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Bill Watterson at Angouleme

Good news came Sunday morning with this tweet from The Comics Reporter:
comicsreportertweetI had to wait a little while for an article to confirm, and when it did come, it came in French.

Then, later, in English.

Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, huge inspiration to this here blogger, first cartoonist to win the Tour de France, received the prestigious Grand Prix at one of the biggest comics festivals in the world.

It seems as less of a surprise than it would have been a few years ago. Lately it seems ol Bill’s work is getting more of the attention it deserves. In 2005 we got The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a hardbound three volume set that collects the run of the strip in its entirety. Better still, it included a preface by the author. Clocking in at about 20 pages, it was the most autobiography I’d ever seen from Watterson.

In 2009, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes popped up as a sort of meta-article on the elusive cartoonist. Although Nevin Martell interviewed just about everyone associated with Watterson, he was unable to speak with the man himself. On the record, at least.

Last year came Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary on the lasting legacy of Calvin and Hobbes. This was not another biography of the man but a love letter to his work. I am proud to have been included in such a nice tribute to my favorite work of art.

With all these publications, Bill Watterson has been thrust once again into the spotlight. Let us hope he is not too angry at us for loving him so much. I doubt he is too bothered by it, as he has voluntarily taken part in two projects of late: one, a book called The Art of Richard Thompson, will feature an interview between Watterson and Thompson. In March, an exhibit of both Thompson and Watterson’s art will go up at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University.

Amid all this renewed interest, it makes sense that the judges at Angouleme to award Watterson their highest honor.

Everyone wants to know: will Bill Watterson attend Angouleme next year? According to his editor Lee Salem (a superstar of the comics scene himself), “I’ll try to talk him into it.” I don’t know about you, but if I was in Ohio in late January a trip to France would sound pretty darn good.

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looking for calvin and hobbes: a cartoonist’s perspective

searching for calvin and hobbesIf Kubrick had stopped making movies after 2001: A Space Odyssey, the world would be the poorer for it. Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, walked away from the comics page at the end of 1995 and has rarely been heard from since. Watterson’s continued absence from the comics page is felt as sharply as ever, which is partly why this blogger anticipated the first full-length treatment on the man and his masterpiece.

As a cartoonist who has written his fair share of words about comic strip legend Bill Watterson, I was keen to read Nevin Martell’s part-biography, part-homage Looking for Calvin and Hobbes. Fortunately not all unauthorized biographies strive to be muckraking, and this is one. Martell is fan first, investigative journalist second. In his quest to answer a few questions about the reclusive cartoonist, Martell had to strike a balance between wanting to know more about Watterson and not wanting to intrude upon his self-imposed privacy. Some cynics would question how you can honor your subject’s privacy while writing a book about said subject. I don’t know if Martell answers that question, but it is clear that he clearly has a lot of respect for the man who created one of the great comic strips. I gleefully skipped across the same line by reading his book. I did it out of interest for someone who I consider one of my best teachers and certainly one of my heroes.

Don’t misconstrue my criticisms as a dislike for the book. I’ve found that, when you truly appreciate something, you find a thousand more nitpicky things than if you are uninterested in it. I’ve spend so much of my life reading and thinking about Calvin and Hobbes that I’ve come to a few conclusions of my own, and it was honestly a bit jarring to read that Martell’s take could be quite different. That is, of course, one of the great things about Calvin and Hobbes – everybody has their own understanding of it.

Maybe this is why Watterson railed against merchandising, marketing, and inquiries into his personal life: he wanted, more than anything else, to create a strip that would speak directly to each reader, without outside commentary influencing that dialog. When Calvin speaks, he speaks in my voice. When Hobbes pounces, he does it in exactly the way I imagine it. A book like Martell’s only seeks to honor Watterson and his work, but simply by existing it provides what some may mistake as an authoritative voice interrupting our own personal communication with a boy and his tiger.

Watterson’s stand against licensing is part of what made him a hero when I was a kid. How many public figures stick to their principles when fame and fortune are thrust upon them? It certainly turned him into a contentious character around his syndicate, and I count myself one of the kids saddened that I couldn’t have a Hobbes doll of my own. But Watterson took his responsibility as a storyteller seriously. He didn’t want our perceptions of him to get in the way of his work. He also didn’t want to become a businessman, which I can understand completely. We become cartoonists because we want to get out of an office, not become manager of our own.

An especially funny anecdote in Looking for Calvin and Hobbes relates the story of Watterson, then living in New Mexico, receiving a box full of Hobbes plush dolls from a hopeful manufacturer. His reaction? Marching them to his yard and burning them all. How awful to be a kid walking by Watterson’s house at that moment? A moustachioed man burning Hobbes in his yard. I can’t imagine a more horrifying image. Sometimes we have to be the villain in order to do the right thing.

Batman knows that. (Also, Mookie.)

The one piece of information I hoped to gather from this book was Watterson’s working method. Who would turn down the chance to watch Van Gogh paint Starry Night? Or to sit in the studio when John Lennon went through take after take of Strawberry Fields Forever? That, more than childhood trivia, should be this book’s reason for being.

There were a few clues as to how Watterson worked, but unfortunately they were few and far between. Martell focuses on the facts he can find, and since he was not able to talk to Watterson directly, he was forced to rely on friends, cartoonist acquaintances, and old interviews (most of which I have already read).

Martell also made a trip to the Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio, to look at Watterson’s original drawings. I’ve made this pilgrimage myself, and I cannot recommend the library enough – it is literally the closest you can get to the work. But I didn’t need to read Martell’s take on the strips; his insights leaned towards personal rather than artistic detail.

When museums x-ray a painting by Da Vinci, they do it because Da Vinci himself is not around to explain how he made it. Watterson still is around, yet he isn’t interested in imparting wisdom to the next generation of cartoonists. This is a great tragedy. Even when you look at an original Calvin and Hobbes you’re only seeing the finished product, not the process. His few, light pencil marks only tell so much. And of course we can only speculate about how he wrote. This especially applies to the later Sunday strips. How did Watterson decide where to put the panels? How to size them? It would be amazing to see a strip from beginning to end, from dialog written in a lined notebook to pencil sketches of layout to the inked final page.

The interviews Martell undertakes represent a fairly wide circle around Watterson. From cartoonists such as Richard Thompson, Stephan Pastis, Keith Knight, and Bill Amend, to Watterson’s editor Lee Salem, to Watterson’s mom and a couple of his personal friends, to people who are mainly referenced as “color commentary.” It’s cool to hear from Brad Bird, but he doesn’t really tell us much we don’t already know about Calvin and Hobbes.

Martell also annoyingly interprets Watterson’s few interviews as standoffish and cantankerous. Martell sees conflict and strife where I see a man attempting to fully grasp the unusual situation in which he’s found himself. I doubt many of us could explain our lives with as much eloquence and insight as Watterson has done. If he sometimes came off as overly judgmental of his cartooning peers, it was only because he held himself to the same exacting standards.

Surprisingly, Martell doesn’t know much about comics. He is a reader, not a cartoonist. The book would have been helped by someone who knew the comics landscape into which Calvin and Hobbes dropped and how it affected the comics page even 14 years after its retirement. How can you talk about the significance of Calvin and Hobbes if you have just recently become acquainted with Krazy Kat and Pogo, not to mention newer strips such as Cul de Sac, Lio, and Pearls Before Swine? Martell comes off as a competent journalist but a lackluster art critic.

Another funny anecdote. When Universal Press Syndicate announced Calvin and Hobbes would be running as a half-page feature upon Watterson’s return from sabbatical, the reaction from newspapers was fierce. Yet, of the 1800 papers that ran the strip, only 7 dropped it. It kind of makes me wonder what syndicates could get away with if they made similar demands for popular strips today.

Although it wasn’t the main reason for reading the book, I was pleasantly surprised at what Martell uncovered about Watterson’s formative years. He mentions the editorial strips Watterson did while working in Columbus for six months, but he also finds college comics, editorials done for other papers, and a strip he did for his hometown paper when he was in high school. Maddeningly, none of these are reproduced in the book. I’m not sure whether this was Martell’s decision or the publisher’s, but that absence keeps this book from being essential.

Studying the early work of a great artist is always helpful. How did Watterson arrive at Calvin and Hobbes? I’m grateful for the digging Martell did, but mere descriptions fail to do justice to Watterson’s comics.

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes (in Martell’s case, writing, and in my case, reading) is a way to deal with the loss of a beloved comic strip. But it isn’t Calvin and Hobbes I miss as much as Watterson the cartoonist. If he were to return with a 500-page sci-fi graphic novel, or, heck, a DVD player instruction manual, I would be pleased beyond words. Watterson showed us how it is done. His comics are invaluable as entertainment, social commentary, and as a signpost showing us how good the art form can get.

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not last thoughts on bill watterson

As a kid, I cut out Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strips, laminated them, and posted them on the walls of my room. It was homemade wallpaper. I’d like to think some of that genius seeped into my brain while I slept and made me a better cartoonist. It also establishes, once and for all, my Calvin and Hobbes geek cred.

Calvin and Hobbes’ strength is in its complete insularity: you knew Calvin was not going to make terrible jokes about the current news cycle, you’d never see Hobbes endorsing life insurance or cat food. Bill ensured that Calvin and Hobbes would remain firmly in our imagination and never on some billboard along I-10.

The downside of this was Bill’s withdrawal from public life. Aside from the occasional intrepid journalist traveling to Watterson’s abode outside Cleveland, Ohio, or a surprising book review or introduction written by the man himself, I slowly began to understand that there would be no follow-up to Calvin and Hobbes. Bill had given us everything he had for 10 years and that, he decided, was plenty.

The problem with being a genius who revitalizes an art form is, people don’t forget you. Bill may have thought that dropping out of the public eye for a decade and a half would make him disappear, that we’d all become so entranced with our iphones that we would forget that comic strip about a boy and his tiger. Well, if he wanted us to forget, he shouldn’t have made Calvin and Hobbes so damn good.

Seriously, forgetting about Bill Watterson is like forgetting about Bob Dylan. “Remember that guy?” “Who?” “You know, that guy who made like FIFTEEN CLASSIC ALBUMS IN A ROW?” You see my point.

My friend Alec (to whom I now owe my life) alerted me to Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, by Nevin Martell. It will be published in October. In the introductory chapter, sent to me free(!) by the author, Nevin maps out his own desire to speak with that most elusive of creatures, the retired cartoonist. Like a man stalking a tiger in the jungle, Nevin is well aware of the dangers but plunges on nevertheless. He breathlessly narrates his hopes (will he secure an interview with Bill Watterson?) and fears (Bill Watterson will hate him forever for writing this book).

I cannot wait for this book to be released. My initial apprehension that the book would be trashy, or tell-all, or in some way denigrate Bill’s work, was allayed by the tone of the chapter. This guy loves Calvin and Hobbes as much as I do, and he has nothing but respect for its author. Even if Nevin doesn’t get the golden interview, we still get to hear from cartoonists and friends (and cartoonist-friends) of the main man. And that ain’t bad.

Now we just have to hold our collective breath to see whether Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is as illuminating as promised. I have high hopes. Even after a decade of comics, Bill Watterson has much to teach us.