Calvin, Hobbes, and Bill Watterson’s advice on creating a soul-satisfying life
I spent many years reading/reveling in Calvin and Hobbes, both live (so to speak) in the newspaper comics section during its original run from 1985 to 1995 and then later in the many book-length collections. This still ranks among my most cherished literary and artistic experiences. The strip was not only hilarious but frequently brilliant, both artistically and philosophically, and the characters as well as the overall vibe and mood became enduring mental companions for me.
And so it’s always a delight to read any news about the man behind the strip, Bill Watterson, not least because any and all such news is basically non-existent, in accordance with the utterly admirable design and intent of the man himself:
In the days of 4G wireless networks and Twitter, when virtually every moment of a person’s life can be tracked online and many people offer up that information freely, it’s a rare thing to come across a public figure who not only doesn’t buy into the idea of constant communication, but takes themselves in the opposite direction — completely out of the spotlight. The term “recluse” seems like a dirty word, a slur — “private” or “introverted” seem much fairer ways to describe someone than a word that suggests agoraphobia — but that’s how many would describe artists ranging from Emily Dickinson to Marcel Proust, Harper Lee to J.D. Salinger.
Some say that the “recluse” is an endangered species, but to my knowledge, there’s still one artist who is keeping the idea of the private public figure alive: Bill Watterson, writer and illustrator of the beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
. . . . “As happy as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on, I was not prepared for the resulting attention,” Watterson wrote in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 2012 compilation of all his work weighing in at more than 14 pounds. “Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it is weird. Besides disliking the diminished privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn’t see how I could write honestly without it.”
Whereas others have relished such a spotlight, Watterson shrank from the publicity, sure that neither he nor his work would not survive what he saw as the curse of celebrity.
. . . . For all the journalists rejected, it’s easy for new ones to imagine that there must be someone able to break through Watterson’s solid exterior; it could be anyone! But Watterson, for one, has said most of what he seems to ever want to say.
— Liv Combe, “Searching for Calvin’s Dad,” Full Stop, April 4, 2013
The new burst of Watterson-centric attention represented by this article, which was also published at Salon, has been occasioned by the appearance of a new documentary film titled Dear Mr. Watterson that debuted, as it so happens, just yesterday at the Cleveland Film Festival:
Here’s a description of the film from its official Website:
Calvin & Hobbes dominated the Sunday comics in thousands of newspapers for over 10 years, having a profound effect on millions of readers across the globe. When the strip’s creator, Bill Watterson, retired the strip on New Year’s Eve in 1995, devoted readers everywhere felt the void left by the departure of Calvin, Hobbes, and Watterson’s other cast of characters, and many fans would never find a satisfactory replacement.
It has now been more than a decade since the end of the Calvin & Hobbes era. Bill Watterson has kept an extremely low profile during this time, living a very private life outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Despite his quiet lifestyle, Mr. Watterson is remembered and appreciated daily by fans who still enjoy his amazing collection of work.
Mr. Watterson has inspired and influenced millions of people through Calvin & Hobbes. Newspaper readership and book sales can be tracked and recorded, but the human impact he has had and the value of his art are perhaps impossible to measure.
This film is not a quest to find Bill Watterson, or to invade his privacy. It is an exploration to discover why his “simple” comic strip made such an impact on so many readers in the 80s and 90s, and why it still means so much to us today.
For a glimpse of the genius of Watterson the man — aside from and in addition to the genius to Watterson the artist — I urge you to see the only (to date) college commencement speech he ever delivered. It was given to the 1990 graduating class at Watterson’s alma mater, Kenyon College, and it illuminates much about Watterson’s choice to remain personally outside the media spotlight while relentlessly fighting all attempts by the Borg-like machinery of the modern merchandising industry to capitalize on Calvin and Hobbes. It also offers deeply wise and insightful advice to the rest of us who are likewise obligated to live and work in this same cultural inferno of universal hype and hustling:
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 thought 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.
. . . Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential — as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.
To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble. Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.
— Bill Watterson, “”Some Thoughts on the Real World by One Who Glimpsed It and Fled,” Kenyon College Commence Speech, May 20, 1990