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Where's Bill?
December 2, 2003 11:32 AM   Subscribe

If you can offer the world a strip like Calvin and Hobbes, don't you have a responsibility to keep working? The Cleveland Scene travels to Chagrin Falls, Ohio, trying to track down its most famous (and famously reclusive) resident, Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterson. Along the way, the reporter contemplates micturating Calvins, burning paintings, the cost of hewing to one's principles, and the utter vacuity of Jim Davis's soul. In the end, there's even a brief encounter with a man who may or may not have once made millions happy by drawing a six-year-old boy and his stuffed tiger.
posted by pardonyou? (58 comments total)

 
A question posed in the article, which I used at the top of the link (“If you can offer the world a strip like Calvin and Hobbes, don't you have a responsibility to keep working?”) is interesting to me (although it was never directly addressed in the remainder of the article). Suppose a gifted chemist knows that if he continued working, he could create a few new miracle drugs in his lifetime, but instead he chooses to retire and spend his remaining years fishing. Is there a basis for arguing that this person has a “responsibility” (of some sort – not necessarily legal, but moral or civil) to keep working, thus saving lives? Would the answer be the same for someone who does nothing more than bring happiness to others?
posted by pardonyou? at 11:33 AM on December 2, 2003


>don't you have a responsibility to keep working?

If you win the lottery and keep your job don't you have a responsibility to quit? See last night's Daily Show for the answer!
posted by skallas at 11:35 AM on December 2, 2003


Aww, piss on him!
posted by nofundy at 11:35 AM on December 2, 2003


More on reclusive writers.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 11:37 AM on December 2, 2003


Miracle drugs != extremely entertaining, thoughtful cartoon strip.
posted by billsaysthis at 11:40 AM on December 2, 2003


the reporter contemplates micturating Calvins

I can't believe those Calvinists pissed on my rug. It tied the whole room together.
posted by machaus at 11:43 AM on December 2, 2003


...yeah, but he's also indirectly responsible for those "calvin pissing" stickers which evens out any goodwill his comic might have had. Actually, I think I've seen more of the stickers than I have the comic...
posted by armacy at 11:44 AM on December 2, 2003


Agghhhh.....what's that horrible thing, that

Jim Davis doing in this otherwise fine post?......
posted by troutfishing at 11:45 AM on December 2, 2003


Jim Davis doesn't have a soul. Cf. Thomas Aquinas.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:46 AM on December 2, 2003


I could maybe see the "responsibility" thing if you knew for a fact that you could do something specific that no one else was going to do that would save lives or something equally crucial, but responsibility to keep drawing a comic strip? Nah. In general, no one's irreplaceable. If you're tired of your career, feel free to step down. Someone else will step up and be glad of the chance.
posted by orange swan at 11:47 AM on December 2, 2003


Miracle drugs != extremely entertaining, thoughtful cartoon strip.

True, which is why I said: "Would the answer be the same for someone who does nothing more than bring happiness to others?"

I suppose I should answer my own question. I don't personally feel there's a "responsibility," moral or otherwise. If the person can live with his or her decision, more power to him (or her). On preview, kind of what orange swan said.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:49 AM on December 2, 2003


As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Calvin and Hobbes, I must say that Watterson has every right to do what he wants. And he quit at the very top of his game.

Why is it that some strips like Garfield jumped the shark years and years ago but still stay in business while quality things like C&H and the Far Side disappear??
posted by konolia at 11:52 AM on December 2, 2003


great read. thanks.
posted by xmutex at 11:55 AM on December 2, 2003


And the fact that the creators of C&H and the Far Side quit at the top of their game goes a long way toward why we still consider their output "quality things".
posted by gottabefunky at 11:58 AM on December 2, 2003


don't you have a responsibility to keep working?

pardonyou?, I think that it's a damn good question that I've asked myself for years now.

I'm torn, although I lean toward individual happiness vs. societal responsibility. Every human being on this planet has the ability to help society in some way, small or large, however, I don't believe that simply because you are born into society that you now have an obligation to give back. That includes procreation, etc.

Each of us lives for ourselves. Our own happiness is what allows us to continue living and continue to be productive members of society. Our own happinesses, however, vary dramatically from person to person, and because of this, societal responsibility, at this time, should remain in the individual's control.

Therefore, Watterson's responsibility to society, as dictated by his actions, has ended. He may, at some point, re-enter the arena of public service through his own terms, however, we have no right to expect anything from him. We can hope, as I have since I absolutely loved his comic, but as a society, we must discover our own contributions and pursue them, if they exist at all.

I want, so badly, to hate those who have the ability to help others but choose not to, probably because I categorize myself as one of those people. However, it's the individual's responsibility to determine the amount of self they offer to society.
posted by BlueTrain at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2003


He did more than write a comic strip, he fought against the continual erosion of the comic strip. My dad had a stack of comic sections from newspapers beneath his stack of Playboys and Penthouses when I was a kid. I never asked him why he had them (it'd have been awkward - Dad, I was jerking off to your porn and saw the comics, why'd you keep those?) but they were pretty old even then. The comics were larger, both in size and the number of panels.

He could've kept cranking out Calvin and Hobbes till it was a parody of itself or sold out and licensed it and made many millions, but he didn't. He got tired of the fight, even though he won many battles, and didn't want to demean his comic strip. It isn't classic literature or anything, but the strip was wonderful. Basically he stuck by his own principles and kept his own integrity intact. Even though I was really sad about losing the comic strip (and I don't get sad about much) I respected his principles.
posted by substrate at 12:01 PM on December 2, 2003


...yeah, but he's also indirectly responsible for those "calvin pissing" stickers which evens out any goodwill his comic might have had. Actually, I think I've seen more of the stickers than I have the comic...

If only this point hadn't been specifically and repeatedly addressed in the article...

That said, it's one of the weaker examples of the "where is Watterson?" genre I've seen. There were better links at the last C&H thread, which I'm too lazy to look up. The "maybe it's better that I didn't get the interview" ending is just pathetic sour-grapes. Speaking as someone who has chased after and landed quite a few interviews... it's always better to get it than not.
posted by soyjoy at 12:02 PM on December 2, 2003


I can understand why Watterson got frustrated with the limitations of working with the newspapers. What I don't understand is why he doesn't just put out books of new work. It's not as if he would have any trouble at all finding a publisher. Berke Breathed did some of his best artwork when he got to do books outside the newspaper format.
posted by tdismukes at 12:07 PM on December 2, 2003


The guy said he wants to be left alone. Instead people stalk him and talk as though he owes them something.

"He has a responsibility to society" is usually code for "we'll decide what he should do".
posted by fuzz at 12:14 PM on December 2, 2003


don't you have a responsibility to keep working?

That's similar to asking what percentage of your money you have a responsibility to give away. I don't think there's an answer.
posted by callmejay at 12:17 PM on December 2, 2003


I can't believe those Calvinists pissed on my rug. It tied the whole room together.

"No Donnie, these men are Calvinists. There's nothing to be afraid of."
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:22 PM on December 2, 2003


Why is it that some strips like Garfield jumped the shark years and years ago but still stay in business

If you have a chance, read the recent Garfield Anniversary Book, and in it is a small section about Paws Inc. Basically, Jim Davis "creative directs" strips his slave army of soulless cartoonists offer to him everyday. Jim Davis apparently spends his time painting ridiculously expensive Garfield Fine Art paintings.

