The Bill Watterson Interview

I was really transfixed as I poured through the 35 page interview with Bill Watterson at the beginning of Exploring Calvin and Hobbes.  I plan to go back and reread it soon, but the first go around left an impression on me.  This type of thing is not highly unusual for me, occasionally I’ll watch a movie or read something that I really take to heart and relate to my own life, or my comics.

But as I was reading this interview I was really struck by his candor in discussing his career trajectory.  Bill Watterson is probably the closest thing I have to a hero in the comic/art world.  I cannot stress enough what an impact Calvin and Hobbes had on me as a child.  It entertained me, gave me something to bond over with my grandpa, felt like something I could relate to as a kid, inspired me to want to be a comic strip artist and entertain others.

So when Bill Watterson spoke out at length after a nearly two decade absence from my life, I paid attention.  I always find it really fascinating to hear about how these icons started in a humble way.  It is very humanizing.  One of my favorite examples is Stephen King having Carrie rejected by something like 30 publishers before someone signed him.  If the most prolific author of my lifetime had one of his classics rejected that many times it gives me some hope.

This is as good a time as any to share publicly that after a lengthy review process with a little negotiation, Slave Labor Graphics (SLG) decided to pass on publishing Black Snow: Two Drink Minimum.  I found out around late January.  I kept meaning to write a longer blog post about it, but for whatever reason I just never did.  It wasn’t a huge shock, as the process was taken so long and I figured the longer it went the less chance we had.  So it wasn’t that devastating.  Of course it was still a bummer.

Anyway, it was interesting to hear about Bill Watterson’s misguided ambitions to have a political cartoon career.  They way he described pursuing it, feeling like a fraud, and realizing it just didn’t make sense was really captivating…and relatable.

Immediately my thoughts went to Black Snow.  I’ve been working on Black Snow is some form or another for 13 years now.  Could that be my misguided “political cartoonist” career?  Maybe.  Superheroes and comic books weren’t really my thing growing up.  Cartoons and comic strips are what I enjoyed, and what I wanted to do when I grew up.  I’m not exactly some dark, brooding alcoholic from Detroit sharing my life story or anything.  I don’t know.

The next thing I found interesting was Watterson’s shotgun approach to trying to create a comic strip and relaunch his career.  Calvin and Hobbes feels like such a personal, one of a kind comic strip, which makes it kind of funny to hear Watterson talk about trying out a bunch of different ideas that were all rejected by the syndicates.  Even hearing about some of his influences and his approach to creating something was odd.

Bill Watterson Calvin and Hobbes

When it comes down to it, a lot of times when you hear someone who has created something you really love talk about the process it is a lot more mundane then you thought.  Which was also the case here.  Before they were famous making that thing they were just a normal person.  And that is easy to lose sight of.  And even after they are famous, they are still just a person.  Celebrity worship really clouds that.

The other thing that was really rather depressing about the interview was Watterson’s view of webcomics.  I’ve been open in the past that I’m not really a webcomic kind of guy.  I know, it’s ironic.  I’d much rather read something that was printed then look at a screen.  And I’d much rather draw something you read that way.  Alas, the times in which we live basically make it a necessity to post your work online.

I guess this is another good time to share something with you.  I mentioned in the past that I did not know how we are going to be presenting the next Black Snow graphic novel, Another Round.  Well, Alex and I decided over a text conversation a little while ago that we are not going to be sharing as a webcomic.  We’ll probably put the first scene or two online, and share little pieces of it as we go along, but that it.  You’ll have to pick up the finished book to see the whole thing.  A bad idea that goes against what I just said in the last paragraph?  Time will tell.

What Watterson said about webcomics is that artists are basically giving away their work for free.  And they are forced to compete with a gluttony of content.  Anyone can do it, so there are a ton of webcomics that you have to distinguish yourself from.  But it’s not just webcomic content, it’s all the entertainment content accessible on the same platform.

Cartoonist used to be paid well by syndicates to feature their comics in newspapers, where regular readers would go everyday to enjoy all their favorites.  It was a self contained presentation that allowed the reader to become familiar with the comic over time and develop an affection.  That’s how I read comics as a kid.  And when I really liked a comic, I’d find a book of the collected strips.

It’s kind of sad to think that is disappearing as newspapers become increasingly irrelevant.  Especially since that was my dream job growing up.  I’ve seen online attempts to recreate the comic section of the newspaper atmosphere, but honestly they are not all that impressive.

So while Watterson comes off as a bit old fashioned in his aversion to the digital age and technology, there is also a lot of truth to what he says.  I know I find it all overwhelming sometimes.  Just keeping up with a Facebook feed can feel exhausting.

This whole post has kind of gotten away from me.  Let me try to reel it in.

The interview really got me thinking about a lot of things, and feeling a gamut of emotions from wanting to just give up to feeling inspired.  So what does it all mean?  What are the end results?  I still don’t fully know.

What I do know is I’ll continue slowly plugging away at Another Round.  I’ll probably try to speed things up a bit.  I read the interview around the same time as I was doing the Facebook 5 Days Art Challenge and had some of this one my mind as I was drawing all that.  It especially made me take note of what I enjoyed drawing and what felt like a chore.  So I’m going to try and work in more of what I enjoy.

The other main thing to come out of all this is that I am going to be putting some real effort into my comic strip.  One of Watterson’s early problems was that he didn’t take the time to really refine and perfect his comic strips he was submitting, he’d just move on to the next one.  Something I’ve been guilty of as well.  So in addition to sticking with Black Snow I’ve decided to really go for it with Optimistically Cynical.

While my first instinct was to make a new strip more like what I had always envisioned, that I could connect to in a way that Watterson connected to Calvin and Hobbes, I realized I already had that personal strip, it just needed to be refined.  So I’ve taken a step back and really looked at how I can make it the strip I want  it to be.  First off, I’m updating the art style.  Here are some of my character sketches.

Optimistically Cynical sketches

Optimistically Cynical sketches

One of my issues with the strip was that it never really fulfilled the original premise, that young adults are being depicted as teddy bears.  Yeah, they looked like bears, but not teddy bears.  More like humanoid cartoon bears.  Which is part of why I’m making this change.  Plus I just didn’t really like the look.  I want a more simple look.  So I’m going with only black and white.  I may even consider switching from digital to pen and paper at some point.

I’m also going to be expanding the subject matter a little more.  I got hung up on this idea of the hipster, but I want to talk about a lot more than that.  I don’t want to restrict it.

So I’m feeling pretty good about it.  And you’ll see the first one tomorrow morning!  So check back then, and hopefully this will be the start of something good.

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