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"Calvin and Hobbes" Creator Bill Watterson Looks Back With No Regrets 327

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from the memories-of-better-comics dept.
With fifteen years separating us from the last appearance of "Calvin and Hobbes" on the comic pages, reclusive artist Bill Watterson gave a rare interview reminiscing about his legacy. "The only part I understand is what went into the creation of the strip. What readers take away from it is up to them. Once the strip is published, readers bring their own experiences to it, and the work takes on a life of its own. Everyone responds differently to different parts. I just tried to write honestly, and I tried to make this little world fun to look at, so people would take the time to read it. That was the full extent of my concern. You mix a bunch of ingredients, and once in a great while, chemistry happens. I can't explain why the strip caught on the way it did, and I don't think I could ever duplicate it. A lot of things have to go right all at once."
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"Calvin and Hobbes" Creator Bill Watterson Looks Back With No Regrets

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  • Re:Best comics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Useful Wheat (1488675) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:06PM (#30987892)

    To me, Calvin and Hobbes looked like the poster child of a comic that yearned to be on the web. If you read any of his books, he often had long and bitter fights with the publisher about the format of his comics. How much space he could use, if he had to have the “Throwaway frame” and so forth. I wish a comic like this had come along maybe 10 years later so it could take full advantage of the web, instead of being smothered by the oppressive newspaper guideline . Then again, I may just have wanted it delayed so we’d still have new ones, but hey. I can dream.

  • You insensitive clod (Score:5, Interesting)

    by goldaryn (834427) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:12PM (#30987970) Homepage
    Calvin and Hobbes is amazing. Bill Watterson is a creative guy, a talented artist, and perhaps more than anything else, fought for his artistic integrity (see merchandising debacles) to the end. And he gave us the "insensitive clod" meme. What a guy.
  • by uglyduckling (103926) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:17PM (#30988028) Homepage
    I don't think I've ever seen a photo of Bill Watterson, but having just seen the article, I have to say... Bill Watterson looks like Calvin's Dad! Or, rather, Calvin's Dad looks like Bill Watterson. Maybe this is old news, but it's news to me :D.
  • Missed opportunity (Score:3, Interesting)

    by MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:19PM (#30988042)

    I wish they had asked him what he thought of the Adult Swim version of his strip. I wonder if he would have balked at the initial silliness of it, or pondered it for a bit and said "you know... that's exactly how Calvin would be treated these days".

  • Re:Best comics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:20PM (#30988064) Homepage Journal
    It's very unusual for a first-grader to use words like "arboreal" and "ichthyoid". He played by his own rules, often living in his own head, and shunned the status quo. The strip showcases the importance of imagination contributing to intelligence and richness of experience. Calvin and Hobbes was the single largest influence of my childhood and I am happy that Watterson never whored out his work, unlike the guy who wrote the preface of the first C&H book. [][scroll down for the strip]

    Most of the parodies [] of Calvin and Hobbes revolve around the fact that Calvin's rambunctiousness would be considered abnormal, [] today. Very sad.
  • A true Calvin Story (Score:5, Interesting)

    by notaspy (457709) <> on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:21PM (#30988086)

    I used to read the strip, and being a newly minted patent attorney, appreciated all the great b.s. that his dad in the strip would just make up. "What a great kid!" I would think while reading Calvin's adventures and inventions, "I'd love to have a kid like that!" So my second son is named "Calvin." And by cracky, he was JUST like the comic kid, in looks and temperment! How lucky could I have gotten? Then, in something like 1990, every comic strip in the paper on December 3 (my birthday) had a birthday theme! WFT? It was uncanny; obviously somebody involved in comics had a birthday conspiracy. Well, every strip except one. Calvin and Hobbes did not relate at all to birthdays, but it contained the biggest present, as it was the strip which made it clear that Calvin's dad was, in fact, a patent attorney! In the strip, his dad is reading some sort of pleading or opinion regarding patent infringement.

    As it turns out, I understand Watterson's dad was and still is (?) a patent attorney, and many of the stories in the strip were based on his own childhood.

