Monday, September 6, 2010

Calvin and Hobbes

The Tiger Strikes Again
(By Neely Tucker, Washington Post, 2005)

"Calvin and Hobbes" was such an exuberant, strange and metaphysical realm you wonder how it ever got shoveled into a comic strip.  You remember this when you look at "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes," a 1,456-page art-book epic of every panel ever published: It was original by sheer force of personality. Calvin sounded like a 6-year-old psychotic on Ritalin one day and a Yale lit grad the next.  He was id off the leash. He wondered what was worthwhile in life if death was inevitable. ("Seafood," answered Hobbes, his imaginary tiger friend. Wait - was Hobbes real or not?  Debatable.)  Calvin battled blobs of oatmeal and the bathtub suds monster. He and Hobbes hurtled downhill in their wagon and set out for the Yukon. He turned himself into a Tyrannosaurus Rex , Calvin the Human Insect, Calvin the Bug, Captain Napalm, Stupendous Man and Spaceman Spiff.  In the middle of class, Calvin's teacher suddenly turns into a pig-snouted monster! The drooling blob demands attention and homework!  "Chew electric death, snarling cur," Spiff howls, blasting her face off with his Atomic Napalm Neutralizer!  He was known to wear little rocket ship underpants. He feared nothing but the babysitter. Also the dark.

The strip ran from 1985 to 1995. Thirty million people have bought earlier collections of the strip, but as of today you can buy it all in one pop. It will set you back $150, but the three-volume, glossy-papered tome finally gives proper appreciation and display to creator Bill Watterson's efforts, the kind of size and color quality that he waged such epic battles for with newspapers and syndicates before retiring into silence at age 37, tired of the fray, wary of drifting into the bankrolls of mediocrity.  Flip open a page here:  "I want a grenade launcher, Mom. When's Christmas?" Calvin barks in one panel.  "What do you think is the meaning of true happiness?" he asks Hobbes in another. "Is it money, cars and women? Or is it just money and cars?"

All 10 years gone now.  People still remember because it was never worse than good, and was often simply brilliant.  It parodied the issues of the day, the materialism, the greed-is-good cynicism, the pointlessness of television, the rampaging egos, the growing crassness of public intercourse, the bad behavior, our infinitesimal place in the universe.  There was also time for snacks and a bedtime story.  " 'Calvin and Hobbes' is probably one of the last great American comic strips," says Dirk Deppey, editor of the Comics Journal.  A generation earlier, "Peanuts" reshaped the comics world by imagining children with interior psychological lives in a neighborhood devoid of adults. Charlie Brown was a kid on the verge of midlife crisis. There was a beagle who fancied himself a fighter pilot.  "Calvin and Hobbes," the best kid strip since, worked on the conceit that Hobbes was a stuffed animal to everyone in the world but Calvin, an only child. Only when he and Calvin are alone in the panel does Hobbes spring to life - a tiger who walks on two feet, makes cheesecake grins at girls and appears to be more mature than Calvin by oh, about an hour and a half.  They wrestle, pull the covers back and forth at bedtime and make goofy faces at one another while sitting in the back seat of the family car - best friends of the type boys no longer have after age 12.     

The only other kids in the strip were Susie, who lived around the block, and Moe, the school bully. Calvin's parents did not have names.  They lived in a house that had a sort of American foursquare sensibility to it, in a nameless town that seemed lost on the Midwestern prairie.  It all bespoke a certain Sunday-afternoon loneliness. (Hobbes was Calvin's imagination, right? His alter ego? Which means the whole thing is just Calvin talking to himself? Nobody knows; Watterson never made it clear.)  The childish exuberance, the adult cynicism, the gorgeous colors in the Sunday panels. Hyper-literate third graders read it, overweight taxi drivers in El Paso read it, terminally hip people wearing black in Manhattan read it.  It was a brilliant blue flame of creativity that startled Watterson's friends.  "He wasn't exactly a ball of laughs," says Richard West, a comics historian and author who has known Watterson since college. "Where did this stuff come from? I don't know. I didn't see the genius in his day-to-day personality."  Watterson, in the book's introduction: "Hobbes got all my better qualities (with a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin my ranting, escapist side. Together, they're pretty much a transcript of my mental diary . . . it's pretty startling to reread these strips ands see my personality exposed so plainly right there on paper. I meant to disguise that better."  Well. It's not that the man was ever overexposed -- and that was before he did the Garbo thing.

