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Bill Watterson's Speech – Kenyon College, 1990 (serverunderground.com)
170 points by tim_sw on April 22, 2013 | hide | past | favorite | 58 comments

I am reminded of one of Taleb's aphorisms: "You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept", and of Glenn Gould's interview with himself:

"G.G.: I simply feel that the artist should be granted, both for his sake and for that of his public – and let me get on record right now the fact that I'm not at all happy with words like "public" and "artist"; I'm not happy with the hierarchical implications of that kind of terminology – that he should be granted anonymity. He should be permitted to operate in secret, as it were, unconcerned with – or, better still, unaware of – the presumed demands of the marketplace – which demands, given sufficient indifference on the part of a sufficient number of artists, will simply disappear. And given their disappearance, the artist will then abandon his false sense of "public" responsibility, and his "public" will relinquish its role of servile dependency.

g.g.: And never the twain shall meet, I daresay!

G.G.: No, they'll make contact, but on an altogether more meaningful level than that which relates any stage to its apron."

-- http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/glenngould/028010-4020.07...

> "You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept"

Reminds my of my favorite saying of Thoreau: "A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone."

And Watterson was right in that precise sense. Had he sold out, there would have been no end to the things he didn't want to, but would have had to do.

Bill Watterson is one of my heroes. From what I've read of him he had an extraordinary strength of will. His comics were a major influence on me growing up and the more I learn about him the more I admire him.

The world could use a little more Bill Watterson. There is a man who values what is truly valuable, and refuses to sacrifice it for the sake of greed or ego. To me, that is the epitome of virtue.

"If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood."

Someone please put this in the fortune file for all eternity. It describes my life as a scholar, and the life of every professor I've ever known.

It tickles me to know that there's some dorm room ceiling at Kenyon with a copy of of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam", done by Watterson, hiding under a few coats of paint -- unless of course that dorm has since been torn down (even if it was brand new when he was a student, it'd be ~35 years old now; he attended 1976 - 1980).

It's probably more common than you think. When I was in college (actually, just down the road from Kenyon at Denison - they were our big rival), I had a friend paint a large part of the "Creation of Adam" on her ceiling...

in Tide.

So, by day, it looked normal. However, by blacklight, you could see it in all its glory. I still don't know how she got the shading right.

Working on that under blacklight would have been interesting. That's going to really freak someone out someday, if it never got painted over...

The dorm probably hasn't been torn down. Kenyon gets rather attached to its buildings.

Now, to send out a mass email to every student asking them to chip some paint off their ceiling and check... =D

I recall Watterson also battled with the newspaper industry over how his strips looked, especially with the use of colour in the Sunday strips. I believe he felt somewhat constrained by the format and you can see him stretching the format's boundaries in the Calvin & Hobbes strips, especially the Sunday ones.

I used to wonder why he never moved to doing comic "books" where he had more room to breathe. I've since come to believe that creative work benefits from some kind of constraint - a boundary to push against.

Not color, but format. Some newspapers will format a comic with two rows of panels, whereas another newspaper will format it with three narrower rows, etc. So the syndicates wanted comics with panel divisions that allowed that reformatting, whereas Watterson wanted to simply have his block of space to do whatever he wanted with.

He ended up winning that battle. But to hear him tell the tale (IIRC in the 10th anniversary collection), while it opened up creative possibilities, the toll it took on his psyche probably helped ensure the relative brevity of his career.

If I remember, another good example of this is that papers split on how much space was given, thus many Calvin and Hobbes comics have a "throwaway joke" at the top that the rest of the strip can be independent of.

Example: http://calvinhobbesdaily.tumblr.com/image/48223268456

Format yes, but also with color. The color palette of the sunday comics was punchy and vibrant to attract attention. He very much desired to work in pastels and earth tones and it was a battle for him to get the look he wanted.

Ah, yes, IIRC, most comics are drawn with simple outlines and then numbers are written over the blank spaces to indicate what colors they should be, a la paint-by-numbers. Whereas Watterson wanted license to color things himself using whatever media.

I wish that I'd heard that speech when I graduated. He nails a lot of things I've discovered to be true as I've come along the way.

