Monday, June 9, 2014

A reclusive comic master steps in to pinch hit

     There’s a “Nancy” comic strip from the early 1950s that conveys the glorious and unlimited possibilities of cartooning in seven simple words over four square panels.
     “Anything—” our spunky heroine announces, walking down the street in the first panel, “can happen—” she continues, in the second, now indoors, “in a—” and here she walks up the side of a wall, because she can, concluding, “comic strip,” hanging upside down, from the ceiling.
     Anything can happen. But too often, as in life itself, usually it doesn’t, even in the funnies. Usually we get, well, the usual, tired jokes told by interchangeable casts of charmless creatures. Alas, the anarchic genius of Nancy’s creator, Ernie Bushmiller, is in short supply in recent decades, as comics shrink and struggle, along with the rest of the dusty print media, to stay relevant in our online world.
    But marvels still occur. Lovers of the daily doings of the comics got a much-needed boost last week, and didn’t even know it until Saturday, when Stephan Pastis, who draws the wildly popular “Pearls Before Swine” strip, revealed that three of his installments featured drawings by none other than Bill Watterson, the reclusive genius behind the “Calvin and Hobbes” strip that ran from 1985 to 1995, when he announced that he had said all he had to say and was going into retirement.
     For those unfamiliar with the comics — and too many are nowadays — it would be like me getting Thomas Pynchon to write the middle section of my column.
     It happened this way: Pastis, whose strip is syndicated in 750 papers, was passing through Ohio on a book tour, and thought he would try to contact Watterson, who lives on the east side of Cleveland.
     That got him nowhere, but a short time later Pastis’ character — he often appears in “Pearls Before Swine” — pretends to be Watterson and picks up a woman in a bar. The real-life Pastis emailed the strip to Watterson, who shocked him by replying. “Let me tell you,” Pastis wrote in his description of the episode on his blog. "Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he's communicating with me?"
     One of the running jokes in "Pearls Before Swine" is that Pastis can't draw. He can, though of course not as well as Watterson, whose masterful penmanship was a large part of what made his strip the cherished classic it was. Watterson suggested that he'd like to step in and secretly draw Pastis' strip for a few days.
     "The night he emailed me with the idea, I was utterly stunned," recalled Pastis, when I reached him over the phone Sunday. "I called my wife and said, 'You're not going to believe this just happened."
     The two cartoonists traded ideas — this was in mid-April. Watterson was "fun and flexible and easy to work with."
     Pastis told his wife and one person at the syndicate, but no one else, not even his editor.
     The strip has a six-week lead time, and waiting was perhaps the hardest part. "Oh man," he said. "It's hard to go to the Reubens" — the National Cartoonists Society awards at the end of May —"and not talk. Boy, talk about having to sit on a secret. Oh my God."
     On June 2, Pastis introduced a new character, Libby ("Libby" being sort of a mash-up of "Billy"), a precocious second-grader who arrives at his door to interview a cartoonist. ("Do you know a cartoonist?" she asks Pastis).
     The strips ran on June 4, June 5 and June 6, with Watterson drawing the center, elongated panel. On the first day is a zebra that, in retrospect, looks very like Hobbes in his stuffed tiger state. A crocodile gobbles Pastis, but you can see his feet. Which were a tip-off.
     "A lot of people said it was the shoes on the Wednesday strip," Pastis said. "My shoes are sticking out of crocodile's mouth. Apparently people in the know knew that those are only drawn by one cartoonist: Watterson."
     The second strip had an invading alien robot that was not at all Pastis' style. "Lots of people guessed it,"Pastis said. "The predominant feeling was, if this was anybody, it's Watterson. But how could he have gotten Watterson? What's going on?"
     What next? Are they buddies?
     "Ha ha," Pastis said. "I don't think I'm going to hang with him." They did finally meet, in Washington D.C., last week, where Pastis had a book signing and where Watterson happened to be.
     "That was crazy, wild to meet him. We talk for three hours the first night, two hours the second. I got to ask him everything I wanted to ask him."
     About what?
     "About cartooning, his background, some stuff about Calvin, stuff only comic nerds would care about, the rhythm and timing of a three-panel strip versus a four-panel strip. It was great, such a friendly person. A very nice guy. Quick to laugh. It was cool to be able to make him laugh, for somebody like me . . . he's an idol, and to meet him and have him be so nice is wonderful."
     He didn't ask about Watterson coming back to the comics page. "I won't ask him that," he said. "For him to do what he did, for me to meet with him, you have to play it cool, be a friend, don't ask things a reporter would ask."
     Ouch. But fair enough. Before I let Pastis go, I had to ask one reporterly question: What is it about successful cartoonists? They obviously love what they do; why stop so soon? Not just Watterson, but Gary Larson of "The Far Side," and Berke Breathed of "Bloom County." The old school was to draw a cartoon into your decrepitude then pass it on to your son. Why the high-profile retirements? Watterson was 37 when he set down his pen.
     "It's one of the few art forms that doesn't have to be collaborative," Pastis said. "You're truly on your own. Whatever comes out of your head goes into the paper, the only limitation being newspaper standards. The bottom line is it probably attracts people who like to be on their own. Maybe it does attract the loner more than any other art form."
     Which is ironic because, though penned by loners, a great cartoon — like "Nancy" in its heyday, or "Calvin and Hobbes" or "Pearls Before Swine" for that matter — makes you feel less alone, less isolated, more plugged in to the world of laughter, of other people, not to mention wisecracking rats, sweetly dumb pigs, and one irreplaceable long-lost little boy and his toy tiger.
     The beauty of a stunt like this is that not only is it a treat for regular readers of the comics, but it's a reminder to those of us who have wandered off that they are still there, despite everything, a glorious art form, when done right, waiting for us wayward souls to come home.


  1. Very interesting stunt and report on it, Neil. I guess I should try to seek out "Pearls Before Swine" more often.

    I have to admit that I was stunned to see you lead off with a "Nancy" cartoon, however. I don't know what the comic may have been like in its early decades, but by the time I was paying attention, in the 70's, it seemed like about the lamest thing around. It boggles my mind that it is still running. Not that I pay much attention, but I think this is the first time I've ever noticed an accolade for it from somebody that I respect.

    I did like your reference to "funnies," though. We always referred to them as the funnies, not the comics.

  2. Grew up with the Boston Globe, last 30 years with the Washington Post, and both papers have a chip on their shoulders regarding NYTimes.

    Which never has carried the funnies. So who needs it? Barbarians.


  3. I think I get the reason you used Pynchon for your example (because he stays out of the public eye like Watterson) but folks should know he hasn't retired from the field that made him famous -- he's still writing, and folks still love his stuff. Watterson is becoming less reclusive these days -- he has recently done a print interview or two, and did an audio interview (and the art for the poster) for a documentary on the decline of comics on the printed page. Those instances coupled with the art for "Pearls Before Swine" have stirred up hope that he'll do stuff under his own name again, even if it isn't "Calvin and Hobbes."

  4. Pearls before Swine is a good one but so is Mamet. ;)

  5. I should say the DeFlocked cartoon.


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