Dear Bill Watterson: Thank You… but You're Out of Touch with Comics

Recently, I sat down and watched Dr. Mr. Watterson, a documentary made on the subject of Bill Watterson and, more specifically, his creation, Calvin and Hobbes. Now, I normally am not a huge fan of documentaries: I find that they tend to present only a very skewed perspective (save for the better ones). Dr. Mr. Watterson was a light, nostalgic, gush over one of the greatest newspaper comics of all time. It was entertaining but without much depth. A quick history lesson for anyone unfamiliar with the story between the panels.

A lot of love clearly went into Dr. Mr. Watterson, unfortunately it obscures the storytelling aspects at times and prevents the documentary from offering up anything truly insightful.
A lot of love clearly went into Dr. Mr. Watterson, unfortunately it obscures the storytelling aspects at times and prevents the documentary from offering up anything truly insightful.

The most interesting part of the documentary was a brief interview with cartoonist Stephen Pastis (creator of Pearls Before Swine). What makes this interesting? Just months after the release of Dr. Mr. Watterson, Bill Watterson would make a brief resurgence into the world of cartoons, illustrating several strips of Pearls Before Swine, as well as voicing the character Libby. That’s right: Bill Watterson came out of retirement… for a week. No new Calvin and Hobbes but hey – it’s still pretty awesome. Between June 2nd and June 7th, Watterson highlighted the world of Pearls Before Swine. So, what did he have to say:

Evidently, Watterson still doesn't think much of the future of comics.
Evidently, Watterson still doesn’t think much of the future of comics.

There is a sad truth that I will make clear right now: Bill Watterson is not perfect. I love Calvin and Hobbes, I find it to be one of the most appealing and insightful creations ever made. To create something that amazing is an incredible feat and Bill Watterson has nothing left to prove to anyone. He is an artistic genius and the world is a brighter place with him in it. That said…

Bill Watterson is out of touch. For those out there unfamiliar with the reasons why Calvin and Hobbes ended: there are two. One, Watterson felt that the comic was starting to repeat itself and wanted to end it on a high note. Two, Watterson felt that newspaper comics were a dying art form as the space was becoming too restricted to allow great art to be drawn. He also felt that the lack of space greatly limited the storytelling potential.

Watterson also did not think much of merchandising, which explains why you've never seen any official Calvin and Hobbes merchandise anywhere.
Watterson also did not think much of merchandising, which explains why you’ve never seen any official Calvin and Hobbes merchandise anywhere.

Now as to that first reason: it is the best reason ever to end something. Anyone can create art for the sake of a paycheck (how many years has Garfield been running… is anyone out there still laughing?). To end Calvin and Hobbes at the height of its popularity remains a bold move and has insured that its legacy was never tarnished with sub-par material. It is a shame that more creations don’t follow Calvin and Hobbes‘ lead in that area (looking at you, Simpsons).

This may also be one of the best endings out there. It is perfect and poetic.
This may also be one of the best endings out there. It is perfect and poetic.

Regarding reason number two: also extremely valid. Anyone who has looked at the newspaper comics recently knows that they do not receive a lot of room. Not that there are not a couple of really talented artists still illustrating for newspapers… but it’s a newspaper. That medium as a whole is in its twilight era. Watterson was correct to label newspaper comics as a dying platform, but the world has changed since 1995.

Behold… the INTERNET! One of the main areas not addressed in Dear. Mr. Watterson was the evolution of the comic medium. Everyone interviewed simply talked about how the glory days had passed and that we’ll never have something like Calvin and Hobbes again. While that may be true (there will only EVER be one Calvin and Hobbes), comics are far from dead. Simply ask this question: how did you read Pearls Before Swine when Watterson reappeared? Did you open your door and uncurl the newspaper to find the comics section? I know I didn’t. I went online and viewed the panels on a website. That is where the comics have gone.

Regardless of how you feel about it, there is no denying that the art in Penny Arcade has benefited greatly from a lack of physical space restriction.
Regardless of how you feel about it, there is no denying that the art of Penny Arcade has benefited greatly from a lack of physical space restriction.

