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Over the past few months, I’ve been introducing my son to the wonder of Calvin and Hobbes, the nationally syndicated comic strip that ran from 1985 to 1995. So creator Bill Watterson was already on my mind, when I gained access to a preview of Nevin Martell’s Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. The book aims to trace “the life and career of the extraordinary, influential, and intensely private man behind Calvin and Hobbes”. In this new email interview, Martell and I get a chance to discuss the ground he covers in the book and the folks he got to interview in his pursuit.
Tim O’Shea: You did some advanced marketing of the book a few months back by releasing the first chapter of the book for free upon request. Did you find that helped generate buzz for the project?
Nevin Martell: The free chapter giveaway turned into an insane bonanza of buzz, which, frankly, I was totally unprepared for. My publishers told me that super successful versions of this kind of promotion in the past had garnered a couple of hundred requests. But then the offer got written up by BoingBoing and NPR, not to mention a slew of comic-related blogs and the Twittersphere, so suddenly I had hundreds of requests pouring in. Since I was initially answering all these requests individually, it turned into three days of hitting reply, attaching a file, writing a quick note, and then repeating. Ultimately over 4,000 people requested the chapter, which just blew my mind. Actually, my mind is still blown.
O’Shea: You got to talk to many of Watterson’s peers and associates. Of those interviews, can you single out a few who provided you with the candor that allowed you to better shape the story you wanted to tell with this book?
Martell: The big gets for me were Watterson’s former editor Lee Salem, his longtime friend Rich West and his mother Kathryn Watterson. These three really helped me uncover and explore the most important stages of Watterson’s life — childhood, college/his editorial cartooning years and the time he spent doing “Calvin and Hobbes.” It was also really illuminating to talk to his high school friends and the editors at United who developed an early version of “Calvin and Hobbes” before ultimately dropping Watterson, because they helped reveal parts of Watterson’s life that had previously not been examined in depth.
O’Shea: Have you gotten a reaction (positive or negative) from the folks who participated and have already read the book?
Martell: Everyone I’ve spoken thus far with who participated in the book has been very happy with it. His family and friends have been very complimentary and two of the cartoonists who read early versions liked it enough to give me quotes for the dust jacket, which I provide below for your edification.
“Nevin Martell’s book provides a rare glimpse of the riddle wrapped in the mystery inside an enigma that is Bill Watterson and his brilliant work, which I now know was almost called ‘Marvin and Hobbes.'” – Stephan Pastis, creator of Pearls Before Swine
“Watterson can hide, but he can’t die. His work lives on and we’re lucky to have Nevin Martell reminding us so colorfully in this joyful book.” – Berkeley Breathed, creator of Bloom County and Outland
O’Shea: What were some of the hardest aspects of his career to research?
Martell: Honestly — and I don’t say this lightly — a lot of this book was difficult to research. Watterson left a very limited public record of his work and his life, so I had to do a lot of good old fashioned detective work to discover his life and find the people he met and worked with along the way. That being said, that journey was incredibly rewarding and I don’t regret any of the many hours I spent on the phone, on the internet, talking with people or traveling to collections and libraries.
O’Shea: Do you think being unable to speak to Watterson or use Calvin & Hobbes pieces compromises the book’ s strengths or did you try to compensate for that in your writing?
Martell: If I had spoken to Watterson or been able to use his work, it would have been a very different book. It would have been a more straightforward biography, which is what I set out to write. In the end, this book turned out to be a much stranger trip than I originally thought it would be, but that’s the wonderful thing about life – you just don’t know what’s going to happen next or how anything is going to turn out. It’s a curious beast, but, hopefully, a lovable one. Anyone who is a fan of the strip should enjoy what became a very personal and in-depth exploration of one of the great pop artists of the 20th century.
O’Shea: Knowing Watterson’s body of work as well as you do now, looking at the present day landscape of cartoonists, who do you think comes closest to tapping into the humor and appeal that Watterson wielded?
Martell: No offense to any of the many cartoonists I spoke with and befriended — and I’m sure they’d all agree with me — but there is no substitute for Watterson. Which is not to say that there aren’t some INCREDIBLY talented cartoonists working in papers and online today. Richard Thompson’s “Cul de Sac” has a great artistic sensibility and top-notch writing — I describe it in the book as “[looking] like Ralph Steadman and Charles Schulz fighting over a pen to draw “The Yellow Kid” crossed with “FoxTrot,” with a dollop of Watterson’s wit thrown in for good measure.” And Pastis’ “Pearls Before Swine” is just such clever snarkiness that it rarely fails to amuse me. If you’re looking for standard bearers for the next generation of cartoonists, those two guys should be holding the torches.
O’Shea: In terms of relatively reclusive former cartoonists, did you ever consider making your quest the somewhat reclusive Gary Larson (albeit with a great deal of merchandising)?
Martell: During the course of writing the book, I did try to get in touch with Gary Larson, but I was never able to talk to him. Hey, you’ve just given me an idea for my next book. Thanks!
O’Shea: Did you go in to the project with an understanding of why Watterson avoided merchandising the characters, or is that something you learned along the way?
Martell: I had a basic understanding of why he didn’t do it, but that understanding deepened — and darkened — as I went through my research. It was impressive to watch someone form a principle like that — and stick to it — under so much pressure and as he was being offered so much money to let go of it. I dare say that none of us know many — if any — people who could be offered such riches and turn them down. That takes real gumption and real belief.
O’Shea: What do you hope readers get out of the book–a greater appreciation of Watterson or a greater appreciation of his work?
Martell: Readers will get a deeper understanding of Watterson and his choices. They’ll learn about the evolution of his artistry and his life. And they’ll have a chance to relive why they fell in love with the strip in the first place. Oh, and they’ll also learn that I love cupcakes.
O’Shea: With newspapers struggling and impacting the amount of space devoted to comic strips in the present day, did this book unavoidably also become a documentation of happier times (relatively) for comic strips and their success?
Martell: The exit of Watterson, Larson and — temporarily — Breathed from papers in the mid-’90’s signaled the end of the last Golden Age of American newspaper cartooning for me. Not that their weren’t good cartoonists doing admirable work after that, but the loss of that Holy Trinity lost newspaper cartooning the zeitgeist. That collective experience of reading the paper over breakfast was never the same after that. This happened for a variety of reasons, including, as you mention, the decline of newspapers and the funny pages in general, but losing Watterson, Larson and Breathed was a death blow in my opinion.
O’Shea: In writing this book, did you try to avoid trying to get inside Watterson’s head after seeing the critical beating (even in positive reviews) that David Michaelis took in some circles for his psychological analysis of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz?
Martell: No offense to Michaelis, but I did not set out to write my own “Schulz.” I wanted to get inside Watterson’s head and analyze his life, but I didn’t want to go to the lengths that Michaelis did, because I wanted readers to be able to draw their own conclusions and come up with their own opinions about Watterson’s life and choices. And as my book turned into a metaphorical and literal journey to discover Watterson, I realized that it wasn’t just a biography. It was my gonzo field trip to try and uncover the life of cartooning’s Salinger, which made it an entirely different proposition.
O’Shea: Anything else you’d like to discuss?
Martell: I’m hoping that the paperback edition that is going to come out next fall may have some extra material that came to light after the hardcover was already at the printers, but there will be updates on that when the time comes.
O’Shea: Care to tease about what some of the “extra material that came to light”?
Martell: I’ve made some discoveries about Watterson’s recent artistic projects that I’d like to discuss, but that’s all I can say for now. How’s that for a tease?