Monday, June 9, 2014

Why Bill Watterson Will Probably Stay Retired

Imagine you flipped a coin, and by some miracle, that coin landed on its side. You don't know how you did it and you don't know exactly how long it will last before it finally falls over, but after waiting and waiting, you see that it will only fall over if you choose to touch it again. What would you rather do? Pick it up, knowing that you probably won't ever be able to do it again, or let it sit and keep it that way, allowing it to remain in that miraculous position for as long as you can protect it?

Many people in my age group grew up with the comic strip "Calvin & Hobbes". When I was very young, my older brother and I were very fond of syndicated comic strips like "Garfield", "Dilbert", and of course, "Calvin & Hobbes". It was this fondness that eventually led us both into the world of webcomics, which has become something completely different, but more on that later. Regardless, some of those old comics perhaps didn't age quite so well. "Garfield" stopped being funny (unless you remove Garfield from it), Scott Adams, the author of "Dilbert" turned out to be a huge asshole, and eventually, almost everyone comes to the realization that the "funny pages" are really not all that funny.

And yet somehow, "Calvin & Hobbes" has remained beloved nearly twenty years after it ended syndication.

There are a number of reasons for this. The biggest (and most obvious) reason is that the comics themselves are great. They're rare in that they often speak to a child-like mentality and understanding of the world, but not in a way that talks down to a child. Calvin often resorts to existential observations of adult reality, not to sound smart or smug, but to attempt to justify why he shouldn't do as the adults in his life instruct him to do. This allowed the author, Bill Watterson, to use Calvin as a sort of mouthpiece for criticism on the adult world while still somehow retaining Calvin's childishness. Even when Calvin is discussing things most children wouldn't revisit until high school or college, he still comes off as a kid, and that is a really hard thing to pull off.

But another important reason "Calvin & Hobbes" has remained so beloved over the years is because Bill Watterson ended it, and he ended it well. The final comic strip for "Calvin & Hobbes" could probably be considered one of the greatest endings to a serialized narrative in any media format ever. Just look at "The Sopranos" or "Breaking Bad". No matter how good you are, endings are really hard to pull off and generally leave a lot of fans underwhelmed. But "Calvin & Hobbes" had an ending that was both heartwarming and heartbreaking. It provided closure while still leaving us wanting more. It was beautiful and to this day I can't think of anyone who has said that they thought it was an unsatisfying conclusion to the strip.

A lot of people have wanted more "Calvin & Hobbes", or perhaps a "Calvin & Hobbes" film adaptation or something along those lines, but honestly, I don't think any true fans want more "Calvin & Hobbes". The collected works could stop a truck. I don't think we need more, particularly when it ended so well.

But what has left fans puzzled over these two decades is Bill Watterson's reclusivity. Given Watterson's bad history with the syndicates, it wasn't very surprising that he would not want to work on another comic strip, but I don't think a lot of people expected him to just drop off the map entirely. He finished "Calvin & Hobbes" in his 30's, so I think everyone expected him to produce some kind of creative work. And yet, he seemed to pull a Salinger. He would rarely, if ever, give an interview, he would almost never sign books, and his creative writing work was pretty much limited to writing forewords for a number of books about comics and cartoonists.

However, in the past year, he seemed to come out into the daylight a little bit. Last October, he did a rare interview with "Mental Floss", in February of this year, he did the poster for the documentary "Stripped", and just recently, it was revealed that he had been collaborating with Stephan Pastis, author of the current syndicated comic strip, "Pearls Before Swine".

The strips themselves are clever and amusing, though hardly anything all that remarkable, excepting of course that it marks the (brief) return of Watterson to the world of syndicated cartooning after nearly two decades.

Seeing all of this Watterson activity over the past year has led to a great deal of speculation. Some people wonder if Watterson is thinking about making a comeback. Perhaps he's considering something special for the 20th anniversary of "Calvin & Hobbes"? Is this a sign that his early retirement is almost at an end?

However, after seeing the interview and some of his other public comments regarding these recent events, I've actually gotten the exact opposite impression. I think I finally understand why Bill Watterson will probably never truly return to any major commercial creative endeavor ever again.

