Mixed Response To Second Sabbatical

Artists and editors discuss Bill Watterson's decision to take additional time off from Calvin and Hobbes
Volume 127, issue no. 13, March 26, 1994. pg. 30.

"Sabbatical: The Sequel" is getting mixed reviews from cartoonists and newspaper editors.

Some are giving a thumbs up to Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson's decision to take another nine-month break from his Universal Press Syndicate strip. Others are giving the hiatus an "R" rating, as in ridiculous.

"I think it's a tad much," said Luann creator Greg Evans, noting that Watteron's first sabbatical ended only about two years ago. "Even Johnny Carson didn't get this good of a deal."

The North America Syndicate cartoonist added, "Maybe this is the new work ethic of our generation. It certainly hasn't been this way traditionally in comics. I guess I'm just a traditionalist. I feel a cartoonist has sort of an obligation [to keep creating new comics]. You know what you're getting into when you get into the business.

Evans and Watterson both are members of the baby-boom generation, with the former born in 1947 and the latter in 1959.

Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, who was born in 1922, said he thought about taking a sabbatical after Universal started allowing its creators to do so but decided he wasn't interested.

"Cartooning is what I always wanted to do all my life," remarked Schulz, who has not missed a strip since he signed with United Features Syndicate in 1950. "And taking time off would be unfair to the newspapers, to the syndicate and to the syndicate salespeople who work so hard to market your comic."

Schulz did say, referring to Watterson, "It's his business to do what he wants to do, but it's just a puzzle to me."

"You really don't know why someone is taking the break," added Bruce Beattie, who does the Beattie Blvd. comic for Newspaper Enterprise Association as well as editorial cartoons for the Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal and Copley News Service.

Watterson virtually never talks to the media, but Universal vice president/editorial director Lee Salem last week said the cartoonist wants the break to "regenerate himself" and do some painting (E&P, March 19, p. 59).

Ted Rall, a 30-year-old Chronicle Features editorial cartoonist who is developing a comic strip, said, "I can understand the stress Bill Watterson is under. I don't think anyone other than cartoonists know the effort involved. It's exhausting, especially when you do all your own work. If he says he needs the break, he needs the break. Everyone else gets a vacation, so there's no reason why cartoonists shouldn't."

Rall did add that he would rather see all cartoonists get a month off each year than a small number of superstars take long breaks.

Evans acknowledged that Watterson puts a great deal of effort into his comic but noted that the same could be said about most syndicated cartoonists.

"There's sort of an assumption that just because he's a genius and has so many newspapers, somehow he works harder," Evans said. "I don't think that's necessarily so. We all work hard. We don't all have his talent, but it doesn't mean we're working any less hard."

Beattie agreed, although he added that cartooning may be a little more strenuous for Watterson. "I've always had the sense that Bill really puts his heart and soul into the work," he said. "We all put our heart and soul into it, but I think he's very intense about it."

Beattie, 39, also has a pretty tough schedule, serving as president of the National Cartoonists Society when he's not at the drawing board. But the Florida creator believes he would go "stir crazy" if he took more than a couple of weeks off.

"I love cartooning," he said.

Newspaper editors certainly love Calvin and Hobbes, as evidenced by the fact that most of the comic's 2,200 clients are expected to carry repeats of Watterson's work during the April 3 - Dec. 31 hiatus. Rail thinks this is unfortunate.

"It's really difficult to understand why [Watterson] won't open up the slot for a new feature for a while," he said. "Reruns aren't fair to readers. No one likes reruns on television, either."

Although he doesn't want newspapers to recycle Calvin and Hobbes, Rail is a big fan of Watterson. "I think he's a great cartoonist," he said.

"He's obviously one of the most talented cartoonists in the field today," Beattie agreed. "We will all miss the work. It's like not having John Lennon around anymore. You don't know what songs he would have written and you don't know what work Bill would have done if he didn't take the sabbatical. I wish him the best and hope he's able to recharge his batteries."

Houston Chronicle assistant managing editor Susan Bischoff added, "I hope he comes back really refreshed. I also hope he comes back for a long time without doing this again!"

Bischoff, who is president of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, said the Chronicle plans to carry the Watterson repeats.

"Because Mr. Watterson is so good, reruns of his have some merit on their own," she said. "I can't see asking readers who have developed the Calvin and Hobbes habit to give it up for nine months."

Bischoff did emphasize that there are very few other comics the Chronicle would "accomodate" in this way. She noted that the strip has finished first in many newspaper polls and spawned a number of best-selling paperback collections.

"I have a couple of Calvin and Hobbes books around the house, and when people pick them up, they laugh at the same gags they've seen before," Bischoff said.

Still, Bischoff and other editors obviously would prefer original material from Watterson, whose Universal contract allows him to take a second sabbatical.

"Comics are very important to newspapers," said Jay Ambrose, editor of the Rocky Mountain News, Denver. "They build reader loyalty. So when fresh material is not there, that's going to hurt you. How seriously, I don't know."

Ambrose, who said his paper will carry the Calvin and Hobbes reruns, called Watterson "one of the geniuses" of the comics world. "His strip is possibly the most popular we have in the paper," he said. "It's a wonderful, wonderful strip."

The editor added that he respects Watterson's refusal to do merchandising spinoffs, such as stuffed Hobbes tigers, that would make him even richer.

Ambrose, however, is not sure what to think of Watterson's need to take a second sabbatical so soon. "I'm reluctant to make a judgment about individuals and why they do what they do," he remarked. "But in our newsroom, we have very talented, creative people who work day in and day out and don't get this sort of relief. So there are limits to my sympathy, I suppose."

Boston Globe comics editor Peter Hotton said, "Considering the pressures of the job, I would say he [Watterson] earned it. Other cartoonists might not need the break, but they may have different temperaments. If he can afford to take off, more power to him. He does the most popular strip in the country, so the syndicate is not going to argue with him. He's a gold mine."

Not surprisingly, Hotton and other editors are pleased that Universal will offer Calvin and Hobbes reruns for free this time. During the 1991-92 sabbatical, Universal charged newspapers full price for repeats.

Bischoff said the no-charge policy is a "very smart move" at a time when many newspapers have tight feature budgets. She added that the Chronicle may use the money it saves on the comic to buy other syndicated material.

Even when Universal charged for reruns during the first hiatus, few papers pulled the strip. Editors believed that old Watterson strips were better than new episodes of many other comics and/or feared losing Calvin and Hobbes to a rival daily.

Hotton noted that the Boston Herald probably would want the comic if the Globe dropped it.

A couple of those interviewed said they heard rumors that Watterson may do only a Sunday Calvin and Hobbes when the sabbatical ends. But Salem said the cartoonist plans to resume doing both daily and Sunday strips next year.