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Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, first interview since 1989 (cleveland.com)
197 points by wallflower on Feb 1, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

He sounds like a very emotionally mature individual. He's living his life his way, and though he notices the reaction of others to his creations, he doesn't define himself by them.

Think about a project you're really proud of. Now, think about how you would feel if that was all that anyone associated you with, regardless of your other accomplishments. It's your choice of emotion. I put it to you that he's made a very sane choice in how to react - he's let go of it and any baggage that could be associated to it.

In a world that lauds "reunion tours" and the like, he's a breath of fresh air.

He's had to fight the syndicate for a long time during C&H not to merchandise his comic strips. In an industry where it's ok, if not normal to merchandise your comic strip, he's one of the few the railed against it, even when his comic strip peers made of of him for it. He's had lots of practice not defining himself by others' values.

"It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I'd be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.

To make a business decision, you don't need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works." http://psychologynews.posterous.com/speech-by-bill-watterson

If he was a HN user, he'd probably get downvoted a lot for his anti-money-as-the-bottom-line view. And oddly enough, I argue that part of that attitude and values contributed to the long lasting value of his comic strips, as we're still talking about him and reading C&H today.

"Q: What led you to resist merchandising Calvin and Hobbes?

A: For starters, I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo. . . . Actually, I wasn't against all merchandising when I started the strip, but each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved. If my syndicate had let it go at that, the decision would have taken maybe 30 seconds of my life."

From another interview posted elsewhere in the comments. http://www.andrewsmcmeel.com/calvinandhobbes/interview.html

That being said, I would have loved a Hobbes stuffed animal when I was a kid, and I'd love to be able to give one to my kids someday (provided the hours I spend with my laptop hasn't rendered me completely infertile).

I actually had one. I'm about the same age as Watterson, and had a stuffed tiger that was identical to the one in the strip. I have a sneaking suspicion that he did to, since he captures the odd proportions of the original so perfectly. In any case, it adds a whole 'nother level when I read the strip, allowing me to relate to it eerily well. That tiger was threadbare after years of being my constant companion (my mom had to sew the tail back on several times).

Everyone in the world would have loved a Hobbes animal. He could have made a mint off of that. Which makes his decision not to merchandise one of the most impressive displays of artistic integrity I know of.

How is that artistic integrity? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad they never went the way of Garfield or The Simpsons, but a couple of simple stuffed animals would have been great.

Part of the magic of Hobbes is that Watterson never resolves the issue of his true form. To Calvin, he is a real tiger. To his parents (and everyone else), he is a stuffed animal. To sell a plush-toy version of Hobbes would make this dichotomy less compelling. It would be like knowing the Secret of Monkey Island.

I personally think that a perfectly normal Hobbes stuffed doll would be an incredible incitement to a child's imagination. Instead of a talking Dora the Explorer doll that can replay the voice of the actress from the cartoon, the child (or child at heart) would be compelled to imitate Calvin and use their imagination.

And as to killing the magic, I'd think it's safe to presume that anyone with the agency and means to obtain a Hobbes doll could also can handle the fact that Calvin lives inside a comic strip with his Hobbes, but the one you've got is different

It's not really about what we think would or wouldn't have been great. Watterson felt that a Hobbes toy wouldn't be true to the spirit of the strip - I'm sure he had his reasons, though I don't know what they are. And to choose that faithfulness to his vision over the millions he could have raked in by simply signing a piece of paper and sending it off to his syndicate - that's what I am calling artistic integrity.

I suppose. I would guess (or hope at least) that he simply wasn't given the choice to just release a few tasteful products. It was probably either release nothing or go whole hog into Lady Krusty Moustache Removal System territory.

I think you've got a really good point here. Speaking from the syndicate's point of view, it's highly inefficient and a poor bargaining position if you have to get authorial approval for each and every item. Watterson probably never had a choice, it was either authorize BOTH the Hobbes doll AND the peein' Calvin doll, or neither at all.

So it couldn't possibly be that he's against merchandising, but rather it wasn't classy enough for him.