    My Calvin is now 21 years, so as much as I love the comic, I at least have the certainty of knowing how Calvin turned out. He's OK!

  • Re:regrets? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nigelo (30096) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:30PM (#30988180)

    I've heard the same from John Cleese about Fawlty Towers and Ricky Gervais about The Office - limit the episodes (2 short series each) to tell the story, and then declare victory (Also, my grandfather about public speaking - stand up, speak up, shut up...)

    Or, you can be run by the corporations, and continue to turn out rehashes of stories and character traits as long as you can sell the advertising.
    How many episodes does the US The Office have now? It's in its sixth series... It doesn't have the same punch for me that the first episodes did.

  • Timeless stuff! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Phizzle (1109923) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:40PM (#30988330) Homepage
    I loved it growing up and my kids love it now! Thank you!
  • by grapeape (137008) <mpope7&kc,rr,com> on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:40PM (#30988340) Homepage

    Watterson's reclusiveness can easily be compared to Salinger's and its arguable that his creation was just as impactful. For my generation there were 3 strips that defined the era, Far Side, Bloom County and Calvin & Hobbes. I guess its better to go out with fans wanting more than to keep going until the strip becomes a parody of itself (Garfield, Ziggy and Family looking at you), but their absense did create a void that was hard to fill. Pearls Before Swine and Get Fuzzy have become my more recent favorites but I would still give just about anything for one more visit with Steve Dallas or Spaceman Spiff.

    One thing I never understood was the marketing, while I respect and understand the desire to keep his creations from being diluted and tarnished by garbage, the other two I mentioned managed to have at least something for fans to hold on to (T-Shirts, Mugs, Stuffed toys) without cheapening their legacy. In fact it could be argued that the lack of "stuff" has cheapened it through the proliferaton of bootleg things like those insepid peeing, praying or bird flipping calvin stickers, cheap t-shirts and low quality Hobbes clones they give away at carnivals. He could have chosen to simply keep a tight reign on it and maintained control while giving fans something they obviously clamor for. Ahh well at least im getting a stamp.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MoxCamel (20484) * on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:48PM (#30988442)
    I too have ranked The Far Side right up there with C&H for years, and then for Christmas somebody bought me a gigantic collection of Far Side strips (don't remember which one), and I've gotta say TFS really hasn't held up all that well. Yes, there are some classic gems that are damn funny still, but on the whole it's pretty meh. Unlike C&H, which is going to be fresh for many decades--perhaps centuries--to come.
  • Re:Best comics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by IorDMUX (870522) <> on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:52PM (#30988510) Homepage
    Calvin and Hobbes was my number one inspiration to explore, growing up. Seeing Calvin philosophize while riding a red wagon led directly to me pondering the world while climbing a river gorge... Reading Spaceman Spiff turned Nelson's Ledges [] into a hasty retreat through a hostile alien environment.

    Part of the comic strip's allure to me in particular, though I didn't recognize it until years later, was that Bill Watterson wrote the strip in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, about ten miles from where I grew up. Cleveland weather patters are fairly unique, so no other comic strip--or really any fiction I read--I read captured the effect of the rain, snow, and winds of the Cleveland area on an inquisitive kid the way that Calvin and Hobbes did... because Bill Watterson (and Calvin) looked out the window and saw the same little portion of sky that I did.

    Not long ago, as I paged through my old Calvin and Hobbes collection, I noticed a fairly familiar sight on the back cover of "The Essential Calvin and Hobbes". There, in fully Bill Watterson cartoony glory, was an image of a Godzilla-sized Calvin trampling my favorite high school date spot: the Chagrin Falls Triangle.

    How do you want people to remember that 6-year-old and his tiger?

    I vote for "Calvin and Hobbes, Eighth Wonder of the World."


  • a testament to C&H (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MobileTatsu-NJG (946591) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:55PM (#30988550)

    Every few months I have this dream that I go to a book store and find a new Calvin and Hobbes book that has been 15 years in the making. Each comic is rendered in full color using water-colors. The layout for each comic is tuned, not for the newspaper it would have been printed in, but to the story that he's trying to tell. Each comic was written based on inspirations he found over the last 15 years, ensuring that the final comic would be the best of the best of the best and not just some skimpy idea rendered to make a deadline. Each time I go to the store and find this, I open it up and it starts with a series of Calvin's snowmen and a poem. I then put the book into it's bag and drive home. As soon as I get home and get the bag out.. *bam* I wake up.

    I'll never forgive Bill for this torturous dream.

  • by PhantomHarlock (189617) on Monday February 01, 2010 @06:56PM (#30988572)

    He must made have enough money off the strip and the books to not care? And also to retire early. We have seen no output from him since, so either he is living off the book royalties or he is secretly the real author of Frazz, heh.

    It's nice to be successful enough to have options.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by tool462 (677306) on Monday February 01, 2010 @07:02PM (#30988678)

    Exactly. It's all the same things that made The Simpsons great. It's a caricature of humanity at its best (the caricature, not the humanity ;) ).

    Except Watterson did something that Groening didn't--leave at the peak. Financially, Groening made the better move. Artistically, Watterson did.

  • by Leo Sasquatch (977162) on Monday February 01, 2010 @07:06PM (#30988746)
    There have been a handful of geniuses, who've happened to work in the comic strip field. George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Berkeley Breathed, Garry Trudeau, Maurice Dodd and Dennis Collins, and Bill Watterson. Why such a small number? Because true genius is rare and special, whatever field the artist is working in.

    I don't count Gary Larson in the same field - he was quirky and brilliant, but there's no continuity in his works - there's 5,000 individual gags, but no heart, nobody there we care about. I also don't count Charles Schulz - Peanuts is simply the nastiest strip ever written. It's cold, and bleak, without an ounce of love or sweetness about it. Nothing good ever happens to anybody - it's existentialist horror.

    Calvin's world wasn't perfect - Moe was a bully, school was appalling, and things sometimes went wrong. There was fear and loss from time to time, and nobody else ever saw the world quite the way he saw it. But there's magic there, and adventure, and love in a variety of flavours. They are books I could sit and read with my child when he was Calvin's age and younger, because they are good art, excellent stories and a total blast for the imagination. The Sunday strip poems often featured wonderfully whimsical language and the wordplay in the strip itself was second only to The Perishers.

    I'm delighted that Bill Watterson stopped when he thought he was done. Delighted he chose not to let MegaCorp plc rape his creations, and slap them on underpants, lunchboxes and disposable cups from the burger joint. Delighted that Calvin and Hobbes didn't get shoe-horned into some Moral of the Week shitty TV show, with a cute catchphrase, and cheap-as-chips animation. What he created is art, and it's a minor miracle that he managed to resist the dollar signs, and what must have been startling numbers of zeroes after them, in order to keep the tale of a boy and his tiger real and magical.

    If he ever comes up with another story he really wants to tell, I have no doubt he will.
  • Re:Best comics (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Darkness404 (1287218) on Monday February 01, 2010 @07:28PM (#30989066)
    Depends. Basically, these labels can change the entire child. One teacher finds them special ed and they get put in with drooling idiots, the other teacher finds them gifted and they learn more and do cool things. One kid ends up on welfare floating between dead end jobs, the other kid ends up rather successful.
  • Re:Wise words (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nmb3000 (741169) <> on Monday February 01, 2010 @07:46PM (#30989314) Homepage Journal

    Peanuts is still being published 10 years after the creator's death!

    While I don't care for Peanuts very much, I'd rather have reruns of a classic comic than the absolute drivel that Garfield has been for the last 10 years. I can only fathom that A) newspapers can't find anything else to fill that space, or B) nobody dares get rid of such a "classic" strip like Garfield. Jim Davis doesn't even try to be funny anymore.