The art form is not dying, it has found a new home. Watterson’s declarations in Pearls Before Swine highlight how out of touch with technology he is. Granted, this is not too surprising from the man who created a character such as Calvin’s father:

Calvin's father may very well echo Watterson's own distrust of technology, specifically interaction with media.
Calvin’s father may very well echo Watterson’s own distrust of technology, specifically interaction with media.

Now, for the record: I do not think that Bill Watterson has any obligation to return to the world of comics. He has done enough. Yet his second reason for ending Calvin and Hobbes is simply no longer valid. Yes, newspaper comics have severe space limitations but who cares? We have the internet! That is where all the truly great new comics appear. There are no limitations on a webpage… and no deadlines either. It is one of the primary wonders of digital technology: worrying about space is a thing of the past.

Sigh, you do Mr. Watterson. You literally have unlimited space if you know how to take advantage of it.
Sigh, you do Mr. Watterson. You literally have unlimited space if you know how to take advantage of it.

Bill Watterson’s time as a contributing artist may be done… who knows what the future will bring. Personally, I hope that he finds the time to learn about the internet and create something truly wonderful. Calvin and Hobbes is over (don’t hold out hope for that animated movie), but Bill Watterson is still alive and still a terrific artist. He just is a little out of touch… he needs to learn to do the things with the computers.

A Different Product for a Different Time: Donald Duck Comics

Who doesn’t know Donald Duck? The crass companion of Mickey Mouse and Goofy has been around for the better part of the century. While Donald had humble origins (he started off as a side character to Peter Pig… I know, who?) the character quickly grew into the most clearly defined of all the major Disney animated characters. Mickey Mouse is a nice guy, Goofy is a nice guy – Donald, well he’s a jerk. A real jerk, with a fiery temper and abusive tendencies to his nephews. Yet with all that aside there is something really endearing about him. Yeah, he’s selfish but then: aren’t we all?

Like all major Disney creations, Donald Duck appeared in many forms. Movies, cartoons and comics: there was hardly a media platform that was foreign. This article focuses on those early comics, created by Carl Barks. These stories took the form of humorous adventures that took Donald and his three nephews (and occasionally Scrooge and others) to every exotic corner of the globe. Have you ever seen DuckTales? Think that but more politically incorrect… like really more.

I own a collection of the old Donald Duck stories, comics published between 1944 and 1952. Needless to say, the world was different then. In these tales, Donald and his nephews head to the arctic, the tropics and everywhere in between. In the ten stories they meet pretty much every type of people on the planet and well, there’s a lot of this:

Yep.
Yep.

Today, this would be unacceptable. Disney would face massive repercussions and have to at least make a public apology. However, I do not believe Barks had racism in mind when he was writing the stories. There is a focus on “political correctness” now that did not exist back in the early 20th century. Older ideas, such as imperialism, were still alive and well (not that they aren’t today, they’re just thankfully less popular). From John Carter to Batman, every character reflected this attitude.

Wasn't even the worst thing Donald did back then.
Wasn’t even the worst thing Donald did back then.

As times changed and culture evolved, the content of these works is now deemed offensive. To be labeled “politically incorrect” is to be accused of damaging culture. All people are created equally therefore it is not right to offend anyone. I take issue with the whole idea of “political correctness” but that is an article for another day. The question is: are these comics damaging?

No. These are not works of influence. These are flights of fancy with Donald Duck. In some ways his personality allows this behavior to be more acceptable. Looking at a list of other questionable content, it’s sad to see all these beloved characters behaving this way because it was socially acceptable at the time. Donald Duck has never been socially acceptable. As stated at the beginning of this article: he’s a jerk. Donald is the character the audience learns from, not emulates. There is an argument to be made that, in this culture, Donald worked better as a teacher. Regardless, times have changed and Donald along with them. Thankfully, there is more than one way to be a jackass.

Seriously, stuff like this has always disturbed me.
Seriously, stuff like this has always disturbed me.