"Actually, I wasn't against all merchandising when I started the strip"

"I think some of the reason 'Calvin and Hobbes' still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it."

A good, good lesson.

Fawlty Towers ended after only 12 episodes because John Cleese basically wanted every episode to be 100% awesome.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fawlty_Towers#Episode_guide (see the last para in that section)

The original version of "The Office" ended for similar reasons I believe. Contrast that to the American "let's beat this thing till it jumps the shark" version.

I approached the American version of The Office with trepidation for this very reason (in fact I avoided it altogether until after the fourth season had come out). When I finally started watching it, I was delighted to discover that it is, if anything, even better than the original.

The characters are more complex and richly realized; the boss is as much an object of pity and even compassion as of scorn (er, Scarn); and Dwight is almost unbearably awesome.

There may be a shark-jumping in the show's future (heck, it may be happening as I write this - I won't get to see the current season until it comes out on DVD this coming September), but I haven't seen it yet.

Well for me it has jumped the shark but that doesn't mean I won't watch the odd episode now and then but my point is that American shows almost never leave on a high note.

Lost Season 6 starts tomorrow and I have high high hopes. Perhaps too high.

Actually, I don't think the 'studios' (or networks) mind jumping the shark. The slogan seems to be, "let's beat this thing till the revenue drops."

You only need to look at Garf-Eel to see how the alternative can play out:


It would be great if the entertainment industry could learn this lesson.

these are not very good questions, are they.

the interviewer starts with the obvious bias that he thinks it's bad that calvin and hobbes is not around anymore. watterson says "yeah i'm pretty much over that" and the interviewer just won't take no for an answer: why not do some other strip, give the fans something they want, they all feel a connection to you, etc.

it would have been a lot better if the interviewer was willing to accept what the guy was saying and go forward from there. "okay, so you're not doing the strip anymore ... so what's in your life these days?"

And so few questions!

Watterson is so modest that he gives his only interview to a local journalist with no particular interest in comics who mainly asks questions about celebrity. This is like Einstein being interviewed by a sports journalist.

I would pay to read Einstein being interviewed by Hunter S. Thompson.

Hunter S. Thompson was a very 'special' sports journalist. Most sports journalists wouldn't give Einstein a good interview.

That said, I'd pay to read HST/Einstein as well.

I take that back. It turns out the journalist is a former college cartoonist.


Wasn't Einstein actually first interviewed by a sports journalist? I recently read, in A Brief History of Everything, that that happened with either Einstein or some other famous scientist - don't remember who exactly.

FTA: "recently answered some questions via e-mail".

My guess is the interviewer just sent off a list of questions and Watterson answered the lot of them at his leisure. They just happened to all center around how desperately we all want more C&H.

Maybe the interviewer was just so amazed to be interviewing him at all that he just fell apart.

Yes, he just fell on his knees and started shouting "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!"

pretty much what I would do. that strip defined my childhood.

"so what's in your life these days?"

I was deeply disappointed that the interview did not center around this question. We know he's not writing C&H, so is he doing something else that he finds meaningful? Does he spend all his time gardening? Does he still draw, doodle, or write? Does he ever feel an urge to do something creative that has nothing to do with comics or Calvin and Hobbes?

Seems a huge missed opportunity, to me.

For the record the article isn't his first interview since 1989, this was: http://www.andrewsmcmeel.com/calvinandhobbes/interview.html

It's still neat to have another though...

How hard would it have been for the reporter to do a search on Bill Watterson interviews instead of just guessing? The widespread low quality of mainstream reporting never ceases to amaze me - especially when we're supposed to believe that the traditional media are the last bastion of authoritative, reliable, professional journalism.

Or just load up the wikipedia page on him. In the four paragraph* "Since Retirement" section, it mentions both that interview and other attempts to get an interview.

*It's 5 or 6 now, but the later ones refer to this recent interview.

Always amazed at how much he looks like how he drew Calvin's Dad.

I had obviously conflated the two names without noticing, and had a mental image of him looking like Bill Bryson ( http://travelblog.portfoliocollection.com/FeaturedImage/bill... ), and was taken aback at that picture.

