On Bill Waterson’s Upcoming Book – And Why He Vanished

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In 1995 Bill Watterson walked away from “the madness that had consumed him for practically his entire adulthood,” writes the American Conservative.

Though everyone loved his Calvin & Hobbes comic strip, “I had virtually no life beyond the drawing board,” he said of the years leading up to the decision…

So it came as some surprise earlier this year when Watterson’s publisher announced his first new book in nearly thirty years. The Mysteries is a “modern fable”… [“For the book’s illustrations, Watterson and caricaturist John Kascht worked together for several years in unusually close collaboration,” explains the upcoming book’s web page. “Both artists abandoned their past ways of working, inventing images together that neither could anticipate — a mysterious process in its own right.”] At seventy-two pages, the book itself is a slight thing, in no way a return to the daily grind of the funny pages. It is being sold exclusively in print. And, typical of Watterson, press access is limited. [Publisher] Andrews McMeel is not sending review copies until the week of its publication in early October…

In the years since the strip’s end, Watterson has indicated that there was something false inherent to Calvin and Hobbes, some impurity either in his approach or encoded in the strip itself that made it impossible to continue in good faith. That, combined with the fight over licensing with his syndicate, crushed him. “I lost the conviction that I wanted to spend my life cartooning,” he remembers realizing in 1991, four years before he ended the strip. Beyond stray comments such as this one, he has never forthrightly explained where exactly he went wrong. But I think I have an explanation…

“Work and home were so intermingled that I had no refuge from the strip when I needed a break,” Watterson recalls. “Day or night, the work was always right there, and the book-publishing schedule was as relentless as the newspaper deadlines. Having certain perfectionist and maniacal tendencies, I was consumed by Calvin and Hobbes.” By Watterson’s own admission, he cannot accurately recall a whole decade of his life because of his “Ahab-like obsession” with his work. “The intensity of pushing the writing and drawing as far as my skills allowed was the whole point of doing it,” he says. “I eliminated pretty much everything from my life that wasn’t the strip.” While Watterson’s wife, Melissa Richmond, organized everything around him, he furthered his isolation, burrowing ever more deeply into the strip’s world. There was no other way, he believed, to keep its integrity absolute. “My approach was probably too crazy to sustain for a lifetime,” he says, “but it let me draw the exact strip I wanted while it lasted….”

But Watterson had designed a world for himself so self-contained that any disruption could mean its destruction: “I just knew it was time to go.” This much became clear in the middle of the licensing fight. It took up so much of his energy that he lost his lead time on the strip and found himself in a situation where he was drawing practically every single comic on press night. After a few weeks of this, he broke down. “I was in a black despair,” he says. “I was absolutely frantic. I had to publish everything I thought of, no matter what it was, and I found that idea almost unbearable.” His wife saw him spiraling out of control and drew up a schedule that helped him slowly, over the course of six months, rebuild his lead time. Not long after, Watterson crashed his bike, bruised a rib, and broke a finger. He was so afraid of losing his lead again that he propped his drawing board on his knees in his sickbed and drew anyway. That freaked him out, too, and so gradually he scaled his life down to the point where nothing unpredictable could happen…

Watterson compares ending Calvin and Hobbes to reaching the summit of a high mountain… He had no desire to return whence he came. And he couldn’t go any higher; no one can ascend into the air itself. So he took his next best option. He jumped.

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