There are some sequences in comic strips that are really appealing out of the context of the joke. You can enjoy them on their own without the anticipation of the inevitable fourth panel.
Right now I’m taking a summer hiatus from Welcome to Falling Rock National Park. It works out well because I can concentrate on other projects and come back to Falling Rock in the fall refreshed and ready to go.
I recently got to thinking about when I was a kid and Bill Watterson took two sabbaticals from Calvin and Hobbes. Each time I was devastated, as if a good friend didn’t want to see me for 9 months at a time. Was it something I said? Now I realize how important breaks are, especially from a daily comic strip.
They say no matter how long your prison sentence you only do two days: your first day and your last day. At least, that’s what The Wire says. For me, Watterson’s sabbatical was only two days: the first day, when the reruns began, and the day he returned. It is the return that I’d like to talk about today.
Rarely does a comic strip combine art and writing as perfectly as Calvin and Hobbes. That kind of feat takes talent but it also takes dedication. Watterson, by all accounts, pretty much worked himself into the ground for the 10 years Calvin and Hobbes ran in daily newspapers. He was not content to be a part-time cartoonist; when he got his syndication contract he figured he might as well quit his day job. Watterson went against the wise words of his syndicate editor because he felt he had more to gain with the time spend on drawing comics than he had to lose with the steady paycheck of a job he hated.
That kind of effort cost him creatively, and after six years he needed a rest. Bill Watterson first took a sabbatical on May 5, 1991, when I was eleven. Until that date I didn’t even know what the word sabbatical meant; now I knew: no more Calvin and Hobbes for nine months. Nine months! To a kid, that might as well be a life sentence.
He intended to make up for his absence; when he returned, he asked for a larger Sunday strip. Newspaper editors balked, but I couldn’t have been happier. Now we’d get even more of Calvin and Hobbes, in full color no less.
This is what Sunday Calvin and Hobbes looked like before the sabbatical:
And this is what it looked like the first Sunday of Watterson’s return:
Suddenly we got to see the world Calvin and Hobbes lived in. To anyone born after the 1950’s this was a revelation. Ever since their inception in the late 1890’s, when the comic strip was born out of a desire to increase newspaper circulation, comics have been squashed ever smaller by clueless newspaper editors.
By the early 1990’s this meant three or four tiny panels six days a week and a slightly bigger, colorized version of the same on Sunday. Some strips, like Doonesbury and Funky, don’t appear to change from their daily versions at all. Except for the inclusion of color, you wouldn’t know anything is special. This is not the fault of the comic creators but of short-sighted newspaper editors. They have been eager to shrink the size of comics, while at the same time have seen their newspapers’ circulations shrink to nothing. Coincidence?
As Watterson said, “I think it’s a mistake to underestimate readers’ appetite for quality. The comics can be much more than they presently are. Better strips could attract larger audiences, and this would help newspapers.”
When Calvin and Hobbes returned Watterson more than made up for his absence from the comics pages by giving readers something new: a large, beautifully illustrated Sunday strip. To a kid like me, it made him even more heroic. Watterson had talent and clout and he was using them to make comics better, to raise the art form all by himself.
He wasn’t asking for more money; quite the opposite, in fact. He refused to license his characters and lost himself and his syndicate millions of theoretical dollars. “I didn’t care if we made more money, and he syndicate didn’t care about my notions of artistic integrity,” Watterson said. He insisted on keeping the world he was creating insulated and pure, another trait unheard of in the latter part of the 20th Century.
Watterson again: “A wordy, multiple-panel strip with extended conversation and developed personalities does not condense to a coffee mug illustration without great violation to the strip’s spirit. The subtleties of a multi-dimensional strip are sacrificed for the one-dimensional needs of the product.”
Watterson’s second sabbatical took place between April 3, 1994 and December 31, 1994. During this time the Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary book appeared in bookstores. In it Watterson described his writing and drawing process (although, agonizingly, not in enough detail for certain aspiring cartoonists hungry for clues). At the end of the book, he wrote an essay on his love for newspaper comics. It ended with this:
“I’ve always loved cartoons. With Calvin and Hobbes, I’ve tried to return some of the fun, magic, and beauty I’ve enjoyed in other comics. It’s been immensely satisfying to draw Calvin and Hobbes, and I will always be grateful to have had the opportunity to work in this wonderful art form.”
