|James Gillray, Wierd-Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon, 1791|
|William Hogarth, Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, 1738|
|James Gillray, Wierd-Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon, 1791|
|William Hogarth, Strolling Actresses Dressing in a Barn, 1738|
The amount and types of comics merchandising are literally innumerable. Over the 100 year lifespan of comics, books, sheet music, plays, rings, greeting cards, postcards, trading cards, keychains, banks, radio shows, television shows, movies, novels, Big Little Books, buttons, watches, jewelry, children's books, dishes, toothbrushes, record albums, plates, dartboards, coloring books, T-shirts, hats, food products, puzzles, toys, games, posters, dolls, action figures, statues, busts, models, books-on-tape, cups, mugs, video games... anything that one could imagine have been made. A few major forms are worth examining.
Reprint book collections were among the first merchandise, with one of the Yellow Kid by early 1897. These book collections, now frequently called "platinum age comic books16," were very popular and even sold through the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Major publishers such as Embee and Cupples & Leon reprinted books of most successful strips like Bringing up Father, Buster Brown, Mutt and Jeff, the Gumps, Happy Hooligan, the Katzenjammer Kids, Little Orphan Annie, and many others (Beerbohm, 1997). The practice continues today with Andrews McMeel of Kansas City being the dominant publisher. Other early forms of merchandise continue to be popular until today.
Figure 8 Postcards with holiday messages were popular in the early years of the comics as this 1904 Happy Hooligan Valentine Greetings shows.
Many types of merchandise might seem to be modern inventions, but arose around the time of the comics. Postcards and greeting cards, as common in 1900 as today, featured comics figures including Happy Hooligan, Maggie and Jiggs, Little Nemo and Buster Brown (Figure 8). Dolls and action figures date back to the Yellow Kid as well. Children in the 1940s played with a carved-wood Superman, while in the 1960s, Captain Action could be dressed as one's favorite DC or Marvel hero and in the 1970s, Mego sold poorly-dressed superheroes. But the golden age of the action figure began in the 1980s. No longer marketed as dolls, most of DC's characters were issued for their Superpowers line and Jack Kirby wrote and drew two comics miniseries promoting the toys. Marvel followed suit with a Secret Wars toy line and miniseries (DeFalco, 1992). The trend has continued in the 1990s with more than 200 different Batman figures created. Trading cards, another popular item, also date to the Yellow Kid. The first superhero card set, of Superman, was produced in 1940, two years after his creation (Wells, 1994: iv).
Newly-created media use old cartoon standbys for inspiration. When video games became popular in the 1980s, Atari produced a Spider-Man version, and linked with DC to have five Atari Force comic books (1982-1983) which were given away with the games. The story began in the miniature comic book and continued in the game -- a new hybrid form of entertainment17. Video games remain popular, although usually tied in with a movie such as Batman & Robin. Acclaim has failed three times as a comic book publisher, but their Turok game was a hit while the comic was cancelled.
As with video games, a new sport or hobby brings new opportunities for licensing tie-ins. Since NASCAR racing has grown in popularity, comics characters have been applied to race cars. Batman, Joker, Alfred E. Neuman and four Superman cars are circling race tracks18 ("Nine", 1999).
Figure 9 Superman did not actually appear at the Palisades Amusement Park, but one can find many comics characters in amusement parks now. From World's Finest #161, DC Comics, October, 1966.
Theme parks based on cartoon characters date at least to the establishment of Disneyland in 1955. In the 1990s, these parks have proliferated (Figure 9). Six Flags amusement parks have Batman and Superman rollercoasters. Spider-Man and Popyeye rides opened in 1999 as did Camp Snoopy at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. The Ripley's Believe It or Not! strip spawned twenty-six "museums" in the U.S., Korea, Australia, Canada, China (Hong Kong), Thailand, Mexico, the Philippines, Denmark and England (Ripley's, 1999). Metreon - "A Sony Entertainment Center" opening in San Francisco has a game area designed by Moebius based on his Airtight Garage (Metreon, 1999).
Comics' penetration of culture means that characters sometimes become more than just a licensing opportunity and become part of society, an example being composer Michael Daugherty's Metropolis Symphony (1996), based on the Superman mythos. Charles Schulz recounted one of his experiences with people wishing to use his characters in a non-commercial way:
[NASA's] Al Chop came to me and they had just had that tragic fire where the astronauts were killed and so they wanted to start a new safety program and he had an idea to build the program around a cartoon character and he asked me if Snoopy could be the character and I said, "Sure, I'm very flattered." So they made posters and all sorts of things. They made beautiful little metal things which were really nice pieces of jewelry and if a person on the assembly line has a good safety record, one of the astronauts would present him or her with the pin and of course, those pins were taken to the moon and the moon landing" (Marschall & Groth, 1992: 22).
Superman was the subject of a Smithsonian Institution exhibit, Superman: Many Lives, Many Worlds, on his fiftieth anniversary in 1987 (Patton, 1987) and in 1999, he appeared on a postage stamp in the USPS's Celebrate the Century series as one of the 15 major highlights of the 1930s19. The United States was a latecomer in honoring cartoon characters on stamps, as Canada had an earlier Superman stamp and many other countries have pictured their native characters. (Rhode, 1999).