And it's not just the reasons you might assume. Sure, he had major problems with the merchandising and struggled with maintaining creative integrity and all that, but his work has become so sought after that pretty much anybody with half a brain would give the man whatever he wanted. Just look at what Pastis said in his blog post talking about the recent collaboration:

…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.
“Dear Bill,
I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”

Now, aside from just being hilarious, this does a nice job of explaining just how respected Watterson has become in the intervening years. And Pastis isn't exactly a nobody in the world of syndicated cartooning. "Pearls Before Swine" has been around and successful for almost as long as "Calvin & Hobbes" has been missing. And while I personally don't find his work particularly engaging, I can't deny that he is at this point a veteran of the industry and is not one to cast aside his pride so easily. And yet, here he is, completely willing to roll out the red carpet for Watterson and likening himself to a street urchin before Watterson's Michelangelo.

This is the impression Watterson left upon the world. This is the respect that people have for him. If he decided to come back, people would support him no matter what he wanted to do. If he wanted to compose a rap/polka fusion album, record labels would compete in the Hunger Games to decide who gets to sign him. They would let him do whatever the hell he wanted and they would let him sign any contract he wanted, just so that they could be allowed to sell something new with his name on it.

So no, I don't think artistic integrity has anything to do with his reluctance to create any new work, at least not at this stage.

Another reason people imagine he has remained a hermit is that he just enjoys his privacy. I think that this is probably true to an extent. Someone with Watterson's general exposure and introverted nature (and if you doubt that Watterson is an introvert, remind yourself that he spent ten years writing a comic about an outspoken and underestimated boy with an imaginary friend) probably doesn't like the fact that everything he does gets pounced on by the media and his fans like a pack of starved hyenas. Not just because he doesn't enjoy that kind of exposure, but also because he doesn't want to feel like he's exploiting his fanbase. He's been doing some painting in the intervening years, but he has never once considered putting them up for auction largely because he seems to know that if they sold well, it would be because of his name, not because of the work itself. It would seem like he's cashing in and it would devalue the work he creates in any case. Besides which, it seems his painting is more self-indulgent and less something he would even want to share in the first place (though I imagine when he passes away, his paintings will be highly sought after and showcased in a museum or something, regardless of his intent).

I do think that these two aspects contribute to his Salinger-ness, but I think that they are merely facets to a much bigger, but also simpler reason for his extended absence: After all these years, he's still on top.

I imagine that when he first went on hiatus after "Calvin & Hobbes" he probably did think he'd make some kind of comeback eventually. Maybe not to syndicated comics, but I imagine he thought he'd produce something new at some point. But I do imagine he felt the need to recharge and distance himself from the corporate nightmare he finally managed to escape from. Then, I imagine he became somewhat reclusive simply because that's just the way he is. As I said, he's an introvert.

I think he probably thought he'd fade into obscurity and be able to create something new and rebuild his notoriety from scratch when he eventually returned, allowed to create what he wanted without having to create it within the shadow of his previous work. However, that's not what happened. "Calvin & Hobbes" only became more beloved over time and his decision to step away from the spotlight only made his rare appearances that much more visible. For a while, he snuck to a local bookstore to secretly sign a few books, but when he found out they were being auctioned for ridiculous prices, he stopped. This sounds like the kind of person that wants to engage on some small level with his fans, but not get caught up in the whirlwind of celebrity.

Even so, I think rather than sour his outlook on life, he eventually came to the realization that maybe he shouldn't create anything new. I mean, why should he? A work that he was proud of and that he was able to finish the way he wanted to became regarded as a masterpiece and a sort of pinnacle for the medium. The medium itself has been slowly vanishing into a pixelated world, a world that Watterson himself does not find particularly interesting (and Pastis seems to confirm that Watterson is not particularly big on technology).

When he ended "Calvin & Hobbes", Watterson likened it to leaving the party early. Coming out of retirement at this point would be the equivalent of coming back while the party is cleaning up and people are drawing crude markings in Sharpie on the faces of people who passed out on the couch. Even if he did have anything substantial to add, what would it accomplish? He produced "Calvin & Hobbes" at the height of the syndicated comic strip and revolutionized it in his own small way. At this point, it's a service indebted to those who still buy newspapers, not really a challenging creative medium. Watterson's talent would largely be wasted on it.

