Calvin, Hobbes and Bill Watterson

Bill Watterson is the artist and author for ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ a comic about a energetic 6 year old and his toy tiger companion. To date I have not seen any comic strip that matches the depth, wit and visual intricacy of his work. As a child I would often curl up in bed with a Calvin and Hobbes collection for a quick laugh before I slept. Like many fans I was upset that he decided to retire the strip after a successful 10 year run.

All the information I ever had on Watterson was from the 10th anniversary book that was released ages ago when I was 15 years old in 1995. Notoriously private, you won’t find many (if any) interviews, books or videos of him. As of today he’s still really hard to find.

Now thanks to the internet and some very industrious individuals I’ve been able to find more sources of his words to get a better understanding of who he was and his influences.

The first I’d like to share is his 1989 speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art, Ohio State University, on October 27 linked from the blog ‘Flooby Nooby’. In it he gives some frank thoughts about his influences:

Peanuts was my introduction to the world of the comic strip, and Peanuts captured my imagination like nothing else. Because it was the first strip I read, its many innovations were lost on me, and I suspect most readers of Peanuts today have forgotten how it single-handedly reconfigured the comic strip landscape in a few short years. The flat, simple drawings, the intellectual children, the animal with thoughts and imagination – all these things are commonplace now, and it’s hard to imagine what a revolutionary strip it was in the ’50s and ’60s. All I knew was that it had a magic that other strips didn’t.

About the cheapening of comic strips:

The first comic strip cartoonists were staff artists of major newspapers, and consequently, from the beginning, cartoonists were regarded as simple employees of their publishers rather than artists. when the creator of a popular strip left his employer, the cartoonist was rarely able to take his creation with him intact. Very early strips, such as The Yellow Kid, The Katzenjammer Kids, and Buster Brown, all appeared in two versions, one by the original creator and one by an imitator hired by the publisher who lost the creator. The comic strip came into being as a staff-produced graphic, and comics have never escaped the perception that they are a newspaper "feature," like a weather reap, instead of a forum for individual expression. In fact, despite the grim violence of Dick Tracy, the conservative politics of Little Orphan Annie, the social satire of Li’l Abner, and the shapely women that have graced dozens of other strips, the comics have somehow come to be thought of as entertainment for children. Cartoonists are widely regarded as the newspaper equivalent of Captain Kangaroo. The idea that comics are potentially one of the most versatile artforms is sadly foreign. Our expectations and demands for comics are not high.

And the pressures he faced:

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.

The second is a speech that he gives to the graduating class at his college, Kenyon College in 1990.

His advice to these young graduates on working in the real world are sobering in their bluntness. I found it hard to pick a choice quote but this sums up his attitude best:

So, what’s it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don’t recommend it.

And the background on why he chose to quit his job to pursue a career as a cartoonist:

Anyway, after a few months at this job, I was starved for some life of the mind that, during my lunch break, I used to read those poli sci books that I’d somehow never quite finished when I was here. Some of those books were actually kind of interesting. It was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.

He ends off with the quote that was featured in the comic on zen pencils that I linked to previously:

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

It’s a fascinating read and still very relevant though it was delivered over 20 years ago.

Watterson is a bit of an enigma to me. Very little is known about him and people are actively searching for him. He’s actually really annoyed by his celebrity. Many feel that they personally know him through his work and remain puzzled that he chose to quit at the top of his game. His response is emphatic, he chose to stop because he had achieved all he wanted to and could do with the strip.

I respect his decision to quit. I greatly admire his principles and never yielding attitude to his art as these are values I treasure and wish to cultivate in myself. What I don’t agree with is his forceful (and one can say) stubborn nature. In some ways it also comes across as selfish.

He has such a great gift that has touched and affected so many around the world and yet he has chosen to withdraw and hide it. I would have hoped that he had more to give than just that. I understand that he was hurt. But in every case where he wasn’t happy, because he couldn’t have his way, he decided to change course and find a path where he could be more in control. Sadly this is never the case, even for the self employed. The world can be a nasty place. But it’s also a place of goodness. And for many some of that goodness came from the daily strip of Calvin and Hobbes. Without people like Watterson out there championing for larger Sunday panels for comic strips how else would so many people have been influenced by his vision and style. In fact today I’m sure that a lot of comics artists who owe their inspiration to Calvin and Hobbes in a similar way that Watterson himself was inspired by comics like Peanuts, Pogo and Krazy Kat. I would love to see him start another comic on the web where he would have been free to do whatever he wanted. Ironically it’s the money he earned and continues to earn from his strip that enables him to live this life he craved before, free to experiment, completely control and away from the world. Whether this makes him happier, who knows?

Despite all this, Calvin and Hobbes remains one of the most amazing comic strip to ever grace newspapers. I treasure the collection that I have and look forward to introducing them to my children when they are older and welcome them to a world of imagination and wonder.

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