Granted, this is how tv cartoons work, but should this really happen with a Comic Strip is the question.
posted by Stan Chin at 12:23 PM on December 2, 2003


Actually, I think I've seen more of the stickers than I have the comic...

that's the really interesting part of this whole situation (as pointed out already, Watterson ain't talking so we don't really know much about his motives. maybe he wanted to quit when he was winning, maybe he had run out of ideas and had enough decency to quit instead of following Mick Jagger's example, maybe he's just lazy and likes his early retirement -- in the end, who fucking cares. and this from a C&H fan)

what is more interesting is that popularity, in our age, abhors a vacuum. so, if there's no real Calvin and Hobbes new stuff around, somebody else will remix it, and the unauthorized cover version will be popular as well. maybe more popular
what happens to your creation once you're done with it, it's the market's (or the street's) decision, not the original creator.

writers get home relatively free because their medium is more difficult to remix and sample -- not many people putting on Xnap or WinMx their own version of Holden Caulfield new adventures in txt format or whatever. but visual (or audio) media are much easier to sample, and to evolve into something different
posted by matteo at 12:29 PM on December 2, 2003


I don't see how Watterson should have a responsibility to continue writing if he doesn't want to. Its a comic strip, its not going to save the world, its not going to rescue a kid from a burning building, its a comic strip.

If he doesn't want to write it anymore then who is anyone to say he has to? That's just kind of stupid really.

Besides the fact that if you force someone to do a creative project, they'll phone it in and it will suck. Would you rather have a crappy Calvin and Hobbes or remember it as it was when it was funny?

PS, Garfield sucks, it always has and always, gotta love the consistency of it.
posted by fenriq at 12:33 PM on December 2, 2003


I don't blame Watterson for ending C&H when it was still the most brilliant comic strip around, but I find it tragic that he had left the publishing world entirely. With his following, he could had found any venture to suit his own artistic tastes, and any publisher would have been delighted to create any format of distribution he wanted.

Instead, he chooses to live in seclusion. According to the article, even the oil paintings he currently creates are burnt upon completion. Something about that act leads me to believe that he considers his own talents something more of a personal indulgence rather than a gift to the world. It's a shame that he doesn't want to share his work anymore, because he touched a lot of people with his comic strip — myself included.
posted by Down10 at 12:34 PM on December 2, 2003


writers get home relatively free because their medium is more difficult to remix and sample -- not many people putting on Xnap or WinMx their own version of Holden Caulfield new adventures in txt format or whatever. but visual (or audio) media are much easier to sample, and to evolve into something different

I don't know about that... isn't this exactly what fanfiction is? I'd say that the fanfiction community is quite active. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if it's actually larger than the remix community is.
posted by vorfeed at 12:42 PM on December 2, 2003


Funny story. A long-time friend of mine was buddies and roommates with Bill when they went to Kenyon together. They both ended up living in town for some years after graduating. Bill didn't have any children, while my friend got married and had a daughter. As my friend and his wife spent more time doing the family thing, they drifted apart from Bill, who went on to get married, though he never had any children. Shortly after they moved away from Ohio, leaving Bill there, Bill started drawing Calvin and Hobbes, starring a father that looks, talks, and behaves precisely like my friend and a boy plainly modeled, in character, on the daughter. (No wife connection.)

To this day, my friend is quite convinced that the comic is based on his family, though he's never gotten up the nerve to get in touch with Bill and ask him.
posted by waldo at 12:46 PM on December 2, 2003


The alternative would be for him to keep going even if he felt he'd finished and didn't want to do it anymore. In what universe would that be a good thing?
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:02 PM on December 2, 2003


If you can offer the world a strip like Calvin and Hobbes, don't you have a responsibility to keep working?

Great art is driven by passion, not responsibility. Also: when drawing a comic strip becomes work, it's time to quit.
posted by kindall at 1:02 PM on December 2, 2003


In a little den in the back, three older men sat, talking quietly. The one in the middle was skinny and wore a bushy mustache. My heart skipped a beat. The only picture I had seen of Watterson was old, but the face was so similar . . .

I approached the men and told them I was in town looking for Bill Watterson. Did he ever come in here?


