Bill Watterson Interview

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Feb 3, 2010

Filed under: Links 37 comments interviews Bill Watterson, creator of beloved ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ comic strip.

When asked about ending the strip when he did:

It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, 10 or 20 years, the people now “grieving” for “Calvin and Hobbes” would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them.

I think some of the reason “Calvin and Hobbes” still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it.

I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.


Also: Check out that picture of him. He looks so much like the Dad in the strip. (Or perhaps even more like uncle Max.)


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37 thoughts on “Bill Watterson Interview

  1. Robyrt says:

    In literature, most great authors functionally quit when their time is up, taking a decade or more to release the next novel because it wasn’t up to their previous standards. To find the same self-awareness in comics is refreshing.

    And frankly, the last month or so of Calvin & Hobbes was delving increasingly into navel-gazing already.

  2. JB says:

    As long as you’re not hinting at something. :D

  3. Rutskarn says:

    On the one hand, Bill’s insightful as ever. On the other hand, they land the first interview with the guy in how many yonks, and they half waste it? I mean, some of those questions were pretty darned stupid. There’s so many things I’d want to ask that guy, but they spent it lobbing daytime television interview softballs.

  4. Respect, indeed. Not given to everybody to have enough self-insight to realize that even a good, and income-bringing, thing has to end.

    You ain’t reached that point quite yet, though, Shamus, so don’t you even try to use this as an excuse for another couple of years, at least ;) .

  5. I have a lot of respect for writers like Watterson (and you, Shamus) for being able to write consistently week after week.

    I quickly discovered after a month or so of trying to write my own blog that my creativity would ebb & flow erratically, which is very frustrating!

    I certainly hope that this isn’t a subtle hint about the longevity of Twenty Sided!


  6. Mari says:

    I’m with Watterson. Right now I fondly remember Calvin and Hobbes. But if he’d dragged it on much longer I probably would have been in the pitchfork crowd.

    I’d like to point out, though, that Watterson’s work transcends pop culture. My kids devour my old Calvin and Hobbes books and occasionally quote back some of the better lines at me. While I agree that what each reader takes away is different, it’s obvious to me that there’s something profoundly enduring to the work.

  7. Hal says:

    I suppose it’s a question of how long Calvin and Hobbes could have been insightful, thought-provoking, and yet entertaining all at the same time. If Watterson had had it in him, he did the world a disservice ending the strip. I guess he thought he couldn’t keep the pace up.

    It’s sad that he hasn’t done much else in the meantime. I can’t believe that Calvin & Hobbes was the only creative thing running around in his head. While I’m sure he would have put something out if he felt like it was quality work, I can’t help but wonder if an over-active sense of self-criticism played a role in keeping him out of the public square.

  8. gkscotty says:

    For a good example of just how right Watterson is, see The Simpsons.

    Calvin & Hobbes was an excellent comic, but it couldn’t have gone on forever and maintained the quality.

    1. DaveMc says:

      I was amazed to learn recently that The Simpsons had *still been going on* this whole time! I stopped watching around season six or seven, and I sort of assumed it had died some time after I stopped paying attention.

      The weird thing is, most of the time when someone makes a Simpson reference, I still get it. What have they been doing for the other 13 seasons?

      1. Jabor says:

        If you haven’t seen it, you probably shouldn’t. Spare yourself the disappointment.

      2. scragar says:

        14 seasons, we’re in season 21 and still going.

  9. Zak McKracken says:

    Just because I like nitpicking so much (and your spelling begged for it): It’s “Cleaveland”, not “Cleavland” :)
    Must be a heaven for roleplayers, that country …

  10. Shamus says:

    For a long while I really expected (or perhaps simply hoped) that Watterson would embrace the infinite canvas on the ‘net and make the comics he’d always wanted to. No deadlines. No size limits. No editors. Start and stop whenever you like. As long as you can pay the server bill you can do whatever you want.

    He wouldn’t even have to give up his anonymity. Just pick a name and go to work.

    Okay, fans would figure it out eventually. But still.

    1. The thing is, he doesnt seem interested in comics anymore. in fact its impossible to know what he wants to do. What has he been doing for the past 20 years?

      1. Shamus says:

        H.R. Pufnstuf fanfiction, under the Pseudonym “Molly Ringworm”.

    2. DaveMc says:

      He could change his name to Shamus Young, for example, and write a fantastic series of screen-cap comics about the Lord of the Rings movies. Hey, wait a minute …

    3. Eric Meyer says:

      I’ve been half-convinced for a while now that “Frazz” is something like what you describe, Shamus. Of course, when I blogged that theory back in 2004 I got e-mail from Jef Mallett himself, but c’mon, like I’m going to fall for that trick? I mean, “Jef Mallett”? At least try for some pseudonymic verisimilitude!

