Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known). Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history. They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.
Today’s essay is by Jacob “Monty” Montgomery. Enjoy!
Contemporary Comics Spotlight: Bill Watterson, Comic Strip Giant
Bill Watterson is a king of comic strips and a personal hero of mine. His comic Calvin and Hobbes instills in the reader a warmth which is magnified greatly by his masterful use of a brush. Calvin and Hobbes is nothing short of masterpiece and despite having stopped the comic in 1995 he managed to create 3,160 comic strips that are still adored by readers today. Watterson won a myriad of awards for the strip including 2 Eisner awards for his collections and 8 Harvey awards. His comic is still read world-wide and is currently being reprinted in over 50 countries around the world.
Bill started cartooning from a very early age having comic strips printed in his school newspapers for the better part of his schooling career. Later he would attend Kenyon College and receive a B.A. in political science. He has stated that he named the characters from his comics after famous philosophers (John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes) as a “a tip of the hat to the political science department at Kenyon College”. After graduating he was offered a job as a political cartoonist for the Cincinnati post. His time at the paper was short lived and he was soon fired. He would then work in grocery advertisement. After four frustrating years he quit and started to develop a comic strip for news papers. His first several attempts where shot down until he was finally able to sell Calvin and Hobbes to the Universal Press Syndicate.
Calvin and Hobbes would go on to run for ten years at its height was published in over 2,400 newspapers world-wide. The comics have been collected in 18 different books and have sold over 4.5 million collectively. He ended the comic in 1995. Man fans of the comic wanted more and when asked about this in a rare interview he stated “This isn’t as hard to understand as people try to make it. By the end of 10 years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say.” Watterson fought attempts to merchandise the comic strip. When questioned about this by one of his fans he answered “For starters, I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo. . . . Actually, I wasn’t against all merchandising when I started the strip, but each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved.”
Watterson’s artwork is incredible. His sense of layout and use of the brush are something to behold. He was a pioneer in the Sunday strips on account of his elaborate layouts. His comics where simply done in with a sable brush on bristol board. The use of these materials, when in Bill’s hands, resulted in beautiful backgrounds which sometimes fell into the surreal when Calvin was deep into one of his outlandish imaginings. These bizarre landscapes and situation where often interrupted by an adult hurling Calvin back into the real world, which was always rendered with a sense of whimsy that only benefited from simple yet well-defined Watterson display with his brush.
Bill Watterson now lives in Cleveland and has taken up painting. He is incredibly media shy and interviews with him are very rare. He has said that he is very proud of the comic strip but he never plans of writing or drawing any more of the comic. True to his convictions he has still fought all licensing of the comic (aside from the postage stamps) and refuses to sign autographs.
- Jacob Montgomery