Did that seem odd to anyone else? Why wouldn't you walk up to the guy you think is Watterson and say "Mr. Watterson? Could I have a word?" He can always say no, but at least you took your shot. This way, it seems the guy didn't really want the interview.

pardonyou?: I'm surprised you didn't link to Watterson's speech, The Cheapening of Comics, especially since your main link keeps quoting it. As a matter of fact, I was all ready to post it to the front page (I found it at Alas, A Blog) when I saw you had preempted me (grumble, mutter). Anyway, there it is, still the best thing written about the devolution of comic art. Enjoy.
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on December 2, 2003


I think Watterson saw that he was at the top of his game, that he had nowhere to go but down, that his success had attracted the usual corporate sharks and hangers-on who would keep at him until he broke down. Not being a shallow or material person, he basically had nothing satisfying to look forward to and everything to lose. He didn't (and doesn't) owe anyone anything, and the copiers and despoilers would be there regardless of what he did at that point. He saw his opportunity to exit on top and on his own terms, with his dignity and integrity, and he took it, and I would be extremely surprised if he decided to come back, and I don't particularly blame him. If he had stayed, he would either fade out, or become so over-hyped that he could never live up to his own reputation - it's our particular pathology, I think more so as Americans than in any other culture, that we eventually have to tear down those we have built up. Now that he's out of it, he can be a beloved, fondly-remembered figure for as long as anyone cares.
posted by RylandDotNet at 1:10 PM on December 2, 2003


isn't this exactly what fanfiction is

well, if you're arguing that, say, X-Files Internet fanfiction is more popular than, say, music samples in blockbuster known-all-over-the-world hip-hop music (say, the Chi-Lites bit in the Beyoncé and Jay-Z song, all of P Diddy sampling everything possible, Public Enemy sampling Stephen Stills, etc etc) and mainstream music (the Rolling Stones sample in The Verve's Bittersweet Symphony, etc etc), well if you mean that, I think you could be wrong -- music samples are more popular in RL than Internet fanfiction

somebody sampled Watterson, and the result is now happily pissing over Ford's logo worldwide. simple as that.
clear as -- er... child's urine
posted by matteo at 1:12 PM on December 2, 2003


I'm glad that he stopped Calvin & Hobbes while it was good; it beats running it into the ground. But if a refreshed Waterson were to bring the old C&H back I'd be absolutely thrilled.

I do find it a bit sad that he burns his paintings but I hardly think that implies that they're just a personal indulgence. It seems like the act of someone who considers life a exploratory journey rather than someone who considers life a job. Perhaps he wants to find out what he can do with the medium without being bound somehow by his past work.

The question of whether those with ability and/or training are socially compelled to use it is an interesting one, but how far back should it be taken? I would agree that a doctor should be compelled to help an afflicted fellow theater-goer. I would agree that an off-duty policeman should not stand by when a crime is occurring. But should a researcher be prevented from abandoning research? Isn't that a little like saying that a gifted student should be compelled to pursue training in the area of greatest need?
posted by Songdog at 1:16 PM on December 2, 2003


I do find it a bit sad that he burns his paintings

It sounds to me like the act of someone who doesn't want those paintings to end up on eBay.

In other words, the act of someone fed up with the ravenous commercial maw of American consumerism.

The value of achievement lies in the act of achieving.
-- Albert Einstein

posted by anastasiav at 1:24 PM on December 2, 2003


someone fed up with the ravenous commercial maw of American consumerism

re Watterson's lack of taste for wall-to-wall shameless licensing. it's not Einstein, but it's good enough I think:

"Here's the deal, folks. You do a commercial - you're off the artistic roll call, forever. End of story. Okay? You're another whore at the capitalist gang bang and if you do a commercial, there's a price on your head. Everything you say is suspect and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink." --Bill Hicks
posted by matteo at 1:35 PM on December 2, 2003


Personally, I can completely understand why he would do this.

From his last book it was pretty clear: risked with losing control of something personally important to him, he said "screw it" and quit.

Now, risked with having the face the pressure from the cult of Calvin and Hobbes fans who ask the question "Does he have the responsibility to continue?" he said "screw it" and avoids all public contact. Having recently seen some examples of the people celebrity-types have to put up with (even small-scale celebs like Watterson), I can totally see why he would get the hell out of Dodge.

The linked article is a perfect example of the kind of attention he would seem to want to avoid. Myself, I would find it irritating and somewhat embarrassing. I mean, who needs that kind of hassle, really?
posted by moonbiter at 1:42 PM on December 2, 2003


If he had stayed, he would either fade out, or become so over-hyped that he could never live up to his own reputation

I don't agree with this 'quit while your at the top' idea, lots of artists produce stuff well past their prime and are still held in extremely high regard, we remember the good stuff. And even if they're past their prime some gems will still get produced.

For example, I like the idea that Charles Schulz was still at it so late in his career. I think he is highly regarded now even though he didn't retire twenty years ago.
posted by bobo123 at 1:44 PM on December 2, 2003


It isn't classic literature or anything

I would argue that it's the greatest literary accomplishment in its medium, and with time will become recognized as a great series of literature in its own right. But hell, I'm just an English major.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 1:56 PM on December 2, 2003


I don't agree with this 'quit while your at the top' idea, lots of artists produce stuff well past their prime and are still held in extremely high regard, we remember the good stuff. And even if they're past their prime some gems will still get produced.

This explains the last 25 to 30 years of Bob Dylan's career.
posted by nath at 2:16 PM on December 2, 2003


pardonyou?: I'm surprised you didn't link to Watterson's speech, The Cheapening of Comics, especially since your main link keeps quoting it.

Actually, languagehat, the entire Martijn's site is worthwhile. I was just trying to keep focused on this latest attempt to track Watterson down.

As a matter of fact, I was all ready to post it to the front page (I found it at Alas, A Blog) when I saw you had preempted me (grumble, mutter)

Hey, you snooze you lose. Actually, I saw this article on Obscure Store yesterday, but decided to wait until today to post since it wasn't AIDS related.
posted by pardonyou? at 2:18 PM on December 2, 2003


From Field of Dreams:

RAY : Okay, I understand. You...should be entitled to as much privacy as you want. But why stop writing?

TERENCE : I haven't published a word in seventeen years, and still I have to endure lunatics like you. What do you think would happen if I suddenly came up with a new book? They'd bleed me dry.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 2:28 PM on December 2, 2003


Davis is pure evil. Garfield has never been funny.

There was no "golden age." There was no "jumping the shark." It stank from day one and Americans embraced it.

For atonement purposes, I burned Garfield.

It felt good.
posted by hipnerd at 2:34 PM on December 2, 2003


Bill Watterson only needs to spend one week jumping up and down in front of TV cameras shouting LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME! They'd leave him alone in a heartbeat. It's because he's reclusive that more and more people wanna know what he's up to.

The people who crave that kinda attention? They get ignored. It's called reverse psychology. Watterson's going about this all wrong.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:39 PM on December 2, 2003


The people who crave that kinda attention? They get ignored. It's called reverse psychology. Watterson's going about this all wrong.

Tell that to Paris Hilton.
posted by eastlakestandard at 2:42 PM on December 2, 2003


For example, I like the idea that Charles Schulz was still at it so late in his career. I think he is highly regarded now even though he didn't retire twenty years ago.
Schultz did retire, but it was due to the illness that killed him. Luckily for us he had just finished his last Peanut's comic strip.
posted by thomcatspike at 3:04 PM on December 2, 2003


Reading Clavin & Hobbes makes me feel smarter.
posted by riffola at 3:19 PM on December 2, 2003


well, if you're arguing that, say, X-Files Internet fanfiction is more popular than, say, music samples

When I said that the fanfiction community is probably larger than the remix community, I meant that more people are out there creating fanfiction than there are creating remixes. Remixes have a much larger audience than fanfiction, as you point out, but this doesn't necessarily mean that there are more people creating remixes, just more people enjoying them. I think the lower entry requirements for fanfiction (almost no equipment, free hosting for your work, etc) lead a lot more people to make the jump from consumer to creator.
posted by vorfeed at 3:36 PM on December 2, 2003


Bill is undoubtedly one of the greatest cartoonists of our time, and I do not hesitate to label him a genius.