Jane Gaines (1991: 208-227) has theorized, especially in regard to Superman, that the high levels of popularity will eventually work against the ownership of popular characters as they will move into the public domain through their universality, as the term "aspirin" did. Given the spirited defense of copyright and trademarks mounted by major companies, this seems doubtful, but may be possible. Copyright is limited, although it now lasts longer partly due to lobbying by Disney which had feared Mickey Mouse cartoons would enter the public domain in 2003, although Mickey would still have had trademark protection. Chairman Michael Eisner's appearance on Capitol Hill helped convince Congress to extend copyright's duration (McAllister, 1998). Metropolitan Life's website includes the warning, "No part of the PEANUTS materials may be copied, reproduced, used or performed in any form (graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping or information storage and retrieval systems) for any purpose without the express written permission of United Feature Syndicate, Inc.," which would seem to ignore the fair use clause in copyright law. In contrast, a trademark can last forever as long as it is actually being used. Expansion of both copyright and trademark to protect intellectual property has benefited the owners of cartoon characters, creating a very different situation from what Outcault encountered.
Some comics characters are undoubtedly created to be merchandised in a more lucrative medium. Rom, Spaceknight hit the toy and comic book stores simultaneously, but the comic survived the toy by years. Oddly enough, there is an example of a cartoonist being created and then merchandised - television's Caroline in the City. Cartoonist Bonnie Timmons provided the artwork purportedly done by Caroline on the show, and a line of Caroline greeting cards soon followed.
Commercialism of comics is certainly not unique to the United States. Mauricio de Sousa in Brazil has built a multi-million dollar business based on his character Monica (Vergueiro, 1999: 178-181) and in Europe, Tintin and Asterix are icons in a manner perhaps surprising when one realizes how few graphic novels of each were published. (There were only 23 Tintin graphic novels, the last new one in 1976). Asterix, recently the star of a live-action movie, has had a theme park outside of Paris since 1989 (White, 1995; Tagliabue, 1995). Merchandise based on the Tintin and Asterix is so prevalent that specialty stores have opened in the United States in San Francisco, New York and most recently, in Washington, D.C.
Japan has taken the commercialism trend to its highest level, as Schodt (1986: 147) noted:
In 1980, there were over 150 'animation' and 'comics' albums released in Japan. Records linked with comics in Japan can be music or poems composed or performed by popular comic artists; dramatizations or musical interpretations of popular comic stories; or theme songs and background music from television animation, theatrical feature animation, and live action films based on comics.
Presumably the number has only increased since then, and Japan's experience has been repeated throughout Southeast Asia. Lent (1998: 33) reporting on Korea, said, "Dai Won is the dominant part of a five-pronged corporation by the same name, which specializes in the production of animation, comics, video and 'fancy' (cartoon-related merchandise) ...Comics magazines appear first, which are spun off into comic books and animation, and later, video" (Lent, 1998: 33). Elsewhere Russia has recently seen the opening of a restaurant based on Andrei Bilzho's strip character Petrovich (Kaiser, 1999). Frequently, European and Asian companies try to export their characters to the U.S.; Peyo's Smurfs was one of the most successful in this regard, although its popularity in the 1980s was a result of an animated television show, and not the original comics albums. Not all attempts by foreign companies to breach the American market are successful though; for example, the attempt by DIC Productions to bring Sailor Moon to the U.S. failed (Grigsby, 1998). In the other direction, Disney recently was unsuccessful in marketing Franquin's comic strip Marsupilami in America and lost almost 10 million dollars in court decisions based on that failure (Deutsch, 1999; "Disney", 1999).
It is worth noting that merchandising probably cannot sustain a company without new original material. In 1982, Disney was widely believed to be moribund, while it moved to making three-fourths of its income on merchandising and theme parks instead of films and animation (Mills, 1982: 53). With the revival of its animation tradition and the success of The Little Mermaid, the company grew prodigiously but recent experiences suggest that it might need to review its merchandising policies (Bates and Eller, 1999).
Comics have been used for advertising and licensed and sold as merchandise since their creation in the last century. An uncountable number and types of products linked to comics have been sold, and some adaptations have proved artistically fruitful. The commercialization of comics has been historically extensive and probably will not lessen in the foreseeable future.
I would like to thank my wife, Cathy Hunter, both for letting me collect the materials that this paper is built on, and then editing it for me Also, my colleagues Anne Clair Goodman, Charles Hatfield, Gene Kannenberg, Heather Lindsay and Robert Montgomery for suggesting ideas, providing technical assistance and editing the final draft.
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16. In 1997, the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide began listing "platinum" age comic strip collections and is probably the best single bibliography for them.
17. DC also published a newsstand issue Atari Force comic book.
18. Of course, the NASCAR promotion leads to additional licensing including a comic book. "To commemorate the drivers, their vehicles and the unique Superman-themed promotion, DC Comics created a custom comic book featuring all nine drivers as characters in an action adventure story with Superman. The limited-edition custom comic will be sold exclusively by Kmart in its mass retail stores. Action will design, market and distribute a variety of exclusively designed collectible die-cast replica cars, adult and children's apparel items and other merchandise to fans and collectors. Superman Racing memorabilia will be available trackside and through Action's established distribution channels. Related Hasbro Winner's Circle (R) products will be available through mass retail outlets" ("Nine", 1999).
