The Elusive Genius of Bill Watterson

In my more giddy moments I think that a simple comic strip featuring Calvin, a preternaturally bright six year-old, and Hobbes, his imaginary tiger friend, features some of the most lucid sentences committed to print. And when I sober up, I usually think exactly the same.

Edd McCracken

Edd McCracken has rendered me an invaluable service (matched only by Jason Morehead’s invaluable service in bringing McCracken’s service to my attention) by reminding me of something I already know, but which I appreciate more and more every time I dwell on it:

Bill Watterson is a genius.

I realize this admission places me at the end of a very long line, and one populated  by far more insightful people than myself. But such (gratifyingly) wide-spread recognition of the reality in no way diminishes its truth: Watterson is a genius.

To say that he is (or, sadly, was) a master of his craft captures only part of his greatness, highlighting why attempts to pin him down must always carry with them a certain amount of frustration. It’s not that I can’t figure out why he’s brilliant; it’s that I can’t decide which aspect of his brilliance most deserves my attention.

The “technical” ability required to so perfectly capture the motion (and rest) of his subjects was extraordinary, as was his ability to tap back into the emotions and “light-bulb moments” of youth. Yet for me, the most insightful parts of Watterson’s strips are not the ones that show me that he “gets” kids, or that he “gets” the oft-misunderstood, barely definable essence of childhood. It’s that he gets adults — gets us so unerringly that I find myself squirming at the all-too-real reprimands in his work.

But the thing I love the most about Watterson?

He was kind-hearted.

That uncanny ability to identify humanity’s flaws could easily have led to Waughishly cutting satire (or unbecoming, ultimately unproductive vitriol). But instead, he chose to make his observations through the adventures of a charmingly-scrawled boy and his beloved tiger. His honey carries vinegar, and we all feel its bite. But he leaves behind a gentle prick of conscience rather than scorched Earth.

I miss him.

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Elizabeth Scalia

    Why did he stop?

    • Bob Harper

      I think he’d said what he had to say, had enough money to last a lifetime, and didn’t want to spoil it by repeating himself. I think he was right, and I also think Calvin and Hobbes the greatest cartoon produced in my lifetime.
      A few years ago there was a hardbound complete edition selling at Costco. We got a copy for our son, but it’s sitting under the wall system next to my living room chair. Lucky me :)

    • Joseph Susanka

      I’m not really sure, Elizabeth. And that’s pretty much a universal sentiment. No one really knows.

      Most folks seem to think it’s a combination of incredible shyness (exacerbated by his undesired-but-unsurprising fame), long-standing frustration with editors (exacerbated, no doubt, by that shyness), and the “said what I wanted to say” bit that Bob mentions. Finding him is a bit like finding Bigfoot, so no one’s really had a chance to sit down and ask him directly.

      But those who are closest to him — which means they get barely a whiff of him every now and again — also tend to think that the door is still open for him to return. Though whether that’s based on any actual knowledge or if its simply the fact that they’re like the rest of us and they desperately want him back, I can’t say.

      Elusive in so many ways.

  • Dennis Wales

    When asked why he stopped his response was that he had said all he wanted to say and didn’t want to be one of those who outlasts his appeal.

    • Joseph Susanka

      Still, I can’t help but think that he underestimated his appeal, Dennis. And quite possibly overestimated the completeness of what he’d said. It’s not hard for me to imagine a man as creative and insightful (and intensely private and uninterested in publicity) as he had been up that that point thinking he’d exhausted his creative output.

      …but it’s hard for me to imagine that he was right.

      I’d love to hear and see some of the ideas that must surely have popped into his head in the 15+ years since.

  • Chris Corrigan

    This is great – thanks for the various links. There aren’t many commercial products that I really miss – Calvin and Hobbes is one of them.

    • Joseph Susanka

      My pleasure, Chris. That awesome Calvin and Hobbes Search Engine helped lessen the pain a bit for me.