Sunday, October 24, 2010

What Really Happened to Calvin & Hobbes

When Bill Watterson retired from writing the Calvin & Hobbes comic strip on December 31, 1995, I was just one of the millions of people who were heartbroken.

In his biography of Watterson, "Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip", Nevin Martell tells us what we already knew: I was not alone in that state. But in reading this book, I discovered something that hadn't ever occurred to me before about Watterson's retirement. This discovery hit me between the eyes as I read about Watterson's life, and saw the interviews recounted by Martell; it wasn't just a discovery about Watterson, or about myself, but about all of us.

What I discovered was what Bill Watterson tried to tell us, both before and after he left us behind and went off to do whatever it is that he's doing now.

Chances are that you found Calvin and Hobbes to be a deeply resonant piece of American art. It wasn't just funny, or "sweet", or merely entertaining - it was important to us. His biographer moans about how difficult it is to "track down" the elusive artist, but Watterson's work gave us everything he wanted to say to us about himself, and we loved it. This comic strip is one of the few things that people say they love that they truly DO feel love for. It's one of those few things that we can all instantly picture or can retell to our friends. I've been an office worker my entire adult life, and of all the comic strips hung on walls or doors, Calvin & Hobbes is the only one I have seen in *every* office (even some where such personalizations were strictly forbidden).

And this is as true in 2010 as it was in 1995... all without much in the way of promotion or marketing.

A lot of people may remember Watterson's position on licensing; for those who don't, I can tell you that Mr. Martell does a great job of conveying it through Watterson's words, and through the words of his publishing syndicate. I know I have always felt a little disappointed that there is no C&H merch to be had anywhere; no key chains, no magnets, no plush toys or plastic figurines. And even before picking up this book, I knew as well as anyone that there were literally millions of dollars to be made from such licensing.

A comic strip "Garfield", by comparison, makes literally Billions of dollars from sales, licensing, endorsements, movies ... the list goes on. Martell talks a bit about that, too, to give us an idea of the level of industry that can be generated around a strip, and to give us an idea of the amount of pressure on Watterson to take this path. All of the "big name" strips have some level of this going on... But when was the last time you bothered reading a Garfield comic strip? Or any of the Brand Name strips, really. Did you laugh? Smile? Remember anything about it after putting it back down?

Watterson tried to tell us how he felt about all of this, and he was nearly universally criticized for it. He told us through interviews, in the strip itself, and in one of the rare speaking appearances he made before going into self-imposed exile. Whether the criticism came from other comics writers snubbed by his words, or from would-be marketers wishing he'd let Calvin hawk cereal or allow Hobbes's face on a line of kid's underwear, or even from casual fans like myself who thought they'd look witty and cool with Calvin's class photo pictures on a t-shirt - no one really understood that Watterson had a very clear idea of the gift he wanted to give to us. More importantly (and more to the point of posting this blog): no one understood what he wanted in return.

Bill Watterson only wanted to write his comic strip, and be successful enough at it to support his family.

But, you will argue, why couldn't he do that AND give permission so we could have all the stuff, too? The answer to this is the epiphany I had reading this book. I have written before about how the internet is changing our economy, and have spoken privately to my friends about the ways in which I feel our hyper-marketing "free" market system destroys the very things we find to be of value.

Some of you have heard me talk anecdotally about how hard it is for us to find products that we can all eat (due to allergies) or fruit juices that have actual fruit in them. There are multiple movies and books available to describe the ways the food industry corrupts the products we try to buy in the name of efficiency and "broad appeal". And we all know how often (and awfully) it happens in the entertainment business - do I need to queue up some Disney sequels or the Star Wars Christmas Special?

It was Watterson's personal and professional integrity and his complete focus on and control over his strip that made it what it was. And he was right that industrializing it would have destroyed it.

Our obsessions with celebrity are not news. The desire of industry to exploit that obsession is not news. Even the story of someone trying to avoid the corrosive influence of fame and money is not news. Kurt Cobain put a shotgun in his mouth in 1994 for the same reasons that Bill Watterson cited when he walked away from his world renowned comic strip, and many of us shrugged and said, he's just another spoiled rock star. So where's the "so what" in this? What's the big lesson?

The lesson is that it can be done. Watterson did exactly what he wanted to do with his life: he gave us 10 years of top-notch art, in daily 3-panel and weekly 9-panel installments. He changed us; he affected us; and, as friends often do, he moved on to do something else.