19. There was, of course, merchandise besides the postage stamp available from the U.S. Post Office. It included a magnet ($5.99), magnetic greeting card ($2.99), puzzle postcard ($2.49), key chain ($4.99), pin ($4.99), memo pad ($3.99), shipping labels ($2.99), gift tag/magnet ($3.99), foil notecards ($6.99), color clings ($2.49), shipping envelope ($2.99), gift bag ($3.99) and a limited-edition reprint of Action Comics #1 with a first day cancellation. The Post Office and DC Comics also issued ten comic books, one for each decade, featuring characters explaining the significance of the stamps.
The comic book itself was originally a form of merchandising comic strips. Early magazine-style comic books, such as Proctor & Gamble's premium Funnies on Parade in 1933 and Famous Funnies in 1934, reprinted comic strips. Gulf Comics Weekly, a tabloid-sized oil company premium had begun publishing original comics in 1933 and the rest of the industry eventually followed (Beerbohm and Olson, 1999: 229). There are thousands of free promotional comic books. Giveaway comics are usually created to educate about or promote a company or cause. Examples include Marvel and the American Cancer Society's Spider-Man, Storm and Powerman (1996); Disney and Exxon's Mickey and Goofy Explore the Universe of Energy (1985) and Field Enterprises and the Union Fork and Hoe Company's Miss Peach Tells You How to Grow Flowers, Vegetables and Weeds (1969).
Comic book licensing has occurred at least since the creation of the first superhero, Superman. All of the major companies like DC, Marvel, Fawcett, Archie, Malibu and many minor ones like Cartoon Books, the publisher of Bone, have merchandising and licensing. Some companies, like Dell were the merchandising, as they produced comics mostly based on characters and stories licensed from other media. A modern counterpart exists in Dark Horse Comics which publishes an extensive Star Wars line among other licensed properties. Gladstone Publishing, which, like Dell, relied totally on producing comics based on licensing, shut down in 1998. Gladstone's owner, Bruce Hamilton, described the occasional difficulty of using licensed characters, "[Disney] keep[s] coming up with licenses that have tougher and tougher and more unreasonable demands in their boiler-plate language to the point where I have decided I am just not willing to negotiate any new licenses with them" (Spurgeon, 1998: 8). Hamilton's experience with Disney may reflect both the current financial value and also the changing legal definitions of intellectual property, but it is the reader of comics that has lost the pleasure of these classics11. Games such as Dungeons and Dragons and toys like the Micronauts have also become successful comic book series.
Of the major comic book companies, DC Comics has been among the most successful in selling their characters. DC has been licensed so successfully that its characters are household words, rivaled only by Disney and a few other major properties such as Tarzan.
Figure 5 Batman's world-wide popularity during the television show is demonstrated by this US Army Intelligence copy of a bootleg image on a Vietnamese nasal decongestant. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington, D,C. (Vietnam War Collection).
The 1966 Batman television show (Figure 5) demonstrated how successful marketing could be in the increasingly prosperous and consumer-oriented America. About the same time, Marvel Comics began merchandising its characters after the successes of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, reportedly left the company when he did not receive a share of the licensing (Beerbohm, 1999). Like most companies, Marvel pursued licensing and had a wide variety of products and tie-ins with its characters including television shows, Slurpee cups, Pez dispensers, toys, and other products. In the 1990s, Marvel, after becoming a publicly-held company traded on the New York Stock Market, began aggressively seeking commercialization of its characters, and expanded its domain by purchasing sticker and trading cards companies. Its core business of comic books also grew because of "speculators" buying multiple copies of comics for long-term investments. When all three of these collectibles became less popular, Marvel was left in poor financial condition ("Comic Book Publisher", 1998). After declaring bankruptcy in 1996 and being taken over by its licensing partner, ToyBiz, in 1998, the reorganized company reported, "This [year's first quarter] increase [in sales over 1998's first quarter] was largely attributable to the inclusion of approximately $15.3 million in sales from the Licensing division and approximately $10.4 million in sales from the Publishing division, which were acquired as part of the Company's acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Group in October, 1998" (Marvel Enterprises, 1999). In other words, the licensing, on a strict accounting level, was more profitable than publishing the comic books, but both parts of the business, which is still based on comic characters, had multi-million dollar sales.
At times, the characters themselves become merchandise. The survival of comic strips far beyond the life of their creator is too well known to discuss here, although a quote from the Ripley's... Believe It or Not! website is instructive: "Almost 50 years after [Ripley's] death, the Ripley's Believe It or Not! cartoon is still wildly popular; printed daily in 147 papers worldwide, in 38 countries and in 10 different languages" (Ripley's, 1999). A similar, although less frequent, occurrence happens with comic books when a successful company purchases the creations of an unsuccessful rival. DC Comics has been especially active in purchasing characters, including Blackhawk from Quality and Captain Marvel from Fawcett, both of which were "seamlessly" integrated into what is currently known as the DC Universe. For a short time in the 1990s, DC licensed and published Archie Comics' superheroes from the 1960s under their Impact! imprint. This trend towards the commodification of characters in comic books can also work in favor of some creators who, since the 1980s, have been able to own their characters12. Many characters have now been published by multiple companies who essentially licensed the character from the creator. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, perhaps the ultimate self-published merchandising success story13, has recently been published by Archie and Image companies.
