Friday, March 21, 2014

Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson talks to Ohio State Curator Jenny Robb

From the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum Blog.

Illustration from “The Indispensible Calvin and Hobbes”, 1992. © Bill Watterson 
Bill Watterson Deposit Collection, The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

We are delighted to welcome you to two exhibitions of original cartoon art by Bill Watterson and Richard Thompson at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, opening March 22, 2014. 

The shows will provide a unique opportunity to see—up-close—the original art of these two gifted cartoonists.

Curator Jenny Robb recently chatted with Bill Watterson about comics and the upcoming exhibit:

Why did you choose to place your collection at The Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum?

Long ago my friend Rich West recommended the library to me. I met Lucy Caswell and was much impressed with her vision and scholarly professionalism. Some years after I stopped the strip, I wanted to get my work into a more protective, permanent environment, so the choice was a no-brainer. 

And now of course the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum is even better. It’s a remarkable institution, and the fact that this fabulous resource is right in my home state is icing on the cake.

The library and museum is focused on preserving and providing access to materials documenting the cartooning art form for public viewing and research. How do you feel this arrangement benefits the public? 

The library helps counteract the art world’s condescension to the “low art” of cartoons, and it protects work that would otherwise be scattered or lost. In making original work available for anyone to study, it also gives us access to our own history. 

You know, if you’re a painter, it’s simply taken for granted that you’ll spend a lot of time in museums studying great paintings, but if you’re a cartoonist, it used to be very hard to see an original cartoon drawing. 

When you see an original “Steve Canyon” daily strip—they’re gigantic—it’s an entirely different experience than seeing a newspaper or book reproduction. There is much to appreciate and learn about this wonderful art.

It’s been almost 30 years since Calvin and Hobbes launched, and almost 20 since it ended. How did it feel to revisit the strip for this exhibition?

Oh, it’s fairly weird. There’s a sort of jet lag when you time-travel to your own past.

When conceiving of a new strip, did the words or images come first? Or, is it a hybrid process? Is the process fraught or does it flow?

Most often I’d begin with the words. Generally, the writing underwent so many revisions that there was no point in drawing anything until the dialog was fully set. I could always visualize the pictures anyway. It was the writing that gave me fits.

The very first “Calvin & Hobbes” strip. November 18, 1985. © Bill Watterson

As newspaper readership—and, subsequently, production—declines, do you think there will be fewer opportunities for the average person to forge a lasting bond with a character the way that people did with Calvin and Hobbes?

That would be my guess. I can’t really picture the average person going to the trouble of curating his own little comic section, much less reading a new and unfamiliar strip for months to build up a relationship with it. There’s so much other content available—instantly and all for free—that there’s no reason to stick around if you’re not immediately enthralled. 

We consume everything like potato chips now. In this environment, I suspect the cartoonist’s connection with readers is likely to be superficial and fleeting, unless he taps into some fervent special interest niche. And that audience, almost by definition, will be tiny. It’s a very different world from the days when everyone in America knew who Popeye, Dick Tracy or Charlie Brown was.

How has the digital era and social media freed cartoon artists?

Anyone can publish now, and there are no restrictions of taste, approach, or subject matter. The gatekeepers are gone, so the prospect for new and different voices is exciting. Or at least it will be if anyone reads them. And it will be even more exciting if anyone pays for them. It’s hard to charge admission without a gate.

Richard Thompson’s work will be on display along with yours. What makes him a standout to you? 

Very few cartoonists do so much, so well. Richard is a wonderful writer and one of the rare ones who can write truly unique, hilarious characters. He’s drawn incisive caricatures, lavish illustrations, and one of the most beautiful comic strips I’ve ever seen. And just when you think it couldn’t be better, sometimes he paints the stuff. Richard has the extra-deluxe, jumbo-size skill set. It’s an inspiring body of work.

Curator Jenny Robb among Bill Watterson's original art

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