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The Strange and Wonderful Return of Bill Watterson

How the Reclusive Creator of Calvin and Hobbes Rejoined the Cartooning Community

July 2, 2014  |  9:15am
The Strange and Wonderful Return of Bill Watterson

Mention Calvin and Hobbes to almost anyone under a certain age — and many people over it — and you’ll get a smile. Few comic strips are so loved. Over the years, its elegant artwork, sharp wit and gentle humanism have won the hearts of casual readers and serious critics alike (and, less endearing, has inspired motorists to stick peeing-Calvin decals on their cars). Creator Bill Watterson, one of the most reclusive contemporary artists in the medium, appeared seemingly out of nowhere, drew a daily comic for ten years and then vanished after the series’ 3,150th post. The world of newspaper comics has changed almost beyond recognition since then, and it’s hard to imagine Watterson as part of that world today.

During the 1985-1995 run of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson famously shied away from the media. He declined most interviews and public appearances, and only one photo of him circulated in the media. On the rare times he spoke in public, he resonated with intelligence, passion and dark humor, but admitted his frustration by the business surrounding his chosen art form. At a 1989 speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art at The Ohio State University, Watterson praised classic comic strips like Peanuts, Pogo and Krazy Kat, then lamented how far newspaper comics had fallen since then. The title of the speech: “The Cheapening of the Comics.”

“We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics,” Watterson said at the time. “Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today, but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today.”

After the end of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson retired to a quiet life in his home of Chagrin Falls — and later Cleveland Heights — Ohio, where he painted watercolor landscapes. The cartoonist’s reclusiveness inspired a book, Nevin Martell’s Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, and a documentary, Joel Allen Schroeder’s Dear Mr. Watterson.

But Watterson remained quietly involved in the comics world, primarily through the Cartoon Research Library (now the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum) at The Ohio State University. Rich West, a college friend of Watterson’s and historian of political cartoons, introduced Watterson to the library and its curator, Lucy Caswell. In 2005, Watterson placed his collection of over 3,000 original Calvin and Hobbes strips — nearly the entire ten-year run — on long-term deposit in the library.

“Bill was impressed with the work that was being done to collect, preserve and promote cartoons and comics at Ohio State, and he decided this was the right place for his collection,” Jenny Robb, current curator of the library and museum, says. The Cartoon Research Library celebrated with a show of Calvin and Hobbes Sunday strips.

While most comic strips fade into obscurity after disappearing from newspapers, Calvin and Hobbes has grown in popularity. “Calvin and Hobbes is so well-written and beautifully-drawn that it’s a joy to read and re-read,” Robb says. “Even though it doesn’t run in the newspaper anymore, fans of the strip are introducing it to their children in the reprint collections, so new generations are discovering it.”

The mystique surrounding Watterson has also boosted the series’ appeal. In addition to avoiding the spotlight, Watterson famously refuses to license any Calvin and Hobbes merchandise — a right he fought his syndicate to retain. Over the years, both Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes have emerged pure, timeless and uncorrupted by commercialism, the embodiment of childhood innocence (even as the strip poked fun at 6-year-old Calvin’s eagerness to be corrupted). To the public, Watterson the artist was frozen in 1995, in the final panel of the last Calvin and Hobbes strip, sledding away into a hopeful void.

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Then a few years ago, the writer emerged once more.

It began in 2011. For the first time in 16 years, a piece of art by Watterson appeared in public: a painting of Petey, one of the protagonists of Richard Thompson’s comic strip Cul de Sac. Thompson had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and his friend Chris Sparks had organized a charity, Team Cul de Sac, to raise money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

“I was in a meeting with a client when I received a call from Andrews McMeel [publisher of Calvin and Hobbes],” Sparks says. “The editor could barely tell me. She was in shock. No warning, just an overnight package from Bill. I was in tears. I hung up and called Richard to tell him. Then we had to wait for the photo so we could spend the next 24 hours staring straight at it.”

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Watterson’s painting was one of dozens of works contributed to the charity, but it was by far the piece that attracted the most attention. It eventually sold for $13,145 — a bargain in the opinion of many comics fans.

Meanwhile, a friendship developed between Watterson and Thompson. Watterson, it turned out, was a fan of Thompson’s work and followed his blog. Watterson had initially discovered Thompson’s work through his friend Rich West, who also knew Thompson.

