more?:

A rare Bill Watterson interview

An interview with Jim Meddick

Pix of Robotman merchandise

Phil Maish author bio photo, smallPhil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at www.myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. He resides in Heartland America. 

Phil Maish at Myth-Fits