At the time Watterson hadn’t announced his retirement from comics. To a kid who reread every word and analyzed every detail, this was cause for alarm. It sounded suspiciously like a farewell.
Watterson did return to the newspaper page on January 1, 1995 with this Sunday spectacular.
Again, I can’t help but feel he wanted to return with a bang. It shows off both character depth and involving, creative art. Add to that the silliest of endings (dinosaurs in fighter jets), and you’ve got something that really wakes you up on a Sunday morning.
Looking back, it’s clear Watterson was already done at the beginning of 1995. He just had to make it official. That was a hard year for me; Calvin and Hobbes was just one more thing that went away and changed my life. The last Calvin and Hobbes strip landed on Sunday, December 31, 1995.
I’m kind of amazed Watterson managed to keep it going for a full year after his last sabbatical. The last collection, It’s a Magical World, is full of Calvin’s dad complaining like a cranky old man. I hope Watterson has managed to find some peace in his retirement and glad he didn’t force Calvin and Hobbes to limp along like so many of its comic peers.
Bill Watterson changed the way I thought about comics. His work stands as the best in comics’ history, and his ability to articulate his outlook gave me the understanding of what it means to be a cartoonist today. Without those sabbaticals, and Watterson’s explanation of his actions as more than simply “fatigue,” I’d have a vastly different idea of what cartooning is all about. In that way, Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes were the most essential cartooning teachers I had.
For those of you wondering about the workload of a cartoonist, the above picture may supply an answer. I got the two plastic containers (in the back) for The Family Monster, but I was buying them so quickly I realized I’d need to start getting a bigger box. I now have filled three of the acid free cardboard boxes (in the front). One holds The Family Monster, two hold Welcome to Falling Rock National Park.
I’ve done two comic strips since graduating from college. The first, The Family Monster, ran in the Colorado Daily for four years. I drew 940 comics in all. I switched things up three years ago and started Welcome to Falling Rock National Park for the MCT Campus. So far I’ve done 558 comics.
With practice comes improvement. I couldn’t have done this without outside deadlines. Can you imagine drawing this much without anyone outside yourself pushing you on? For that I am grateful to the Colorado Daily and the MCT Campus for taking on an unknown cartoonist and letting me do pretty much whatever I want. There has been a lot of experimentation these last seven years; I’ve enjoyed that freedom.
When I visited the Cartoon Research Library in Columbus, OH, I got to see a few original Calvin & Hobbes comics. I didn’t get to see the stacks and stacks they had in the (climate-controlled) back room, but I imagine it is an impressive sight. Think about this: what you see pictured is roughly five days a week with two or three comics fit on a single piece of Bristol board paper, for seven years. Bill Watterson worked on Calvin & Hobbes every day (with the exception of two vacations) for ten years. That’s a lot of paper.
At the risk of dating myself and looking like a fool in front of everybody, I want to share my thoughts on turning 29 a few days ago.
Narrative fiction is so important. Every culture has its own myths, legends, and fables. They tell us who we are and explain life in subtle and multifaceted shades of gray. Stories teach us and they educate us, sometimes simultaneously.
Comic strips are narrative fiction. They tell the story of a character or group of characters in tiny doses. In one to five panels, you get a glimpse of someone’s life. If you read a comic strip for weeks, months, and years, you find that there are similar peaks and valleys to a comic strip character’s life as there are to yours. Sometimes the cartoonist is tired, so you may get a week’s worth of material reflecting that mindset. Other times, the cartoonist is in the zone, and in those wonderful periods you may see some of the best adventures unfold. Snoopy and the Red Baron, Calvin and the cloning device, Opus searching for his mother: these unique stories rival the best storytelling in any medium.