But even if I had of heard it, I probably would've shrugged it off and made the same mistakes that I made anyway :-)

On a related note, an anecdote which has long stuck with me:

In the foreword to the Complete Calvin & Hobbes, Watterson noted his excitement at receiving the first copy, a box containing his life's work nicely arranged and packaged. Then horror hit him: that was it, his life's work, in just one small box.

As a fan of his work I do hope he realized how much everyone loves his life's work, and that ultimately the reach of that work extends far beyond what was in that one small box.

So, somewhere out there exists a manager who was not able to harness and utilize Bill Watterson's creativity, and fired him instead.

Don't be that guy....

this is just beautiful "Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values, rules and rewards."

It's a shame that Bill Watterson just simply disappeared.

The opposite, I assume, would be Jim Davis-hood. He said what he needed to say, and no more. Magnificent.

(I'm actually expecting a disappearance of _why-like proportions from Randall Munroe in the not-to-distant future as well.)

I doubt it. xkcd has been hitting it out of the park consistently of late, and he's been experimenting more and more with radical new projects. I think it'll be a while before he gets tired of cartooning.

That's why I said "_why-like proportions". It will be unexpected and shocking. I know its a bold prediction, but this kind of whimsical genius seems like a most unstable isotope.

The difference between Watterson and Munroe is that Watterson made far more money but didn't have a ton of control, whereas Munroe probably makes less money but has far more control. Part of that is down to sheer popularity. Watterson is worth several hundred million dollars according to reports, whereas Munroe likely makes at most a few hundred k a year. Which is still very respectable, but not quite in the "fuck it, I'm retiring" impulse zone as Watterson's wealth is. Also, Watterson was fairly disconnected from his fans and the primary interaction of his work were the ongoing struggles with his syndicate masters. Whereas Munroe's main interaction related to his work is directly with his fans, which also directly provide his income (through merch sales, mostly).

So there's very much less reason for Munroe to get frustrated with the process and stop. Watterson got tired of the bullshit and decided he'd had enough. If Munroe gets bored of doing the strip I suspect he'll just move on to some other project, which will be equally public (like what-if).

>xkcd has been hitting it out of the park consistently of late

I haven't checked it in a few years since it was getting so bad, so based on this I went and looked through the most recent dozen or so comics. Can you point to some of these home runs? Because all I saw was the same inane observations without adding any insight or thought or a joke or anything. I'm honestly not just trying to be contrarian, I just can't see how his recent work is in any way different from the last 3 years.

> experimenting more and more with radical new projects.

He's talking about Externalities and Time here. Not sure if these are the same ones he calls home runs.

I'd not be surprised if it coincided with his wife's eventual death or decline from cancer.

You're reading too much into his retirement. He gives a perfectly good explanation why he quit within the speech:

Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn't in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.

Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn't what I caught. I've wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. 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.

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.

Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values, rules and rewards.

The so-called "opportunity" I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I'd need.

What the syndicate wanted to do, in other words, was turn my comic strip into everything calculated, empty and robotic that I hated about my old job. They would turn my characters into television hucksters and T-shirt sloganeers and deprive me of characters that actually expressed my own thoughts.

On those terms, I found the offer easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the syndicate also found my refusal easy to refuse, and we've been fighting for over three years now. Such is American business, I guess, where the desire for obscene profit mutes any discussion of conscience.

It's strange to hear an argument for not selling out in an age where plenty of artists, even some of the most talented ones, have shrugged and accepted that being a sell-out is the quickest way to go about making money for doing what you love. I wonder if Watterson was simply old-fashioned, or if he noticed something that nowadays we're less capable of noticing.

> I wonder if Watterson was simply old-fashioned, or if he noticed something that nowadays we're less capable of noticing.

I think it's the latter. What we are often missing is time. Having time in general as well as taking time. The older I get, the more I inch towards what Watterson was talking about. A while ago, I decided that I should extrapolate from this inching towards the ideals he expressed and simply act as though I had arrived there.

It has definitely made me happier, but he is right, too, that it is harder (at least harder than just shrugging and taking the money). You certainly make less money, although it's often simply a case of money arriving more slowly, building up, sustaining you - instead of making it big quick and then seeing things taper off, always trying to hold on to that big success.

