'Calvin and Hobbes,' Bill Watterson, and Separating the Artist From the Art

The new documentary Dear Mr. Watterson tells us that people love Calvin and Hobbes, but we already knew that. Despite its name, the film doesn't reveal much about the comic strip's creator—and he prefers it that way.
Author:
Publish date:
(PHOTO: E R J K P R U N C Z Y K/FLICKR)

(PHOTO: E R J K P R U N C Z Y K/FLICKR)

Some creators have a complicated relationship with their creations. Just ask Nabokov after he wrote Lolita, gun manufacturers after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, or God after the first humans sunk their clean teeth into the forbidden fruit. While the latter is dependent on the former for that initial jolt into existence, sometimes creations eventually take on lives of their own, above and beyond what their creators ever could have anticipated.

This is especially true of Bill Watterson and his celebrated comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes. From late 1985 to the very last day of 1995—with two lengthy sabbaticals in between—Watterson wrote and illustrated 3,160 strips chronicling the adventures of a rambunctious yet precocious six-year-old boy and his toy tiger. According to Watterson's publisher, Andrews McMeel Universal, Calvin and Hobbes appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers at the height of its syndication, and sales of the strip's various book collections have since surpassed 30 million copies worldwide. In 2005, author and animation historian Charles Solomon wrote in the Los Angeles Times that when the series ended, the comics' section lost a tinge of magic that it has yet to reclaim. The National Cartoonists Society has given Watterson the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year twice, fans have made much fan fiction, and so on.

At this point in history, however, arguing for the greatness of Calvin and Hobbes is redundant. Apart from our newest members of society and the few who only know about the strip through those apocryphal decals usually found on a pickup truck's rear window that depict a sinister-looking Calvin peeing on the logo of some car company or sports team, most laud the series as one of society’s closest brushes with perfection. In the realm of pop-culture artifacts, it's up there with the Beatles, Pac-Man, Seinfeld, Toy Story, and the union of Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Yet, very little is known about the author, and he prefers it that way.

IN THE NEW DOCUMENTARY titled Dear Mr. Watterson, writer, producer, editor, and director Joel Allen Schroeder aims to change this fact ever so slightly. Throughout the film—which raised over $120,000 from two separate Kickstarter campaigns and reportedly took six years to complete—cartoonists, critics, colleagues, curators, and common regular folks just like you and me share anecdotes and opinions in an effort to articulate what made Calvin and Hobbes so exceptional. Big names featured include Berkeley Breathed of Bloom Country; Seth Green of Family Guy; Bill Amend of Foxtrot; Jean Schulz, the widow of Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz; and Lee Salem, Watterson's editor.

The perhaps unintended consequence of Watterson's consistent refusal to have his life and work, his deepest thoughts and feelings, broadcast to the world is that his legend has only grown.

While some of the talking heads offer genuine insights into Watterson's famous refusal to dilute the spirit of his characters through merchandising, and others discuss some of Watterson's influences, such as Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat, there's an unfortunate amount of screen time devoted to people saying not much more than Man, I just really love Calvin's vivid imagination, or Watterson's philosophical musings have forever changed my life—you don't even know. In other words, statements so true they're kind of boring to hear.

Although Schroeder clearly doesn't intend to invade Watterson's cherished solitude or lure the famous recluse out of his hiding spot somewhere in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio, for a tell-all exposé, the project is an attempt to better understand the author via his work and the work via its author. Naturally, that means some prying into Watterson's past is necessary.

As expected, however, not everyone appreciates this type of investigation. Since the cartoonist has time and again expressed his desire for privacy, some people think the public should just "leave Bill Watterson alone" already. After all, wouldn't a true admirer want to respect her hero's wishes? And isn't a decade of toiling over a drawing board under a daily deadline enough? As argued in a polemic published by Salon, all we need to know about the man and his outlook on friendship, authority, art, media, environmentalism, and the world in general, can be found in his body of work. Whatever Watterson did or did not do with a cardboard box or red wagon or plush toy in his own childhood is irrelevant.

IN THE PROLOGUE TO Nevin Martell's Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip, a book published back in 2009 that covers much of the same ground found in Schroeder's film without shying away from its intent to interview Watterson and uncover as much biography as legally and respectfully possible, Martell talks about this dilemma with Richard West, an old friend of Watterson's from college who still keeps in touch. In the following excerpt, West summarizes the discussions he's had with Watterson about the merits of making himself more available to the public or not:

We've had long debates—since I'm the historian and he's the artist—about the value of art history. At one point he took the position that the art is all that matters and who cares what the artist's story is. As in, you can look at a Rembrandt and appreciate a Rembrandt without knowing a single thing about Rembrandt's life. And my argument back to him is that people are drawn to genius and that they want to have a better understanding of what creates greatness. Plus, an artist's story gives a texture and meaning to the human effort.

While Watterson never spoke to Martell for his book, Watterson did unexpectedly break a 20-year silence in 2010 to answer some questions offered by Cleveland's largest newspaper, The Plain Dealer. Asked to explain what made Calvin and Hobbes so special in the minds and hearts of the strip's readers, Watterson responded with the following:

The only part I understand is what went into the creation of the strip. What readers take away from it is up to them. Once the strip is published, readers bring their own experiences to it, and the work takes on a life of its own. Everyone responds differently to different parts.

I just tried to write honestly, and I tried to make this little world fun to look at, so people would take the time to read it. That was the full extent of my concern. You mix a bunch of ingredients, and once in a great while, chemistry happens. I can't explain why the strip caught on the way it did, and I don't think I could ever duplicate it. A lot of things have to go right all at once.

Emerging from this interview and couple of others Watterson has done since—one for Andrews McMeel Universal's website and another quite recently for the December issue of Mental Floss, which has ties to the Cleveland area—is a style of response that one might be tempted to call Watterson-esque: direct, terse, never revealing too much. While he answers the questions, he never dips into theory or psychology or risks bursting the bubble of mysticism built around his strip from too many pokes of the finger.

Asked to comment on the moral/theological aspects of the series and his own religious upbringing, for example, Watterson simply responds with: "Actually, I've never attended any church." On his and Calvin's shared character traits: "While Calvin definitely reflects certain aspects of my personality, I never had imaginary animal friends, I generally stayed out of trouble, I did fairly well in school, etc., so the strip is not literally autobiographical." On those fans who want to read more adventures of Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man, and Tracer Bullet: "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." On those fans who want Watterson to return to the pop-culture spotlight: "My impression is that those who don't get it, don't care to get it." On the legacy of Calvin and Hobbes: "Well, it's not a subject that keeps me up at night. Readers will always decide if the work is meaningful and relevant to them, and I can live with whatever conclusion they come to. Again, my part in all this largely ended as the ink dried."

The perhaps unintended consequence of Watterson's consistent refusal to have his life and work, his deepest thoughts and feelings, broadcast to the world is that his legend has only grown. Unlike the actors and musicians and politicians and reality-TV personalities who pursue every opportunity available either to gain or maintain some kind of social acceptance and significance, Watterson doesn't seem to care. And in his non-caring, the public has only come to care for him more.

Whether Watterson holds some kind of enchanted key capable of unlocking more layers of understanding and interpretation to the already incredibly packed and multifaceted universe of Calvin and Hobbes is unknown. If he doesn't, that's fine; his series is treasure enough. If he does, chances are we won't be seeing it anytime soon.

Related