But how important are beginnings and ends in comic strips? In every writer’s workshop you’re encouraged to tell complete stories. It isn’t acceptable to omit a conclusion, and a beginning is as easy as typing the first sentence. In this regard, comic strips seem to work differently from other forms of narrative fiction. Rarely do people pick up from the beginning of a comic strip’s run. Many of the most successful comics of the last hundred years haven’t ever ended. The ones that have, have done so in ways that highlight the conundrum of the cartoonist: how do you end a story that mimics all aspects of life but aging?
Who read Peanuts from the very first strip? Before reprints of comics, there was a good chance that, once the day’s paper had been delivered, that strip was out of sight forever. Most people I know started reading it one day, and if they liked it they kept on reading. That’s how I started reading the comics. When I was seven or eight, it never occurred to me to seek out the very first strip. All I knew was, every day in the newspaper there was one section that was interesting: the comics. I read that section.
Like people you meet in real life, I got to know the characters over time. There aren’t many people you know from birth. The important parts of their life and character are filled in over time. Sometimes they do something very surprising that you never would have expected of them. That makes life more interesting. (Unless we’re talking about murder. I don’t condone murder.)
And what about endings? Comic strips are designed to run indefinitely. You won’t get syndicated if you have an idea that peters out a month or a year into the story. This isn’t a sprint, or even a marathon. It’s an ultramarathon. (As a side note, I’ve been reading a wonderful book about running by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In it he has a chapter about running a 62 mile race. Near the end of the race he achieves a transcendentalstate that he says changed his life forever. I imagine few of us can imagine what Charles Schulz’s frame of mind was for the last ten years of Peanuts, but I bet it was similar to Murakami’s.) Sure, you’ll get a resolution of some sort every day – it’s what we in the business call a punchline. If there is a longer story you’ll get the resolution a week or two from now- longer if you’re reading Funky Winkerbean.
I’m much closer to the beginning of a comic strip than the end. Falling Rock began in 2006, which makes it a little over two years old. A drop in the bucket in comic strip time. I’m not even syndicated yet, so I’m looking forward to a long run once I break in to the majors. After one year, I felt like I got to know my characters. After two years, I finally began writing and drawing them the way they really looked. On my third year, I’m getting into a groove. But who knows what will happen if I can keep drawing Falling Rock? What will it look like in 10 years? 35 years? I hope I can find out.
My first daily strip, The Family Monster, ran for four years before I decided I needed to write more “relatable” characters. That was the consensus of criticism I got from editors and syndicates and professional cartoonists. So you see, comic strips aren’t looked at by their beginnings and ends, but by the lives of the characters in them.
An ending that really affected me came in the bitter winter of 1995. The last day of Calvin and Hobbes was momentous in a terrible way. A friend of mine actually gave me a “condolences” card. Calvin and Hobbes ending felt like a death in the family. Of course, after it ended I realized how important it was to my daily routine. I felt I had so much more to learn, both as a reader and as an aspiring cartoonist. You may take your brother for granted, but when he leaves, you’ve got this hole in your life. Good thing I was too young to start drinking. Just kidding.
To some, that last strip was a letdown. I don’t know what they were expecting. Calvin wasn’t going to get hit by a meteorite. Susie Derkins wasn’t going to see the “real” Hobbes. I thought it summed up what the strip was about without getting overly sentimental. (That didn’t stop me from getting all teared up when I read it, though.) Bill Watterson felt that ending a long-running comic strip was not about creating a change in his characters or their situation. Calvin was 6 from the beginning to the end, and Watterson wisely didn’t change that on the last day. Some people felt that it didn’t wrap things up – what it did was allow you to go back and pick up at the beginning without missing a beat. As it stands, Calvin and Hobbes is a loop, a story without beginning or end, and is all the better for it.
As an anti-conclusion to this post, I’m attaching the first week’s worth of Welcome to Falling Rock National Park for your amusement. I’m amazed at how different they look, especially considering they weren’t drawn that long ago.
