Monday, 9 June 2014

Bill Watterson makes a surreptitious return to comics, extends his own legend

So, I came back from holiday Friday morning (it was good, thanks) and by the afternoon I had logged onto the interwebs to grudgingly see if any big comics news had occurred while I've been offline in Singapore. There wasn't much at all (good- I hadn't missed anything, but bad because nothing exciting had happened), and then I came across a short post on The Comics Reporter regarding the artistic provenance of a some Pearls and Swine strips. I have never previously come across Pearls Before Swine, a newspaper strip by Stephen Pastis which has been running since 2000. The reason it was making comic headlines last week was due to speculation surrounding a particular narrative: the cartoon Pastis persona is approached by a young girl, Libby, who takes over drawing duties for the strip, producing better and better comics scenes, as a miffed Pastis looks on. The change in art style -and I'm guessing with the benefit of retrospect- the familiarity of certain aspects: that martian robot scene, for example, and the rendering of those crocodiles and the zebra, led people to the conjecture that the strip was in fact being guest illustrated by none other than Bill Watterson.

Pastis confirmed the news in a blog post on Friday, which you really should go read, as he narrates how the whole, unexpected collaboration came about. It's been news that's been circulating rapidly in the comicsphere and beyond (you've only to type in Pearls Before Swine comic into Google to see the range of coverage it's been receiving), and it's another one of those great little stories that will probably achieve cult status, and one that speaks to Watterson's humour and awareness of how his legendary reclusive persona is viewed. If you're wondering as to the fuss around this news and Watterson in general, well for many people- particularly creative people- Bill Watterson is the embodiment of an artistic ideal. He created a piece of art on his own terms, one that was popular critically and commercially (and continues to be so), one which he ended as he saw fit, and, perhaps crucially, one which he retains control over, by refusing to sell the rights so the world can have Calvin and Hobbes plushies and decals. In addition to that, Watterson rarely did any press or made public appearances- there's only about 2 photographs of him in circulation- something which continues to this day. It's the artistic dream, isn't it: make what you want the way you want- have people like it and get rich on it, and not have to sell/pimp it out in any way- as much as he is loved for creating Calvin and Hobbes, I think he is equally as respected and placed on a pedestal for those reasons, also.

Which is why his very gradual, increased public interaction over the past year or so has been intriguing and delighting the comics community. In comparison to the veritable years of radio silence, the last 12 months or so have bought a deluge of Watterson involved projects: he created his first new public work in 19 years for the Stripped film poster for which he was also interviewed, and conducted interviews with Mental Floss and the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, which has been running an exhibition of his and Richard Thompson's work. He was awarded the Grand Prix at Angouleme earlier this year, the bestowing of which traditionally involves presiding over the festival for the following year, a circumstance which many people have their eye on; Watterson did not collect his award in person, and it's uncertain whether he will be in attendance in 2015. So you begin to grasp why his guest illustrating Pastis' strip is such huge news: he hasn't drawn any comics since Calvin and Hobbes ended.

Still, it's nice to see him taking the time to be involved in things, even in small ways, and he seems to be having fun with it. The only thing I would warn against are the dangers of overexposure... Here are all 3 of the Pearls Before Swine strips he collaborated on (via Go Comics) in order of appearnce: