Bill Watterson and The Perfect Artistic Career

Commonplace Newsletter #37

Welcome readers to the latest always free Sunday essay from Thomas J Bevan

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‘Artists are only creative for ten years.’

Caprioni [I think], The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli, 2013

If you don't know Bill Watterson's work it is likely you lived either a sheltered childhood or, more probably, a frantic childhood filled with extra-curricular laid out in a schedule as regimented as an army boot camp. You may well be one of life's successes. You are quite possibly extroverted* in the clichéd back-slapping, hail-fellow-well-met sense of that word.

[*If I ever use technical language, psychological or otherwise, know that I do so at the risk of bringing a layman's tendency to butchery which I hope you will forgive accordingly.]

Because, you see, Bill Watterson- the creator of the magnificent Calvin and Hobbes comic strips- is the unofficial patron saint of the introverted childhood with all of its riverbank dozing, snow sled lugging, staring-out-of-the-classroom window dreaminess and introspection and exploration. Watterson alter-ego Calvin is a boy who primarily engages with the world via discussions with his (in his own mind) talking toy tiger friend Hobbes.

This is all either very relatable or not, depending on your childhood temperament.

But the main point I want to get at today is this: Calvin and Hobbes has staked a permanent place in the cultural consciousness, in the pop culture canon- and deservedly so- but I imagine all but the most dedicated fans of the strip would struggle to name its creator if it came up as a game show question.

And this I believe is a good thing. And worthy of exploring in some depth.

So let's go exploring...

Mr Watterson at work. Even photographs of the man are quite hard to come by. Maybe he knew something…

Slow Beginning

'To persist in the face of continual rejection requires a deep love of the work itself, and learning that lesson kept me from ever taking Calvin and Hobbes for granted when the strip took off years later.'

Bill Watterson- Introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

There's not a huge amount of material out there regarding the life and thoughts of Bill Watterson, there's very little in fact. This in itself is a key detail when it comes to what I want to highlight by considering the man and his work. See, Watterson rarely gave interviews during the Calvin and Hobbes days and he has given virtually none since Calvin and Hobbes finished way back in 1995.

But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

The story, in all of its beautiful simplicity is as follows:

Watterson was born in D.C, raised in Chagrin Falls, Ohio and spent much of his childhood drawing and consuming Peanuts and other classic comic strips.

'... By high school, I hardly let a sheet of paper get by me without putting a cartoon on it... I drew comics, posters, and cards, and I published cartoons in the school newspaper and yearbook.'*

[At this point a lesser man than I, or a more diligent one, would insert the obligatory reference to Gladwell's 10,000 Hours Rule, but I like to flatter myself that I am above such TED-like references. If I ever mention The Marshmallow Test, The Stanford Prison Experiment or Milgram's work on conformity you should mete out whatever street justice you think is appropriate.]

So Watterson found his calling early, he pursued it to the point of landing 'in a freak twist of bad fate' a job as an editorial cartoonist at the Cincinnati Post. In this job  he was 'completely out of [his] depth, rarely got published, and within a few months, the fraud that was [his] career was over.'

And so the young Watterson, now unemployed, moved back in with his parents and worked on creating comic strips. He sent them out to the newspaper syndicates. Rejection letter followed rejection letter.

Watterson continued in this fashion, surviving on minimum wage ad layout work for a local newspaper, devoting his free time to cartooning.

This routine lasted for over four years.

Finding Success- A Decade of Calvin and Hobbes

And even after this, even once Watterson had finally managed to gain a little traction with a newspaper, the germination process was a long one. Calvin and Hobbes as we now know them were the culmination of a long process of trial, error and incremental improvement.

But success did come. More and more newspapers signed on for the strip, and a year into it's run the first Calvin and Hobbes book collection became a best seller.

And with it came attention and a modicum of unwanted fame. As a result Watterson soon 'moved out west, got an unlisted phone number, stopped giving interviews, and tried to fly as low under the radar as possible.'

This continued for the remainder of the run of Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson kept to a relentless, perfectionist pace ['that decade of my life is pretty much a blur'] and the time is marked by a faultless run of excellent strips- especially the larger and innovative Sunday strips- and a protracted battle to not license Calvin and Hobbes into an empire of t-shirts and toys.

After ten years of Calvin and Hobbes Watterson called it a day- right at the pinnacle of the strips popularity and quality. He had fought against the syndicate for control of his work and won, he had produced the work he had wanted to produce and he always published work he was proud of.