Bill Watterson achieved the real American dream. He did it with class and grace, said thank you, and then walked away. He never exploited us, nor has he allowed anyone else to do so. And when the world sat at his feet begging him to take millions of dollars more to keep going - he knew that doing so would be a lie and a cheat. It wasn't what he wanted to do, and I have no doubt that if I sat at my desk sticking pens into my Hobbes(tm) pencil sharpener, I would not be any happier than I am when I find a copy of "Something Under the Bed Is Drooling" tucked under my kid's pillow.

There are two ways to lose your dream. One is to try and fail; the other is to succeed so wildly that you destroy everything you wanted in the process. I'm glad that Bill Watterson got his dream; and I'm grateful for the 3,160 dreams that we got from him.

We need to learn to be happy with enough.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Decent Man I Happened to Disagree With

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend described George W. Bush to me as "a decent man you just happen to disagree with politically."

I would tend to describe just about anyone in our elected government that way - though their "decency" may be a fragile thing at times. But her dismissal of the very real problems that I had (and still have) with the Bush Administration bothered me, and I wanted to find a way to address them without being snarky or simply argumentative. Contrary to the picture some of my friends like to paint of me, I never "hated" George W. Bush. I think it's important to remind people of that, but it's hard to separate my strong disagreement with the things he did from the man himself.

Today, that same friend posted this video, which gave me something direct to address:

Since Mr. Bush laid out the points that he seems to think are most important, and capture the best snapshot of his terms in office, I'd like to address them - Point by point:

Quitting drinking at age 40 - this is, of course, an admirable thing to do. It shows a strength of character, and he clearly relied on his strong relationship with his wife and his faith in Jesus to make this change and make it stick. From where I sit, I can see that he essentially replaced the crutch of alcohol with the crutch of his relgion.

That's fine in and of itself - I'm a big proponent of letting damaged people use the tools they need to use to overcome their shortcomings. I also disagree with those who say that a President should not wear his faith on his sleeve the way Mr. Bush often did; if it is truly a part of you, your faith should not be something you hide or avoid mentioning. My only "disagreement" with Mr. Bush's religion is that it is not right for me, and there are other Points where it affected his Decisions in ways that it should not have done.

Running for President - When Mr. Bush ran for President, I was a tired, shift-working burnout serving in the USAF in England. As a distant ex-pat grappling with how I felt about Libertarianism, and wearied by years of anti-Clinton rhetoric, I wasn't ready to vote for the Republican party's theory of "reducing government", but I figured that it would either be a) successful, and therefore worthy of consideration, or b) a failure which might prod the country in a more Centrist direction.

Later, I read about Karl Rove's underhanded tactics (told from John McCain's POV in David Foster Wallace's "Up, Simba" essay), and the cutthroat dishonesty that Mr. Bush engaged in to get the GOP nomination; it was an illuminating discovery, but by then, of course, the damage was done. None of it was, technically, "illegal", but it was dodgy, and I recognized enough of the same in 2004 to be doubly angry at our so-called "two party" system.

But you can't deny that the American populace finds the idea of an affable "good ol' boy" to be appealing, and W. was thoroughly qualified to play that part.

Selecting senior staff - I allowed myself to be optimistic in 2001 when Gen. Colin Powell was added to the Bush team. Never mind that he was one voice among a dozen others that included already-discredited former Defense Secretaries Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (an essay for another day, I'm afraid). Never mind that Karl Rove was already known as "Bush's Brain" and that Grover Norquist - the man who said "My goal is to cut government...down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub. " - was planning the destruction of the American government from within.

After Gen. Powell's UN speech and Mr. Cheney's dishonest tactics in coralling U.S. Congressional votes, it became clear which "half" of the staff was in charge of these important Decision Points.

Education reform - "No Child Left Behind" is often touted as the Bush Administration's one success. Holding teachers accountable for their students' performance and breaking the Unions' death grip on any reform effort are both admirable goals, in my opinion. But as a single "success" it is hardly compelling.

Over the years, I have asked everyone I find who liked and supported Mr. Bush to tell me what else he accomplished. So far, no one has come up with an answer.

Stem Cell research - This is not a debate I enjoy. Finding a legal precedent for the beginning of human life is emotionally wrenching, and the impact of the decision on other lives is horrifying, no matter which way it falls. The only thing in this debate - like the debate over the legality of abortion - which seems certain is that the law must either trust individual doctors and women to make the right decision in each case, or must arbitrarily decide in advance what that "right decision" is, and find a way to intrusively enforce it.

It's a lose-lose situation.

