Calvin and Hobbes artist/professional recluse Bill Watterson quietly collaborated with Pearls Before Swine’s Stephan Pastis to write and draw a short sequence of comics that appeared in newspapers this week.
Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?
But he was. And he had a great sense of humor about the strip I had done, and was very funny, and oh yeah….
…He had a comic strip idea he wanted to run by me.
Now if you had asked me the odds of Bill Watterson ever saying that line to me, I’d say it had about the same likelihood as Jimi Hendrix telling me he had a new guitar riff. And yes, I’m aware Hendrix is dead.
So I wrote back to Bill.
I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”
All Watterson asked was that the original artwork be auctioned off for charity, and that Pastis not reveal the trick until it was complete.
Pastis did tip his hand a little on Twitter — how could he not? — writing that “this week’s Pearls strips will contain a mind-blowing surprise,” which led some people to take a good look at the artwork (and the lettering — it’s the lettering that gives it away) and put two and two together.
In an interview, Watterson tells the Washington Post’s Michael Cavna that the motivating impulse for his temporary return was to raise money for a charity founded by Post cartoonist (and close Watterson friend) Richard Thompson:
Thompson, a longtime Washington Post artist who lives in Arlington, Va., ended his Reuben Award-winning syndicated strip “Cul de Sac” in 2012 as he underwent therapy and surgery to treat his Parkinson’s; Watterson is an enormous fan of Thompson’s, and the two now have a dual exhibit at Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus.
“I thought maybe Stephan and I could do this goofy collaboration and then use the result to raise some money for Parkinson’s research in honor of Richard Thompson,” Watterson tells me. “It just seemed like a perfect convergence.”
The conceit of this week in Pearls Before Swine is that the cartoonist protagonist meets his neighbor Libby, who takes over drawing his comic. (Libby is in second grade, roughly the same age as Calvin, and her name is a play on “Bill.”)
My favorite of the strips is easily Thursday’s, where a talking-head pig and mouse are interrupted by a beautifully-drawn Martian robot attack.
“I could do better if I had more space,” Libby gripes — a nod to Watterson’s famous insistence on only syndicating the Sunday strip of Calvin and Hobbes if it could be printed in full.
But the whole week is worth reading. Start with Monday’s and keep clicking right until you run out of Libby. And let us never cease from exploration, but at the end of all our exploring arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
(Thanks to Bill Wasik, Susie Cagle, and TS Eliot)
Bill Watterson famously quit cartooning after ten years during which his Calvin and Hobbes was a critical and commercial success you could only compare to Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. (Gary Larsen, GB Trudeau, and Berkeley Breathed are great, but come on.)
You could say Watterson retreated from public view after his retirement, but he was rarely available to the public even during the height of his fame. One exception was his 1990 commencement speech to his alma mater Kenyon College.
Thoreau said, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That’s one of those dumb cocktail quotations that will strike fear in your heart as you get older. Actually, I was leading a life of loud desperation.
When it seemed I would be writing about “Midnite Madness Sale-abrations” for the rest of my life, a friend used to console me that cream always rises to the top. I used to think, so do people who throw themselves into the sea.
I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along.
Zen Pencils cartoonist Gavin Aung Than took a series of quotes from Watterson’s speech and illustrated them, consciously imitating Watterson’s style for a new inspirational cartoon titled “Bill Watterson: A Cartoonist’s Advice.” It features a cartoonist who (like Watterson) gives up a commercial illustration job to embrace his artistic dreams and raise a family as a stay-at-home dad. Although the events and much of the scenery is inspired in part by Watterson’s story, first as a young illustrator and later as a popular cartoonist who refused to compromise, Gavin writes:
The comic is basically the story of my life, except I’m a stay-at-home-dad to two dogs. My ex-boss even asked me if I wanted to return to my old job.
My original dream was to become a successful newspaper comic strip artist and create the next Calvin and Hobbes. That job almost doesn’t exist anymore as newspapers continue to disappear and the comics section gets smaller and smaller, often getting squeezed out of newspapers entirely. I spent years sending submissions to syndicates in my early 20s and still have the rejection letters somewhere. I eventually realised it was a fool’s dream (also, my work was nowhere near good enough) and decided webcomics was the place to be. It’s mouth-watering to imagine what Watterson could achieve with webcomics, given the infinite possibilities of the online medium.
See also Robert Krulwich’s remarkable commencement speech at Berkeley about horizontal loyalty and refusing to wait, which seems to dovetail well here.
Alyssa Rosenberg writes about Watterson’s speech and Gavin’s accompanying cartoon’s implications for feminism, especially arguments over balancing life and work:
“A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children,” Watterson noted,” is considered not to be living up to his potential.” I’m sure that choice of pronouns is deliberate. … [The cartoon] is a powerful alternate vision of what it might look like to have it all.