Most newspaper editors keep “legacy” strips (those comic strips that have outlived their creators) based on a negative-feedback system. That is, they may try to pull, say, Blondie, but quickly recapitulate when a few irate readers write or call to complain. They don’t get a lot of positive feedback (eg “You should run Cul de Sac because it’s actually funny“). There must be a better way to find out which comics are actually being read in the newspapers.
The Nielson Ratings, although somewhat obtuse, seem to work for television networks. They can judge how successful a show is by its number of viewers. Box office sales determine the success of a movie. Bookstores literally count the number of books sold, which contributes to bestseller lists.
The popularity of comics is a harder commodity to tabulate. You can’t judge how many people flip to that section of the newspaper, let alone which comics they peruse.
One good indicator of a comic strip’s popularity is how well it sells when collected into book form. Calvin and Hobbes books were still selling very well when I worked at a bookstore, and that was about seven years after Watterson decided to retire from the biz. I never saw a Blondie book collection, although the local paper did run it. That isn’t the only comic not to be regularly collected. Check the newspaper, then check your local bookstore or Amazon. Some comics really do disappear after they run in the paper.
Another indicator might be how often that comic is viewed online. People who don’t believe computers are the Great Satan like to read comics on the internet. I would like to ask the syndicates which comics receive the highest hit counts per day. Instead of hiding this information, syndicates should be sending it to every news organization. What comic is #1 online? Just like people are interested in the top-grossing movie of the week, we would love to follow the success of our favorite comic strip characters.
Knowing which comics are the most popular would only increase people’s interest overall. How often do comics get mentioned in mainstream media when they’re not being made into a movie or TV show? Talking about comics for the sake of comics would get people more interested in the art form itself. It would also turn the conversation from the dreadful “all comics are stale and out-of-touch” to a more positive tone.
So what do you say, syndicates? Is there a way to tabulate the most widely-read comics of today?
Today I want to mention briefly the great, great modern comic strip that is Monty. I’m including today’s strip for those of you not in the habit of reading Monty.
Everything about this is good comics. The funny mouth Monty has in panel 2. The seated woman’s prattle about herself. Her husband’s skinny, skinny legs and the way he’s holding one of her shopping bags. I start to giggle before I even read a word of dialog.
Here’s a little little back-story on Monty. Monty was originally called Robotman. Now, Robotman was an “idea” cooked up by the suits way back in the heyday of corporate cartoons. Robotman was conceived as a cash-in for toys, books, games, and, the most lucrative market of them all: comics. This would have been in a similar vein to the Transformers. You know, a toy that has a Saturday morning cartoon. They had the concept, the licensing deals, and the character design. All they needed was a physical human hand to crank out 365 jokes per year, forever. The man they initially chose for this venture? Bill Watterson.
Watterson, a man not known for his business acumen, turned the syndicate down. He later achieved lukewarm recognition for a short-lived comic strip about a boy with an active imagination. Jim Meddick was chosen (and accepted) the Robotman gig. And the rest is history.
Well, not very well known history. For one reason or another, Robotman failed to achieve the success for which was was conceived (for the conception of Robotman, imagine here four white men in business suits performing a pagan ritual in a skyscraper conference room. Coffee will be served). I grew up in the 80’s and kept pretty good tabs on the new cartoons of the day. You could say I was “childlike,” but you could also shorten that to say I was, in fact, a child. Robotman the marketing machine died a dismal death. Robotman the comic strip, however, kept running. Meddick probably had more creative control over the characters now that their original reason for being was wiped away. He introduced new characters, created bizarre, geek-based storylines, and eventually killed off Robotman. He didn’t literally kill the character; he just wrote him out of the strip.
Jim Meddick wrote Robotman out of Robotman.
Shortly thereafter, he was allowed by the syndicate to change the name of the strip. It should be noted that this was the strip’s third name change. First it was Robotman, then Robotman and Monty, and finally, Monty. Shed of it’s original meaning, Meddick has essentially created his own comic strip while drawing the comic strip itself. I can’t think of another comic where that has happened, exactly. Sure, new characters are born into existing comics all the time. But to morph into something entirely different while being published all along? Fantastic.