What is he doing with his time now? Is he employed, is he writing the great american novel, is he gardening?

None of the interviews touch on that- it makes me sad.

I'm not sure which is more amazing: that Watterson finally gave another interview, or that we're so eager to read it. "Calvin and Hobbes" has been discontinued for one and a half times the length of its run, and still we remember it with so much interest; Watterson was -- is -- a master.

(And while we're on a roll, can we also get an interview with Gary Larson?)

If Watterson looks like Calvin's dad, does that mean Larson is this weird round dude with a tiny head?

One of the Farside collections had the fat kid as the "About the Author" photograph. So, yes, I guess so.

Here is the transcript of his Kenyon College Commencement speech.


I wish there was a video of this somewhere. I would need to hear his voice inflection to really get his true... attitude on life and relationships.

"When it seemed I would be writing about 'Midnite Madness Sale-abrations' for the rest of my life, a friend used to console me that cream always rises to the top. I used to think, so do people who throw themselves into the sea."

beautiful quote(s):

  - So, what's it like in the real world? Well, the food is better, but beyond that, I don't recommend it.

  - Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in.

I believe people don't get why Calvin and Hobbes became as big as it did, which is simply because it's fans responded to it in their own personal ways.

> 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 believe the thing that spoke to me most out of anything I've ever read was this: http://whatever.scalzi.com/2003/01/01/the-child-on-the-train...

To most this is a sad and unfortunate story, which is how I originally took it. However, when I picked up his book covering the past of Whatever it took on a completely different meaning. My life and perceptions changed quite radically in the intervening years, and years later it's still a difficult subject to deal with publicly. It's a catch 22, you feel bad for bringing it up because it's not only difficult for people to deal with, but it's also an awkward subject to breach. However, it's an issue that truly requires to be discussed as 1/4 of couples experience it, but discussing it hits the first snag. The emotions are seriously conflicting as you're exceptionally happy, and then it goes away. You're upset and depressed, however there is an awkwardness to the emotions as nothing feels like it was ever lost. It's almost like having a false-positive test, but much more profound.

Calvin and Hobbes provided ways for its readership to relate, and apparently managed it profoundly with a vast assortment of people. It's one thing to cater yourself to the general public en masse, but it's something worlds apart when you relate to the general public en masse.

So much humility. Our industry needs more.

Obviously, his attitude/philosophy towards C&H hasn't changed much in the past 15 years. It's almost like he pities his legions of fans for digging the strip so much. When ever I read the interviews from years ago or even some of the strip commentary, I feel like Watterson's just got a giant chip on his shoulder and I kinda want to hate the guy.

I started reading C&H when I was 11-12 and my son has been interested since before he could even read on his own. This strip touches on something that I haven't found with _any_ other strip. Peanuts was great in it's time (I guess, I never really liked it.) But I can read C&H a zillion times and never get bored.

I just wish Mr. Watterson wasn't so off-putting, it would be nice to get more insight into his creativity as opposed to the shoulder-shrug and giant "meh" that's he's provided so far.

I think you are misreading profound shyness and discomfort at being in the public eye for something else.

I may be wrong, but I don't see pity or lack of respect for his fans in his (few) interviews, but rather fear at the intensity of the fans. This isn't so unusual. Some (many?) creative people love and desire the attention that fame brings, but others simply freak out (Salinger, Pynchon, Glenn Gould, Watterson - if I'm right).

Quick follow-up: it's linked on this thread, but a different interview (Watterson responding to fan questions) gives a much more laid-back vibe: http://www.andrewsmcmeel.com/calvinandhobbes/interview.html So maybe part of the problem is how poor the new interview's questions are.

He should be afraid.

I've said it before: One of the hardest things to learn about fame is that it is a cost of doing business. It can kill you. Maybe it will kill you with stress. Or maybe it will kill you by withdrawal: People who are addicted to the charge of being famous become clinically depressed when that charge ebbs, or when they acclimate to it. Just look at what fame has done to so many movie stars and musicians.

