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.

No comments: