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 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.

32 thoughts on “Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

  1. Now I really want to read this. I sometimes wish I had a little more of the “mad genius artist” in me…but then again, that’s a hard way to live. Whatever the case, the man left us with one of the best comics ever, so his legacy is secure. I hope he’s finding fulfillment painting now. Great piece, Alan.

  2. Chip Kidd designed the cover of the most recent Schulz biography. Someone should have paid attention to the difference of homage and copying (the fake Calvin and Hobbes is enough to make me weary about what other liberties were taken with the text itself) when this book cover was designed. For as much care and concern Watterson took with his layouts and work, surely they could have done him the honor of making a tasteful, thoughtful cover that didn’t “borrow” from the original source work, a practice (the calvin peeing sticker) that Watterson has spoken out against so fiercely.

    And yes, I know I am judging a book by its cover. For the author’s efforts I hope I am wrong about the content but I feel like everything Watterson has to say about Calvin and Hobbes has already been said in his collected work. At best, this might give us the other side of the story, one that Watterson’s admirers may not want to hear.

  3. I’m torn. Torn between the desire to learn more about such a fascinating artist who has created one of the most enduring and poignant comic strips in history, and my desire to respect the artist’s desire to let his work speak for itself, alone without prejudice, to simply let it exist as an entity of its own accord.

    I don’t know what to do.

  4. I’m fascinated by Watterson, I am really looking forward to this book. It’s unfortunate that Watterson won’t discuss his work or his life story. I understand the desire to let the work speak for itself but I think those of us who strive to be like Watterson could learn so much more about the craft by hearing it from the man himself. I too respect his desire for privacy but any hint of his creative process or his views on the world would be a great benefit to me. Without that, I’ll settle for this new book and enjoy what it brings to light.

  5. Aside from a few scattered opinion pieces, Bill has kept wholly to himself since 1995. I’m curious as to how an artist that talented hasn’t been interested in publishing anything (comics, paintings, macaroni statues) since Calvin and Hobbes.

    Oh, and what was his take on Martell’s book?

  6. I’ll be interested in reading this book.
    Many years ago, I wrote a letter to Bill Watterson asking for his feedback on some questions I had about creating a comic strip. Much to my surprise he responded, answering all my questions in a very thoughtful and thorough fashion.
    A friend and fellow cartoonist, upon hearing about my success decided to try his hand at it as he had his own set of questions. I don’t know how his approach differed from mine, but all he got back was the letter he’d mailed to Watterson c/o Universal.
    I still have the letter and I value it greatly.

  7. Too bad Watterson is reclusive about his fine art. Making art for yourself is great, but making art ONLY for yourself is a disservice to all.

    If your art is a “no-show”, aren’t you a “no-show” as well?

  8. Dave maybe Watterson feels his fine art is too personal to widely share. Much of the creation of such art is a catharsis and a release for the artist. A way to deal with what he or she is feeling or thinking at the time. I don’t think that’s a disservice.

    Perhaps Watterson feels the same way about C&H. Is it possible to put too much of yourself into a comic strip? Could that be one of the reasons for discontinuing the strip and becoming so very reclusive?

  9. I don’t think I could buy a book by an author who so clearly disrespects his subject. “I’m going to write a book about a man who highly values his privacy!”

  10. I’m going to buy the book and then respect its privacy by not reading it.

    @Patrick Scullin: Bill Watterson called. He said to stop striving to be like Bill Watterson and strive to be Patrick Scullin.

  11. I really look forward to reading this book. Watterson is one of my influences and I look forward o getting to know him better through the thoughts of his peers. I knew an artist like him once when I was in college, he would create something beautiful, mumble that he didn’t like it and then take a knife to it. I could never understand that since I am the type of artist that is eager to show off my work, even the unfinished stuff. I always show my pencils to my wife and then show her the inks before they are scanned. I could never understand not wanting to show people my art, but admire Watterson for it. Being the way he is is most likely why we enjoy his work like we do.

  12. I find it funny how quick Calvin is to attack Susie Derkins.

    As a recluse, Bill Watterson is actually writing under the names Corey Pandolph, Rick Stromoski and Wiley Miller, always roaming the web looking to stir up troubleâ?¦

  13. “I donâ??t think I could buy a book by an author who so clearly disrespects his subject. â??Iâ??m going to write a book about a man who highly values his privacy!â? ”

    I understand your position here, Ted, but, trying to look at this objectively, a good writer looks for challenging subject matter. I remember the criticism Michael Crichton got for his movie, “Disclosure”, for having the Michael Douglas character being a victim of sexual harassment by the Demi Moore character. He explained that there was no challenge in making it a compelling story by having the woman as the victim, as that’s that it almost always is and we’re all familiar with that scenario, thus, predictable and boring. By turning it around, having the male as the victim of a female, it made it more challenging to him as a writer.

    So I suspect the same sort of thing is at play here, as people will want to read a book about someone who is a recluse rather someone who’s wide open to the public. Let’s face it, would you rather read this book or a biography on someone like Donald Trump?

    All I really care about is that he doesn’t make stuff up like the writer for Charles Schulz’s biography did.

  14. Wiley, can you please expand on that last comment? I decided to read the Schulz biography over the summer, and I’m having a very difficult time digesting much of the “Arena” chapter. Up to this point, the writing had seemed pretty descent, but the story and flavor has taken such a sudden twist that I’ve set it aside.

    Can you identify what material is fictional that you know of?

