Friday, July 13th, 2012

Leave Bill Watterson Alone

Dear Mr. Watterson is a documentary project that explores cartoonist Bill Watterson, his timeless comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and their impact on culture. Celebrities like Seth Green and Bill Amend are interviewed, as are appreciative fans, many of whom have grown up with a deep admiration for Calvin and Hobbes. And while the film's synopsis promises that it is “not a quest to find Watterson, who prefers his privacy,” I find that assurance unlikely. After all, the project is named Dear Mr. Watterson, not A Film Where We Talk About How Great Calvin and Hobbes Is. But I can’t blame the filmmakers for hoping to reach Watterson on a personal level. That promise helped earn their Kickstarter campaign over $85,000. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the idea of getting his attention after almost twenty years of silence.

Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995 and Watterson, then still in his thirties, vanished into retirement. He had been tight-lipped about his personal life while the strip was still running, and he sequestered himself even further when it ended. That decision has given him a reputation as some kind of cranky recluse, a Salinger-esque weirdo who shuns his fans and finds joy only in solitude. It makes for an intriguing story, and many fans have taken it as a challenge to get to Bill first. Like Dear Mr. Watterson, Nevin Martell’s 2009 book Looking for Calvin and Hobbes discusses the cultural significance of Watterson’s work but with a clearer intention to land an impossible interview with the cartoonist. Both Looking for Calvin and Hobbes and Dear Mr. Watterson are helmed by die-hard C&H fans, both of whom openly acknowledge Watterson's decision to keep to himself. But if they’re such devotees, why do they ignore his reluctance and try for his attention anyway?

There are a few potential answers to that question. Many Calvin and Hobbes fans came of age as the internet was becoming more and more common. We’ve never had too much trouble finding our heroes online. Writers, musicians, athletes, comedians; they’ve all opened themselves up for their fans. Even icons from decades past, your George Takeis and Roger Eberts, have enthusiastically immersed themselves in internet culture. Aspiring entertainers are expected to put themselves out there, and open transparency has become the norm and not the exception. By avoiding open communication, Watterson is sticking out like a sore thumb to his fans.

Another possibility is our shared love for intriguing personalities. It’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be interesting while you do it. This isn’t a new phenomenon, nor is it an emphatically bad one. It is what it is, and it’s easy to see why people are drawn to colorful and media-savvy celebrities. However, finding intrigue in reluctant celebrities like Bill Watterson becomes difficult. Writers like Nevin Martell try their best to eke out some kind of story for Watterson, but due to his refusal to be interviewed they find themselves in a dead end. So we improvise, perpetuating that legend about a backwoods introvert who burns fan mail and frightens children. But even Forrester could be Found, so we all hold out hope. But what exactly are we hoping for?

After these long years of silence, expectations for anything from Watterson are tremendous. Writers, filmmakers and fans all dream of getting that golden egg, an interview, that could answer all of our lingering questions. But what can we expect? What do we even want to know? Watterson has told us everything he needs to about himself. His ten years behind Calvin and Hobbes have revealed a creative, talented, driven and often hilarious artist. He showed his silly side when Calvin imagined Tyrannosauruses flying around in an F18s, and he showed us his poignant side when a baby raccoon Calvin and Hobbes were nursing to health passed away. Through his strip he has let us know he detests art critics, loves Charles Schultz, questions faith, and hopes for a greener future. That he wants no part in interviews should be meaningless. We know everything we need about Bill Watterson from his incredible body of work.

Yet people persist. The fantasy of finding more about Watterson, or getting him to show up for your book or movie, is enough to turn fans into treasure hunters. But he’s not some prize specimen hiding in the mountains of Ohio, nor is he a fictionalized recluse with a chip on his shoulder. He’s a real human being who has time and time again decided to keep his privacy. And while it’s fun to speculate about him, it’s ultimately needless; his work is a better autobiography than we could ever hope for. So I encourage any fans who have enough passion and talent to make a film or write a book, please don’t look for Bill. Don’t even try. Instead, explore the magical world he created. The next Calvin and Hobbes Kickstarter I see needs to be named A Film Where We Talk About How Great Calvin and Hobbes Is, because we all know better than to name it Dear Mr. Watterson.

Also, no more of that fan art where Calvin grows up, marries Susie, and has a daughter who he gives Hobbes to. None of that. That needs to stop.

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  • Patrick

    This is really great.

  • Kerryearlyreviews

    this is great and I totally agree. For me, the work is enough. I'm so thankful that it exists in the first place, it seems unfair to demand any more than that from an artist I admire.

  • destroy_all_humans

    bill is in my bowling league. he loves pbr and people that wear fedoras

  • mike

    Very well said. Let the great artist/philosopher enjoy his life without public scrutiny. Love his works or not, the way he makes us feel does not compel him to share anything else.

  • RWCrum

    There's a comment on Amazon about Martell's book that sums it up perfectly- it should have been a magazine article instead of a book, because all you need to know can be found on page four. Watterson came up with a great strip, he's publicity shy, and Martell never found him. Completists will read it and not learn anything, casual fans will want their money back. I imagine it will be the same with many Kickstarter donors.