“I turned to Rich for advice when I was putting together Cul de Sac for syndication,” Thompson explains. “The first thing Bill saw was that hapless Almanac book [a collection of Thompson’s weekly comic Richard’s Poor Almanac], then some strips.”

Watterson surprised the comics world again last year, agreeing to one of his first interviews in decades for Dave Kellett’s documentary STRIPPED. A history of comic strips focusing on the transition from newspapers to the Web, STRIPPED appeared to be a perfect fit for Watterson’s interest in comics as an art form and his concerns about the industry’s limitations on cartoonists.

“I was really curious to see what his recent opinions were on comics’ transition from print to pixels,” Kellett says. “He’s spoken about artists’ control of their art, which would seem to argue for webcomics, but at the same time he’s professed a personal dislike for reading things on a screen and the loss of the larger soapbox for comics.”

Kellett requested the interview by letter, not expecting a response. “Bill has been nothing but kind throughout this project,” he says. “That being said, I squealed like an 8-year-old boy when I got his e-mail.” Not only did Watterson share his thoughts on comics for STRIPPED, he drew its poster — an image of a cartoonist jumping out of his clothes in shock.

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But the biggest Watterson bombshell dropped last month, when Stephan Pastis, creator of the hit strip Pearls Before Swine, revealed that three recent strips — supposedly the work of a 6-year-old girl named “Libby,” but bearing a suspicious resemblance to the drawings of whimsical spaceships and cartoon carnivores in Calvin and Hobbeswere Watterson’s work. According to Pastis, he contacted Watterson after drawing a Pearls strip that name-checked him (Pastis’ cartoon avatar claims to be Watterson to get a woman into bed), and Watterson wrote back with an idea for a guest strip.

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“Now if you had asked me the odds of Bill Watterson ever saying that line to me, I’d say it had about the same likelihood as Jimi Hendrix telling me he had a new guitar riff,” Pastis wrote in the blog entry revealing his guest artist’s identity. “And yes, I’m aware Hendrix is dead.” The Internet exploded with the news. After exhibiting the strips at Heroes Con in North Carolina in June, Pastis and Watterson decided to auction them for Team Cul de Sac.

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At the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, visitors can now view Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, an art show from the museum’s massive Watterson collection, alongside The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object, a show of Richard Thompson’s work on Cul de Sac and other comics.

“The public response has been phenomenal!” says Robb, who curated Watterson’s exhibition, while Visiting Curator Caitlin McGurk oversaw Thompson’s. “Our attendance has tripled, and we’ve gotten lots of positive feedback about the exhibit.”

For the shows, Watterson spoke to the press and was interviewed by Robb, praising the museum and his fellow featured artist. In his recent interviews, Watterson issues a more positive attitude on the direction of comic art, lauding creators like Thompson and expressing hope that new media will provide space for fresh voices. But he’s as skeptical as ever about comics as a business. In his interview with Robb, he points out the difficulty of making money from online comics and wonders if it’s possible to build a close relationship with readers in an era when media is consumed “like potato chips.”

The comics industry has changed radically since 1995: newspapers are dwindling, the syndicates that could once make or break a cartoonist now struggle to remain relevant and the Internet has revolutionized publishing. In some ways, it’s a wonderful world for fans of the humble comic strip. But much has been lost.

Compared to the 1980s, the comic strip industry of the 2010s is “almost unrecognizable,” Thompson says. “Watterson had at his disposal as many as two papers per town. Lee Salem [president of Universal Press Syndicate] told me that newspaper editors were calling, begging to see the strip site unseen. I didn’t have that.”

Would a project with gravity and universal adoration of Calvin and Hobbes be possible in 2014? In an era of fragmented audiences and niche markets, can one comic strip be universally adored? “The intimacy you build up with your readers day after day for just a few minutes is fragile and irreproducible,” Thompson says. “I think that day is gone.”

At least some of the passion for Calvin and Hobbes is, perhaps, nostalgia for what it represents: a golden age of newspaper comics, when a funny and friendly voice spoke from the paper each morning. Yet comics are expanding and experimenting today, becoming exciting enough to bring Watterson back to the medium. And Calvin and Hobbes remains timelessly unique.

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