BILL WATTERSON wasn’t aware he’d been nominated. Shoot, until he Googled it, the cartoonist didn’t even know the award existed.
His syndicate, though, called him with the news early this year: France’s esteemed Angoulême International Comic Art Festival had just named the “Calvin and Hobbes” creator as recipient of its Grand Prix award for lifetime achievement — a prize that usually includes serving as event president the following year. Apparently, in a fashion that’s delightfully French, the festival bestows the typically obligation-laden honor without asking in advance whether you’ll accept the concomitant duties, from jurying to appearances.
“People started talking about all the obligations that went with the prize, so I thought the whole thing was bananas,” Watterson tells The Post’s Comic Riffs in his only American interview about the honor, “but Angoulême assured me there were no strings attached and they’d work with whatever I’d be willing to do.
“Drawing the poster sounded fun, so I agreed to do that,” notes Watterson, who also this year has created several collaborative “Pearls Before Swine” strips and the film poster for “Stripped” — his first public art in nearly two decades.
Watterson says he does not plan to attend the 2015 festival, which begins Jan. 29, but he has just unveiled that poster, and my, what a stunner it is. Watterson’s offering is a 15-panel ode to comics — to the art form and the reading experience — that is both homage to early 20th-century American strips and wordless, timeless artwork that transcends language and era.
“I still read newspaper comics, but without much hope for their future,” the once-reclusive cartoonist tells Comic Riffs. “As a small joke on myself, I deliberately set the story in a non-digital world.”
“For me,” says Watterson, who retired his beloved “Calvin and Hobbes” at the end of 1995, “the anachronism evokes the distant heyday of the medium, and razzes how long ago my career was.”
(Watterson’s career was celebrated this year in a retrospective at the Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum — in his home state; Watterson did not make a public appearance at that event, either.)
Comic Riffs caught up with the cartooning great to talk about his new poster, his publicly productive year — and his work on a Richard Thompson retrospective book due out later this month.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on an absolutely beautiful poster, Bill. Did you agonize for months over this — were any family pets or psyches harmed in the making of this work — or did it come rather easily? Because the result feels seamless.
BILL WATTERSON: Thank you. I thought this would be a straight-forward little project, but I went down all sorts of unproductive paths for a couple of months. Once this idea finally came to me, the drawing fell together quickly, but it seems that, at least for me, making something simple is rarely a simple process.
MC: To back up for a moment, what prompted you to say “yes” to Angoulême? I trust, as with [Art] Spiegelman a few years earlier, they asked your permission first to name you president? (Note: Only a handful of Americans have ever received the Grand Prix, including Spiegelman, R.Crumb and Will Eisner.)
BW: Nobody asked me anything. I wasn’t even aware I’d been nominated. My syndicate sent me an email saying I’d won this award, and I literally had to Google it. People started talking about all the obligations that went with the prize, so I thought the whole thing was bananas, but Angoulême assured me there were no strings attached and they’d work with whatever I’d be willing to do. Drawing the poster sounded fun, so I agreed to do that.
MC: You’ve said that you won’t attend the event proper, but will you curate from afar?
BW: The recent show of “Calvin and Hobbes” originals at Ohio State’s Billy Ireland museum will travel to Angoulême for the festival, but that’s the extent of my participation.
MC: One thing I love about your poster, if you’ll pardon the praise, is that it serves as such a valentine to newspaper comic strips specifically, and the pure, treasured joy of sitting down with your color funnies. Could you talk a little bit about your decision to do that? And do you yourself still sit down with your print comics pages?
BW: This is a comic strip about newspaper comics, presented as if it were a newspaper comic strip. But in all that circularity, I hope the drawings convey the fun and pleasure of cartoons in the largest sense.
I still read newspaper comics, but without much hope for their future. As a small joke on myself, I deliberately set the story in a non-digital world, where the guy gets his morning newspaper in the yard, and the lady next door uses a big phone with a cord. For me, the anachronism evokes the distant heyday of the medium, and razzes how long ago my career was.
MC: Utterly in your own gorgeous style, I see nods of homage — grace notes, really — to so many great early comic strips, and cartoonists, of yore. Did any specific comics serve as inspiration, no matter how indirectly? Even the 15 panels feel like luxuriating in another era for comics…
BW: For this idea, I wanted something simple, exaggerated, and silly—i.e., very cartoony. In that regard, I always think of “Popeye” and “Barney Google” as quintessential comic strips in that old rollicky, slapstick way we’ve sort of lost. So older comics were in the back of my mind, although I wasn’t trying to mimic anything specific. And to tap into one of comics’ great strengths, I chose to tell the story visually, so that anyone of any age, from any country, could understand it. In this way, I was trying to connect the poster to my American newspaper comics background and acknowledge the international flavor of Angouleme’s festival.
MC: For years, a week doesn’t go by that someone doesn’t tell how much they wish “Calvin and Hobbes” would return. But this poster will likely stir your fans to say: “We’d welcome ANYthing from you, regardless the art.” Is there any other art in the near-future you plan to share with the public?
BW: Several events and projects happened to converge this year, which surprised me as much as anybody. But so far as I know, that’s all that’s in the pipeline.
MC: Lastly, your book “The Art of Richard Thompson” [co-edited with David Apatoff, Nick Galifianakis, Mike Rhode and Chris Sparks] comes out soon. Is there anything you’d like to say about that editing endeavor, and your passion behind it? (Note: Thompson is the Northern Virginia-based, Reuben Award-winning cartoonist who retired his strip “Cul de Sac” as he battles Parkinson’s disease; Watterson has helped the charity Team Cul de Sac raise more than $100,000 for Parkinson’s research.)
BW: About 80-percent of Richard’s career was news to me when we put this together, so I assume the variety and quality of Richard’s caricatures, illustrations and comics will astonish other readers, too. It’s some beautiful stuff, and I hope the book finds its way into the hands of young artists, especially. The book was a real labor of love for all of us.