Wonderful Mr. Watterson


I write this post for no reason other than that I read this post about Calvin and Hobbes in Open Magazine  and was annoyed it was yet another summary of things we’ve only heard about a thousand times. When reading about personalities everyone writes about, I wish people brought in a more original, possibly more personal take.

I imagine it must be very annoying to be Bill Watterson. Probably something like Chubby Checker after he pioneered The Twist. Or like having an overachieving older sibling. No matter what you do, there’s this overarching standard everyone’s going to compare you against. It offers you little room to grow or make mistakes.

I have this friend who I imagine what Mr. Watterson is like. This friend happens to also look a little like a clean-shaven Mr. Watterson. My friend has an online persona where he is creative, funny, sarcastic, biting, and wildly original. However, in real life, he doesn’t engage as easily as far as I’ve known him. He is still all of those things, and if anything, even more talented, even more creative, and has a childlike honesty in emotion and behavior. But there’s this additional streak that makes him shy, quiet, careful to not say the wrong things, sensitive, and at the same time, wildly confident, somewhat lacking empathy, and militantly private. All those qualities in him you end up going ‘oh you poor thing for’ – the sensitivity, the childlike honesty, the kindness, the shyness, the quietness – they don’t come from a place of fear or want or defensiveness, they come from a position of strength.

And I sure hope my friend never reads this. He doesn’t like to think so much about things. Everything to him is simple. If it isn’t, he fills in the gaps with the simplest possible explanations and moves on, because he is confident that’ll work well enough.

Somehow, to me, this model explains all of Mr. Watterson’s actions. The badass quitting a job to become a cartoonist. The battle to work on his own terms only. The extremely few interviews given. The quitting C&H when it was at its peak. The slipping in autographs into his books at a local bookstore. Stopping it when he found people were selling it as merchandise. The media-shy behavior. Suddenly resurfacing to do a bunch of comics with Pearls Before Swine. Carefully guarding his privacy even then.

It seems to me like Mr. Watterson shuns attention not because he’s afraid of consequences or the wrong sort of attention, but because he doesn’t see the need for it, or wants to be spared the trouble of having to learn to deal with it. He seems to be among that rare breed of people who are content with what they have and don’t desire for more, not because they feel like any more will be too much to handle, or because they want their life to stay just so, or because they have achieved what they’ve aimed for, but because they aren’t the sort to have shifting goalposts, or who live their life by external metrics and goals.

And if you venerate or judge him for that, he’ll probably smile an amused smile. Because he knows there isn’t anything inherently good or bad in his choices, he picked them not out of principle, but because that’s what works well for him. Or maybe it doesn’t work as he thought, but he sticks with those things anyway, because it works acceptably enough.

I can see how he would have come up with his cartoons. He did something that gave him joy, and its giving joy to so many others was a very welcome side-effect. When he suspected it was close to not giving him joy anymore, he decided to move on.

Oh and his work. People have written reams about what makes Calvin and Hobbes tick, so I won’t go into its broad appeal. Why I like Calvin and Hobbes is, the setups and jokes bring out things about human interactions and relationships so much more organically, so much more easily. And, of course, the fabulous Sunday art. It makes me laugh when people try to find clues about if Calvin says age-appropriate things, or if Hobbes is real or imaginary. Those things don’t matter. Calvin acts like a kid when Mr. Watterson thinks that would be a fun choice for this cartoon idea, and Calvin can just easily be the voice of the cartoonist when Mr. Watterson wants him to be. Hobbes is a stuffed toy when the idea makes sense in the context of the cartoon Mr. Watterson wants to draw. Hobbes is a real tiger when Mr. Watterson thinks that’d be a more appropriate choice. I don’t suppose those things are set in stone, and it feels like a pointless argument, much like about which Hogwarts house you belong to.

Continuing to rave about Calvin and Hobbes feels much like holding on to high school memories, to me. Reading the comics all at once at nineteen blew my mind, but revisiting it or talking about it or sharing the comics more than once in a blue moon feels like you have very little else going on. Besides, what I took away from Calvin and Hobbes feels incredibly personal. I suppose everyone who anthropomorphized their toys as a child feels that.

It feels a little wrong to own any Calvin and Hobbes memorabilia. I actually thought long and hard before deciding not to adorn my walls with a Calvin and Hobbes poster. It feels like an affront to Mr. Watterson.

I occasionally wonder what would be appropriate to say to Mr. Watterson, should I run into him somewhere. I should probably like to say something like ‘Hey, so you know that thing you used to do? It kinda changed my life and touched me a whole lot. Thanks, and I won’t bother you anymore’.

I also occasionally wonder what kind of an interview of Mr. Watterson would feel least like an affront. Or, more specifically, if I got a chance to talk with him for an hour, what I’d talk about. Two or three years ago, I would have probably bombarded him with leading questions and try real hard to pick his brain. Now though, I’d just like to chill with the man. Ask him about how his days go. If he plays with his grandkids, if he has any. What he watches on TV. If he thinks much at all about politics. What he thinks about college costs going insane.

Or, I don’t know, maybe I give Mr. Watterson’s privacy and RonSwanson-ness way more importance than Mr. Watterson himself does, and maybe in a decade or less, he’ll start blogging about landscapes or woodworking or Cleveland politics. Or maybe become a champion of DRM and self-publish on Amazon.

About wanderlust

just your average books-and-music person who wants to change the world.
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One Response to Wonderful Mr. Watterson

  1. Abhishek says:

    Good read. However, I don’t think holding on to a high school memory in this context is such a bad thing. I can still relate to C&H on a personal level even today. I wouldn’t mind revisiting C&H or talking about it in a conversation, in a non-obsessive way. I wouldn’t mind if anyone else shares the comic with me everyday too. The minute I see the comic strip in my inbox or timeline, it automatically brings a smile on my face and for 2 minutes I forget about everything else. And I do have a lot more going on in life 🙂

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