Nine-month Vacation For Bill Watterson

Early 'Calvin and Hobbes' strips will run during the sabbatical, which drew mixed reactions from editors and cartoonists

By David Astor for Editor & Publisher
March 30, 1991 edition; pg.34

Calvin and Hobbes, the wildly successful comic that has amassed more than 1,800 newspaper clients since its late 1985 debut, is going on sabbatical starting May 5.

The hiatus will last nine months, with Bill Watterson's Universal Press Syndicate strip scheduled to return next February 1.

Watterson, who virtually never talks to the media, released a part tongue-in-cheek statement through Universal. It read: "Had I imagined Calvin and Hobbes would last this long, I would have paced myself. The strip requires a great deal of research, and I need to do more interplanetary exploration and paleontology work before I continue."

Universal vice president/editorial director Lee Salem told E&P that Watterson isn't suffering from "burnout" but does want to "spend time painting and just get away from the demands of Calvin and Hobbes for a while."

During the sabbatical, Universal will distribute strips culled from the first 14 months of Calvin and Hobbes. Newspapers will continue to pay the same amount for the comic.

Salem reported that only "two or three" smaller papers among the 1,800-plus clients have said they will drop the strip.

"Most people realize the strength of the feature and don't want to remove it from their pages," said Salem. And an editor in a competitive market would run the risk of losing Calvin and Hobbes to a rival paper.

The two other major comics that went on extended sabbaticals during the past decade -- Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau and The Far Side by Gary Larson -- both came back with bigger client lists than when they left. Doonesbury disappeared completely from papers during its hiatus while early Larson panels were recycled.

Universal is the syndicator of Larson, Trudeau, and Watterson. "We don't encourage any of our artists to take a leave of absence," said Salem, "but Bill made a cogent case and we did what we could to cooperate."

Salem added that he doesn't see sabbaticals becoming a major trend in the comics world because "only a handful of cartoonists" are popular enough to "successfully pull this type of thing off."

Watterson, a Southwestern U.S. resident in his early 30's, is already the fourth most widely syndicated cartoonist in America. Calvin and Hobbes has won numerous reader comics polls conducted by newspapers and brought Watterson two National Cartoonists Society (NCS) Reuben Awards as "Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year."

The upcoming sabbatical for Watterson (interviewed in E&P, February 8, 1986) drew mixed reactions.

"We basically said 'oh no!' when we found out," said Detroit Free Press managing editor for features and business Marty Claus. "It was like learning that your best reporter is going to take a leave for a year."

But Claus -- who said she can "understand why anybody would want to take a break" -- added that Watterson's decision didn't especially surprise her. "He's known for doing what he wants to do," she observed, noting, by way of example, that the cartoonist has refused to merchandise his comic despite the incredible potential market for Hobbes tiger toys and the like.

Watterson has allowed Calvin and Hobbes to be collected in books, which have sold millions. If that many people buy books of strips previously carried by newspapers, said Claus, she thinks people will read rerun strips on comics pages.

"Originals would be better, of course," she commented, "but there seems to be such affection for these characters..." Claus added that the strips will seem new to recent Free Press subscribers and to kids who were too young to read Calvin and Hobbes when it first came out.

"I'll miss him," said Claus, who added that a lot of her paper's readers will, too -- Watterson won a 1990 Free Press comics poll which drew 17,595 responses.

Watterson's strip also won the latest Philadelphia Inquirer comics survey "by a tremendous margin," said assistant managing editor Bob Greenberg. "Almost no one disliked it...Calvin and Hobbes has been a fantastic success. It's brilliant."

Greenberg added, "Undoubtedly [Watterson has] worked tremendously hard. I can understand he's probably worn out, but it's very unfortunate for the reading public and newspapers. I don't think anyone can be pleased when you're not getting fresh material."

Greenberg said the Inquirer will most likely carry the Calvin and Hobbes reruns -- with an explanatory note at first -- because of the comic's popularity.

Greenberg said the increasing number of sabbaticals worries him, but he did agree that only the most popular cartoonists could take a leave and still retain their newspaper clients. And some very well-known cartoonists, he added, don't seem interested in taking breaks.

King Features Syndicate has several of the country's most widely distributed cartoonists, but comics editor Jay Kennedy reported that none of them has requested a leave of absence during the three years he's been there.

As for Watterson, Kennedy said he understands why the cartoonist would want to take a sabbatical, "but it's a disappointment to the readers."

He noted that many people will once again be seeing strips they not only read in newspapers less than a half-dozen years ago but read in Calvin and Hobbes book collections as well.

Meanwhile, said Kennedy, there are cartoonists with new material who should have a crack at the Calvin and Hobbescomics page slots during the Watterson sabbatical.

"I would hope newspaper editors will be open-minded enough to use the space for new material rather than reruns," declared Kennedy.

He added, "As comics editor of King, I would not want to rerun material for any extended period of time except to get over the illness of an artist. Readers deserve more than to have extended reprints."

Kennedy acknowledged that King's North America Syndicate (NAS) recently distributed two weeks of Hank Ketchum's 1951 Dennis the Menace panels to mark the comic's 40th anniversary of syndication, but said this was done as a "curiosity." And he added that comparitively few current readers would have seen or remembered the panels.

Jack Caprio, an associate of Johnny Hart's on the NAS-distributed Wizard of Id and Creators Syndicate-distributed B.C., said he wouldn't want to take an extended sabbatical because he would miss the fun of cartooning.

"I guess I'm from the old school," commented the NCS second vice president. Caprio did note the Hart has publicly suggested that newspapers reprint old comics for four or five weeks during the summer to give cartoonists a short break each year. After all, said Caprio, there are tv reruns.

Cartoonist Bill Schorr said he could understand why Watterson, Larson, and Trudeau needed breaks -- noting that their comics require more work than simpler gag-a-day ones.

"Calvin and Hobbes is amazingly drawn, and its story lines and approaches are more complex," commented Schorr.

Schorr observed that he himself expends more energy on the fairly elaborate Phoebe's Place than on The Grizzwells. The second comic is with Newspaper Enterprise Association and the first is with the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, which also distributes Schorr's Kansas City Star editorial cartoons.

A number of top comic creators hire assistants, continued Schorr, which can give them some periodic "breathing space" without taking a formal sabbatical. Watterson does all his own work.

Schorr added that Watterson's hiatus might be a fruitful period because the cartoonist will have time, if he so desires, to think about future directions for Calvin and Hobbes without the pressure of deadlines.

"It's a real nice luxury if you can do it," said Schorr, although he mentioned that a hiatus can potentially hurt a cartoonist's creativity, too. "It would be nice if we could all take breaks. Deadlines are relentless."

As for the sabbatical's effect on newspaper client lists and readership, Schorr believes Calvin and Hobbes will weather its rerun period quite well and come back strong -- just like The far Side and Doonesbury did.

"I think certain cartoons can get away with it, and Calvin and Hobbes is one of them," he stated. "They're strong enough to kind of make their own rules..."

Schorr added, "Bill Watterson does real well with books, and that's reviving old cartoons. Newspaper readers will still enjoy it. It's by far one of the superior strips. An old Calvin and Hobbes is better than a new lot of other strips."

Salem noted that Universal did wonder if early Calvin and Hobbes strips were old enough to run again. "But we had no choice," he said. "We couldn't supply stuff older! We thought it was best to supply something rather than nothing."