Author: Bill Watterson
There is one medium I know I hit during a golden age: newspaper comic strips. In the mid-1980s, I started each morning at the breakfast table with a bowl of raisin bran and the Washington Post's sports and comics sections. Every day, I was treated to the three greatest strips that have ever graced the page: Bloom County by Berkley Breathed, The Far Side by Gary Larson and Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. By 1995, all three were gone (thank goodness, Bloom County is back via Facebook). The daily comics have never been the same.
In 2014, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University presented an exhibition of Bill Watterson's work, primarily devoted, of course, to Calvin and Hobbes. In conjunction with the exhibition, Watterson released Exploring Calvin and Hobbes which included examples of his work and a thoughtful interview conducted by Jenny Robb, museum curator. The interview is wonderfully thorough, covering Watterson's childhood, his influences, his early days playing around in the medium, the tough road to syndication and, of course, his unexpected but enormous success. I always enjoy an exploration of the creative process so his thoughts on craft, from his work schedule to his preferred pen, are fascinating to me.
There are a couple of controversial questions that have long dogged Watterson and Robb did not shy away from them. One has to do with licensing. Watterson left millions on the table by declining to allow his characters to be licensed for toys, lunchboxes and such. He explains that he wanted artist control over how the images would be used and since no one would give him that, he refused to sign over the rights. Mind you, the continuing strong sales of Calvin and Hobbes books have preserved the considerable cash flow for the Watterson household.
The other question, more dear to my own heart, is why he abandoned the strip in '95, seemingly at the height of his game. Watterson provides a lawn mowing metaphor as explanation. He didn't want to continually mow over the same stripe of ground for decades. He felt he had taken Calvin and Hobbes as far as he could without resorting to retreads. It's still sad but, from a creative standpoint, understandable.
The most interesting discussion centered on the current state of the industry, Watterson expressing his concern that it is no longer possible for anyone to have a career in comics like the one he had. When I wrote that the comics have never been the same, I wasn't just waxing nostalgic. It's true, and for a startlingly simple reason: people don't buy newspapers anymore. The image of a family sitting around the living room, each member enjoying his/her favorite section of the local daily is downright Rockwellian at this point. Through the miracle of newspaper distribution, Watterson's strip - along with Breathed's, Larson's and Schultz's - had a readership many multiples of what one could expect today.
Best of all, the book includes a number of the old strips. I'd forgotten just how funny Calvin and Hobbes was, beyond its basic existential brilliance. Quite a few of them had me in stitches.