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Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes
On one hand, you gotta admire the tenacity of Nevin Martell who set out to write a biography of Bill Watterson. He could of made his life easier by picking someone more forthcoming or cooperative such as Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster. “Looking for Calvin and Hobbes” subtitled “The unconventional story of Bill Watterson and his revolutionary comic strip” is a long over due book for understanding one of the most influential cartoonists in comic history. On the shelf of every comic fan or historian is a empty space for a definitive tome on Watterson equal to that of David Michaelis‘ “Schulz and Peanuts,” but sadly without the cooperation of the reclusive cartoonist, Martell could come close, but not close enough to provide such an authoritative work. That frustration is not the fault of Martell but at Watterson who denied himself and anyone close to him to get involved with the book (one exception is an interview with his mother). There is one hint that Watterson may have considered opening up for the book. He and his friend Richard West, a scholar and historian, debated about the value of understanding the artist beyond just his/her work. In the end, Watterson maintained that “the art is all that mattered, and who cares what the artist’s story is.”
Despite this set back, Martell has gathered perhaps the most exhaustive collection of every written or recorded interview, speech or writing by Watterson and interviewed childhood friends, college art teachers, colleagues, peers, friends and family members to fill out the gaps of his history. The result is a thoughtful and insightful narrative of Watterson’s life before, during and after the 10 year run of Calvin and Hobbes not to mention his influence on cartooning.
Martell paints a picture of an artist who I can only described as at times as tortured by a relentless desire to create art – not just any art – but great art. Having seen personally some of his originals at the Ohio State Cartoon Research Library (and Museum), I attest that every original I saw was painstakingly drawn – right down to the title of on his Sunday strips. As his success grew, he went to greater lengths to remain reclusive as every other aspect of the industry (book promotion, interviews, etc.) were distracting and affected him negatively. He had but one desire – to focus solely on Calvin and Hobbes. After leaving cartooning, he took up painting. The oft mentioned rumor of Watterson burning his first 500 paintings is discussed in the book as a mostly true. Not all of his paintings were believed to be torched, but most were – indicative of someone driven to only produce great work. Any trace of mediocre work was to be destroyed.
The book also offers interesting tidbits from those in the industry – especially from those who are retired and are more free to speak of the past. Martell talks with former editors at United Media about their fumble with the strip which they had signed to a development contract. The fumble allowed Universal to sign the aspiring cartoonist later and well, you know, the rest is history. Other tidbits include which Hollywood studios and filmmakers courted him about movie fame and fortune. I knew Watterson had deposited his entire collection of originals to the OSU Cartoon Research Library, but now I understand that it included EVERYTHING – even the original art he had been given from other artists. When Watterson walked away from Calvin and Hobbes it was a clean, severed cut with his cartooning past.
As stated, at some point a definitive work will be done about Watterson and his work. I’m guessing it won’t be done during Watterson’s lifetime. Until then, Martell provides the most comprehensive look at the life and work of one of the most influential American cartoonists. A book I highly recommend picking up in October when it hits book shelves (right now Amazon has a price guarantee – pick it up for 6.47 now and if the price drops before it ships, you pay the lower amount)
Martell spent the last 18 months interviewing over a hundred of Watterson’s colleagues, peers, friends and family members and he has agreed to take questions from The Daily Cartoonist readers about the things he’s learned. You can direct them to me firstname.lastname@example.org or leave them in the comments. I’ll gather them and forward them to Martell and I’ll post the responses here in the near future. Thanks Martell for agreeing to the Q & A.