Even unlikely sources lead to licensing empires. EC's 1950's horror comics were licensed extensively 45 years after their creation due to the success of the television series, Tales from the Crypt in 1989. These are the same comics that were originally considered so gruesome that they were indicted in the anti-comics movement (Diehl, 1996). EC's Mad Magazine, putatively an anti-establishment, anti-commercialization comic, at least based on its editorial stance, resisted the trend for years, but eventually succumbed. As William Gaines said, "A lot of people have one way of looking at [merchandising Mad]: like 'Peanuts' is merchandised to its eyeballs...I don't object to that, except that a magazine like Mad, which makes fun of people who do that -- it doesn't seem proper for us to do it ourselves" (Reidelbach, 1991: 174). Mad's long-term drop in circulation eventually led them to licensing. With Gaines' death and Mad's complete incorporation into the Time-Warner conglomerate, the process has accelerated with Alfred E. Neuman and Spy vs. Spy action figures now available in comic book stores.
Figure 6 Kitchen Sink's candy bar illustrated by Crumb's Devil Girl proved surprisingly popular and was followed by more underground candy.
Possibly the most unlikely source, underground comix creator Robert Crumb has been heavily merchandised in recent years (Richter, 1995). Crumb, as a counter-culture icon, had seen his "Keep on Truckin" image appropriated without any compensation nearly three decades ago. In the 1990s, and especially with the release of the movie Crumb, Kitchen Sink Press extensively used his oeuvre in ways not entirely expected, such as the Devil Girl candybar (Figure 6). Kitchen Sink, on the other hand, barely survived over-extending itself on merchandise for the second Crow movie in 1996 and in 1999 found itself taken over by the candy side of its business (Riley, 1997).
In recent years, due to the direct market, comic book publishers, readers, and store owners have concentrated more on the collectibility aspect of comics and companies have been formed to take advantage of that niche. Graphitti Designs, whose motto is "Quality Licensed Products Since 1982," exists solely to merchandise existing characters from other companies. In 1994 they were producing "screen-printed shirts, limited edition books and prints, sculpted statues and busts, cloisonne and sculpted pins, compact discs, and embroidered caps"; among these were a $195 Vault-Keeper Statue (from Tales from the Crypt), three Batman T-shirts, 2 Superman T-shirts, a Rocketeer Club pin, a Vampirella T-shirt and three Akira books priced at $49.95 each (Chapman, 1994). Graphitti Designs advertises itself as vital to a comics retailer: "Many comics consumers do want more than just the comics. Ancillary products have the ability to also attract a clientele beyond the traditional comics reader. People will walk into a comics store displaying cool media-related shirts or other peripheral products even though they don't read comics" (Chapman, 1995). This positive view is affirmed by Big Planet Comics store owner, Joel Pollack, who said, "I think overall [merchandising] is a good thing. It's a great way to publicize the characters." Big Planet Comics, in Bethesda, Maryland has been in business for 13 years, weathering several downturns in the comic book market so Pollack's opinion is indicative of business realities (Pollack, 1999).
Adaptations in other media
It is possible to draw a difference between adaptations in other media and the plain licensing of a character for a toy or food. Superman is a prime example having been adapted into a comic strip (thus recapitulating his original creation); a novel -- Superman by George Lowther (1940); a radio show (1940-1951); an animated movie short series by the Fleisher Brothers (1941-1943); movie serials14 (1948 and 1950); a live action television series (1953-1957); a Broadway play -- It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman (1966); an animated television series (1966-1969); a hit movie and sequels (1979-1987); a second animated television series (1988-1989); another live action television series -- Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1996); and most recently, a third animated television series (1996-1999). Any of these adaptations could be successful and enjoyed by an audience that did not read Superman comic books. Adaptation of Superman to other media became a necessity by the 1990s when the comic book's sales figures were regularly below 100,000 copies sold. Adaptations can frequently inject new life into a property as seen by the introduction of Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Inspector Henderson and the invention of kryptonite in the Superman radio show (Tollin, 1997: 1-2), Superman and Lois Lane's marriage in Lois & Clark, and the arrival of a new successor to Bruce Wayne as Batman in Batman Beyond.
Successful comic strips are turned into comic books . Literally dozens of strips, such as Flash Gordon, Popeye, Dick Tracy and the Phantom have had original stories published in comic books. Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Marvel's version of Conan are among those that have been made into strips, some multiple times.
Theater adaptations began almost immediately after the creation of the comic strip. They continue to the present day. Winchester's studies of plays show that many were produced from 1894-1930 including multiple, different road shows of the Brownies, the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown, Mutt and Jeff, and Bringing Up Father. This was followed by a lull when most adaptations were done as radio shows or films. The three decades from the 1950s to the 1980s saw major adaptations such as You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and Annie. In recent years, smaller shows adapting unconventional work such as Crumb's have predominated (Winchester, 1993).
Figure 7 Kudzu: A Southern Musical is one of the latest in a long line of plays adapted from the comics.
Doug Marlette's Kudzu was produced in Ford's Theatre in 1998, while being advertised in his comic strip (Figure 7). Neil Gaiman's work is frequently adapted and a version of Signal To Noise has been staged in Chicago as a fund-raiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (Spurgeon, 1999).