I just have to congratulate Jim Meddick on creating a great comic strip out of the shell of a mediocre one.
For more information, just check out this website. It has great information about Monty, as well as a section on Calvin and Hobbes.
What better thing to to in Ohio than look at some comics? I was in Ohio last week and was able to make a side-trip to the Cartoon Research Library, part of Ohio State University in Columbus. It was, to say the least, a long-awaited-for moment.
The library itself is tucked away inside a larger building for arts programs. It is a smallish room with long tables, good for research and the handling of large pieces of paper. There was an exhibit on display called “To Be Continued…” about serial stories in comic strips. Some Pogo comics were out, as well as Doonesbury and For Better or For Worse. I looked at the display, but only after the reason I had come so far.
The woman at the desk asked my name and pulled the comics I had requested the day before. All the originals are stored so as to slow their deterioration – you can’t just browse the stacks and pull out your favorites. She set them down on the table and I began to look at them, one at a time.
I had requested a couple of original Krazy Kat comics, by George Herriman. Krazy Kat is a surreal comic set in Coconino County in Arizona. I love the bizarre and ever-changing landscapes, as well as the loopy way Herriman drew his main characters – Krazy (the love-struck cat), Ignatz (the object of Krazy’s affection, who delights in throwing bricks at Krazy’s head), and Offica Pup (who often throws Ignatz in the county jail for his brick-throwing offenses). These strips were huge. Lots of room for story AND art. I don’t know if I fill that big space every week. There were nine panels in all (3 rows and 3 columns); however, Herriman only drew a box around the center panel. It gave the comic a sketchbook kind of feel: more free flowing. I found out that: there were very few pencil lines for guides. Unless the pencil lines have faded with age (they were dated 1919!), there weren’t many pencil marks. It all looked very loosely drawn. That doesn’t mean he drew quickly, just that his style was spontaneous. I liked the way it looked. It was silly in the drawing, fun to look at.
Next, I looked at a few examples of Walt Kelly’s Pogo. The Pogo strips were dated 1948. They were in the format we are familiar with today – four panels for dailies, and a larger Sunday. Kelly used non-photo blue pencil for his outlines. The blue pencil is great – I use it myself – because you can draw all over the page and you never have to erase a line. It won’t show up on a photocopy. Kelly added a lot of detail before beginning with ink. I could see where he had used a ruler for the panels and for dialogue, then drawn in the characters and scenery. Then, when he went in for the final ink drawing, he used the blue pencil as a sort of sketch. He would change things as he drew with brush. I could see where dialogue had been changed, and characters’ looked different in ink than they had in pencil. He was not locked in by the pencil drawings; it was more of a rough draft.
A detail I liked on one of the Sundays was a note Kelly made at the top of the page: “The cow must be purple.” I wondered why he felt like he had to make that specific note to the printer about the cow, but not anything else in the strip. Reading the comic it became clear: they reference the cow as purple. How strange for a reader to see a blue cow and then have the characters talk about how purple it is.
Finally, I saw two weeks’ worth of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson has all his originals on long-term loan; the Library hopes it will become a permanent gift sometime in the future. Looking at his work, as he drew it, was probably the most important schooling I’ve had in my life. They are really beautiful.Newspapers and the books lose a lot of subtle detail – the brush lines are so delicate, and obviously drawn very carefully. I found myself staring at hands a lot as I looked through the drawings. I was surprised that he had apparently lifted his brush quite a bit while drawing – there weren’t many continuous lines. I’m guessing that he didn’t want the brush to run out of ink; there were few lines drawn with a dry brush.
Watterson used a light pencil line to draw the panels and outlines for the characters. Not much to erase afterwards. Usually I saw the ghost of a circle where Calvin’s head was, or two circles and a squashed oval for Hobbes. The librarian commented that they were “clean”, and she was right. There wasn’t even much white-out used. Usually, when Watterson did use white-out, it was for an effect, like Hobbes’ whiskers across his face, or an alien’s saliva, or rain falling in front of Calvin. All of this shows how much in control of the drawing Watterson was. He already knew what he wanted the comic to look like, before he even started drawing.