It is 1988. The strip has been going for three years. The phone rings at Universal Press Syndicate. It is Steven Spielberg's assistant.  Mr. Spielberg would very much like to speak to Mr. Watterson.  Lee Salem, the syndicate's president, is ecstatic. Two creative minds like that getting together! The Wizard of Oz! Winnie the Pooh! Peter Pan! Excited, he calls Watterson at home in Chagrin Falls, a leafy suburb of Cleveland. Would he talk to Spielberg?  No, Watterson says.  "Bill simply was not interested," Salem remembers now, the sound of lost millions in licensing revenue like so much static down the phone line.  It turned out Watterson wasn't interested in doing anything other than the strip. After the first couple of years, no interviews. No "Calvin and Hobbes" dolls -- even if Hobbes was, at least as adults see it, a doll himself. (There's no telling how much a Hobbes doll could have made. The syndicate originally had licensing rights, but Watterson's opposition was so vehement that Salem ultimately "caved in completely'' and gave all the rights back to Watterson. "Otherwise, I'd be on the beach somewhere right now,'' Salem says.) No animated specials. No calendars, notebooks, pencils, backpacks or lunch boxes. (Those car decals of a Calvinesque brat whizzing rip-offs.) 

In 1990, Watterson gave the commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon College in Ohio. It was about fleeing the "real world."  He apparently hasn't appeared in a public forum since.  Very few photographs, too. These are old now, but show a slender, bespectacled man with a Marine buzz cut and a thick, somber mustache. Dark eyes, maybe friendly, maybe just tired of you.  He's 47 now. Lives in Cleveland proper with his wife, Melissa, in a house tax records show the couple bought last year for less than you can get a condo for in Washington. In the introduction to the book, he says he paints and studies music.  "He's a pretty regular guy who lives on a regular street," says West. "His neighbors know who he is. He visits his family, but trotting around the world never interested him. He doesn't live significantly different than he did 20 years ago."  Watterson was born in the District and grew up in the droning normalcy of Chagrin Falls. His mom, Kathryn, was on the city council and his dad a patent attorney. He would use the family house as the model for Calvin's, Kathryn Watterson says in a telephone interview, and his dad as the model for Calvin's. ("I'd be happy to talk to you all day long, but Bill's been so private," she says. "He's a thoughtful, introspective person, so it sort of goes along that he wouldn't seek out publicity.")  At Kenyon, Watterson wanted to be a political cartoonist. He got a job as one for a paper in Cincinnati after graduation, but wound up in the unemployment line six months later. He designed ads for a weekly shopper in the windowless basement of a convenience store.

After hours and on weekends, he developed comic strips no one wanted. He eventually drew one populated by a dozen characters including a kid named Marvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes. On the suggestion of one syndicate, Watterson kept the stuffed tiger, gave Marvin's Beatlesque mop a haircut, changed his name and dumped the rest of the cast.  And lo.  Universal Press Syndicate picked up the strip in 1985. There were clues all along that this was about more than slapstick.  Calvin was named for the 16th-century Protestant theologian who believed in predestination, Hobbes for the philosopher a century later who once observed that life is "nasty, brutish and short."  Miss Wormwood, Calvin's teacher, was named after the apprentice devil in "The Screwtape Letters."  Success was quick - the cartoon was quickly picked up by dozens of papers, and eventually ran in more than 2,400.  But the young cartoonist was developing his characters on the fly, uncertain about working in the huge shadow cast by "Peanuts." He often agreed with syndicate editors who thought a lot of the early submissions didn't work.  "Calvin was little more than a mischievous loudmouth and Hobbes was simply his somewhat more sensible friend," Watterson writes of those early days in his introduction.  But the strip was deepened by the friendship between the main pair, which was always sent into the stratosphere by Calvin's imagination.  This led to Watterson's other breakthrough idea, that of drawing Calvin's daydreams as the boy himself saw them - a cartoon within a cartoon.  It became a running gag, a four-panel rimshot: First panel, a crocodile floating to the top of the murky Amazon.  Second and third panels, the croc drifting toward a hippo.  Panel 4: Calvin's dad (the hippo) standing in the shallow end of the swimming pool, asking his floating-face-down son what on earth he's doing.