9/11 - There was a moment after the attacks when all Americans were on the same page, and felt the same way. For me, that ended on 9/15/2001, when Defense Secretary Rumsfeld announced (without any evidence) that he intended to get revenge on Saddam Hussein for the attacks. I can't find a reference to that speech, but CBS dug up notes that were more revealing in 2002.

The following points Mr. Bush mentioned in his video all stem from bad decisions made at the urging of his most trusted advisors. Going into combat was debatably the correct move in Afghanistan, but not in Iraq. The lasting debacle that is Homeland Security is a testament to the kind of "big government" that Mr. Bush was elected to bring down, and while in the context of "winning" (an idea that was never defined or given a tangible goal) in Iraq the Troop Surge was the right decision, it would not have been necessary if not for the earlier mistake of invading Iraq in the first place.

Re-election - 2004 was a frustrating time for me. Everything I had seen the Bush Administration do to that point told me that the next four years would be equally, if not more awful. And yet, when the Democrats handed us the turd sandwich that was John Kerry, and the American people failed to demand a third option that wasn't on the menu, I began grasping for hope. In the debates, Kerry dismantled Bush point by point, while perversely making him look like the better candidate; Bush spoke of love for each other and our fellow man, and actually gave me a glimmer of hope that his second term would be marked by humility and compassion.

It wasn't.

Tax cut plan - When we got our check - which my lovely bride still refers to as our "Dirty Bush money" - we had to ask: where does this money come from? Did it come out of the welfare checks that would have gone to the "welfare queens" that conservatives hate so? Nope; they're still ahead of us in line at the grocery store buying foods we can't afford. Did it come from subsidies that we shouldn't be paying for "oil exploration" or for small farmers - like ConAgra?

Apparently it came from all of those places where you don't see spending happening; roads, bridges, schools, state and local services, and infrastructure.

At least we got a big screen TV out of the deal, right?

Global AIDS initiative - This really does seem to be a success; at least the 1.7 million Africans benefiting from it might think so. What I find interesting is that no one seems to think of it when they talk about Mr. Bush's successes. Obviously, his opponents wouldn't want to admit that it's a Good Thing(tm)... but it's worth wondering why his supporters wouldn't tout it more loudly.

Unless it simply goes against everything they believe in; tax dollars going to save the lives of brown people in foreign lands without any discernable profit to the U.S.

Mr. Bush: I applaud you for this success.

Then there are the areas where Mr. Bush regrets his failings:

Social Security - I've written and spoken many times about how I agreed with Mr. Bush's approach to this, and how it bears a more rational look from all sides.

Immigration - This, too, is often overlooked as part of the Bush Administration's plans. A real Comprehensive Immigration Reform which would welcome those who want to become a legitimate part of our Dream, and find ways to secure our border against criminals, thugs, and smugglers is still needed. I still hope that we'll be able to look past our racist and nationalistic instincts, and past our petty desire for some kind of "justice" against those who have committed a relatively minor crime, and come up with a solution.

Katrina - This was a difficult issue for everyone. On the one hand, the U.S. President doesn't control the weather, and obviously can't be expected to anticipate every emergency that crops up. Personally, I ignored a lot of the criticism of the immediate response from the White House because so much of it seemed to come from political animosity and misdirected fear; at the same time, there were a lot of bad things that happened or didn't happen because the government was unable to perform its mission.

I saw Katrina as a symptom of the success of Grover Norquist's goal to reduce the government to something that could be drowned in a bathtub. New Orleans showed us that a bathtub is the least of our worries. If we don't invest in public infrastructure, and ensure that the organizations that oversee its maintenance are kept up to date and efficiently managed, we could all end up in a similar situation. There is no way to know in advance whether it will be a hurricane, an earthquake, wildfires, or some other disaster. Global Climate Change scientists have been warning for decades that storms and weather patterns will become more severe AND more unpredictable. Without good government, we will be unprotected.

Katrina did not show me that the Bush Administration was "bad"; it showed me that good government is important.

"...Putting ideology aside" during 2008 economic crisis - This is a point where I agree with Mr. Bush. I agree with him wholeheartedly that the ideology he espoused did not have the answers needed to protect us from the economic crisis. He may not be willing to admit it - his GOP successors certainly don't - but the ideology of "unregulated financial products" that he championed throughout his presidency caused the crisis, just as clearly as uncontrolled speculation caused the 1929 crash.

Thanks to Annie for posting Mr. Bush's video. I intend to read his book, and if moved to do so, may write about it. But I am grateful that Mr. Bush was able to lay out the points that are important to him. It gave me what I have long needed to help define his presidency, and to rationally describe my reaction to it.