In today's cult of celebrity, it's a rare phenomenon: an artist who produces much-loved work, wins the hearts of fans and critics, and then abruptly retires and attempts to lead a normal, sometimes reclusive, life. We're talking about the likes of Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger and "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip creator Bill Watterson, who recently gave what's believed to be his first interview since 1989, to his hometown newspaper, The Cleveland Plain Dealer.Watterson, now 51, crushed millions of funnies readers around the world in 1995 when he suddenly retired Calvin, a 6-year-old, philosophical version of Bart Simpson, and Hobbes, the stuffed tiger who comes to life in his imagination.
Watterson has never really talked about it publicly, until now. It turns out Watterson ended "Calvin and Hobbes" at the height of its popularity because he understands something the creators of long-running TV shows like "ER" and "The Simpsons" may not have."It's always better to leave the party early," Watterson writes in an e-mail Q&A with the Plain Dealer's John Campanelli. "If I had rolled along with the strip's popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now 'grieving' for "Calvin and Hobbes" would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I'd be agreeing with them." He added, "I've never regretted stopping when I did."
Still, like many rock stars of the 1990s, Watterson waxes nostalgic about his celebrity. "Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist -- how I miss the groupies, drugs and trashed hotel rooms!" he joked. But seriously -- in the 15 years since retiring from "Calvin and Hobbes," Watterson has been laying low in the Greater Cleveland area, no paparazzi in sight. "The public attention has faded a lot. In pop culture time, the 1990s were eons ago," he said. "An artwork can stay frozen in time, but I stumble through the years like everyone else. I think the deeper fans understand that and are willing to give me some room to go on with my life."
Watterson may be kidding himself in that regard, as "Calvin and Hobbes" books continue to sell half a million copies a year, and recycled versions of the comic strip still run in 50 countries around the world, not including the U.S. Watterson long ago refused to license his characters, which means no animated TV specials or cuddly Hobbes toys, but fans will get a break this year when the U.S. Postal Service issues a "Calvin and Hobbes" stamp. How soon will the reclusive Watterson actually use one to mail a letter? "Immediately," he said. "I'm going to get in my horse and buggy and snail-mail a check for my newspaper subscription."
Well, coming at a new work requires a certain amount of patience and energy, and there’s always the risk of disappointment. You can’t really blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like. The trade-off, of course, is that predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.
Years ago, you hadn’t quite dismissed the notion of animating the strip. Are you a fan of Pixar? Does their competency ever make the idea of animating your creations more palatable?
The visual sophistication of Pixar blows me away, but I have zero interest in animating Calvin and Hobbes. If you’ve ever compared a film to a novel it’s based on, you know the novel gets bludgeoned. It’s inevitable, because different media have different strengths and needs, and when you make a movie, the movie’s needs get served. As a comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes works exactly the way I intended it to. There’s no upside for me in adapting it.
Just to be clear, I did not have incredible autonomy until afterward. I had signed most of my rights away in order to get syndicated, so I had no control over what happened to my own work, and I had no legal position to argue anything. I could not take the strip with me if I quit, or even prevent the syndicate from replacing me, so I was truly scared I was going to lose everything I cared about either way. I made a lot of impassioned arguments for why a work of art should reflect the ideas and beliefs of its creator, but the simple fact was that my contract made that issue irrelevant. It was a grim, sad time. Desperation makes a person do crazy things.
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with.
Every artist learns through imitation, but I rather doubt the aim of these things is artistic development. I assume they’re either homages or satiric riffs, and are not intended to be taken too seriously as works in their own right. Otherwise I should be talking to a copyright lawyer.
Form follows function, as the architects say. With words and pictures, you can do just about anything.
My first problem is that I don’t paint ambitiously. It’s all catch and release—just tiny fish that aren’t really worth the trouble to clean and cook. But yes, my second problem is that Calvin and Hobbes created a level of attention and expectation that I don't know how to process.
Not exactly. It was only my head that burst into flames.
I once read a mention of you producing some original art intended for a Rolling Stone cover story that “went south.” Considering your preference for privacy, an invasive profile sounds like anathema. Was this very early on in the strip’s run?
Boy, I barely remember this. I think that was the interview that ended up in The Comics Journal. It was early, when my desire to air my grievances with the business temporarily outweighed my desire for privacy.
I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.
Watterson has long eschewed most interviews and publicity photos — he once made Time magazine’s list of most-reclusive celebrities, sandwiched between Syd Barrett and Thomas Pynchon. Working with him, Pastis tells me, “is like getting a call from Bigfoot.” So what, exactly, lured Watterson back to the page for the first time since ending his immensely popular boy-and-tiger comic in December of 1995? “Several years ago, when Stephan did one of his strips that mocked his own drawing ability and mentioned my strip in comparison, I thought it might be funny for me to ghost ‘Pearls’ sometime, just to flip it all on its head,” the goateed Watterson tells me, offering a clear indication that he still follows the funnies. “It was just a silly idea, and I didn’t know Stephan, so I never pursued it, and years went by.”