  11. Zak, close. but it isn’t cleave-land either – just Cleveland. :)

    I just blogged about this myself – i think that the part where he talks about his legacy and relationship with his characters is the really interesting part, and frankly I dont think he really understands his own characters appeal. Im not one to diss him for giving up, but I think he is acting selfishly in a way.

    yeah, totally Uncle Max.

  12. Al Shiney says:

    Matt Groening could learn a thing or two from Bill Watterson. The Simpsons has run the wheels off, ground the axles down to nubs, and torn away half of the chassis.

  13. Shamus says:

    The Simpson’s comparison is appropriate. I haven’t seen the show since the 90’s, so I still remember it as brilliant and fresh.

    1. Matt K says:

      I stopped watching the Simpsons during the 2000-2001 season and the quality had already dropped significantly, The sad thing is that there are more episodes from the later seasons than the good seasons.

      It’s espeically sad since in syndication I get to see about 1 month worth of good episodes before it veres to the newer stuff.

      Also, I wanted to try out this neasting comment feature, pretty nifty although I can barely see the number on the dice anymore in the new theme.

    2. Al Shiney says:

      Spot on … the late 90’s is when I stopped adding the full season DVD’s to my library. Hey, now that Conan O’Brien is unemployed, maybe he could go back to doing what he did best. Probably not, though.

  14. MelTorefas says:

    Holy gravy, he DOES look like the dad/uncle Max!

  15. WCG says:

    That was a great comic, but he’s probably right. Look at every other long-term series – comics, television, books. Eventually, the creator runs out of new things to say about the situation or the characters,… but keeps talking, anyway.

    Believe it or not, Peanuts was great in the early years, too. So, much as I hated to see them end, I suppose that Calvin & Hobbes – and Chainmail Bikini – were better off leaving me wanting more.

  16. LintMan says:

    It wasn’t just Watterson that walked away from success. Gary Larson (of Far Side) and Berke Breathed (of Bloom County) also dropped their comics while they were still in their primes. (Breathed later started a new comic, though and later still revived a few characters, I think, but it was never as popular).

    As far as the Simpsons… yeah, they got stale a long long time ago, but Matt Groening won’t give up the cash cow.

  17. TehShrike says:

    After reading the interview, I was inspired to go out and purchase the Calvin and Hobbes collection. It just arrived today – it’s very heartwarming to have the whole stack of books in front of me.

    I pored over the few C&H books I had access to as a young lad, and I follow the gocomics RSS feed of the archives.

    Bill Watterson is one of the two syndicated comic authors that I have a huge amount of respect for.

  18. Adamantyr says:

    I was a huge Calvin & Hobbes fan from the start. It wasn’t in our local paper for a few years, but I bought each collection book as it was released. (The old ones are dog-eared and lovingly scratched up.)

    Re-reading the series from beginning to end, I definitely agree that Watterson was running out of ideas. Charles Schultz constantly experimented, adding new characters, letting unpopular or unworkable characters drop from the series. (Remember Violet? Shermy?) It always kept him going.

    C&H, by contrast, has a cast of two… or four, if you want to generously include the parents. His only surprise addition to the cast was Roslyn, the baby-sitter, which happened fairly early in the series. In the last year of the series, we saw more and more of the parents perspective in some of the comics, and Watterson’s personal aversion to technology and political opinions were more apparent.

    And while I like Calvin & Hobbes, I’m not so certain I like Bill Watterson. His neo-luddite attitude is the main reason, I think, he is unable to appreciate or consider a web comic. I agree with his stance on cartoon ownership; he was in ugly fights with his syndicate for years on commercialization of the strip. But to criticize other cartoonists for it is harsh… we all want to make a living. But it’s sounds like he’s a thin-skinned high-morality no-compromise prickly type, who’d be uncomfortable and difficult to be around.

    1. Mari says:

      Don’t forget Susie Derkins and Moe the glandular freak.

      But yeah, point taken on the latter. It was endearing early on when Calvin would make a random “earth friendly” or politic comment but the later strips were more Captain Planet and less C&H which annoyed me. It’s not that I abhor politics. I’m a bit of a junkie, actually. But I don’t read most comics for their political insight and the ones I do read I chose specifically for that reason. I’ve given up plenty of comics for less than I let Watterson get away with.

