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Whither Watterson?

Jordan Smith

Oh, I’ve missed you comics internet.

Sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted here (perhaps you’ve taken it as a welcome respite?) but with the donut business a-booming and my tour of Oktoberfest concluded I am returned to you.

Let’s talk legends!

Dear Mr Watterson (link to the forthcoming documentary)

We’re coming up on 20 years since the end of Calvin & Hobbes and by extension 20 years since the end of Bill Watterson’s public cartooning life.  He was only 37 years old when he dropped the mic and walked off stage – never to return.  Some 6 years before that decision, in 1989, he made a short speech at the Festival of Cartoon Art at Ohio State University.  I can only assume the title of the documentary comes from an anecdote he relayed at the outset of that speech.

I received a letter from a 10-year-old this morning. He wrote, “Dear Mr Watterson, I have been reading Calvin and Hobbes for a long time, and I’d like to know a few things. First, do you like the drawing of Calvin and Hobbes I did at the bottom of the page? Are you married, and do you have any kids? Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

 

Watterson then, characteristically, takes the child’s supposition that he may have been convicted of a felony off into some pretty interesting directions.  What really struck me about this speech is its extraordinarily prescient judgment about the state of cartooning in 1969 – 1989 – or 2013.  He’s able to distill 4 significant obstacles to improving the form itself and the treatment of its creators.

 

1)                  Recognizing cartoons as legitimate art

2)                  Ownership of the created work

3)                  The dominant role of merchandising and licensing

4)                  Failure of existing media to properly use the comics form.

 

The complete text of the speech is available here:

 

http://floobynooby.blogspot.com/2011/03/awesome-speech-by-bill-watterson.html

 

The whole thing is well worth a few minutes of your time.  I’ll just be quoting a few very relevant passages.

 

First, on the subject of recognizing comics as art Watterson is very direct.  The assumption has long been in place that cartoonists are simply employees.  That the job of a cartoonist / illustrator is to create a product that serves a largely commercial purpose.  What that assumption discounts is the presence of artistic concerns on the part of the creator.  For comics work to achieve the distinction of art cartoonists are more and more often asked to do more with less.  Smaller pages, less flexible deadlines, and in general an understanding that the comic itself is a secondary concern – all of these are rapier cuts on a form that had achieved so much, so early.

 

“In a way, it’s surprising that comic strips have ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That’s not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and of course many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. But more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.

 

Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today. but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn’t even know it.”

 

That feeling on Watterson’s part that comics are moving toward ”primordial goo” is one that would play out not only in newspapers but in the funny books themselves.

 

Consider only the most successful strips in the papers today. Why are so many of them poorly drawn? Why do so many offer only the simplest interchangeable gags and puns? Why are some strips written by committees and drawn by assistants? Why are some strips still stumbling around decades after their original creators have retired or died? Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards? Why do so many of the comics look the same? If comics can be so much, why are we settling for so little? Can’t we expect more from our comics pages? Well, these days, probably not. Let’s look at why. The comics are a collaborative effort on the part of the cartoonists who draw them, the syndicates that distribute them, and the newspapers that buy and publish them. Each needs the other, and all haves common interest in providing comics features of a quality that attracts a devoted readership. But business and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art.

It’s certainly not an original refrain and it’s mostly well trod criticism at this point by the comics crit literati.  Still, there are encouraging signs that the creative community are waking up to this reality and taking steps – steps that move their art away from the interminable cycle of exploitation and abandonment.   And while it’s all the rage to “be positive!”  it’s worth noting and eviscerating examples that wear false clothes (e.g., Abhay’s, John’s, and to a lesser extent my own issues with Lazarus) so that we might better grapple with the business / art dichotomy.

The real possibility that creators (writers and artists alike) have conflated the difference themselves is the new hotness, btw.  AKA – “I’m not a buisnessman, I’m a business, man!”

Next time – Star Trek: The Next Generation and Brandon Graham’s Prophet!

4 Responses to “ Whither Watterson? ”

  1. Did you know there’s going to be a big Watterson exhibit at the Billy Ireland Museum next Spring?

  2. I did! Between that, Los Bros on Nov 16th, Paul Pope and Jeff Smith coming soon as well…

    I feel oddly central to the good things in comics life at the moment!

  3. No less than Spurgeon called us a potential sleeping giant of comics cities. Jeff Smith lives here so he’s not too surprising (still a thrill that he knew my name at MIX). Pope used to live here back in the day too. Eddie Campbell and Matt Bors will be there too. Alison Bechdel visited the library yesterday. Tom Scioli/Jim Rugg/Ed Piskor/Nate Powell are regulars at SPACE. MIX is turning into a killer comics academic festival. The new Billy Ireland space is basically a church to comics. The local comics community grows steadily and I plan on release lot’s of stuff this year. Columbus is becoming a major comics town.

  4. Piskor was actually in residence at Thurber House earlier this year with their special program while working on the Hip Hop stuff.

    On a larger note I do think Columbus is just the right mix to be a real cultural hub for the midwest in general. Downtown feels like a lasting presence and (as with most vibrant cities) our population diversity / identity is becoming strong enough to generate and sustain scenes for a wide range of interests.

    Hard to believe 20 years ago it was mostly just the U and CD101.

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