Adapting comics into prose has been popular whether in Little Golden Books (children's books with simple prose and large illustrations), Big Little Books (alternating text and drawings), or adult novelizations. Hundreds of prose works featuring dozens of characters have been created. Most novelizations are made from movie adaptations of comics, but Marvel Comics currently has a successful original novel series (O'Hearn, 1998).
Radio, as a popular medium, arose concurrently with comic books and the two shared a cast of characters. Comics characters with radio shows included Batman, Buster Brown, Dick Tracy, the Green Lama, Hop Harrigan, Little Orphan Annie, Mandrake the Magician, Red Ryder, Skippy, Superman, Terry and the Pirates, and certainly others (Tumbusch, 1989). Most adaptations were between the 1930s and early 1950s, but from 1995 to 1996 National Public Radio aired Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. Most radio shows were not perceived as having long-term value and some were permanently lost, but The Adventures of Superman is currently being reissued by the Smithsonian (Tollin, 1997). Radio shows generated a vast amount of "secondary" merchandise - premiums or giveaways based on a character's adapted version, and not the original comics creation15. As Smith (1982: 40-41) noted:
Ovaltine gave away more premiums on its radio shows, Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight, than any other radio sponsor. Entire warehouses of paraphernalia -- shake-up mugs that made 'a picnic out of every meal,' identification tags 'like real soldiers and aviators wear,' buttons, photos, games, masks, pins, rings, badges, bandannas, booklets, bracelets, coins, cutouts and maps - were shipped out to listeners..."
Literally hundreds of movies -- thousands if one includes animated shorts -- have been made from the comics. The seven live-action Happy Hooligan shorts done in 1900 by director J. Stuart Blackton are probably the first. Most adaptations were made into series of shorts or serials; Blondie starred in twenty-eight B-movies from 1938 to 1950. Television usurped this role in the 1950s when Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Joe Palooka and Dennis the Menace began appearing. Movies like the 1966 Batman starring the television cast were still made, but usually with larger budgets than television could afford. Superman (1979) and Superman II (1981), which were essentially filmed at the same time, became the model for licensing. Both movies together had 200 licensees, including Warner Publishing, producing 1,200 products. Superman made $140 million dollars in film rentals for Warner Bros. which distributed the movie. Superman II had already sold $100 million worth of overseas tickets before the movie opened in the United States. The initial movie also galvanized support for creators' rights, becoming the lever which shamed the company into giving Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, the Superman creators who had signed away their rights to Superman for less than $200, a lifetime pension of initially $20,000, a "gift" of $10,000, and lifetime medical coverage. The two also received a credit line on future uses of Superman (Harmetz, 1981; Sherwood, 1975).
12. Due to both a creators' rights movement that began in the 1970s and an increase in the number of publishers, some characters are owned by their creators. Creators who design new characters that are firmly a part of the companies' "universe" are usually compensated for them now. Marv Wolfman's current lawsuit against Marvel Comics reveals past practices (Dean, 1999).
13. Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-financed the publication of their black & white first issue in May 1984. They issued a press release that was picked up by UPI and they quickly sold out their first issue. Eventually the Turtles had "more than five hundred licensees in some thirty countries producing more than nine hundred Turtle products," including an animated television series, three movies, and toys (Wiater, 1991: xv-xix). To their credit, they put some of their licensing money back into comics through Tundra, the Words & Pictures Museum and Xeric grants.
14. Tollin (1997: 2) notes that the serials "were adapted from the Superman radio program broadcast on the Mutual Network" and not the comic book.
This is a bit dated now, but I think it still contains information of interest. I'll post the entire thing over the next few days.
The Commercialization of Comics:
A Broad Historical Overview
Michael G. Rhode
International Journal of Comic Art, 1:2 (Fall 1999)
Since their creation, comic strips and books have been licensed by their owners for use by other companies, and also merchandised as various products by their owners. Commercialism may be inseparable from the art form. Comics are, in Spiegelman's memorable phrase (1994: 106), "the bastard offspring of art and commerce," possible as a mass-produced commodity only within the past century and tied strongly to advertising and selling newspapers. It is important to remember that people want to buy merchandise showing a favorite comics character.
This article will examine some of the broad trends in commercialism with noteworthy historic and recent examples. As entire books have been written on the merchandising of single characters1, only high points of commercialism will be touched on.
For our purposes we can begin with the creation of the Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid, generally-accepted as the first recurring comic strip character, in 1895. As Witek pointed out in his study of the history of comics criticism, recurring characters have long been accepted as part of the definition of a comic strip. In fact, they are, as he also notes, a necessity for merchandising a strip (Witek, 1999: 6). Possibly the only exception to this is Charles Addams' gag cartoon characters, which were adapted to television before being given names and personalities.2 Dotz and Morton explained the need for recognizable characters starting concurrently with the rise of newspapers:
With the Industrial Age came mass production and mass transportation. Mass production enabled manufacturers to produce their goods in quantities previously unimaginable. Mass transportation gave them the wherewithal to disperse these goods on a national and eventually global basis. People started recognizing products by their packages, and it didn't take manufacturers long to realize that mnemonic devices, such as logotypes or distinctive characters, might help single out their products in the minds of consumers (Dotz and Morton, 1996: 8-9).
