[9 November 2009]
We’re by now all familiar with unauthorized biographies of rock stars and sleazy politicians, but it’s a bit strange to come across one about an intelligent and apparently mild-mannered cartoonist whose most famous act of rebellion was to fight Universal Press Syndicate over the way his panels were laid out in the Sunday section. Bill Watterson, creator of the universally-beloved Calvin and Hobbes, was a perfectionist and a true believer in his art form, yet he evidently hated the fame that his creations brought him, so he laid down his brushes and retired from public life in 1995. Cue Nevin Martell, author of two previous bios (Beck and Dave Matthews), to hunt him down and try to pry some wit and wisdom out of the reclusive cartoonist.
It shouldn’t be a spoiler to reveal that Martell never does bag his prey. The cover itself clues the reader in on this sad turn of events with its oblique nod to puckish Calvin and nap-happy Hobbes. Instead of an actual Watterson drawing, the cover shows a sabot-shaped foot exiting one edge of the book, while a striped tail teases from the other. Of course, these could belong to just about any cartoon boy and tiger duo, a fact which any decent copyright lawyer would no doubt argue if it ever came to that. (Anyway, let’s just be thankful Calvin’s not peeing on a Ford logo, his most common pose since Watterson stopped drawing him).
While Martell makes a decent and heartfelt attempt to paint a portrait of Watterson, not being able to find him is a fatal, even if unavoidable, flaw in the book. It’s hard enough to write about someone who doesn’t want to be written about, but especially so in Watterson’s case, as he was only in the public eye for a decade or so, and made precious few appearances and interviews during that time.
Recognizing this flaw, Martell seems to want to fill the void left by Watterson with a narrative about his own quest to find the man. But the approach doesn’t work, partly because it comes off as filler, and mostly because it invites comparisons, and Martell doesn’t stand a chance against the titan he admires from a distance. Flat-footed metaphors and irrelevant personal asides don’t help much either, as they too easily distract the reader from the thin broth of second-hand details that Martell presents as an account of Watterson’s life.
Some important traits do shine through, however. Bill Watterson was the best cartoonist of the late 20th century because he demanded excellence and didn’t stop tinkering until he achieved it. Just as Calvin annoyingly insists that every moment of childhood must be packed with undiluted joy, Watterson insisted that every frame of his strip must aspire to art. What’s more, he stuck by his vision without an ounce of compromise. Most of us creative types are hacks, and we’d all be better off if we could adopt even a shade of Watterson’s cranky Midwestern work ethic.
Martell doesn’t deliver the goods, but give him credit for trying. There is enough solid research and decent analysis to make Looking for Calvin and Hobbes useful as a capper to an already complete collection of Watterson’s work. But if one’s collection is incomplete, a better investment is probably in the comic collections themselves, which show much more of Watterson’s genius than any through-the-binoculars biography ever could.