Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bill Watterson/Richard Thompson’s OSU Show

Michael Cavna in Comic Riffs.

Curator Caitlin McGurk holding Bill Watterson's oil painting of Petey
from Richard Thompson's "Cul de Sac"

Calvin and Hobbs and Petey and Alice, plus Miss Wormwood and Mr. Danders, all came out to play over the past weekend.

With a cast of beloved characters like that, how could the real-life interlopers not have a good time, too?

The Bill Watterson/Richard Thompson two-man show that opened Saturday at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum was a special event for the recently expanded facility at the Ohio State University, if not for the comics-loving public, as well.

Two cartooning masters. Two phenomenal comic strips that left their many fans too soon. A deep-dive into two brilliant portfolios featuring early work most fans have never glimpsed. And two devoted curators who made the subjects of the companion retrospectives feel honored by the entire proceedings.

“To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement,” Thompson told The Post’s Comic Riffs.

“I was gobsmacked, flabbergasted and dumbfounded,” continued the Northern Virginia-based cartoonist, who ended his strip “Cul de Sac” in 2012 while he battled Parkinson’s disease. “I would have had to sit down if I wasn’t already in a wheelchair.”

The telling early work of Bill Watterson.

“I think the show is stunning,” Watterson, who ended his legendary strip in 1995, told Comic Riffs. The museum’s “Jenny Robb curated the ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ part of the exhibition, and she went through my work and organized a thoughtful, beautiful display with depth and variety.

“I didn’t know what she would pick or how it would all pull together,” Watterson continued, “so walking into the room, I was quite touched to see this huge, lovely show. I’m immensely honored.”

Thompson expressed a similar sentiment – though, of course, with a characteristic “last panel” twist.

“I am honored beyond all words to be the first non-collection show at Billy Ireland,” Thompson told us, “and I hope to ride Bill’s coattails all the way to the Louvre.”

Although, he noted, “I’ll bet OSU throws better parties.”

A “Cul de Sac” Sunday original from 2007.

The cartoonists also praised the curator of Thompson’s show, which included many of his early amazing illustrations – including his magazine covers and caricatures – as well as “Richard’s Poor Almanac,” which, like “Cul de Sac,” launched in the pages of The Post.

“Caitlin McGurk did a fantastic job on Richard’s show … ,” the Ohio-based Watterson told us, “and I thought the two exhibits complemented each other wonderfully. Richard’s work is so much fun to study up close, with its loose line work and subtle coloring. It’s a gorgeous tour of his career.”

McGurk illuminated what it was like to bring her half of the exhibit together.

“The opening night of ‘The Irresistible Force Meets the Immovable Object: A Richard Thompson Retrospective’ was the stuff of dreams,” McGurk told Comic Riffs. “As my first curated show — and Richard’s biggest gallery debut — the pressures of perfecting the exhibit were pretty extraordinary.

“However, there was nothing more rewarding and simply beautiful than watching Richard show up [Saturday] night, to see over 400 people in the galleries — who stood there enthralled with his work, letting out both laughter and tears,” McGurk continued. “For some longtime fans who came out [to the opening] … revisiting ‘Cul de Sac’ and ‘Richard’s Poor Almanac’ was like reminiscing with an old friend. For others who were unfamiliar with his work, it was like discovering America — this rich, diverse, and incredible thing that had been there all along but that they never knew about, and now had the chance to explore.”

Tears of a clown, or when cartoon balloons loom ominous. Illustration by Richard Thompson.

The praise flowed like champagne, too, from editor/designer Chris Sparks, who co-founded the Team Cul de Sac charity to raise money for Parkinson’s research.

“To have my two favorite strip cartoonists, Richard Thompson and Bill Watterson, be involved in this exhibit is a fanboy’s dream come true,” Sparks told Comic Riffs – before also tossing verbal bouquets for museum staffers.

Retiring Andrews McMeel executive Lee Salem shared that sentiment.

“The exhibit was a wonderful tribute to two great lions of the art form,” Salem — who helped discover and nurture both Watterson and Thompson as legendary editor at Universal Press Syndicate/Universal Uclick — told Comic Riffs. “Jenny Robb and her associates at Ohio State laid out a thoughtful and representative display of the works of Bill and Richard. And to have them both in the same room at the same time! It was clear these two artists are bonded by affection and regard for the other’s work.

“The whole event was a tribute to their work, their enduring legacies and the underappreciated power of the art form,” continued Salem, hours before ending his own influential career at Andrews McMeel. “I was moved by seeing them together and happy to celebrate them and the event.”

The brilliant colors — and timeless talent — of Bill Watterson.

The Watterson/Thompson exhibit will run through Aug. 3 – and for those who care about cartoons, the expanded museum has been hailed as a wonderful showcase for the art form, and superb repository for historic work.

“The Billy Ireland Museum is a treasure, and I’m not sure I ever thought we’d see the day when cartoons would be treated with so much care and respect,” Watterson told Comic Riffs. “They’ve set the bar very high indeed. The museum is a thrill to visit.”

An early self-caricature of Watterson, next to the tools of his trade.

With wit and grace, Richard Thompson faces what ails both his body and his industry

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