After ten years he left on a high, with dignity and integrity fully intact. Watterson retired into private life where he remains to this day.

The Question of Legacy

'I wish I was 'Dead Bill Hicks'. I wish I could be judged on [only] two hours of material... The hard thing when you're a comedian is to stay alive, keep on knocking out a new two hours every year, gradually decreasing the quality of your own obituary.'

-Stewart Lee, Carpet Remnant World

Though said as part of a stand-up routine, I think the above line from comedian Stewart Lee (or 'comedian', depending on your taste) is worth considering seriously in relation to creativity.

'... Gradually decreasing the quality of your own obituary.'

You see this all the time when you consider the body of work that many artists have produced. Each new Johnny Depp film seemingly decreases the quality of his legacy, as we have discussed before. And the Rolling Stones have been the number one Rolling Stones tribute band since at least 1974.

I could site dozens of examples.

You see, renowned artists of all mediums seem to be like champion-calibre fighters- they rise through the ranks, they peak at dazzling heights, but they stay in the game too long. Eventually, irrelevancy and stagnation force them into retirement in the same way that slowed reflexes and cumulative head trauma eventually retire all boxers too reluctant to let go.

In fact, if you look at your favourites objectively and you will usually be able to pinpoint the exact moment they should have called it a day- Muhammad Ali should've retired after The Thrilla in Manilla, The Replacements probably shouldn't have carried on after they fired Bob Stinson etc etc.

Failing to bow out at the peak leads to what I like to call Metallica Syndrome. This idea simply states that five good albums + five (and counting) bad albums= diminished legacy. Then quality of the obituary is gradually decreased.

Now all of this is easy to say with hindsight.

But I think that artists should keep their body of work as a whole at the forefront of their mind. They should think more about this idea of legacy. Because I believe that most if not all artists know when they should call it a day.

They feel it. I believe they are able to intuit, on some level, when the work changes from being a life-giving obsession to being a job, a paycheck.

And I believe that once such signals are received that it is only money, fame, self-gratification and other ego-driven things that keep such artists going.

As the quote I opened with has it: 'artists are only creative for ten years.' Now this might be an overstatement. But baring the rarest of the rare I do believe that the life of creativity is finite, just as the career as an athlete is. You age, you diminish. This is nature.

Better to confront this thought and consider your artistic goals as a whole. Start with the end in mind, is not just good advice for telling a story. It is also good advice for how to go about living a life.

Which is why I have chosen to discuss Bill Watterson today. He is one of the rare examples of an unblemished legacy. He got in, he produced exactly what he wanted to produce, he got out.

His record is undefeated, his place in the Hall of Fame secured.

Privacy = Legacy's Cornerstone?

'Cartoonists are a very low grade of celebrity, but any amount of it's weird. Besides disliking the diminishment of privacy and the inhibiting quality of feeling watched, I valued my anonymous, boring life. In fact, I didn't see how I could write honestly without it.'

-Bill Watterson

All well and good, you might say, but how are such ideas applied? In short- I don't know. This is all largely above my proverbial pay grade.

But what I do know is this- Firstly, I think that the question of the body of work should be at the forefront of the creatives mind.

Not what do you want to gain from your work but what do you want the work, as a whole, to say? What do you want your creative output to achieve, to say?

I believe that simply asking such questions continually will be enough to lead to authentic answers and thus to right decisions when the prospect of moving on looms.

Secondly, and more importantly, I believe that privacy, that a degree of anonymity may be a crucial factor. Those with unblemished records like Watterson seem to hold on to the ordinary, to quotidian anonymity.

The fact that the very thing that most artists try to escape at the first opportunity is the very thing that sustains a legacy is a beautiful irony.

It all comes down- as it so often does- to ego. Ultimately, you must serve the work rather than have the work serve you. You must prize the audience rather than dream of having them prize and revere you.

I mean look at the story of Watterson- in the end we know the work, but the man behind it remains largely a mystery.

And perhaps that's the way it should be.

Until next time,

Live Well,

Tom.


If you have been a long time reader of my work, you will recognise this as being a reworking of an old piece that used to be on my website. The reason for this is that I will be releasing the first 50 issues of this newsletter as a book soon and I desperately wanted this piece to be included.

Normal service, with completely fresh and new writing will resume next week.

Thanks for reading.

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