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Bill Watterson and Creativity


The book Exploring Calvin & Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue by Bill Watterson (put together by Jenny Robb) contains an interview with Watterson that hit me with a tidal wave of nostalgia, a serious case of what-could-have-been-itis, and finally, a resolve to internalize the interview and use its lessons going forward in my own projects, and with my own career.

First, some background. As a kid, I wasn’t into superheroes or comic books. I was into serialized, newspaper comic strip collections, exclusively. The Far Side. Dilbert. Foxtrot. Zits. (Early) Garfield. And Calvin & Hobbes. I bought books, and inhaled them. Then re-read them. Again. And again. The idea that some newspapers didn’t have a comics section was unfathomable. Was the New York Times even a legitimate paper? How could it be, when it only had, like, two comics and they were always in that weird Opinion section? At any rate, the Grey Lady certainly wasn’t as legitimate as the Sacramento Bee, I thought.

Soon, I was creating comics. One about sheep. One about kitchen condiments. One about the presidents. One about nothing. One about a burger restaurant. I submitted stand-alone comics to the New Yorker. Some series made it 30 installments. Some made it 10. Sooner or later, they all ended, but the love of creating in a serialized format has stuck with me.

That’s why this interview with Bill Watterson – on his beginnings, his (perceived) failures, the nature of comics then and now – struck such a chord with me. The below 10 quotes are, to me, the best parts of an incredible interview, annotated with some of my own thoughts about how it could apply to projects you’re working on or endeavors you are about to undertake.

“I learned a little bit over the years at college, but needless to say, political cartoons were always terrifically difficult for me, since the subject matter was not any sort of genuine passion. Looking back, I can see it was the totally wrong direction for me all along, but at the time, who knew?”

It’s difficult to see wrong directions till later on down the road. Even the ones that seem wrong – jobs, projects, roommates – still have some merit.

“My failure was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me, although I don’t recommend the humiliation and insolvency so much.”

Humiliation of this sort only comes from having tried something. Stumbles may come after missteps, but does that mean we shouldn’t walk?

“… in the long run, nothing is wasted. It takes a while to see this, but it’s true. I learned a lot about drawing and about how to work with complex ideas from those years. It was valuable.”

Whether or not we do so immediately, we take something from everything we experience.

“As each strip was rejected, instead of going back and revising it, I would try an entirely different tack. You don’t like spacemen? Here’s college kids! You don’t like college kids? Here’s animals! I was not coming at this with a coherent vision or sense of personal mission. I was just trying stuff, throwing things out there to see what might work.”

Before there’s a method to the madness, sometimes there’s just madness.

“My submissions had flimsy foundations, so they’d start wobbling fifteen jokes in, but that’s how I learned. Simple trial and error. I had nothing to lose.”

You’ve got to put clay on the wheel to have something to shape.

“What I’m trying to emphasize is that my progress was not linear. I bounced all over the place. Each new strip was not necessarily a step forward from the previous one. Some aspect might be better, but several other aspects might be worse.”

This insight hit hard because it’s only natural to think of ourselves as machines of progress, getting ever better. We’ve done this before, so the next time, it’ll be better. We learn, we improve. But that’s not the case. There are bad jobs after good ones. Sour relationships after sweet ones. If we can allow ourselves to recognize that each next step in our life won’t necessarily be better on the whole, there is more freedom to improve various parts.

“It’s tricky to make a strip that flies. You go through a lot of parachutes.”

Don’t be discouraged by that number of parachutes.

“By the end, I felt I’d reached the top of the mountain. The strip was as close to my vision for it as I was capable of doing. I was happy with what I had achieved, and the strip’s world seemed complete.”

Similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s reasoning for ending his show, Watterson realized the point at which his project had reached its natural end. It takes a preternatural confidence in your creation to put a stop to it before you start coming down the other side of the mountain.

“Since leaving the strip, it’s been strange. In painting, there are virtually no constraints at all, and that leaves me completely flummoxed. I could paint something fifteen feet high or six inches high. I could blend and glaze and make it look like a photograph, or I could apply the paint with a trowel. I could work on a picture for a year, or I could finish it in two hours… I can do anything I want, and the more I learn, the more possibilities I have. That much choice incapacitates me.”

Setting limits and deadlines on projects is still unnatural for me, but I recognize its importance. For the newsletter I wrote last year, I set a goal of 10 installments, at which point I reassessed. Currently, Connect A Book is meandering along without that sort of stopping point, and it gives me pause.

“I don’t think comics are going away, but our relationship to them is different now. We’ve lost the daily ritual and comforting routine that made comic characters feel like familiar friends that we expect to see every day, year after year. Our connection to comics is getting more fleeting and superficial.”

Since that first year in college when I was too stubborn to dedicate four consecutive Saturdays necessary to joining the editorial staff of the school paper as a cartoonist, I’ve drifted away from comics and from drawing. This interview (and the thematic doses of Calvin & Hobbes) brought me back to a creative point in my life, one where I didn’t necessarily think at length about what I was doing – I just wrote and drew and kept at it.

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