Friday, August 30, 2013

Spotlight: Bill Watterson

"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."
Depicting the adventures of a precocious six year old and his tiger best friend and syndicated by the Universal Press Syndicate in 1985, “Calvin and Hobbes” had a solid decade of unprecedented success, running a total of 3,160 strips long, collected into 18 books, and appearing in nearly 2,500 newspapers across the country. For Watterson, who from the very beginning was averse to the attention “Calvin and Hobbes” brought him, the personal triumph of writing a successful comic strip was at times overshadowed by the burdens that came with it.

“As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes,” a 2012 compilation of all his work, weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”

Whereas others have relished such a spotlight, Watterson shrank from the publicity, sure that neither he nor his work would survive what he saw as the curse of celebrity.

There were plenty of hustlers — not only businessmen dangling potential millions of dollars of paychecks in front of Watterson and UPS, but the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were even attempting to woo Watterson to give up film rights with trips to Skywalker Ranch — but Watterson wouldn’t budge. The man was nothing if not staunchly dedicated to his personal ethics, and licensing his characters was simply out of the question. “If I’d wanted to sell plush garbage,” Watterson told the Comics Journal in 1989, “I’d have gone to work as a carny.”

“I’m convinced that licensing would sell out the soul of ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’” Watterson said in the same article. “The world of a comic strip is much more fragile that most people realize. Once you’ve given up its integrity, that’s it. I want to make sure that never happens.”

After years of fighting, Watterson finally gained full rights to “Calvin and Hobbes” in early 1991, thus ensuring that toy company’s dreams of Spaceman Spiff underpants and stuffed Hobbes dolls on their shelves would never be a reality. But Watterson’s ethical battle still wasn’t over — in fact, it would last well beyond the final “Calvin and Hobbes” panel he drew in December of 1995. This time, it would come in the form of reporters, and the ethics in question were theirs.

The Plain Dealer sent a reporter in 1998 and again in 2003; the Washington Post sent someone in 2003, as did the Cleveland Scene. All the reporters hoped to score that elusive golden interview with the man behind “Calvin and Hobbes,” and all found that Watterson proved harder to find than anticipated. The reporters went back to their newspapers more or less empty-handed, little more to show for their trip than a possible sighting from a distance or a brief conversation with Watterson’s mother.

For Joel Schroeder, the director of the documentary ”Dear Mr. Watterson” (which will be screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April), the decision not to contact Watterson was fairly clear from the days of pre-production. After reading Martell’s book in 2009, the choice became even more obvious — respect Watterson’s privacy. Don’t even try to reach out.

More information:
» Bill Watterson's Advice from Kenyon College Commencement Speech, 1990
» Honk: An Interview with Bill Watterson, 1987
» Mental Floss: Interview with Bill Watterson, 2013

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