Arts, Culture & Media

The famed, reclusive creator of 'Calvin and Hobbes' briefly returns to making comic strips

calvin.jpg

A painting of Calvin and Hobbes graces the wall of a comic book shop.

Credit:

Gianfranco Goria/Flickr

Bill Watterson is known as the J.D. Salinger of comic strip creators — a recluse, and legendary in the cartoon world, but rarely seen.

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Watterson is the creator of the iconic comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes," which was last published on Dec. 31, 1995. Watterson then retired from the business, supposedly to never draw another comic again.

But Stephan Pastis has convinced Watterson to finally return to the page for the first time in nearly 20 years. Pastis, the creator and author of the cartoon Pearls Before Swine, wrote to Washington while passing near his home.

"I was going through Ohio on a book tour, and I knew Bill Watterson lived somewhere in the Cleveland area,” says Pastis. “I also knew a Washington Post cartoonist who was working with Bill on a book. So I wrote to this go-between and said, ‘Is there any way I could meet Bill when I pass through Cleveland?’"

Watterson was unable to meet Pastis, but Pastis tried to contact Watterson again, once his book tour ended.

"All I had told him was, 'I'm a big fan of your strip,' and I sent him a little strip where I mentioned 'Calvin and Hobbes,'” Pastis says. “He writes back, and he thanks me for everything, and then he says that he has this idea for a collaboration. And that just blew me away."

Since Pastis often makes fun of his own artwork in his comic strip, Watterson proposed that in the next comic, Pastis could pretend to be a character in his own cartoon. Watterson suggested that the character playing Pastis in the cartoon should get hit on the head, recovering with an ability to suddenly draw wonderfully. From there, Watterson would take over Pastis's cartoon strip.

"I was absolutely blown away," Pastis says. "My response to Bill was, 'Bill, I will do anything you want, including setting my hair on fire.'"

Pastis grew up on comics and was influenced by “Calvin and Hobbes,” as well as strips like “Far Side” and “Bloom County.”

"But Watterson," Pastis says, "is even beyond that in the sense that he has this reputation that he doesn't come out of his house. So when Bill Watterson writes to you and says he wants to work with you, it's so shocking. It's like the Pope emailing me and saying, ‘Hey, just thought we'd chat at the Vatican,' or something. I mean it's that unlikely."

Pearls Before Swine surprised everybody last week, including Pastis.

"It blew up over the weekend,” he says. “On Saturday, I revealed that it was Watterson drawing my strips, and my blog is up to three million views. Everybody was wondering, where is Bill Watterson? And the fact that he is alive and well and drawing cartoons is shocking."

Some readers had a hunch — when Watterson drew his distinctive Calvin shoes in Wednesday's strip, Pastis received a lot of tweets and emails. Pastis says that even those who suspected Watterson was involved wondered why he would be coming out of retirement now, and why would Watterson draw “Pearls Before Swine?”

Pastis has an idea.

"I think the genesis was he wanted to create some strip he could auction off to for this charity, this Cul de Sac Foundation — the money goes to Parkinson's research,” he says. “So he thought that if he drew some new strips, his first in the last 20 years, he could auction them. But, of course, he doesn't have his strip in the paper anymore, so he needs someone who is in the paper."

For Pastis, this collaboration with Watterson was the ultimate fan-boy experience, and an unexpected gift for comic fans everywhere

"Whatever reason he did it, boy, I sure am the beneficiary of something great,” he said, adding, “It's all downhill from here."

This story is based on an interview that originally aired on PRI's The Takeaway, the daily news program that invites you into the American conversation.