One of the great things about geeky hobbies is that most of them allow you to become modestly famous, but no more.

> It can kill you. Maybe it will kill you with stress. Or maybe it will kill you by withdrawal[.]

Or maybe it'll be a psycho stalker fan who shoots you in the back four times after following you around for months.


I haven't read his prior interviews, but I must say, I took away none of that from this one. He seems to display an appropriate humility about his art:

"Readers will always decide if the work is meaningful and relevant to them, and I can live with whatever conclusion they come to...I'm proud of the strip, enormously grateful for its success, and truly flattered that people still read it."

Although we all hope for some kind of tremendous story of revelation and inspiration and toil behind meaningful art, I don't think you can really fault him just because he doesn't have one ready to offer.

There's a great C&H collection with tons of commentary [1]. He does talk about the creative process a bit and how he loathes certain aspects of the newspaper industry. I find it all very fascinating and could probably watch an entire documentary series on this guy and what he went through during his career.

[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=xtiMQXCLdJEC&lpg=PP1...

I read and re-read this book probably 100 times. It's really amazing. There's another collection of Sunday strips that has some commentary and the original sketches of the comic too that I really liked.


Thank you very much for digging that up. It's an interesting piece of background.

You are welcome. I just stumbled across this collection from WikiQuotes; very much worth a browsing (if you've read C&H).


Obviously, his attitude/philosophy towards C&H hasn't changed much in the past 15 years. It's almost like he pities his legions of fans for digging the strip so much. When ever I read the interviews from years ago or even some of the strip commentary, I feel like Watterson's just got a giant chip on his shoulder and I kinda want to hate the guy.

I don't understand this perspective, at all. I've never gotten that impression from any interview I've ever read, including this one. He seems humble, genuine, and sincere in his desire to live a quiet life. I like him all the more for not being defined by fame and success, and not partaking to excess of the adulation of his fans, as many celebrities do. He lets the work speak for itself; and the work is good enough to speak very loudly.

I use to draw a comic strip in college and studied his strips to learn to do my own. His Tenth Anniversary book for C&H was really helpful for insights into his creativity, as he captions his comic strips and what he was thinking at the time. http://books.google.com/books?id=xtiMQXCLdJEC&pg=PA19...

Mainly, he values being mentally curious. In the link I put above, he basically let his mind wander. He daydreams, and managed to cultivate that into a skill.

When I was doing a strip, you just kinda get into a habit of noticing things in our world that don't fit quite right. And then you just kinda amuse yourself by letting your mind wander. At the end, you might end up with something.

By comparison, it like how entrepreneurs notice business opportunities all around them by habit.

I agree that Watterson is not very fan-friendly on his comments and interviews. (Not to mention his constant diatribes against his publisher.)

On the other hand, the interviewer here only asks "pushy fan" questions, so it's not surprising that the only thing we get from Watterson is his usual "humble bordering on misanthropic" schtick. A pity, really, could have been a much better interview. I guess we'll never get to the bottom of the real causes of that spaghetti incident...

Not totally unlike, then, to the "prawn incident" in P.G.Wodehouse stories - I believe he teased his readers a few times about it, but never came across ...

P.S. in my corner of Europe, there was a newspaper reprinting C&H until a couple of years ago ...

He was really put off by the publicity and loss of privacy when the strip got really popular. Rumor has it he paints landscapes and then burns them. http://quazen.com/arts/animation/bill-watterson-and-calvin-a...

He's our Salinger.

Sadly, no info on what he's doing now.

I've always rather enjoyed this piece of found internet art, having grown up with Calvin and Hobbes, and now having my own family on the way.


FWIW, some fans are making a film to coincide with the strip's 15th anniversary:


It seems they haven't secured an interview with the man himself, but they have interviews with a mix of other people.

My local paper ran an article about Watterson and the adventures of the reporter who tried to track him down.


Couldn't resist passing on this link:


(An interface to search C & H quotes and download them)

Bill Watterson is a convicted sex offender. In Ohio he is a registered sex offender. That's why he is so reclusive and shut down his comic so soon.

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