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I had very little to go on. This was before Google. I decided to write to the artist and ask him directly. I mailed a letter and one of my drawings to his Syndicate in Kansas hoping they would forward it. A few weeks later I received a response. At first I thought it was just a standard form letter but recently, having done a little research on the subject, I realized how unique this letter is. Bill Watterson rarely wrote to fans. After he retired the strip in 1995 he dropped out of the public eye altogether.
Watterson is the subject of a recent book titled “Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his revolutionary comic strip.” There is even talk of a movie.
I have read that he won’t even pick up the phone for Steven Spielberg or George Lucas. Journalists have tried to find him for an interview but to no avail.
By all indications the letter I received in the eighties is a one-of-a-kind.
Although I never tried to market my cartoons here is a sample of one of my characters that I sent to Watterson asking his advice. It is not the same drawing but is the same character. I drew these on post-it notes when I worked at the home office of an insurance company. I learned a lot from Watterson and my style of drawing became looser as a result.
The letter below was a more common response. I wrote to Watterson again and this was the letter I received from the syndicate.
The last time I wrote to Bill was during one of his famous sabbaticals. I was using self-addressed stamped envelopes by this time. My envelope came back postmarked September 11, 1992. Inside was a copy of this drawing of Calvin and Hobbes sitting by a tree next to a sign that said “Time Out”
This next comic strip related item is an autographed book from Charles Schulz. I felt sort of cocky after receiving the Calvin and Hobbes letter so I started sending letters to other cartoonists whom I admired. The top of that list was Charles Schulz (Peanuts). I wrote to him asking for an autograph. I also sent along one of my drawings. The following is the response.
I also received a letter (packet) from Schulz before I got the autographed book. Charles Schulz was very accommodating to his fans. I am sure he received hundreds of letters from fans around the world. It’s nice that they took the time to answer fan mail.
Watterson holds Schulz in highest regard as indicated by this article.
Now I am in the photography mode and I have put down my pencil and picked up the camera. Photography has become my newer passion but I will never forget my roots. I love comic strip art and feel somewhat saddened by the current state of the newspaper industry.
I also have notes from Berkely Breathed and Cathy Guisewite but those are very brief. Everything is currently locked away in a safety deposit box. Perhaps someday I’ll get them out and post the rest.
EDIT II: As promised here are the letters from Berkeley Breathed and Cathy Guisewite
Berkeley Breathed penned the Bloom County comic strip.
This letter is postmarked March 22, 1993, after the strip retired and while Breathed was writing Outland, a Sunday only strip using some of the same characters.
Cathy Guisewite penned the semi-autobiographical comic strip Cathy. She was a fellow Michigander (what we call ourselves in Michigan) who made it big in the comic strip industry. I had to write and get her opinion.
The postmark on this letter is July 11, 1990
I had the opportunity to go to the Calvin and Hobbes exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. I am more impressed than ever with Watterson’s talent after seeing the original artwork. I was able to take a couple photos with my cell phone. I know they aren’t as clear as I would like but it is all I have besides the memories. One thing that struck me was the red mechanical pencil on display. Watterson said his father gave it to him as a child and he’s used it ever since when creating his cartoons. Another thing I found interesting that isn’t represented here….Watterson would ink a Sunday strip and do the color on a separate piece of paper. The inked and the color versions are later combined in the printing process. It’s frustrating trying to ink a watercolor image. There were times that he would do just that as represented here. He also did some oil painting. I didn’t take a photo of it but he did a cool oil painting of some dinosaurs.
This was a Herculean effort on my part to get to the show. I did what every nerd does and took my mom to see it. My mother is 80-years-old and is fading with dementia.I thought it would be nice to spend some time with her because I don’t know how much time we have left. The drive from Lansing, Michigan to Columbus was four hours. We left after noon and I stopped on the way for a bite to eat. Mom couldn’t ride that long in the car without a break. We finally got to the museum 15 minutes before they closed. Lucky we made it! We had just enough time to look at the exhibit before they kicked us out.
Richard Thompson, the cartoonist behind the comic strip Cul de Sac, and I were chatting on Facebook recently. His exhibit is in the room next to Watterson’s. Thompson gave me a unique tidbit of information.
He said, “We may be distantly related; my middle name is Church, my father is from Lansing, [and] my uncle Jack worked at Michigan State.”
That is interesting to me because I once looked up Cathy Guisewite’s history and found that her father owned a graphic design firm named the “Guisewite, Church Agency.” Not that any of that is significant. I just find it interesting because my last name is Church and both these cartoonists have strong ties to Michigan.
Richard also told me that he introduced Bill Watterson to Stephan Pastis, during one of Watterson’s recent trips to Washington DC. He told me to keep that hush hush because Watterson had drawn for Pastis’ strip “Pearls before Swine” and the news hadn’t been released yet. Now you know.
Have you bought the “Art of Richard Thompson” book yet? You can get a signed copy by clicking here. There is a very good interview in the book where Bill Watterson sits down and discusses comic strip cartooning with Thompson. If you haven’t bought it you should!