 The joke was in the contrast; fantasy compared with banal reality.  That one goes B-B-B-A.  Others, which started in reality, would go A-B-B-A. On Sundays, when Calvin turned into a roaring T. rex, the pattern was elongated for more space.  This got harder to do as time wore on.  "That was originally a fun idea, but the burden on the strip has been to make each switch more clever," Watterson said in an interview with West, published in the Comics Journal in 1989.  "Each time it's got to be done with some unpredictability, some cleverness to it so that it doesn't become moribund. . . . I'm doing fewer because it's getting more and more difficult."  Six years later, he would do no more at all.  He drew one final cartoon and let a boy and his tiger take off downhill on their snow sled and slide into comics history.  Ten years gone now.  Maybe that was the smart thing, you know.  Maybe it was for the best.  But still, the last book comes along and you realize there'll be no more Spaceman Spiff, no more Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons.  As a cartoon blockhead might have observed in an earlier era:  Sigh.  You wonder what that Susie Derkins is doing these days.

'Calvin and Hobbes' Creator Has No Regrets
(By Michelle Ruiz, AOL News Feb. 2, 2010)

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."

Mental Floss: Our Interview With Bill Watterson!
(By Jake Rossen, Mental Floss, October 2013)

For the December issue of mental_floss magazine, Jake Rossen managed to do something we thought was impossible—he snagged an interview with the legendary Bill Watterson! Since we’re guessing there are a few Calvin and Hobbes enthusiasts in the audience, we thought we’d provide a glimpse of the e-mail exchange. For our full story on the comic strip, be sure to pick up the print magazine.
There is a tendency to rehash and regurgitate properties with sequels and remakes. You had an idea, executed it, then moved on. And you ignored the clamor for more. Why is it so hard for readers to let go?
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.

Your fight over protecting Calvin and Hobbes from licensing deals, and your battle to increase the real estate for your Sunday page comic, were notable—partially because they indicated your incredible autonomy over your work. Had you "lost" those battles, it appears you would have ended the strip. It reminds me of Howard Roark and his desire to blow up his building rather than see it molested by other hands. Was there a critical moment in your career that instilled such unwavering creative integrity?
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.
Where do you think the comic strip fits in today’s culture?
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.

I’m assuming you’ve gotten wind of people animating your strip for YouTube? Did you ever mimic cartoonists you admired before finding your own style?
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.
Is it possible some new form of sequential art is waiting to be discovered? Could the four-panel template die out as newspapers dwindle?
Form follows function, as the architects say. With words and pictures, you can do just about anything.

According to your collection introductions, you took up painting after the strip ended. Why don’t you exhibit the work?
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.
Purely for trivia and posterity’s sake, if you could indulge some (even more) inane queries: One story that’s made the rounds is that a plush toy manufacturer once delivered a box of Hobbes dolls to you unsolicited, which you promptly set ablaze. For people who share your low opinion of merchandising, this is a fairly delightful story. Did it actually happen?
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.

Owing to spite or just a foul mood, have you ever peeled one of those stupid Calvin stickers off of a pickup truck?
I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.

‘Cul De Sac’ Creator Richard Thompson Faces Life’s Cruel Twists With Artful Wit

(By Michael Cavna, Washington Post, May 20, 2011)