I looked at one week of Calvin and Hobbes done in the mid-80’s, the beginning of the run, and one week in the mid-90’s, the end. The differences in drawing were there, but one new thing I noticed was the different paper Watterson used. In the 80’s, he used Bristol board taken from a pad. Later on, he was using Bristol board sold loose (series 500, for those keeping score), a much higher quality paper. I read once that Watterson said he realized that it really did make a difference which paper you use. It was pretty cool to see evidence of that switch.
One of the Sunday strips I saw was the one in which Calvin imagines himself as an Earth-destroying god. It was one Watterson mentioned as a reason he wanted to switch to a larger Sunday format. The amount of ink on the page was quite a lot for a comic strip: mostly, they use white space. But Watterson didn’t just fill the panels with black – he used cross-hatching to create a more atmospheric effect (I felt like it was a cross between looking into deep space and the illustrations of illuminated manuscripts). The reprinted version in the books just doesn’t show this very well. I can understand why he was disappointed with the result after working so hard to achieve a certain look.
I could go on about my impressions, but this post has become something of a monster already, so I’ll close. I can’t state how important it was for me to see these pieces of art – done by three of the greatest cartoonists, ever. Ultimately, though, instead of being humbled by their superiority, I was lifted. In the end, it was just ink lines on a page. I can do that. Heck, ANYONE can do that. Comics are not for the artistic elite in their high castles. Comics are for everyone. And it was great to see that magic can be achieved with the simplest tools: paper, pencil, and ink.
Comic strip characters are known for their stability, and yet they are constantly changing.Calvin wears the same striped shirt every day; Snoopy sits on the same doghouse. But if you take examples from early in a strip’s run compared to years later, you’ll find striking differences. When first seen, Snoopy’s snout is much narrower than in later years. Calvin in 1985 is much more flat-looking than his 1995 counterpart. It takes a while for a cartoonist to get to know his or her characters. The characters look the way the cartoonist wants them to, but that vision is always being refined. I would call it a distillation, but cartoon characters are already distilled from real life. I’ll call it Super Concentration. The 1995 Calvin (sounds like I’m describing a car model) is what Bill Watterson was aiming at all along.
The interesting part is, I would say that the 1992 Calvin is what Bill Watterson was aiming at up to 1992, and the 1988 Calvin was what he was aiming at up to then as well. So, the most current drawing of the character is the most essential drawing done yet, only to be supplanted by the next drawing. At least, this is my theory.
When I began drawing my characters for Welcome to Falling Rock National Park, they hardly resembled the characters they are today. Their personalities weren’t focused, and so my drawings really didn’t get to the essential Ernestoness of Ernesto. I did my first drawings a few years before I actually started the strip (I did a comic strip called The Family Monster for four years before I started Falling Rock in the Fall of 2006).
Ernesto, in the beginning, had a differently-shaped head.His eyes were smaller, and his shoes were but little blobs at the end of his legs.I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still not happy with Ernesto’s shoes.It’s a work in progress.You can see the progression in the two pictures I’m posting; one from 2005 (from my sketchbook) and one from this year.Now that I’ve had time (and about 200 comics) to understand him better, I know more of the subtleties of Ernesto’s personalities. I can also draw him better.
Every new batch of comics I draw, I feel it has improved on the last batch. I’m always trying to better my drawings, but when the characters look on the page closer to the way they look in my brain, I consider that a victory.
Do all cartoonists see it this way? I imagine that for those who use assistants or have their kids carry on the strip, there is a push to keep a character’s look static, the same way a retiring CEO would want to see his company going down the same path he set out for it. It’s also easier to have character models (like they use in animation) when there is more than one set of hands at the drawing board. The less room for interpretation, the less chance of messing up a lucrative property.
For those noble few who draw the same character day after day, decade after decade, I imagine there comes a point where they know what they want and exactly how to create it. For me, that time has not come. In some ways that is frustrating – I always want to make it look better! But I enjoy the process. In a couple of years, check back to my early Ernesto. I’m sure he will look strange to you.