In the end all the things mean so infinitely more. I enjoy living a life where the main focus is meaning.

@unalone: You're dead and most people won't see your comments/reply.

That was my bad. I accidentally doubleposted a comment, and deleted one of the clones.

I have showdead:no and could see it just fine.

He only deleted a comment

Ahem, I was speculating as to Randall Munroe's possible future retirement.

There's a Kickstarter-funded documentary coming out called Stripped about comic strips, which has an audio interview with him. I'm amazed and cannot fathom how they got that, as he's notoriously reclusive, supposedly even more so after he stopped writing Calvin and Hobbes.

Nothing close to, say, J.D. Salinger though.

Do you know when it's coming out? It looks like it was funded back in Sept 2011 http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/smallfish/stripped-the-c...

There is a second Kickstarter to help cover the cost of purchasing the rights to additional footage ("Charles Schulz' TV specials, interview clips from Carson, 1930's newsreels and more"). It sounds like it's going to be very professionally done. Estimated delivery date is Dec 2013: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sequential/stripped-the-...

Not really. It's kind of the opposite really, because you know that he's out enjoying himself, rather than pandering to the masses. He's done his service to humanity, now let him be free.

Yes I know he's just doing whatever makes him happy but I sometimes feel sad that if the internet had come out just 10 years earlier, he may have gone the self-published route which didn't really exist at that time for him. Instead of just being limited to 10 years of his creative expression, he may have had the opportunity to pursue it on his own for as long as he wished.

Although articles about him are very tough to find, I read one interview where supposedly he does paintings and when they are done, he burns them.

I guess my comment would better be rephrased as "It's a shame that by working in a system that is solely focused on profit, it caused him much more stress and discomfort than he was prepared to take on and, as a result, felt the only sensible path for him was to disappear."

Someone tracked him down after a while and he finally did an interview.

IIRC when asked about how he felt about C&H he said "That was the work of a younger man."

I suspect his take on using the self publish route would be.. interesting.

Just came across this interview - http://www.cleveland.com/living/index.ssf/2010/02/bill_watte...

where he said "I've never regretted stopping when I did."

However, I seem to remember from his 10th anniversary book, that the main reason for stopping was all the conflict and grief from dealing with the syndicate, not the content of the work. He had even taken a sabbatical at one point near the end of the strip because the stress had been too much.

I guess I just like thinking about alternate realities. Even in a world where he self-published and had full control, it's still possible he may have discontinued the comic after 10 years. Maybe the time was just right no matter what.

It is a shame, but it is also wonderful.

First time I really read about the man behind the masterpiece of my youth, and it did not disappoint, by far. What a great human being.

It's kind of rare for our heroes to refrain from disappointing us, isn't it?

So this is where the inspiration for http://xkcd.com/557/ came from.

I don't think he took inspiration from it. From speaking with friends we have all had the same dream for the first few years graduating University.

So much so that I'm shocked that nathell apparently doesn't have them. In the past six years, I've taught more classes than I've attended, and I still have them.

Good news! There's a version for dead loved ones too.

I graduated 20 years ago and I still occasionally have that same dream.

When does it stop? I am well into my second decade.

Watterson was born in the wrong decade. The internet era has created a lot of horrible things, but it has also created a massive culture of creator-owned creativity. The webcomic revolution has run a complete short-circuit around the heartless syndicates, establishing the relationship between the artist and the consumer as a direct one.

However, because nobody pays for webcomics, by necessity the artists can't have Watterson's high minded attitude about merchandising. A web cartoonist that doesn't merchandise is one who doesn't eat. But on the other hand, the merch is entirely theirs to design - they have first and last say over what is sold with their brand on it.

Wonder if anyone has tried finding out where his room was and removing layers to reveal his painting?

I would love to be a fly on the wall of a room with Bill Watterson, Banksy, and some beer.

What other artists work with such passion, independence, and integrity?

I'm sure there are others, but they come to mind.

It's interesting that David Foster Wallace also spoke at Kenyon. http://publicnoises.blogspot.com/2009/05/david-foster-wallac...

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