  19. Cybron says:

    Calvin’s dad was based mostly on Watterson’s own father, which may explain the resemblance.

    I never caught Calvin and Hobbes in newspapers, but I have the collection books and enjoy them immensely, especially the one with Watterson’s own commentary.

  20. Scipio says:

    I agree with Adamantyr. Calvin and Hobbes was an amazing comic strip, but I think the creator is one odd dude.

  21. Smirker says:

    I would have loved to have seen more from him in terms of other comics; but it seems it will never happen.

    On a sidenote, I know that some of his commentary in a collector’s edition of his full works that I gifted to my Dad long ago had a nugget of the truth in why he stopped. Apparently he was disturbed when he realized that the Dad in the strip was very similar to how he was at the time (in manner and not just appearance). I guess he didn’t like seeing how he felt he was turning into his father. Which is understandable.

    p.s. You guys also forgot about Ms. Wormwood his teacher!

    I have many of the books (maybe only missing one; and I cherish them. My kids have asked if they can have them and my reply was ‘Sure, when I’m dead! Which was then shortly followed with ‘… many many years from now…’.

    C&H is still probably my favorite strip of all time. Of course, my favorite animated shows were the Tick and Animaniacs… so take that with the appropriate grain of salt.

  22. Avilan the Grey says:

    I don’t get the Simpsons bashing.

    Simpsons went from being awful (season 1) to brilliant (basically all seasons between 2 and 10) to in a rut* (seasons 12 or so to 16 or 17). The newest seasons (meaning seasons 17+) are actually very good again.
    Now if you want to talk about just going thru the motion: Mort Walker should have stopped writing comics some 20 years before he died…

    If you quit at season 5, and started watching new seasons, you would not be too disappointed. If you quit at season 15 and started watching new seasons you would be pleasantly surprised.

    Anyway, Calvin and Hobbes: Watterson was right to quit when he did. And yes, the Dad is very much himself sans mustache, and with some quirks from his own father (particularly the “pain builds character” viewpoint which apparently is what he (Bill Watterson’s father) said to Bill every time he complained about something.

    *Basically we had 3 or 4 seasons where every episode was “What if Homer got fired and started working as a…?”

  23. Stranger says:

    My favorite newspaper comic, and somewhere in boxes of books I had the whole set which were read so often they were starting to fall apart. I really did enjoy the series and I think it has transcended the time period it was written during. Even just a little.

    How can I say this? This is the strip that gave us the infamous “noodle incident”.

  24. Adamantyr says:

    I didn’t forget the other characters, they just only exist to react to Calvin. Very rarely do they take any kind of central narrative position. Susie probably did so the most, but I get the impression that Watterson was uncomfortable trying to write from a young girl’s perspective so he didn’t do it often. Which is too bad… he should have challenged himself to create new characters, that may have refreshed his interest in the comic and given him more to think and draw about.

    Actually, I really started to get freaked out about Calvin by the end of the series. In the early strips, Calvin interacts with his classmates occasionally, and is forced to join the Scouts at one point. (A decision Watterson regretted and dropped later.) But if you did a psychoanalysis of him close to the end of the series, I’d have to say he’s seriously withdrawn from his peers and society. He has all the hallmarks of a high IQ, low EI (emotional intelligence) personality that will likely have a lot of problems later in life due to lack of social skills.

    Which I think is what Watterson himself realized, that Calvin could no longer stay the same character if he wanted to continue the series. He’d have to “grow up” in some shape or fashion and change who he is. And maybe lose Hobbes forever? Instead, he chose to end it and grant him the immortality of a blank patch of snow and a sled to steer on it. The right decision. :)

  25. I’m torn as to this strip and what happened around it. It was a huge part of my childhood, a really sensible and kind way to start the day. As I’ve grown up, I’ve understood far more of the jokes and far more of the real humanity. It’s a work that perennially gives, like any classic of literature. I deeply admire Watterson’s creative vision, his integrity, his perspective on life and his unwillingness to compromise commercially. Jim Davis could learn something. Then again, a Calvin and Hobbes show or a Hobbes plushie would have been amazing. I admire that he had quit before it had gotten stale, but I’d love to see a new project from the guy. And I think we’ve gotten to the point where a Calvin & Hobbes feature film, done by Pixar, could be amazing.

  26. Phil says:

    A Calvin and Hobbes film?


    Did you ever see _Drop Dead Fred_? It wasn’t quite Calvin and Hobbes, but it seemed to touch a lot of the same bases, up to and including the trail of destruction one would have expected from such a venture.

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