Mystery Man

Funnies Farago column by R.C. Harvey (Comic Book Marketplace)
Issue no. 91, May 2002. pp. 59-62.

Very few people have actually seen Bill Watterson. Or even photographs of him. Once Calvin and Hobbes got going, he apparently didn't permit himself to be photographed. But in the early months of his celebrated strip's run, his image was captured by at least one lensman, and at least one newspaper article was accompanied by his photograph.

For a while, I had a copy of that newspaper article. I'm sure I still have it, I just don't know where it is.

A picture of Watterson hangs in a corridor of his syndicate's offices in Kansas City. I saw it when I went there in the spring of 1996 to interview another Universal Press cartoonist, Bill Amend, who produces Fox Trot.

This hallway portrait of Watterson is a self-caricature, a wonderful artifact that, in the peculiar way of caricature, mocks as it illuminates. He depicts himself at the drawing board, but we don't see his face. In the picture, Watterson has just arisen from his chair, apparently interrupted by an approaching photographer, and Watterson, acting in self-defense, has raised his hands and arms to shield his face so the photographer can't get a clear shot of him.

Just what you'd expect the famously reclusive Watterson to do, in other words.

Recognizing a scoop when I saw it, I obtained permission to take a photograph of the picture. And I did. But when I got home and opened my camera to remove the film -- alors! -- somehow, the film had not been engaged by the take-up sprockets and so had not spooled through the camera. The whole roll was a dud.

I should have known the effort was doomed. When I arrived at the six- or seven-story building in which Universal Press had its offices then, at 4900 Main Street, I couldn't get in. Everyone was pouring out of it. Fire alarm. We all milled around for twenty minutes until the "all clear" sounded, permitting us to enter the premises.

Universal Press has since moved to new digs at 4520 Main Street, but Watterson's wickedly impedimentary self-portrait still hangs in its hallway. "It now has lights and flowers around it," quipped Lee Salem, Universal's Executive Vice President and Editor, when I asked him about it.

At the time of my visit, Calvin and Hobbes had been retired only a little more than a year, and there were still vague hopes at the syndicate that Watterson could be persuaded to produce something occasionally. A calendar perhaps.

Salem, at the time, couldn't say, for sure, whether Calvin and Hobbes was gone forever. Interviewed right about then by John C. Kuehner, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Salem said, "I'm not sure the creative impulse Watterson has has been entirely fulfilled. We've talked to him about it. He's open to it. We've talked about some ideas, how to return to newspapers. But I think it's low on his list of priorities."

Very low. So low, in fact, that except for a single, shining instance (which we'll get to when we get to Chagrin Falls), we've not seen or heard Watterson or Calvin or Hobbes since. Until the fall of 2001.

In the fall of 2001, the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University mounted an exhibition of Calvin and Hobbes original art Sunday strips in conjunction with the Festival of Cartoon Art that is staged by the CRL once every three years. For the exhibition, Watterson had selected 36 strips, and for the exhibition catalogue, he provided an introduction and annotations on each of the strips.

The handsome full-color catalogue, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995, is an almost unique undertaking. Each Sunday strip appears twice, on facing pages. The left-hand page presents a strip in black-and-white; the right-hand page, the same strip as it was published in newspapers in color. Watterson's annotations run beneath the artwork.

The original art is not actually "black-and-white." The artwork was photographed in "color," and it is published that way, so we see black lines against a sort of cream-colored background. The object of this maneuver is to show Watterson's drawings in the book exactly as they appeared on the exhibition walls - with shadowy pencil lines behind the inking, occasional blotches of white-out, the uneven coats of black ink wherever solid black appears, and so on. Available through Andrews McMeel (96 9x12-inch pages; $12.95), Sunday Pages is a delectable repast with a master chef of the medium setting the table.

In the introduction, the reclusive Watterson discusses his working methods, his inspirations, and his frustrations with the limitations and politics of syndicated newspaper cartooning. He also speaks with great affection of the form: "It's been five years since the end of Calvin and Hobbes," he writes, "the longest time I can remember in which I haven't drawn cartoons. Calvin and Hobbes was a wonderful experience, but it was an all-consuming career. When I quit the strip, I put my cartoons in boxes, and jumped into other interests. I haven't really considered the strip since?"

But he has apparently kept an eye on the funnies. He gently alludes, for instance, to a device that he employed with great effect which other cartoonists now use so routinely as to undermine its impact. At the beginning of Calvin and Hobbes, we sometimes saw Hobbes as Calvin's parents saw him - as a stuffed toy. But mostly, we saw Hobbes as Calvin saw him - as a real tiger. Similarly, Watterson depicted Spaceman Spiff as Calvin imagined himself to be, rocketing through the chilly void of space, making a rough landing on the rocky surface of an uninhabited planet.

"I did this," Watterson explains, "simply as a way to put the reader in Calvin's head and to reveal his imaginative personality. Now these juxtapositions are a visual game for many comic strips, and after all these years, I suspect readers know where this sort of joke is headed as soon as they see it. The novelty cannot be recaptured."

