Bill Watterson is akin to a cartooning god for many people of my generation. His comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes, is justifiably considered one of the greatest achievements in his medium. It had wit, a deft touch of whimsy, and social commentary that still rings true to this day. It also mechanically changed how a Sunday comic strip could be drawn/displayed. The hermit-like artist, through his comic strip, sparked the imaginations of a generation of kids while indirectly making himself an anchor for Generation Y’s youth.
He was also wrong about a lot of things. Comic books can be stupid, but that doesn’t mean he’s not hypocritical for disparaging an entire medium (which is more a less a brother to his own) by blaming the content for the delivery mechanism. It’s also naive to want one’s art to reach as broad an audience as possible while remaining anonymous. This is no knock against his creation, of course, but rather a reminder to my fellows that Watterson was a man rather than a prophet
Why a “prophet?” Because so many people still love him for his principled stance against licensing. For all of his strip’s success, Watterson refused to license his characters out to anything except a very limited range of books and material. He thought that it “cheapened” the story. Fair enough: he retained the rights (through a vicious struggle with his syndicate) and did what he saw fit with his creation. He could have made a lot of money. Instead, he did things his way.
But saying that such licensing cheapens all comic narratives? That’s a precarious statement, especially considering that comic strips developed as a means to sell newspapers (just as television developed as a means to sell cigarettes). This is particularly odd considering that Watterson himself thinks some (read: his) comics are art and others are not. It’s the piece that defines art, then, rather than the medium. So according to Bill, in the end, both what is commercialism and what is art is completely subjective.
That’s fine, except that it doesn’t create a beneficial area for discussion. Any argument can simply be ended with a simple dismissal of opinion. I prefer to think in terms of absolutes. Art is an expression of the soul, not a quality arbitrarily decided upon by outsiders of learned judgment. If the latter is the case, then only certain people can determine what is and isn’t art, what is and what isn’t cheap, what should and should not be popular. That smacks of elitism to me: the real kind, not the bogus deal that drives people to vote against their conscience. Watterson, his ilk, and their followers would have you believe that art is not for amateurs or “sell-outs” because if it is, we wouldn’t have all this horrible commercialization around us.
Luckily for me, Kingdom Hearts disproves both of those points.
If there is going to be a case against degradation of art through sales, this is the piece to make it. As a piece of narrative, it is related to comics (through its protagonists—Mickey, Donald, and Goofy) and the commoditization of art (ditto). As a game, it also harkens to the mechanics, characters, and feel of earlier titles also created by Square (Final Fantasy VII being a big one, especially considering a cameo from Cloud Strife). It harnesses upon characters from both studios to create a narrative that is at once familiar and unique, in the same way that taking ingredients and throwing them into the oven can make a pie.
Unlike such a delicious creation as a slice of key lime heaven, however, such a tale naturally sails in dangerous waters. These are characters that people hold near and dear to their hearts. A small mistake in their development would ring a sour note that could destroy a title before it even hit the shelves. Is Donald Duck too tough? Does the appearance of Final Fantasy characters ruin their canon? Can such disparate worlds ever coalesce?
In a word, yes. Without getting into the quality of the game itself, Kingdom Hearts is a masterful narrative that utilizes romanticism, dream logic, and a person’s preconceptions to create a space where anything can happen. This is a place where the greatest Disney villains take on the greatest Disney heroes, led by the gamer him/herself. The rules don’t quite matter here, so canon is not as important, either. The game has its own internal logic and rules, of course, but that is so that nothing gets too confusing. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in “what if…”
Cynics may say that this is “what if…” two of the largest media producers united to make a buck? And that’s fair. One could argue that Mickey Mouse is the most commercialized character of all time (depending on whether one thinks Jesus Christ is fictional or not, or even overly commercialized). Mickey’s face is everywhere and, due to iconography, is inextricably linked with the Walt Disney Company. There is no Disney without Mickey, and no Mickey without Disney. Would that Apple had such a character, and they should rule the world…
Combined with a video gaming juggernaut like Square (was), it would have been reasonable to assume that this was like any other commercial tie-in… and yet, it wasn’t. There was some genuine emotion in the game. It utilized tropes of both animation and gaming that might seem odd to outsiders, of course, but it also created a healthy community of followers that clamor for more. A half-dozen sequels have followed. Forums (both art and literary) have sprung up devoted to fan-fiction. Cosplay is regular at conventions and in the real world (alas, alas). Something went right.
“Somehow,” the creators of the title realized the power of shorthand. Icons and famous characters immediately bring about an emotional connection. I say “somehow,” because these are people who have made a living on giving people what they want: a connection to the land of imagination. Remember how you felt when watching Goofy cartoons with your father? While playing Final Fantasy as your mother was cooking downstairs? There is an inborn power to that which is crafted well—in other words, art—because such things create lasting moments, memories, and thoughts in our minds.
The influence in this shrinking of time, this immediately powerful reaction, appears even in the outside world. Human beings don’t need to have seen every Mickey Mouse cartoon or played every minute of the Final Fantasy series because fans of those characters automatically register the tone/feel from within, rather than without. Just as dreams only need to make sense while one is experiencing them, so too does Kingdom Hearts only need to abide by its own rules. These are our dreams, made real despite their leaps of logic. Many give it up at some that imaginative spark at some point in their lives. Art helps us rekindle.
That is the danger Watterson and others see. What if these dreams were used to destroy, to steal, to counterfeit rather than to aspire? What if iconography is used to bad ends, or characters to sell a radical viewpoint rather than a happy meal? What if the dream becomes a nightmare?
All the better to keep things closed and never let anybody come near anything dangerous ever. Don’t buy into the system. Don’t dream outside of this very specific set of guidelines. This is allowable. That is not.
That’s not how our society works. Human beings are social creatures, tied together by desire and family. We see the world through our own perspectives, yet crave socialization and the filtering process it provides. Adults have to think for themselves. Children have to be nurtured. Both need to dream. Everybody would be protected if nobody ever advertised, or swindled somebody with a cheap knock-off, or preyed on one’s insecurities, but until society reaches a utopia where everybody self-regulates, we have to allow for mistakes to be made.
That is a whole ‘nother argument all together, I realize. I can never convince those who believe that marketing to kids is morally repugnant. At the same time, I find it ridiculous that certain artists think that the population can’t decide things for themselves. Mickey Mouse is hawking golf clubs? Perish the thought! Don’t like it? Don’t buy it. Or, like Watterson, don’t produce it. Just don’t look down on others who buy or sell into that system.
Maybe I’m just a little sensitive. I don’t like people who call others “sell outs.” “Selling out” is a phrase that people use when they haven’t starved for long enough, or for when they want to control ART so that the unruly masses can’t get their hands on IT.
Yeah, I’m definitely a little sensitive. But Watterson is still wrong.