Sunday, June 7, 2015

Book Review: Calvin and Hobbes Exhibition Catalog

My first thought was: Do I really need another Calvin and Hobbes book?

Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue
I'm a fan of Bill Watterson's comic strip about the boy and his tiger friend, and I already have all the other books. So when I heard about the new exhibition catalogue, I wondered, does this book offer anything new?

Watterson created the strip in 1985. Wanting to keep his life private, and to maintain his relentless pace of dailies and Sunday strips, with a few exceptions, he has always been reticent about interviews.

So the mind behind the comics has always been a bit of a mystery. Who were his influences, and what was he thinking while he was writing and drawing?

Watterson retired the strip in 1995, after only 10 years. His art had kept getting better, and the quality of the strip was at its zenith when he ended it. Since then he hasn't done any new Calvin and Hobbes work.

Other than the Tenth Anniversary Book, there isn't much published about his life or choices or approach or philosophy. So without new cartoons, what could the new book possibly offer?

The book is an exhibition catalogue, instigated by Watterson's donation of 3,000 originals to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at the Ohio State University. The book reproduces a lot of his artwork from the originals so that you can see the rare bits of white-out, pencil lines, and paste-up.

The book also includes a display of his tools, which were pretty simple and straightforward
1. Strathmore bristol board 3-ply
2. Circle template
3. Red mechanical pencil with 2H lead
4. Rapidograph #2
5. Ames lettering guide (which Watterson calls "clear plastic thing with holes")
6. Crow quill pen
7. Small sable brush
8. White-out

But the real core of the book is a 35-page interview with Watterson where he opens up about his beginnings as an artist, his influences, his travails with deadlines, his thinking about character and story, and his musings about comics on the Internet. This will surely stand as the definitive Watterson interview.

As an interviewee, he is everything you would have hoped for: funny, honest, self-deprecating, intelligent, and perceptive.

Here's just one example: Comparing doing coming strips and easel painting (which he has been pursuing in recent years for his own pleasure), he says:

"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 could paint what I see, or paint from my imagination, or paint abstractly. I can do anything I want, and the more I learn, the more possibilities I have. That much choice incapacitates me. Every option has some benefit and some drawback, and I change my mind every half hour. In hindsight, then, I have a lot more appreciation for the severe limitations of newspaper comics. It's going to be black and white, it's going to be ink on paper, it's all got to fit in this teeny little space, and it has to be done by yesterday. Okay, thank you, now I can get to work!"

Online article in the Washington Post with more quotes from the interview:
"Bill Watterson talks: This is why you must read the new ‘Exploring Calvin and Hobbes’ book"Book

Book on Amazon: Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue


Anonymous said...

I own pretty much everything with Watterson's name on it, and I was thinking the same as you – do I need ANOTHER collection book? The interview not only makes this essential, it also greatly enhances reading the strip. I only wish that an interview this long had been included in the monstrous complete set.

On a different note, I've been reading 'How Star Wars Conquered The Universe' by Chris Taylor, and I think you might enjoy it.

Tom Hart said...

Once again, I've discovered something great that I most likely would have missed, were it not for GurneyJourney. Thanks James! Although I have appreciated Watterson over the years, frankly it's been due to a passing notice. But his wit and artistic skill stands out, even from a distance. Having read this appreciation and just now sampled it on Amazon, I couldn't resist ordering (the paperback is very reasonably priced.) As one reviewer put it, this is worth the price whether your interest is specifically in Waterson or just generally in the daily or weekly comic strip.

Sesco said...

I also own a lot of Watterson's work, my comfort books when I've had enough non-fiction and learning for awhile. I also was disappointed in the short duration of the career of Kevin McCormick, who drew the comic strip 'Arnold' from 1982 to 1988. Both of these I enjoyed more for the characters than for the art; however, Watterson's radical perspective points were always entertaining.

seadit said...

While they used to be part of my daily routine for years, I haven't read comic strips since I was in college, and yet I just spent the past hour and a half reading everything about Bill Watterson and others I'd never heard of. One of my favorite quotes of his: "A kid’s idea of a long time is not reliable information." Pretty much perfectly sums up childhood for me.

Thanks for the unexpected journey this morning James!

James Ramsdell said...

It's funny I was looking at old Calvin and Hobbes comics before I got out of bed this morning!
His interview sounds like a Mike Tyson interview after he got out of prison. We relish our freedom but it's hard to make it work. Or as a friend once told me, "You have the hardest job in the world, because nobody cares if you show up for work or not!"

Rich said...

Unlimited freedom against severe restraint!
Anything in between?>)

What an interesting excerpt from the interview and overall article.


Steve said...

1995; the Year Bookended by Sorrow. It began with the January 1st departure of The Far Side by Gary Larson and culminated with the January 31st departure of Calvin & Hobbes. Larson didn't have Watterson's drawing skills, but the two of them provided a yin yang of intelligent,subversive humor