    You make a great point that likely Martell and these filmmakers didn't consider- all you need or want to know about Watterson can be found in his work.

  • Travis H

    Real shame isn't that he's absent from the public, but that 20 years went by without any new work from him.

  • http://twitter.com/jasonWeek Jason Week

    He's said his piece, and it's as good a body of work as you're going to see from any cartoonist. Obviously, he feels that the work justifies its own existence. You don't need him standing next to it telling you it's good. He's impossible not to respect.

  • http://twitter.com/uncoolperson チヴィントン・クリス

    I don't see what's wrong with the title "Dear Mr. Watterson". I actually think it's a great title, because it sounds like a fan letter and it makes it sound like this movie is a gift of appreciation by fans. 

    I also don't see the problem with requesting an interview. I think you are a huge tool actually, because people have every right to ask him for an interview, and he has every right to decline. I doubt getting interview requests stresses him out that much, as all he has to say is "no".

    People also have a right to imagine what they think Watterson is like. You sound like an uncreative superior who feels the need to stomp on everyone's good-natured fun. "No, you're not allowed to speculate or imagine what he's like because I am unimaginative, incurious and that's how you should be too." That's the impression I'm getting from this.

    The only part of this article I agree with is the part about Calvin & Hobbes marriage fanfiction. 

    • Nope

      Stop. Just stop.

    • HelloFellow

      Saying people have a "right" to ask him for an interview is akin to saying people have a "right" to invade his privacy and personal life, because they are greedy and unsatisfied with everything he's already given them. You sound very self-entitled.

      • Ray

        4 words
        "May we interview you?"
        I certainly look greedy and unsatisfied, right?

  • Greg Erskine

    Thank you for writing this; I agree wholeheartedly.

  • dicebourbon

    I thought it was pretty great that right after Martell's book came out, Watterson did an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, his first since 1989: http://www.cleveland.com/living/index.ssf/2010/02/bill_watterson_creator_of_belo.html

  • http://eatthebabies.com/ BradyDale

    I can't help but feel like it's all mostly harmless as long as no one tries to break into his house. The guy put himself out there. What does he expect?
    What I can't help but wonder is: what is he doing? It seems heartbreaking for someone with so much talent to just stop doing anything. And, if you're a creative person, it's tough to believe. He must be doing something?
    I think a lot of people are curious about just what.

    I could care less if anyone ever gets an interview, but if he comes out with some sort of 20 volume graphic novel, well… that would be amazing. 

  • Jen

    Why should people stop drawing/imagining Calvin's future life? It's a much better way to express your appreciation for Watterson's work than hounding the man. I found it charming. Are we supposed to confine ourselves to unproductive, VH1-style nostalgia? Ideally, fans would all be creating their own original work, but when great characters grip your imagination it's fun to imagine where they might go after the books end. I can't see how it harms anyone.

    • Jim

      Watterson is on record as being against fan fiction. People should respect this, as they should respect his desire for privacy.

      • http://www.facebook.com/orphicdragon Trisha Lynn Dragon


        If he doesn't want his work touched or interpreted he should have kept it to himself in a notebook.

        He didn't mind cashing the checks for all those strips. He had ZERO issue in bidding the fans to kiss off and he gleefully pumped out compilations that were redundant. The "essential" Calvin & Hobbes is anything BUT essential and he knew it.

        He is against selling out, unless he is selling something out….

        I love C&H. Always have always will. Doesn't make Watterson the Messiah.Having read every book multiple times, including the ones with his personal commentary, Watterson seems to be a bit of a self important douche bag. Didn't care then, don't care now. The strip is done, I really don't care who he is or what he wants.

        He owns Calvin & Hobbes on his page. Everything else belongs to the reader. If he doesn't like that, and he doesn't, sucks to be him.

  • BlakeSDavis

    Jeez – leave the guy alone – I noticed that if you go for awhile without readin gthe comics you can go back and enjoy them again and you sort of forget most of them. It's not as if there isn't more important stuff. Plus, if you really love comics read the classics – there's a lifetime of reading in there – 10 lifetimes. Or learn to draw and do your own comic – it isn't as hard as you think, and it is fun. But cripes, leave the guy alone – get a life.

  • Sonny Crockett

    Being famous comes with the territory. I think the guy should get what he asks for, BUT…I can't help but think about squandered talent or worse, squandered genius. Seems a bit selfish to be THAT gifted and not share it. The world could really use new Calvin And Hobbes right about now….

  • http://www.noobmovies.com/ NoobMovies.com

    I have to agree with some of these comments. The world can be an awful place. I'm 32 years old now, I came from a rough childhood. I found solace in Calvin in Hobbes. I'm now reading it to my 7 year old son and he loves it.

    I can respect his need for privacy, but it's unfortunate one of the greatest content creators of all time did not try to influence more people.

  • Pickipicky