Bill Watterson receives Reporters About As Often As Charlie Brown Receives A Valentine. Once Viewed As The J.D. Salinger Of Comics, The Creator Of the retired and still-beloved strip “Calvin and Hobbes” guards his privacy by rebuffing most every entreaty for an interview.  Now, however, comes a question about a certain “kid strip” cartoonist.  One name, one talent entices Watterson to give what his syndicate says is only his second interview in two decades: Richard Thompson — creator of “Cul de Sac” and father to little “Alice Otterloop” and her child’s-eye view of life in Washington’s suburbs.  “Where to start?... ” Watterson says. “The strip has a unique and honest voice, a seemingly intuitive feel for what comics do best ... a very funny intelligence ... the artwork, which I just slobber over. It’s a wonderful surprise to see that this level of talent is still out there, and that a strip like this is still possible.”
Within comics, many colleagues share that sentiment. On May 28 in Boston, Thompson will learn whether he has won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for cartoonist of the year; it is his second straight nomination for a strip that was first syndicated almost four years ago. “Cul de Sac” is carried by nearly 150 newspapers, including The Washington Post, where it began. It has spawned four books, a handful of animated shorts — and legions of fans.  “Cul de Sac” is a sly, whimsical skip through suburban life with Alice, her friends Beni and Dill, elder brother Petey and her classmates at Blisshaven Academy preschool. It’s all about sidewalk discoveries, childhood invention, parents and other authority figures who are one step behind the children’s antics. At summoning our early years, Watterson says: “The strip depicts all sorts of moments that ring true.”  And residing within this skewed suburbia is also the macro-satire: Mom and Dad Otterloop drive a minivan whose color is so neutral, “it doesn’t appear in nature.”
A 2007 offering is the prototypical “Cul de Sac.” Alice- “who’s not afraid of anything”- is momentarily cowed by winged cicadas. Petey, typically squeamish out of doors, advises: “Do what I do. Construct a distancing fantasy as a coping mechanism.” Next thing we know, Alice is costuming the cicadas in napkin dresses and naming them. By the last panel, with precise elliptical wit, the Otterloop parents are reading headlines about intelligent “superbugs” wearing paper clothes. “Don’t tell the kids,” Mom says. “It’ll just scare them.”  Thompson “has this huge range of cartooning skills ... ,” Watterson says. “Richard draws all sorts of complex stuff — architecture, traffic jams, playground sets — that I would never touch. And how does he accomplish this? Well, I like to imagine him ignoring his family, living on caffeine and sugar, with his feet in a bucket of ice, working 20 hours a day.  Otherwise, it’s not really fair.”
Watterson wrote the foreword for Thompson’s first “Cul de Sac” book in 2008. The foreword to an earlier Thompson collection was written by another industry legend, Pat Oliphant, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist.  “You would never suspect it by looking at him, but behind the quiet, mild-mannered Richard Thompson exterior lurks the real Richard Thompson,” Oliphant says now. “I know he would hate to be termed a genius, but that is exactly what he is.”  So after a measured, decades-long career ascent, Richard Thompson sits at the comics mountaintop. Still, he is keenly aware of a constant fact: The pinnacle is crumbling.
Thompson- who at 53 is a year older than the long-retired Watterson — arrived at print syndication in an era of strapped newspapers and comics sections that are so shrunken they could double as eye charts.  And then there’s the second cruel twist: Less than a year after “Cul de Sac” became syndicated, Thompson learned he has Parkinson’s, the incurable neurodegenerative disease that robs patients of motor skills. His deft line and lithe mind are under attack by his own cells.  Yet here is Thompson, grinning behind his wire rims on a sunny March afternoon as he walks the half-dozen blocks from a taqueria to his modest brick home in Arlington. His gait is tentative. Each day with the disease, he says, brings “a new normality.” But each day also brings the chance to sit at the drafting board, ink-dipped crow quill in hand, and explore new worlds.  As Alice says: “Every day, I test the boundaries of my domain.”


Bill Watterson Returns To The Comics Page To Offer A Few ‘Pearls’ Gems
(By Michael Cavna, Washington Post, 07 June 2014)

WRITER’S NOTE: On Monday night, after he and I did a public Q&A for nearly 500 people at The Washington Post building, Stephan Pastis — acclaimed author of “Pearls Before Swine” and bestselling author of the “Timmy Failure” books — made a few self-deprecating jokes about his own drawing ability. Because Pastis and “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson have confirmed this exclusive report (below), I can now say: Pastis has just executed a gift at “drawing” that few cartoonists can top: 1. Amazingly, he drew the long-retired, once-reclusive Watterson … out of retirement — and got him to create fresh art for this week’s “Pearls”; and 2. Pastis managed to draw out his Watterson-week storyline brilliantly, layering humor upon meta-humor in a hilarious house-of-mirrors reflection on the comic-strip industry past and present. Has anyone in recent memory drawn such feats as that? It is special to have Watterson back into the comic-page spotlight, even if only for a few wonderful days.  –M.C
AT THE END OF 1995, the beloved “Calvin and Hobbes” sledded off the comics page for the final time, and its long-reclusive legendary creator, Bill Watterson, retired from the business, never to draw another syndicated newspaper strip.  Until now.  This week, the millions of readers across generations who have pined for the cartoonist’s return got a sudden glimmer. Turns out, Watterson’s brilliant artistic hand has recently been hiding in plain sight. Readers don’t need to go back a couple of decades to see his latest work; they need only go back, say, a couple of days. That’s because Watterson has returned home to the comics page — even if only for a limited engagement.
Yes, you read that right. For three days, Watterson — once known as the J.D. Salinger of the strips — has resurfaced, his inspired visual wit intact. For this, we have Stephan Pastis’s real estate and surreal humor to thank.  Since Wednesday, Watterson’s new artwork has been featured in Pastis’s syndicated strip, “Pearls Before Swine.” It’s a creative collaboration that stunned Pastis, who says that he sooner expected to team up with “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz. “And yes,” Pastis says slyly, “I am aware that Schulz is dead.”
Last Wednesday’s “Pearls Before Swine” by Stephan Pastis (2014 Pastis/ Distr. by Universal Uclick)