Pre-existing recognizable comics characters with built-in popularity, recognition, familiarity and sometimes a participatory vicarious lifestyle quickly proved to be a powerful commodity. The Yellow Kid initially helped to sell the newspapers he appeared in, but was soon used to advertise cigarettes, chewing gum, and yeast.
Figure 1 Marge's Little Lulu preferred Kleenex tissues in this September 6, 1954 Life Magazine ad.
Advertising and comics have had a long and fruitful association. Some characters and comic strips were created purely as advertising vehicles (Goulart, 1995). Comic characters such as Tillie the Toiler, the Katzenjammer Kids, Skippy, Little Lulu (Figure 1), and Li'l Abner acted as celebrity spokesmen for products that they "used" while Snoopy still sells life insurance (Gordon, 1998: 89-105; Lowe, 1997). Recently, borrowing from the movies, Chaos! Comics began selling advertising space through product placement directly in their comic book stories ("First-Ever", 1998).
A major advantage to licensing and merchandising is the continuation of profits long after the initial concept is created and frequently long after any original works are still being published. Superman is sixty years old but is still making money for DC Comics and corporate parent Time-Warner. Companies have taken note of the long-term power of licensing since the 1900s.3 By the 1990s, the current business trend of "branding" had led to extreme levels of commercialism. Including DC Comics and Warner Bros.' animated creations, Warner Bros. Consumer Products currently has 3,700 licensees4 (Warner Bros., 1999). Few other art forms have demonstrated such long-term earning power. Even characters nearly defunct can be revived for a new audience as the 1996 Phantom movie showed. A modest success in the United States, it performed better in Australia where the character is a national icon. Bob Fingerman, a comic book creator, sees this as working against the artform:
Comics used to be the main item, and T-shirts and baseball hats and toys were the side merchandise. Now they're the primary merchandise, and the comic is like this little nothing entity that, in a way, is to the detriment of the company. Eventually, what's going to happen, as far as I'm reading the writing on the wall, is comics will disappear altogether, because the only things that are really valuable now are the properties, the characters. And the characters are being exploited in other media. You've got CD-ROMs, you've got video games, movies, television, animation, toys, etc. That's where all the money is being made (Worcester, 1998: 101).
In America, comic strips are usually owned by the syndicates that distribute them and comic book characters are usually owned by their publisher. With break-out successes, a large amount of money can be earned. Cartoonists, unsurprisingly, have not been adverse to getting rich through the exploitation of their creations. Outcault became wealthy because of his Buster Brown. He was never the sole owner or copyright holder of the Yellow Kid, so much of the licensing did not profit him (Gordon, 1998: 32). He did defend his rights in court to Buster Brown. He lost when the court ruled that while an individual cartoon could be copyrighted, the general characters could not; additionally the New York Herald which employed him to draw Buster Brown for three years was held to own the name5 (Winchester, 1995). Outcault later secured most of the rights to his character and, through his Outcault Advertising Agency, licensed Buster Brown throughout the country (Gordon, 1998: 48-58). Since their debut in 1902, Buster Brown and his dog Tige stand as "the longest continuously licensed comic characters" still being used to sell shoes even if few parents realize the derivation of the name (Beerbohm, 1997: 5).
Almost no strip cartoonists are able to fully own their characters; an exception was Bud Fisher. By sneaking a copyright notice on a strip and registering it with the Copyright Office, Fisher was able to defend his ownership of his Mutt and Jeff strip in court. As a result, Harvey (1994: 38) states, "The soaring popularity of Mutt and Jeff made Fisher rich beyond his wildest dreams. By 1916 popular magazine articles were reporting that he earned $150,000 a year; five years later, Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons6 and merchandising, as well as the constantly growing circulation of the strip, had increased his annual income to about $250,000." Fisher's high-living lifestyle has been credited as the reason that both Al Capp7 and Ludwig Bemelmens became cartoonists (Theroux, 1999: 13-14; Collins, 1998: 120), and this reasoning for career choices continues. In the not favorable view of two "alternative" comics creators James Sturm and Art Baxter, "One cornerstone of our tradition is commerce. Comics were made to sell newspapers. The industry of comics has been grafted to the art of comics... Most publishers and cartoonists are preoccupied with creating the next 'big thing' -- hoping their characters get a TV or movie deal" (Sturm & Baxter, 1999: 97-8). An example of modern success would be Todd McFarlane. In the 1980s a journeyman penciller on DC's Infinity, Inc. and then a hit on The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, he left the major companies to be able to own his creations. With partners he formed Image Comics and created Spawn in 1992. He immediately formed a toy company (soon running photographs of the Chinese factory making his toys in his Spawn comic book), and eventually built a multi-media empire including movie and television versions of Spawn.8 Scott Adams' merchandising of Dilbert, while currently seemingly omnipresent, is only the latest example in a long tradition.9
As the premier licensing success of his generation, Charles Schulz has often been asked (and taken to task) about Peanuts' success. Schulz has stated:
Now the licensing thing has always been around. Percy Crosby did all sorts of licensing. Buster Brown was licensed like mad, you know. It's always been just traditional. Li'l Abner, Al Capp did a lot of licensing. But it comes upon you so slowly, you're not even realizing that it's happening. And you're young, you have a family to raise, you don't know how long this thing is going to last... And I suppose Bill Watterson came along later with his stand against licensing which is really ridiculous, but I don't know Bill, and I'm sure his life is different from mine. And he didn't have five kids to support and a lot of other things like that (Groth, 1997: 43).