Watterson no longer does any cartooning. Instead, he has been teaching himself to paint, he says, and he's learning about music. But when he unpacked storage boxes of his original strips to pick pieces for the exhibit, he discovered anew his passion. "I no longer take quite so much for granted the versatility of comics and their ability to depict complex ideas in a beautiful, accessible, and entertaining form. For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form. Five years after Calvin and Hobbes, I love the comics as much as ever."

But he still continues to paint and to study music instead of cartooning.

From this tidbit, we learn that he doesn't need to work for a living. He doubtless made enough on the ten-year run of Calvin and Hobbesto take care of his needs for the rest of his life. No surprise.

When Watterson retired, he said he was quitting because "I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels." The strenuous implication was that he had done all he could do, a highly suspicious assertion. Watterson, after all, was a satirist of the human condition, and a good satirist knows that he's never finished. The world goes on, willy-nilly, day-by-day, and every day some brand new sparkling human idiocy bobs up to the surface, some annoying inanity richly deserving of the satirist's jab.

No, the real reasons for Watterson's retirement had more to do with fatigue and finance than lifelong satirical missions. For most of the strip's run, he fought against merchandising his characters. He also fought for better treatment of the artform. And in both battles, he was more successful than he could have imagined he would be when he started. His syndicate respected his wishes about merchandising and didn't flood the universe with plush Hobbes toys. And in the last years of the strip, the Sunday was sold to client newspapers on the condition that they not change its format, the configuration of panels in whatever storytelling design Watterson devised for that day's release.

But the struggle to retain what he regarded as the integrity of his creation was surely a wearying endeavor. Watterson was clearly pretty exhausted by it. And he eventually realized that he didn't need to continue to do it. He had money enough in the bank.

Considering that the art he produced was brutalized by the medium that distributed it - the newspapers that run comic strips so small that any real artistry is smudged away - and that he didn't need the money, it's no wonder that Watterson gave it up. No one goes on beating himself over the head any longer than necessary.

In the introduction to Sunday Pages, we see Watterson in prose, personable and kindly and articulate. Watterson in person? Well, I wouldn't know. But no one is much different from the image of him that emerges in his art - in his strip, and in the several essays (like this introduction) that he wrote over the decade of Calvin and Hobbes's run. Some years ago, though - soon after he retired - we found out just a smidgeon more about him.

If you think Watterson has been foraging among the cacti in a New Mexico desert since retiring Calvin and Hobbes on December 31, 1995, think again. That's what I thought; but I found out different.

Actually, Watterson gave up on the New Mexico desert before giving up on the strip. He and his wife Melissa moved back to their hometown, Chagrin Falls, Ohio, in the fall of 1995. They bought a three-bedroom house , where Watterson has been painting ever since.

This news comes to us through the enterprise of the aforementioned newspaper reporter John C. Kuehner, who actually summoned the temerity to approach the absentee cartoonist in his lair.

"The 40-year-old Watterson declined a formal interview," Kuehner reported, "but in a conversation at his door, where he would not allow any notes to be taken, Watterson stressed that he does not want to live, nor should he have to live, in a fish bowl or have to deal with intrusions into his life by the curious."

Undaunted, Kuehner looked up Watterson's parents, who still live in Chagrin Falls. The cartoonist's mother, Kathryn, said, "He definitely wants to disappear."

Watterson pere agreed, adding that when the two couples dine out together at a local restaurant, the populace understands that they are to be left strictly alone.

"They might wonder, Gee - was that your son with you?" he said, "but they are polite and don't ask."

Everyone in Chagrin Falls, apparently, is in on the charade and pretends that one of the world's most admired cartoonists doesn't live anywhere around. And even if he does, no one ever sees him. And even if they see him, they don't recognize him. And even if they recognize him, they don't.

This is admirable community spirit. This is the sort of spirit that built the Panama Canal and put a man on the moon. Real togetherness of a highly refined, dedicated sort. You have to admire that.

Still, in a wild moment of utterly mindless speculation (I'm always losing my head while those about me are keeping theirs), I had to wonder if maybe Watterson's desire for anonymity isn't just a trifle on the extreme edge.

I have always applauded his determination to thwart the ever-prying press in its unrelenting drive to make every citizen's most private thoughts a matter of public record from coast to coast. I've thought for years that this kind of merciless pursuit of a "story" is a much-distorted exercise of First Amendment obligations. I'm not sure how much The Public actually has "a right to know."

So I've usually rubbed my hands in fiendish glee whenever I read of Watterson's frustrating the press once again. But I begin to wonder now if maybe his passion for privacy hasn't turned perverse. Remember Howard Hughes? He dropped out of the public spotlight years before he died. And the report is that he didn't trim his fingernails or toenails for years. The Watterson family should be on the lookout for similar evidences of derangement in their cartooning celebrity - untrimmed fingernails, unkempt beard, unruly nostril hair.

I'm still in favor of Watterson doing what he wants to do - and keeping the press completely in the dark about it. But I miss Watterson's strip. And I worry about his grip on reality.

As for the future, Salem is as much in doubt about it as are we all. "We've talked to Bill about a wide variety of projects," he told me, "and continue to do so. The good news is he still listens. The bad news is he still says 'No'."

Oh - what does Watterson look like? He looks a lot like Calvin's father.