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Is Bill Watterson Staging a Comeback?

This has been a good year for Calvin and Hobbes fans.

First, fans created a film documentary called “Dear Mr. Watterson” last November, which explored creator Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip, and the devotion it has inspired over the years.

Then, in June, comic strip creator Stephan Pastis revealed that Watterson had helped him create a series of threecomicstrips, completely unbeknownst to the public. Bill Watterson emailed Pastis and pitched the comic strip idea: “he thought it would be funny to have me get hit on the head or something and suddenly be able to draw. Then he’d step in and draw my comic strip for a few days.”

Pastis wrote back, “Dear Bill, I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”

The process revealed to Pastis (and us) more details on Watterson’s aversion to technology and attention:

Technology is not [Watterson’s] friend. I found that out when it came to the logistics of the artwork.   I drew my part first and then shipped him the strips. I wanted him to fill in the panels I left blank, and simply scan and email me back the finished strips.

I asked him to do this because I did not want to be responsible for handling his finished artwork. Partly because I knew it would be worth thousands of dollars. Partly because I knew he wanted to auction it off for charity. And partly because my UPS driver has a tendency to leave my packages in the dirt at the end of our driveway. (I could just imagine the email I’d have to write the next day: “Dear Mr. Watterson – The first comic strip you’ve drawn in 20 years was ravaged by a squirrel.”)

So this left doing it my way. Digitally. And this is when I found out that Bill Watterson is not comfortable with scanners or Photoshop or large email attachments. In fact, by the end of the process, I was left with the distinct impression that he works in a log cabin lit by whale oil and hands his finished artwork to a man on a pony.

Now, as the culmination of this year’s Watterson appearances, we have his first exclusive comic strip drawn for the public in ages—a piece he created for France’s Angoulême International Comics Festival. It’s a comic without words, a comic that transcends language and tells a story purely through pictures. And, as several other commentators have pointed out, it’s pure Watterson.

These new pieces of artwork have delighted fans, people who have sorely missed Watterson’s presence in the comic strip world. It makes one wonder—will he disappear into solitude again? Or is Watterson staging a slow but steady reappearance into the world of comics?

Here’s the thing. If Watterson had never disappeared from the public eye, it seems likely Calvin and Hobbes would’ve eventually been commercialized. The clamor of various greedy companies would have been incessant. As he himself told graduates in a 1990 Kenyon College commencement speech,

“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.”

But Watterson has been out of the public eye long enough, and Calvin and Hobbes have been consigned to classic status. People revere the strip. They appreciate its set-apartness from the commercialization of other classics. Most fans wouldn’t even want a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon or stuffed animal line, if it became available. Through their love of Calvin and Hobbes, they have come to love Watterson and his vision for the strip, as well. They appreciate and respect his protection of Calvin and Hobbes.

Which means that now, after all this time, Watterson is free to create again—to create something new. Something unique, artistic, and fresh. No one is really demanding that he add to the Calvin and Hobbes canon. It’s perfect as it is. His recent concoctions—for Pearls Before Swine and the Angoulême International Comics Festival—are completely new, and incredibly fun. Just as we’d expect Watterson’s work to be.

So, to answer the question, “Is Bill Watterson staging a comeback?”, I’d guess probably not… but if he did, he now has the perfect opportunity to launch a new comic strip, or to just add occasional bits of fresh artwork to the comic strip world. He has won the status and respect necessary to create new artwork without the pressure to commercialize.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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