    Of course no criticism of Garfield is complete without referencing both Garfield Minus Garfield [] and Garkov []. The saddest part is that G-G is significantly funnier than the "legitimate" strips published every day and most of the time the Markov-generated strips in Garkov are indistinguishable from what Jim Davis writes.

    I suppose this means that Jim Davis fails the Turing Test.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Maniacal (12626) on Monday February 01, 2010 @07:54PM (#30989416)

    I was going to post this anonymously but I'll man up and admit it. I don't know if this makes me a geek or just a dork but I was choked up the first time I read this []. It's not a related comic but your post reminded me of it. Don't think I've ever felt that way about a comic.

  • You're Grounded! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by fm6 (162816) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:05PM (#30989536) Homepage Journal

    I'm not sure "being grounded" is the right term. Frankly, I've never thought the guy was that good on his own. Making a movie is usually a big collective process, and that often allows the director to claim credit for things that really came out of the heads of other people. Film critics have complicated theories [] that justify this BS, but I've never bought it.

    So back when George Lucas was just another newbie director, he was forced to accept all kinds of creative input. And he was also able to get away with stealing scenes [] from famous movies []. But when he became the Great Creative Genius, he couldn't do that, and had to fall back on his own creativity. Which, it turns out, he never had.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by chiguy (522222) on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:06PM (#30989540) Homepage

    I'd fall into the 'hard to compare' category.

    The Far Side is a bunch of one-liners and it's like listening to Steven Wright for an hour. Initially funny, but then you get used to the rhythm and they're mostly just chuckles until one hits you.

    C&H has much more story telling so should be considered a different medium. The humor builds up.

    So I do appreciate both, but can't really say one is better. In Slashdot speak, they solve different problems.

  • There was another... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday February 01, 2010 @08:13PM (#30989620)

    comic that I also long for. I really miss Bloom County. When he killed that and went to Outland, it was really diminished. Eventually he brought most of the cast back, but it was just never the same.

  • The "Fab Four"..... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by IHC Navistar (967161) on Monday February 01, 2010 @09:15PM (#30990214)

    The "Four Great Cartoonists":

    1) Bill Watterson

    2) Berke Breathed

    2) Gary Larson

    3) Jim Davis

    (in no particular order)

    I'm sure some of the older folks will have favorite cartoonists that some of us are still way to young to remember, but in terms of being able to relate to a strip, both personally and in everyday life (as a sort of 'social commentary'), I think that these four magnificent cartoonists have managed to hit the nail on the head.

    I've got to admit, though, that Bill does have a great attitude towards fighting Universal whenever they try to license and merchandise the hell out of his creation.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Monday February 01, 2010 @10:09PM (#30990656) Homepage Journal
    It's not religion per se, it's the backwards assumption that Calvin would bow to a cross. To my knowledge, Calvin has bowed only to the T.V. and has prayed to the snow god.

    Calvin is more like a Wile. E Coyote. When he acknowledges god, he's either shaking his fist at him or trying to make sleazy bargains with him as shown in this [] strip. Calvin's defiance is especially evident at Christmastime, where he lives in the moment and pellets Suzie with snowballs despite his trying to stay straight bargaining with Santa.
  • Re:Best comics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thrawn_aj (1073100) on Monday February 01, 2010 @10:25PM (#30990780)

    It's very unusual for a first-grader to use words like "arboreal" and "ichthyoid". He played by his own rules, often living in his own head, and shunned the status quo. The strip showcases the importance of imagination contributing to intelligence and richness of experience. Calvin and Hobbes was the single largest influence of my childhood and I am happy that Watterson never whored out his work, unlike the guy who wrote the preface of the first C&H book. [][scroll down for the strip] Most of the parodies [] of Calvin and Hobbes revolve around the fact that Calvin's rambunctiousness would be considered abnormal, [] today. Very sad.

    Well now. The fact that I too admired Calvin's rambunctiousness does not in any way mean that his behavior was admirable in an objective sense. Fact is that Watterson himself wrote (in his Tenth Anniversary collection annotations) that he would hate to have a kid like Calvin and that he frequently disagreed with Calvin's POVs.

