Monday, August 1, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Bill Watterson

Title: Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue
Author: Bill Watterson
via Amazon
For many reasons, I believe I was born into a great era for pop culture, a time when telecommunications would transform the world, giving us all greater access to more media (if not always better media).  I was four years old when Star Wars first hit theaters, the perfect age for growing up with the franchise.  I was at just the right age when Dungeons & Dragons took hold.  True, I missed the Beatles but overall, I did well.

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.


  1. We have some Calvin & Hobbes books stashed away somewhere.
    The Internet has changed so many things.

  2. It'll always be a classic. I always stump for Pearls Before Swine as a modern classic. It's simply drawn (although Watterson did a few panels last year), but the wit is staggering.

    1. Also, if you're looking for something like what you remember, you might want to seek out the Over the Hedge strip, which was turned into a movie a decade ago.

    2. The truth is, I don't miss the comics most of the time. It's been 20 years since I got a daily paper that carried them. It has, in fact, been a long time since we've gotten a paper at all so I am part of the problem.

      The main place I read them, actually, is at my parents' place. They still get the Post. The Post carries Pearls Before Swine but not Over the Hedge.

  3. We have so many Calvin & Hobbes. Every once in awhile I will get one down and read it.
    Quick note, when my home burned down many years ago in an arson set wildfire, I had several Calvin and Hobbes book by my bedside. Right before I went to bed every night I would read a few pages. I wanted to go to sleep with smiles and happiness and not the despair that I felt. It helped !
    I have read this one and knew about the troubles he had with syndication, licensing, control of images. Plus the strict format of the comics was one he wanted to draw around.
    But he is a wonderful illustrator his drawing that sometimes found there way into the strips where frame worth.
    If you like Bill Watterson,his art and crazy, try to read Richard Thompson, of the Cul de Sac comics. Like Bill Watterson, he was (just died from Parkinson's disease) a fabulous illustrator, crazy wit and just a wonderful person. I have a note he sent me right before he stopped doing the strip because he could not draw anymore. Although he is no longer here his strip lives on with beauty, charm, wit, ideas and most of
    all amazing funny look at life. His illustrations are beautiful and I have one of the Totoro Forest in Japan.

    Terrific review of a wonderful book.
    cheers, parsnip and thehamish

    1. I didn't even know about Cul de Sac until I read this book. Watterson, as you probably know, was a fan. I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

  4. Awesome review of a wonderful series.

  5. Calvin and Hobbes is a classic. I saw a great documentary called Dear Mr. Watterson (I hope that was the title).


    1. Just found it! On Netflix streaming! Thanks for the tip.