Wednesday 5 June 2013

Enough, already

Bill Watterson, creator of the Calvin & Hobbes cartoon strip, surfaced on the blogosphere last night.  I was effectively MIA for the whole of the 1980s. In Graduate School from 1979-1983, so intent on The Work that I didn't see direct sunlight between Jan and Mar 1979 because I was living in one cellar and working in another and the working day was loonng.  In 1983 I made a rather abrupt transition between Graduate School in Boston and my first proper job in England - one of the few transitions in my life that hasn't involved an extended period "resting".  Then it was gallop gallop until I retired in 1989 and <poof> the 80s had fled past like frightened and ungraspable sheep.  So there are whole tranches of popular 1980s culture that I just missed: including Calvin & Hobbes. 
So I was surprised and delirah to find out a little more about the life and times of Bill Watterson. He had been drawing cartoons all through his childhood and as a student but it wasn't until 1985 when he was 27 that he first dreamt up and drew Calvin & Hobbes.  They say (I can't say, I was off-planet for the 80s) that this cartoon strip was a raging success, syndicated to dozens (that's 200 dozens = 2400) of newspapers and covering a range of idiosyncratic themes - whatever he felt like, whatever was driving him that day - a bit like a blog hmmmm? "It's surprising how hard we'll work when the work is done just for ourselves." he said.
Then almost exactly 11 years after he started  the strip, he quit.  Announced in November that he was doing his last C&W cartoon on New Year's Eve, wrote a letter to the editors of all the newspapers who'd been publishing his coherent exposure of the soul of one artist, drew the valedictory page that is cited at the top of this post and moved on to paint other stuff - woodland landscapes by one account.  He disappeared off the celeb circuit at the same time, gave no interviews, tolerated no merchandising and more or less out-Salingered JD Salinger.
I like that, it shows integrity.

I've  come across this sort of thing before. We were on vacation in Almuñécar about 20 years ago and dropped into visit a pal of The Beloved, who had escaped the drizzly isles and settled his family in Ojén where he pursued a hard-tack existence for his Art.  He earned a few shillings as a jobbing journalist for an English language newspaper in Malaga but that was just for food (for the kids - he didn't rate food much).  The extraordinary thing for me was that he able to paint lovely landscapes, lively streetscapes and photo-realistic portraits which he could sell for better money than writing obituaries of ex-pats for ex-pats.  He just couldn't bear to prostitute his art unless the family was, if not starving, at least fed up with bread and garlic soup again.
All he wanted to do, when we met him, was paint market women.  Fat, black-clad, with expressive hands and loud voices, these ladies would never appear on a chocolate-box but their vitality fascinated him.  He'd been working for several years trying to render on canvas, or on paper, or the inside of cardboard packing cartons the essence of the commercial transaction.  He would start awake in the middle of the night wrenched from a creative dream to take up a brush.  As he described it, he said that he was close to resolving the task the gods had set him so long before. Japanese culture was wholly alien to him - his native archipelago was on the other side of the world - but I had this image of a zen-master making (after years of trying too hard) the perfect brush stroke and embracing satori.  He'd been there before and he knew that once he'd knobbled his crones and their fantastical hands, he'd sink back exhausted until weeks or months later something else would drive him to the edge of madness.
I like that, it shows integrity.

I believe it's good for scientists to change tacks more often than they do and I'm a serial retiree myself.  Any time I spent more than a decade in the same field, I got tired, fractious and unproductive at the back end of the period.
Retire early and retire often!

No comments:

Post a Comment