John Walker's Electronic House

On Interviews With Bill Watterson

by on Feb.02, 2010, under The Rest

As was passed around the internets yesterday, Bill Watterson has done a rare interview with, of all places, to mark fifteen years since he stopped drawing Calvin & Hobbes.

Watterson’s an odd and excellent chap. Calvin & Hobbes was unquestionably the greatest daily strip cartoon in the last fifty years (I really cannot think of anything this could be challenged by), and made more excellent by his refusal to merchandise the strip. So thankfully we never saw Calvin grinning on birthday cards, nor, as Watterson once wrote, had the reality of Hobbes decided for us by a stuffed toy. Instead we of course had Calvin pissing on VW logos, and horrible knock-off t-shirts of, for some reason, Calvin pulling one particular face. But never anything official. C&H remained pure in its form, a comic strip printed in newspapers, then reprinted in books.

Watterson’s motivations for stopping the comic have changed over the last decade and a half. At the time he made it perfectly clear he was quitting because it was the only way to stop the syndicate from merchandising the strip. He called their bluff. Now he says he had said all there was to say, and it had been time to end before it became repetitive or disliked. Whichever is the case, while I would dearly love for there to be new strips to read, I think he’s right that it was best to end at its peak. The idea that Calvin & Hobbes might have gone on to become as tired and unlikeable as so many of the daily strips is too terrible to bear.

The reason I mention all this is to raise my frustration with the recent interview at, where the interviewer had such a precious opportunity and handled it so very poorly. The site begins with this claim:

“It’s believed to be the first interview with the reclusive artist since 1989.”

Believed, that is, by anyone who is too lazy to Google “Bill Watterson interview”. The previous interview, famously released five years ago to accompany the tenth anniversary and release of the beautiful complete collection (still almost half price on Amazon, and well worth it), is the second result if you search.

He also, tragically, didn’t bother to come up with more than one question. Instead he asks, “People liked it and wish you’d draw it again. How should they remember it?” five times in a row, and then someone nonsense about stamps. Fortunately Watterson, with incredible grace, answers differently each time, offering smart, eloquent and interesting answers. The result is, amazingly, something quite lovely.

The interviewer explains elsewhere on the site that he asked this question (over and over) because he knew that if he asked personal questions about Watterson’s private life he wouldn’t get replies. Which while true, doesn’t explain why he didn’t ask anything original or insightful about the strip, or the creative process. When you look at the replies, you can feel the potential for what more could have been asked of this brilliant man. For instance, Watterson demonstrates a rare sophistication and lack of artistic ego in his conviction that art exists in its interpretation, not its author’s intent.

“The only part I understand is what went into the creation of the strip. What readers take away from it is up to them. Once the strip is published, readers bring their own experiences to it, and the work takes on a life of its own. Everyone responds differently to different parts… Readers will always decide if the work is meaningful and relevant to them, and I can live with whatever conclusion they come to. Again, my part in all this largely ended as the ink dried.”

Fortunately the previous interview, conducted by Andrews McMeel Publishing, was cleverly assembled from questions submitted by fans that avoided begging and whining. In fact, many of the questions are superb, and his answers, while brief, are frank and interesting. While not all the questions are brilliant, they include the likes of, “You’ve often cited Herriman, Kelly, Schulz, etc., as comic strip inspirations. But who inspires you most in the fields of painting and printmaking?” A question which elicits a fantastic reply from the artist.

Even more worth reading, if you wish to delve into the mind behind the strip, and to learn of the struggles with syndicates and newspapers who made creating something so lovely such an ordeal, is the Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary book. In here the author, on the verge of early retirement, lets loose his passion for comics, the origins of the characters, and then the struggles he went through to keep the strip as beautiful and meticulous as he desired.

Watterson has clearly made the money he needs to be comfortable for the rest of his life, lives a life moderate enough to not require further injections of millions, and wants for no celebrity. He said his piece, he said it so wonderfully, and now he gets on with his own life. I think the wisest moment in the interview from five years ago is the following exchange.

Q: You have been very persistent in not becoming a public figure, and I respect that a great deal. Is there anything you would wish to tell the fans who do not understand your wishes and why it is important to you not to claim the spotlight?

A: My impression is that those who don’t get it, don’t care to get it.


3 Comments for this entry

  • Rob Zacny

    The unfortunate part, for fans at least, of Watterson’s reticence to talk about himself or his work is that he is clearly someone with so many interesting things to say. In the introduction to the Tenth Anniversary collection and the complete collection, Watterson reveals himself to be an insightful and thoughtful man. Not a surprise, of course, given the strip he created, but it is wonderful to see what a fine writer and thinker he is outside the confines of a comics page. I am always a bit blue that we do not get more opportunities to hear his voice.

  • Ian

    I really need to read more Calvin and Hobbes. I got three of the little A5-ish size books years ago and loved them but then never really got around to finding more.

    Might have a look at both that book and more books of strips.

  • Pace

    Ian; they rerun the strips daily at the gocomics link above.

    I’d say Doonesbury is the overall best and smartest strip I can think of, while The Far Side was the flat-out funniest. I’d put Calvin & Hobbes up there because it’s well-rounded: it has a broad appeal, as well as being smart and genuinely funny.

    (Offtopic; John, in case you didn’t see it, there was a funny bit in Mass Effect 2 regarding that article you wrote. Ya know. )