Bill Watterson came out of his 19-year J.D. Salinger seclusion to draw four panels of Stephan Pastis’ Pearls Before Swine strip over three days during the first week of June. To even the most casual Pearls follower, those panels were obviously drawn by someone whose talent far exceeds that of Pearls’ creator (who has always deprecated his drawing ability). Many opined that the “mystery cartoonist” was Watterson. Fond wishes, no doubt. But not so foolish, as it turns out. For everyone who suspected Watterson was the culprit, Saturday’s strip dispelled all doubt with Pastis’ fond allusion to the last Calvin and Hobbes strip in which the mischievous juvenile and his stuffed tiger take off on a sled down a snow-covered slope to explore the “magical world” that lays ahead of them.
Michael Cavna at his ComicRiffs column in the Washington Post has the whole story at www.washingtonpost.com/news/comic-riffs/wp/2014/06/06/exclusive-calvin-and-hobbes-creator-bill-watterson-returns-to-the-comics-page-to-offer-a-few-pearls-gems/
Cavna points reminds us that “Watterson has long eschewed most interviews and publicity photos — he once made Time magazine’s list of most-reclusive celebrities, sandwiched between Syd Barrett and Thomas Pynchon,” But the reclusive cartoonist is making himself more conspicuous lately, beginning with drawing a poster for the documentary about newspaper comic strips, “Stripped.” Still, finding Watterson drawings on the newspaper comics page was a surprise. Even more so, to find them in one of the least distinguished representatives of visual cartoon art.
Working with Watterson, Pastis told Cavna, was “‘like getting a call from Bigfoot.’ So what, exactly, lured Watterson back to the page for the first time since ending his immensely popular boy-and-tiger comic in December of 1995?”
Cavna then did the right thing: he asked Watterson, who explained:
“Several years ago, when Stephan did one of his strips that mocked his own drawing ability and mentioned my strip in comparison, I thought it might be funny for me to ghost Pearls sometime, just to flip it all on its head,” Watterson told Cavna (“offering,” said the latter, “a clear indication that he still follows the funnies”).
“It was just a silly idea,” the goateed Watterson continued, “and I didn’t know Stephan, so I never pursued it, and years went by.”
And Miriam Coleman at RollingStone.com adds some details: in the strip to which Watterson refers, Pastis made “a joke about picking up women by pretending to be the Calvin and Hobbes creator.” Pastis sent the strip to Watterson, “who, to Pastis' utter shock, responded with a proposal to collaborate.”
Coleman continues: “Watterson suggested a plotline in which the Pearls cartoonist is hit on the head and is suddenly gifted with improved artistic skills, with Watterson taking over drawing the strip for a few days. After some back and forth, the idea was adjusted to have a precocious second-grader named Libby (the name “nods to ‘Bill,’” Cavna notes) take over the comic after criticizing Pastis' work.” And that’s how it worked out, as you can see from the week’s strips that I’ve posted.
“I think we both got some surprises,” Watterson told Cavna. “I didn’t know what he was going to write, and he didn’t know how I was going to draw it.”
As Cavna says, the “virtuosic art” of the Watterson renderings “is vivid testament that his talent remains undiminished. Still, Pastis summoned the gumption to offer a few editing changes.
‘It was like editing the Pope,’ Pastis says. ‘Like telling Michelangelo: David’s hands are too big.’
“Yet Pastis suggested minor tweaks to fit the tone and idiosyncrasies of his strip — including the number of ‘grawlix,’ the punctuation characters that represent cartoon profanity, he uses to match the number of letters in his curse words.”
Watterson welcomed the challenge of a limited return to the page, Cavna reports: “I had expected to just mess around with his characters while they did their usual things, but Stephan kept setting up these situations that required more challenging drawings, so I had to work a lot harder than I had planned to! It was a lot of fun.”
He asked Pastis not to reveal the collaboration until after the strips had run, Coleman reports, and Pastis complied. "It was the hardest secret I’ve ever had to keep," Pastis wrote in his blog. "Because I knew I had seen something rare. A glimpse of Bigfoot."
Watterson told Cavna that he had conceived the collaboration as a way to raise money for Team Cul de Sac, a charity raising funds to fight Parkinson's that was co-founded by Cul de Sac cartoonist Richard Thompson, who suffers from the disease. The original Pearls strips with Watterson's work will be on display at the Heroes Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina from June 20th through 22nd before going up for auction for Team Cul de Sac. "It was generous of Stephan to let me hijack his creation, and more generous still to donate the originals," Watterson said.
Cavna, inspired, doubtless, by both his scoop and by the event he scooped, waxes jubilantly about Pastis and Watterson:
“Pastis has just executed a gift at drawing that few cartoonists can top: 1) Amazingly, he drew the long-retired, once-reclusive Watterson … out of retirement — and got him to create fresh art for this week’s Pearls; and 2) Pastis managed to draw out his Watterson-week storyline brilliantly, layering humor upon meta-humor in a hilarious house-of-mirrors reflection on the comic-strip industry past and present. Has anyone in recent memory drawn such feats as that?”
That was a little breathless for me, so I examined the strips to see whether they did all the magical things Cavna said they did. And he’s right.
Past and present are compared in the remark about good drawing making the strip funnier—a irrefutable proposition advocated by fans as well as practitioners of the art; ditto the comment about better drawing being possible only if newspapers allotted more space to the funnies.
And the detail in the Martian attack screams the same criticism of present-day newspaper practices of shrinking comic strips.
All undeniably “house of mirrors” stuff.
The scantily-clad cuties are more like refugees from comic books than newspaper, er, strips (and left arm of the bimbo on the left is far too skinny, not even matching her right arm), but the caricature of Pastis is brilliantly achieved. Watterson delved into political cartooning early in his career and so must’ve developed a knack for caricature, but most of us have forgotten that aspect of his artistry long ago.
“Symbolism” in Saturday’s strip isn’t a precise description of what Pastis is doing: I’d go more for allusion. But it’s the thought that counts—even if, as with so much of Pastis’ cameo-fueled comedy, the allusion is likely lost on any but the most fevered fans of newspaper comic strips.
Anyone under thirty is not likely to remember Calvin and Hobbes, let alone the last Sunday strip in which Calvin and Hobbes sledded off into a future they imagine to be magical. But then, newspaper readership skews “old”—55 and over.
Finally, the over-all message of the week’s strips is that a second-grader can draw better than Pastis. Actually, that’s not quite true: Pastis can draw better than his stick-figure depictions of Pig and Rat suggest he can—as the drawing in Saturday’s strip attests.
But the stick figures—well, there are better ways of drawing stick figures, as the accompanying picture testifies (I hope).The idea is to dress up the drawing by varying the thickness of the lines. Eccentric, I know. But what else is Pastis if not eccentric?
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