Figure 2 These two Peanuts mugs, "I think I'm allergic to morning," have the same copyright date although they were produced at least a decade apart.
An advertising campaign for Ford which used animated commercials, newspaper ads and billboards was the start, which led to the Coca-Cola-sponsored A Charlie Brown Christmas,followed by other animated specials, the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and innumerable pieces of merchandise (Marschall & Groth, 1992: 20; Figure 2). Eventually, Schulz had enough power to say to United Features Syndicate:
'I want to own this thing. I'm tired of you selling Charlie Brown razor blades in Germany without telling me. I want to be able to do what I want to do and I don't want you doing anything but the strip. Either I get my way, or I'm going to quit.' This guy [the syndicate president], he couldn't understand at all. 'You make more money than everybody else. You've got more.' I said, 'Yeah, but I earn more. I've done more. You see, I don't want more money. I just want control so you guys don't ruin it' (Marschall & Groth, 1992: 24).
Schulz can now say, "Well, I have control over everything. My contract gives control. They can't do anything without my okay and I can do anything I want, as long as it does not destroy the property."
When asked about the growth of Peanuts merchandising, Schulz replied:
"[T]he only reason that licensing keeps getting bigger is the fact that it's simply more popular now. United Features, which never even had a licensing department before, suddenly had this enormous licensing property and we had people devoted exclusively just to looking at other companies and finding licensed properties and things, which we never did. Everything we ever did came to us, really. We never went out and sought anything. So now licensing is very big, but I'm involved with it only to the point where I want to see it done as decently as possible" (Marschall & Groth, 1992: 20).
Schulz has used his wealth to fund charitable projects. In response to Groth's question, "Can I ask you why you license the characters to corporations like Metropolitan Life Insurance? You obviously don't have to." Schulz replied, "Well, but they pay a lot of money." Groth pursued the point, saying, "But you don't need a lot of money. I mean, you already have a lot of money. Right?" Schulz asked him, "How would you like to keep this place going [gesturing at his ice skating rink] at $140,000 a month?" and laughed. As Groth continued to question the scale of Peanuts' licensing, Schulz went off the record to discuss his apparently-extensive charitable contributions10 (Groth, 1997: 42).
Schulz's positive approach to licensing (if not his charitable donations) has been emulated by other cartoonists. Cathy Guisewite has capitalized on Cathy with licenses to VISA and J.C. Penny's; the strip's shop-a-holic character is a natural link. Jim Davis' Garfield was a major 1980's hit especially with the book collections; Garfield at Large was on the New York Times bestseller list for 100 weeks, and in 1982, seven collections were on the list simultaneously. 225 million Garfield dolls with suction cups to stick on windows were sold by 1989 of which Davis said, "It was too popular. We accepted the royalty checks, but my biggest fear was overexposure. We pulled all plush dolls off the shelves for five years." Davis bought his rights to Garfield from United Media in 1994 for 15 to 25 million dollars (Johnson, 1998). Davis now publishes a 36-page, full color catalogue of Garfield merchandise and offers membership in Club Garfield for $29.95 with $5.95 shipping and handling. Garfield's success led to some cautionary notes. Berke Breathed said in 1988, "It wasn't until Jim Davis showed everyone how to overdo it that merchandising to any degree became a potential embarrassment" Spurgeon, 1998 "Viva": 10). A News of the Weird syndicated column reported that "[Gayle] Brennan and [Mike] Drysdale have 3,000 Garfield items, including 20 pairs of Garfield bedroom slippers, and plan to move to a bigger house so they can display everything" (Shepherd and Sweeny, 1998).
In contrast to Schulz's attitude stand Garry Trudeau and Bill Watterson. Trudeau's Doonesbury licensing is usually for charity. Trudeau has licensed his characters to Starbucks for literacy campaigns; permitted the Sierra Club to reproduce a Sunday strip as a poster; produced an on-line strip at Amazon.com for Reading is Fundamental; created the 1990 Doonesbury Stamp Album to benefit Literacy Volunteers of New York City; and, on Ben & Jerry's Doonesbury Sorbet, Mike Doonsebury informed buyers, "All creator royalties go to charity, so your purchase represents an orderly transfer of wealth you can feel proud of."
At Ohio State University, in 1989, Bill Watterson spoke at length on his perception of the problem of licensing:
Syndicate ownership of strips also gives them control over comic strip merchandising. Today, newspaper sales can't bring in a fraction of the money that licensing can bring. As the number of newspapers has diminished, and as the remaining papers run pretty much the same 20 strips everywhere, the growth of a syndicate now depends on dolls and greeting cards more than newspaper sales. Consequently, the quickest contracts are going to strips with licensing potential. One syndicate developed a comic strip after it had settled on the products: the strip was essentially to be an advertisement for the dolls and TV shows already planned. The syndicate developed the characters and then found someone to draw the strip. Lots of heart and integrity in that kind of strip, yes sir. Even in strips with more honorable beginnings, the syndicates are only too happy to sell out a comic strip for a quick and temporary buck, and their ownership and control allows them to do just that.