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.”
Earlier this year, Watterson says, Pastis got in touch with him when the “Pearls” author was in the Cleveland area on his book tour (though the two didn’t meet then). At the same time, Watterson says, he knew that editor/designer Chris Sparks was looking for new ways to raise money for Team Cul de Sac, a charity co-founded by Sparks and cartoonist-illustrator Richard Thompson that raises funds to fight Parkinson’s disease, in coordination with the Michael J. Fox Foundation.  “Somehow the juxtaposition clicked on a light bulb,” Watterson says.  Thompson, a longtime Washington Post artist who lives in Arlington, Va., ended his Reuben Award-winning syndicated strip “Cul de Sac” in 2012 as he underwent therapy and surgery to treat his Parkinson’s; Watterson is an enormous fan of Thompson’s, and the two now have a dual exhibit at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus.  “I thought maybe Stephan and I could do this goofy collaboration and then use the result to raise some money for Parkinson’s research in honor of Richard Thompson,” Watterson tells me. “It just seemed like a perfect convergence.  So I explained the idea to Stephan,” Watterson says, “and he was more than happy to give it a shot.”
Last Thursday’s “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis (2014 Pastis/ Distr. by Universal Uclick)
Both in person and on the page, Pastis — a recent Reuben Award finalist and best-selling “Timmy Failure” author — is self-deprecating about his artistic prowess. So the conceit in this week’s strips is that a second-grader named Libby (a name that nods to “Bill”) boasts that she can draw “Pearls” better than the feature’s creator. Pastis’s cartoon avatar turns over his “stick figure” comic to the girl — who proceeds to render rich worlds of imagination beyond the signature style of the strip. From invading Martians to big-mouthed (and Pastis-devouring) crocodiles, the art brims with the life of Watterson’s expressive line.  The collaboration is a brilliant pairing of strengths, with Watterson illustrating Pastis’s sometimes-meta script. “I think we both got some surprises,” Watterson says. “I didn’t know what he was going to write, and he didn’t know how I was going to draw it.” 

Friday’s “Pearls Before Swine,” by Stephan Pastis (2014 Pastis/ Distr. by Universal Uclick)
From Wednesday through Friday, Pastis ceded his middle panels to Watterson, whose virtuosic art is vivid testament that his talent remains undiminished. Still, Pastis summoned the gumption to offer a few editing changes.  “It was like editing the pope,” Pastis says. “Like telling Michelangelo: ‘David’s hands are too big.’ ” Yet the California-based Pastis suggested minor tweaks to fit the tone and idiosyncrasies of his strip — including the number of “grawlix,” or punctuation characters that represent cartoon profanity, he uses to match the number of letters in his curse words.  Pastis drew Saturday’s “Pearls” himself as a respectful tip of the cap to Watterson, referencing one of the best farewell strips in the history of comics: “Calvin and Hobbes’ ” bittersweet, sledding-into-white-space (and untold adventures) goodbye.
Saturday’s “Pearls Before Swine.” (2014 Stephan Pastis / distr. by Universal Uclick)
Some true “Calvin” geeks began blogging theories Wednesday, noting visual touches in “Pearls” that piqued their curiosity — were those “Watterson shoes,” or his headlighted spaceships, or his telltale furniture legs? Like pilgrims studying crop circles or Stonehenge, some cartoonists stoked the guessing game.  Fans had reason to be optimistic. Watterson has twice produced public art in recent years: A poster for the recent homage-to-comics documentary “Stripped,” and a painting of a Richard Thompson character that was auctioned off for Team Cul de Sac.  The original “Pearls” strips featuring Watterson’s work — which will be on display at the Heroes Convention (or HeroesCon) later this month in Charlotte — will also be auctioned at some point for the Cul de Sac charity.  “It was generous of Stephan to let me hijack his creation, and more generous still to donate the originals,” says Watterson, adding that he hopes the auctioning “meets with some success.”
As for the experience of collaborating with Pastis, whom he had never met prior to this week, the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator welcomed the challenge of a limited return to the page.  “I had expected to just mess around with his characters while they did their usual things,” Watterson tells me, “but Stephan kept setting up these situations that required more challenging drawings . . . so I had to work a lot harder than I had planned to! It was a lot of fun.”


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