And Watterson himself has no interest in moving on to the next stage in comic evolution. We will never see a Watterson webcomic. Watterson will never own a Cintiq, he'll never set up a booth at a con, and he'll never set up a Patreon (though if he did, I'm sure he'd probably break the service). Here's a bit from that Metal Floss interview where he talks about the future of comics:
Personally, I like paper and ink better than glowing pixels, but to each his own. Obviously the role of comics is changing very fast. On the one hand, I don’t think comics have ever been more widely accepted or taken as seriously as they are now. On the other hand, the mass media is disintegrating, and audiences are atomizing. I suspect comics will have less widespread cultural impact and make a lot less money. I’m old enough to find all this unsettling, but the world moves on. All the new media will inevitably change the look, function, and maybe even the purpose of comics, but comics are vibrant and versatile, so I think they’ll continue to find relevance one way or another. But they definitely won’t be the same as what I grew up with. 
So let's look at the big picture here. He's been out of the game for almost 20 years. The game itself has changed a lot in those years. The work he last produced has gone from celebrated to beloved to deified. When he does come out of his cave, even for a moment, everyone pays attention to everything he says and does. When he does feel like putting new work out into the public, he can auction it off and raise thousands of dollars for charity, largely because of the fact that his work is so rare. He maintains his hard-won privacy after all these years despite the continued popularity of his work, and he's in his mid-50's.

I imagine from his point of view, he'd have very little to gain from any further significant artistic output (and what would he want more public adoration for at this point anyway?), but he'd have everything to lose if it didn't live up to people's expectations. If he produced something mediocre, it would cost him his notoriety, it would devalue his existing work, and he would continue to get badgered by people asking him to do more work to make up for it (or to stop "ruining" his previously created works, a la George Lucas).

So really, put yourself in Watterson's shoes. What would you do?

In my mind, I imagine I'd do exactly what he's been doing. Keep to myself, enjoy the comfortable life I'd earned, keep busy with personal projects out of the public eye, and every once in a while make a small contribution to the public creative world, but on my own terms and in a way that didn't have high enough stakes to potentially jeopardize my life or creative legacy. I mean, just look at these "Pearls Before Swine" strips. Imagine if they had been hyped up beforehand. "Watterson Makes a Return This Week!" Everyone would have been going nuts, only to see the three pretty amusing strips that we got. "That was it?" Even worse, imagine if this was a "Calvin & Hobbes" comic. There would have been riots in the streets over something as average as this. But because it was announced retroactively and it was a part of something most Watterson fans generally don't have any strong opinions about one way or the other, it was just seen as a gift. A gift that we can all appreciate, not necessarily for its quality or for what it "means", but just as a nice gesture that Watterson chose to leave us.

His guest art feels like a big deal, but it works because it is small.

The only thing that I think could possibly bring Watterson out of retirement would be if he had an idea that he simply couldn't not create. Something worthy of returning to the public eye and gambling the legacy that had been built up. He is, after all, a creative person, and sometimes a creative person gets an idea in their brain that they need to express to the world or they risk losing their mind over it.

Perhaps Watterson has found that itch. Perhaps this work and his work on "Stripped" is a sign that he's been brushing up on his skills with the intent to go once more into the breach...

But I find that unlikely. I think that Watterson will still poke his head out every once in a while for the rest of his life. And maybe he will in fact do a little something for "Calvin & Hobbes" to mark the 20th anniversary. Probably something small and cute and nostalgic. Maybe an adult Calvin passing Hobbes on to a child or something. However, I sincerely doubt Watterson has any intention to create anything of particular substance.

I don't think he's crazy or resentful or selfish. I think he's a rare individual who knows to quit while he's still ahead. I know I've been beating on this one a lot, but really think about it. It's been 20 years and people are still going crazy over "Calvin & Hobbes".

Remember what I said in the beginning about the coin flip landing on its side? I figure that's how Watterson feels. At first, I figure he was probably humbled by the popularity of "Calvin & Hobbes". "Wow, isn't that cool!" But it just kept going, and now... now I imagine he sees "Calvin & Hobbes" as something else entirely.

For me, the moment when this all clicked into place was when I read that Mental Floss interview and saw this bit at the end:

Owing to spite or just a foul mood, have you ever peeled one of those stupid Calvin stickers off of a pickup truck?
I figure that, long after the strip is forgotten, those decals are my ticket to immortality.

I know this bit is meant as a joke, but let's not forget, this is Bill Watterson. This man has held a very firm stance against the licensed and unlicensed commercialization of his work. And here he is, joking that those decals that represent that very thing he fought so hard to prevent were his "ticket to immortality".

I'm not entirely sure he was completely joking.

Crude and crass as they are, those decals have become a part of the popular culture zeitgeist as an extension of the overwhelming influence "Calvin & Hobbes" has had. I think the reason Bill Watterson can now have a sense of humor about these decals is because a part of him feels like he no longer truly owns "Calvin & Hobbes". Just as with the miraculous coin flip, I believe Watterson has chosen to protect this little miracle rather than to try and "own" it. And I don't expect anything will convince him otherwise.