Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Birthday: "The surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us."


William Boyd Watterson II (1958-  )
Author, Illustrator

He started cartooning at eight, and drew like a madman for thirty years.

Then, at the top of the heap, famous, laden with honors, and wealthy, he stopped. He said he had accomplished all he could in his medium.

Given the size of modern newspaper cartoon strips, that’s about as much as you can squeeze in about Bill Watterson, whose ten-year run as the creator and illustrator of Calvin and Hobbes increased the United States’ Gross National Happiness immeasurably.

Watterson read politics at Kenyon College, thinking he would become a newspaper editorial cartoonist. The Cincinnati Post hired him out of college, not realizing that he knew nothing about Cincinnati or local politics, and in no time flat he was looking for another job.

Still, the kid had talent. Charles Schulz encouraged him in childhood; Jim Borgman, a Kenyon alum who moved from editorials to entertainment (the comic strip “Zits”), opened some doors for him. But Watterson ended up in an Ohio ad agency, working on his ideas in his spare time.

He had an idea for a comic strip about a boy and his stuffed tiger. The tiger, of course, came alive when no one else was around, in those halcyon days of childhood- the fleeting summer between when one’s imagination grows to the size of the universe- just before adults start stuffing it, and the stuffed animals, into a box to be sent to Goodwill. In a nod to his poli sci department in college, Watterson explained that Calvin is named for "a 16th-century theologian who believed in predestination," and Hobbes for "a 17th-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature."

Calvin’s is a compact world, inhabited by his mother and father; a bully down the street; a girl named Susie Derkins, in whose presence Calvin can’t figure out who to be; and his middle-aged teacher, Miss Wormwood. The strip veers between the poles of Calvin’s life: trying to make sense of- and outsmart- the world of adults, and the most outlandish Walter Mitty fantasies.

Two syndication services turned Watterson down before Universal signed him. He was so thrilled to have an outlet he barely read the contract, which, he soon learned, gave all rights to the syndicator, up to and including changing characters and hiring other artists to drawn them.

Calvin & Hobbes debuted November 18, 1985, and was an immediate success. This created problems and opportunities. Universal constantly pressured Watterson to license his characters, creating new streams of revenue from Calvin & Hobbes toys, coffee mugs, scratch pads, you name it- all the endless mountains of stuff that made men like Charles Schulz and Tom Wilson- the creator of Ziggy, rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

Universal, for its part, resisted Watterson’s insistence that his cartoons not be part of the dramatic shrinkage of newspaper space for comics as the industry coped with shareholder pressures from the big chains, and, later, the internet’s toll on ad revenues.

The upside for Watterson was that as the strip’s popularity grew, he was able to insist on more and more of his own terms, from Universal and the newspapers. It was just his little business, he said, and the papers could run it or not, at their choice. They would be the ones hearing from thousands of readers, not Watterson.

Watterson won, mostly, in the end. He got a renegotiated contract with Universal, after a series of bargaining rounds so trying he took a nine-month sabbatical in 1991.

At its peak, Calvin & Hobbes appeared in 2400 newspapers around the world. In reruns, it has appeared in fifty nations. The Calvin & Hobbes collections have sold over forty-five million copies.

Watterson maintained there’s no difference between comic art and other, “higher” forms, and that his was never worthy of less serious appreciation than that of painters who didn’t do six strips a week and a color supplement on Sundays.

In 1995, Watterson released a letter announcing he was ending the strip with the end of the year. At 37, he closed up shop and went home. For the twenty-one years since, he has refused all but a handful of interviews (after one reporter sent word he would stay in the local hotel until Watterson came to be interviewed, Watterson sent word back to enjoy his stay but it would be cheaper to buy a house: he wasn’t coming, ever). He has released a few one-off drawings for projects that took his fancy. He and his wife moved to Cleveland, where he paints.

1987: Calvin and Hobbes
1988: Something Under the Bed is Drooling
1988: Yukon Ho!
1990: Weirdos from Another Planet
1991: The Revenge of the Baby-Sat
1991: Scientific Progress Goes "Boink"
1992: Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons
1993: The Days are Just Packed
1994: Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection
1995: The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book
1996: There's Treasure Everywhere
1996: It's a Magical World

Treasury Collections

1988: The Essential Calvin and Hobbes
1989: The Lazy Sunday Book
1990: The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes
1992: The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes
2002: Calvin and Hobbes Sunday Pages 1985-1995
2005: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes


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