It is not for people who's greatest achievement is posting a few lukewarm thoughts on the web to decide how men like Watterson should lead their lives.
Sure, it would be great if we could somehow harness genius, to force creativity on command - but unfortunately that's not the way it works.

I think Bob Dylan said it best: "Just because you like my music doesn't mean I owe you anything".
posted by spazzm at 5:25 PM on December 2, 2003


It isn't classic literature or anything, but the strip was wonderful.

DrJohn is absolutely right on this. I have NO doubt but that in a hundred years Calvin & Hobbes will be considered classic literature. Indeed, it's already considered classic, the only question is when will people accept the medium as a possible form of literature, which it plainly is.
posted by Hildago at 5:42 PM on December 2, 2003


Now, if I could just find one of those "Calvin pissing on the cross" stickers...
posted by mischief at 7:49 PM on December 2, 2003


You know, there is a wide range of articles from the tracking-down-the-genius-recluse school of journalism. Off the top of my head I can think of Jandek and Me, Have You Seen Jeff Magnum, the Howard Huges autobio hoax, CNN vs Pynchon, Salinger groupies.....
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 PM on December 2, 2003


and any publisher would have been delighted to create any format of distribution he wanted.

I don't want to go downstairs and dig through all the trade paperbacks of C&H in the library, but in one of them, he talks about why he quit and why nothing new with the names C&H would ever be printed.

Basically, the syndicate he signed with screwed him in a big bad way. They were starting to force merchandising and were using some pretty underhanded tricks to gain complete control of what they saw as a "brand". His only option was to stop creating the strip and stop publishing.

But even if he stopped because he was tired of doing it...he doesn't have any "responsibility" to the world to make them laugh.
posted by dejah420 at 8:02 PM on December 2, 2003


Great post, great article. Thank you, pardon.
posted by yhbc at 8:10 PM on December 2, 2003


From the article:

Perhaps Watterson doesn't understand how much he's missed, or that he's influenced so many of today's artists. Yet this too may be the result of his self-imposed isolation.


Or perhaps he just wants to be left the hell alone?

As a student of Watterson's alma mater, I've read some interesting and apparently very special things he did for the College before he withdrew from public life. If I recall correctly (I read a fabulous article about the Kenyon's slot in political cartooning history a few weeks ago), he was never particularly comfortable with his place at Kenyon, vis a vis cartooning. Jim Borgman '76 was also a student and was already famous for his cartoons before he even graduated from our place. When Watterson entered the school on the heels of Borgman's graduation he took over cartooning for the college paper but was such a perfectionist he couldn't continue after a few semesters of it. He enjoyed political thought but liked doodling more.

Perfectionism probably played a role in his deciding to quit. Personally, I think he should be respected for what he's given to society, not pressured to give more. Let the man be . . . it seems, that's all he asks.
posted by somethingotherthan at 8:22 PM on December 2, 2003


jandek! yes! one of my favorite artistic recluses. :)
posted by ifjuly at 9:25 PM on December 2, 2003


there is a wide range of articles from the tracking-down-the-genius-recluse school of journalism

Don't forget Desperately seeking Kraftwerk!
posted by gluechunk at 11:06 PM on December 2, 2003


Schultz did retire, but it was due to the illness that killed him. Luckily for us he had just finished his last Peanut's comic strip.

For any Peanuts fans out there, (or for anyone who think Peanuts sucks, and can't figure out why they're so popular), there's a wonderful book (recently revised and expanded) out called Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz. It focuses on his very pre-Peanuts work and the Peanuts strips of the late '50's - early '60s. Reading it last night after having read this post and comments, I was quite surprised at how many themes I see in the early Schulz work that were echoed by Watterson later on.
posted by anastasiav at 6:48 AM on December 3, 2003


anastasia,

Schulz wrote the introduction to a C&H book -- in it, Schulz mentions how much he liked the way Watterson drew his characters' feet -- Schulz thought they looked like dinner rolls
posted by matteo at 8:46 AM on December 3, 2003


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