Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bill Watterson

I like to clear up errors before someone else comes along and does it for me. Today, after reading about an upcoming unauthorized biography of Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson, I found myself checking a few facts on Wikipedia.

  Watterson and I attended the same college, and I was under the impression that our tenures overlapped. Wikipedia, however, has him graduating while I was still in high school. Somewhere on the internet is a thread in which I place us in college at the same time.

  It hardly matters, but I like to make corrections when appropriate.  Luckily, I didn't claim we were best buddies or roommates or spray-painted our names on the water tower together.

  Which brings us to the question of unauthorized biographies of living people, especially those who request privacy.

  Schulz and Peanuts, the recent biography of Charles Schulz by David Michaelis, was authorized, and received extensive cooperation from friends and family of the late Charles Schulz. Upon publication, certain issues of event sequence and the space dedicated to an extra-marital affair led Schulz's son Monte to renounce the book. A volume of The Comics Journal was dedicated to articles by Monte Schultz and others working various angles on the debate.

  I read The Comics Journal coverage before I read the book, and it unnerved me. Monte Schultz produced a manuscript the length of a slim book, and compelling. When I cracked the book, I was wary, but it seemed excellent to me. I feel I achieved an understanding of the man surpassing my needs.

  What caused the mess? I can only speculate. My impression is that Monte, as chief advocate for the Michaelis project and liaison to Schultz intimates, was embarrassed by the depth given to Schultz's fling, an offense to Monte's mother. How can the only son live up to a father of Schultz's stature? Embellishing and defining the legacy are common approaches, and the unseemly portions have undermined the mission.

  It is possible, I suppose, that Monte Schulz expected to screen the manuscript as a fair exchange for granting Michaelis unfettered access. The project consumed a chunk of Monte's life, and he may have felt entitlement. If there is a weakness in Monte's TCJ piece, it is of the protests-too-much variety, and I wonder if a deeper grievance, which could not be tactfully included, was driving the attack. Michaelis, for the record, stands by the book, and I find myself in his corner.

  Nevin Martell's upcoming The Search for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson, is not an authorized biography. In my experience, such works are risky. They usually contain enough easily disprovable blunders to discredit them, especially if friends of the subject remain loyal. This book offers, as part of its pedigree, interviews with "almost fifty" cartoonists. Reading the list, I am more curious to learn whether they were duped into collaborating, and whether they offer excuses for turning on their old colleague.

  Among books I've culled from shelves of treasured comics are volumes in which cartoonists talk about another cartoonist. A few have merit, but mostly this is a quick and dirty way to publish a book, and boring. If Martell's book is about "my letter from Watterson" and "what Calvin meant to me," it's going to be a snooze. It appears just about everyone on your comics page stooped to collaborate in something that will embellish their resume but may remove them from Watterson's Christmas card list. The list is mostly newspaper people, though Nicholas Gurewitch of Perry Bible Fellowship finds his way in.

  Whatever your opinion of the strip, Calvin and Hobbes was a challenging comic to execute and required an extensive run-up to become a hit. Calvin debuted as a fully-developed five-year-old. Watterson is notable for equipping his protagonists with souls. Producing the work for a decade (with one hiatus) probably interrupted the man's ability to embrace everything else that interests him in life.

 I don't have to repeat here that cartooning is often lonely, interminable work; under-respected and littered with failed attempts. What limelight there is is typically usurped by people driven by insatiable egos.  Now, at 51, the man wants to enjoy himself. I can't think of an argument in favor of violating his space.

  Watterson will be remembered in part as the man who passed on a truckload of loot by not merchandising his characters. I am as curious as anyone as to what may be learned from his life, but perhaps the most important lesson -- restraint -- is already before us.