    On the other hand, there are aspects of his personality that I absolutely adore. I hate organized events, just like Calvin. That just means that I have a hard time having a social life because I find most social events to be unimaginative, mundane and frightfully limited in scope. Ditto for sports. Calvin would grow up into the kind of person for whom boredom would be a fate worse than death (it's a blessing and a curse, for obvious reasons). In a strip where Calvin complains in his wonderfully frank way - "Why can't I just have fun on my own?", his dad retorts (in an unusual burst of man-to-man honesty), "When you grow up, it's not allowed". That pretty much says it all. I think it comes from needing greater variety in entertainment (which obviously includes education) options at a lower tree level of organization (i.e. "I'm bored with music, switch to reading", as opposed to "I'm bored with classical, switch to punk rock").

    Also, you speak of shunning the status quo. I know what you're trying to say, but I think Watterson's genius lay in specifically NOT portraying Calvin as a rebel. Any rebellion was accidental, as it usually is in the case of very young children. Many of Calvin's exploits stemmed from taking an adult principle literally or following it to the logical conclusion - something that adults almost never do. In that sense, I get some of the same vicarious thrill from several C&H strips that I got from Atlas Shrugged ;-). Essentially, he never deliberately shunned the status quo - he just didn't give a damn either way - something I found quite charming. It's sorta like Doctor Who - you just can't wait to see what he does next - there's an expectation of magic on the horizon :-). The deliberate rebels (as typified by the surly teen variety) are too predictable to be interesting. Simply negating something is neither subtle nor entertaining.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:3, Interesting)

    by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @02:10AM (#30992048)

    Sadly, he would more then likely be called some form of ADD/Autism

    One can be those and gifted. My wife had a gifted student with Asperger Syndrome [] - in fact she was one of the few teachers to whom he would relate. As I've mentioned before, "gifted" is something that can be tested for and requires a minimal IQ and other factors. Our school system has well-defined standards and an independent process for testing students for the Gifted and Talented program.

    Gifted students can have all the same issues and problems as the general student body, with the additional issue of being really, really smart - perhaps smarter than most of the teachers - and it takes a well-trained teacher who can handle it. My wife was awarded Gifted Teacher of the year in Virginia in 2005. Sadly, one month later she was diagnosed with a brain tumor and she died seven weeks after that.

  • Re:Best comics (Score:2, Interesting)

    by silverspell (1556765) on Tuesday February 02, 2010 @04:02AM (#30992502)

    Calvin used words like "arboreal" not to shun the status quo and illustrate the richness of experience but because it's funny for a kid in a comic strip to use words like that. The Peanuts kids also spoke in a way that was above their age level for the same reason.

    Well, I don't think that Schulz or Watterson ever thought "I'm going to have my child characters use big words so that I can shun the status quo and illustrate the richness of experience", per se. If they had, the results probably would've been crap!

    Fortunately, we don't need them to have had that thought, nor to have planned all the different layers and resonances in their work. A lot of what we love in great art (and Schulz and Watterson are great artists) comes not from an artist's intellect, but from his intuition. In other words, the thing that makes it great is often something the artist can't even articulate to himself, at least not in words -- instead, he articulates it in his work. There's no way to fully paraphrase the combination of humor, incongruity, and poignancy we get from C&H at their best; if words could fully do it justice, we wouldn't need C&H.

    So, yeah -- I don't think Watterson needs to know what he's up to, or to fully understand his own work. If anything, I think it would've ruined it if he were too self-aware. Think of all the bands who have great first albums, but then hit the "sophomore slump" with their second album: whereas the first one was spontaneous, raw, and overflowing with ideas, the second effort feels self-conscious, labored, and forced. Artists who have a long, strong career, and never jump the shark, often live in a bit of a bubble -- never thinking too hard about the meaning of what they do, and often privileging their intuition above their intellect. Credit to Watterson for finding a way to do that.

You can tell how far we have to go, when FORTRAN is the language of supercomputers. -- Steven Feiner