Of course, to be fair to the syndicates, most cartoonists are happy to sell out, too. Although not to the present extent, licensing has been around since the beginning of the comic strip, and many cartoonists have benefitted from the increased exposure. The character merchandise not only provides the cartoonist with additional income, but it puts his characters in new markets and has the potential to broaden the base of the strip and attract new readers. I'm not against all licensing for all strips. Under the control of a conscientious cartoonist, certain kinds of strips can be licensed tastefully and with respect to the creation. That said, I'll add that it's very rarely done that way. With the kind of money in licensing nowadays, it's not surprising many cartoonists are as eager as the syndicates for easy millions, and are willing to sacrifice the heart and soul of the strip to get it. I say it's not surprising, but it is disappointing.
Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don't buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don't care (Watterson, 1989).
Figure 3 Bootleg Calvin stickers and T-shirts are still widely available. These were both purchased in 1999, four years after Watterson ended his strip. The shirt reads, "Every day of my life I'm forced to add another name to the list of people who piss me off! Washington, D.C."
As one would expect, since Watterson did not permit licensing or merchandising of Calvin and Hobbes except for book collections, counterfeits flourished (Figure 3). One popular appropriation of the character was a sticker showing Calvin urinating on a NASCAR racecar driver's number. T-shirts were also a popular fraudulent item and Universal Press Syndicate won a three-quarters of a million dollars settlement against a counterfeiter in 1993 (Bernstein, 1997).
Figure 4 Dilbert, an imaginary engineer, is a natural way to advertise to real engineers. Omega Engineering provides free oversize color cards which reprint comic strips on one side and advertise engineering products on the other.
Watterson's principled stand convinced few other cartoonists, Scott Adams least of all. Adam's strip Dilbert has made him a multi-millionaire. In addition to toys, refrigerator magnets and an animated television show, Adams signed a 19-book contract for 15 million dollars (Howard, 1996). Several of the books are business management guides. The business/engineering basis of the strip has enabled Adams and United Features Syndicate to sell Dilbert in some surprising ways. The strip was licensed by Office Depot, a business supply store, while Omega Engineering put Dilbert on cards advertising equipment (Figure 4) such as the "Omegaflex Peristaltic Pump." Adams actually created a new type of licensing -- the field of corporate consulting based on comics. Lockheed Martin paid him to create Ethics Challenge, a board game for ethics training (Ginsberg, 1997). Adams is currently licensing his own character back to create a frozen burrito, the "Dilberito," and hopes to make ten million dollars in sales in 1999. In the meantime, the more than 700 licensed Dilbert products generate 200 million dollars in annual revenue for his syndicate (Steinberg, 1999).
1. Such as Batman Collected, Adventures in Superman Collecting, Collectibly Mad and several price guides. Almost any book written on an artist, character or strip will devote some pages to merchandising. A bibliography is included after the references to help promote research which has mostly been left to collectors.
2. Addams panel, like Marge's Little Lulu, is one of the few magazine cartoons to break out into merchandising.
3. Although beyond the scope of this journal, one must at least note Kay Kamen's contributions to licensing Disney's cartoon characters. His association with Disney lasted from 1932 to 1949 and he achieved amazing market penetration. Kamen's experience with Disney set the standard for licensing and merchandising (Heide and Gilman, 1994).
6. About 300 Mutt and Jeff animated shorts were made between 1913 and 1926.
7. Li'l Abner did make Al Capp a rich man. One of Capp's odder creations, the Shmoo, which embodied American consumerism, "became a national craze in 1949, [which] led to more than a hundred marketable Shmoo-inspired items, such as cottage cheese in Shmoo jars, Shmoo pencils, Shmoo balloons, Shmoo notebooks, and no end of Shmooiana, including Shmoo cocktails, Shmooverals, and Shmoo toys" according to Theroux (1999: 27).
9. Gordon's excellent 1998 book has a wealth of detail on licensing besides Outcault's. Beerbohm's 1997 article in the Overstreet Price Guide covers the first 35 years of comics licensing in detail. An incomplete list of major licensed strips and characters would include, from comic strips, the Yellow Kid, Buster Brown, Toonerville Trolley, Mutt and Jeff, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, Skippy, Moon Mullins, Blondie, Bringing Up Father, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Flash Gordon, Popeye, Little Orphan Annie, Joe Palooka, Phantom, Prince Valiant, Nancy, Li'l Abner, Red Ryder, Dick Tracy, Steve Canyon, Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Dennis the Menace, B.C., Doonesbury, Garfield, Cathy, Bloom County, the Far Side, and Dilbert. From comic books, all of DC's characters (but especially Superman, Batman, Robin, Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman), Captain Marvel, all of Marvel's books (but especially Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and Captain America), Archie, Sabrina the teen-aged witch, Richie Rich, WildC.A.T.S., Xenozoic Tales (renamed as Cadillacs & Dinosaurs for licensing), Savage Dragon, Spawn, Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles, and The Tick.
10. One thing that Schulz did do with his Peanuts money was to donate $1 miillion to a D-Day memorial in Virginia (Baker, 1999).