  15. I’m curious to read this book, because I’m interested in learning more about the background of one of my favorite cartoonists.

    Considering the end result of the current Schulz biography, though, I think it’s not surprising that Mr. Watterson is holing (and clamming) up.

    It’s not that I think “Schulz and Peanuts” is a poorly written book, but it does sound to me like the contributors (especially Monte Schulz) were sold a bill of goods by the author in terms of how the book would portray its subject. Many friends of Sparky and family members have come forward since its publication to contest this portrait.

    There’s a great issue of the Comics Journal (#290) that deals with this controversy, as well as some lengthy posts on discussing various ‘facts’ (and the tone in which they are presented) in the book. If you’re interested in trying to sort fact from fiction, I’d check these out for starters…

    You can still buy TCJ #290 here:

    Read the Cartoon Brew Monte Schulz post here:

  16. I haven’t read the book. I had no interest in it after reading several excerpts when it came out that were rather huge leaps of logic on the writer’s part that any professional cartoonist would spot as being pure b.s. by someone trying to make something out of nothing. I also have a pretty good source that a lot of what he wrote/surmised was either greatly exaggerated or completely taken out of context to make things more controversial. That source is Jeanne Schulz.

    But it’s the same thing as any biographer does, where they go against type of the public image to make a more compelling, controversial story in order to sell books. And they do that by taking liberties with the truth. So although a great deal of the book may indeed be factual, the parts that aren’t taint the entire thing.

  17. I liked C&H as much as anyone. A critical look at Watterson’s work would be welcome, but that’s not what this is.

    My take is that Wattersonâ??s made it clear he wants to be left the hell alone, and it just seems to me that someone who really respects him and his work ought to respect that wish as well. He gave us the strip; thatâ??s all he owed us and as much of his life as weâ??re entitled to. I don’t intend to reward a project he refused to be part of and no doubt considers a violation of his privacy.

    If Watterson ever writes something about himself or his process, I’ll buy that. If not, the world will go on spinning somehow.

  18. Okay that does it. I’m going to buy the book and hide in the bushes outside Watterson’s house while reading it. Every once in a while I’ll stop reading and glance out of the shrubbery maniacally, then go back to reading while chuckling to myself.

  19. Thanks, Wiley. Those closest to the source will undoubtedly know the truth.

    Personally I prefer the book “Charles M. Schulz: Conversations,” which essentially reprints a series of interviews and magazine articles.

  20. Agree completely with what Brian said, and it can be applied to the biography on Charles Schulz as well.

    I was lucky enough to be friends with Sparky, where I knew him better than some and nearly as well as others. But what I can tell you without fear of contradiction is that he was eminently human. He had foibles and hang ups like all the rest of us, but what separates from the rest of us wasn’t his fame and fortune, but that the man I knew was one of the most generous human beings I ever met, both in spirit and in charity.

    But nice is boring, and doesn’t sell books, much the same as we don’t do “nice” cartoons. So the focus is set on the human foible aspect and skews the real perspective of the man. I’ve never met Bill Watterson and don’t know any more about him than anyone else here, but I’ll bet the same is true for him regarding a biography he didn’t participate in. It amounts to gossip. We all love gossip, and we all know how very unfair it is.

  21. I believe Mr. Martell’s intentions were pure and born from passion, yet somehow I keep thinking about futility of the whole situation. Bill Watterson wants to be left alone. Mr. Martell understands (as he states in Prologue to his book)… and writes the book anyway.

    I don’t know if I want to read the book. I feel I’d rather see the painting myself then hear what other people think about it (not a perfect metaphor, I know).

  22. A couple of months before the first C and H cartoon was ever published I saw the syndicate sales package sent to my newspaper.

    We had just appeared in the same trade magazine together when he was doing editorial cartoons for a small Ohio newspaper.I wrote him an encouraging note (a fan letter actually) about this great new strip he was launching.

    He responded on a 5×7 sheet of paper, typed, single spaced. He sounded very common- not like the fabled reclusive demi-god of today.

    It was a friendly note. He signed his name “Bill” in rapidograph with an ink and brushed Hobbes delivering a bronx cheer beneath. Maybe i own the only original outside of OSU.

    I think he and Gary Larsen killed the comics page when they retired.

    As to the whole “recluse” thing- isn’t he an avid cyclist? It seems it would be easy enough to spot him out in the open.

  23. I enjoy biographies of people I admire and Bill is at the top of the list.

    So I really want the book, but Bill doesn’t.

    It’s like my very own Sophie’s Choice.

  24. After reading Alan’s review I’ll now buy the book, too.

    I don’t believe that even a more definitive bio of Watterson, one with his cooperation, will bring much more understanding to the strip or even his art. It’s all there to see, he got it all out, and Watterson has explained some of it and explained it well.

    Stll, a bio with Watterson’s cooperation might answer some of the questions so many of us have, such as why, or how, such a creative person who obviously loved comics could just drop it. Drop it for what? The creativity doesn’t just go away, nor the humor, nor the tremendous comic art talent. Did he just burn out? (It can be permanent.) Was it time to create more characters or expand the strip somehow and he didn’t want to do that or just couldn’t think of a way to expand it? (Schulz could go on for 40 more years because of such expansions and further developments – Snoopy and Woodstock, The Red Baron, etc.). Does he ever have ideas for a new strip? And does Watterson himself even really understand why he quit so totally?

    And the questions go on and on…

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