At the end of 1995, the beloved Calvin and Hobbes sledded off the comics page for the final time, and its long-reclusive legendary creator, Bill Watterson, retired from the business, never to draw another syndicated newspaper strip.
Until this month.
Millions of readers across generations who have pined for the cartoonist's return got a sudden glimmer. Watterson's brilliant artistic hand was hiding in plain sight when he returned to the comics page, even if only for a limited engagement.
For three days this month, Watterson resurfaced, his inspired visual wit intact. For this, we have Stephan Pastis' real estate and surreal humor to thank.
Watterson's new artwork was featured June 4-6 in Pastis' syndicated strip, Pearls Before Swine, which appears in the Tampa Bay Times. Those three original Pearls strips are on display this weekend at the Heroes Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and will be auctioned for charity.
Watterson has long eschewed most interviews and publicity photos; he once made Time magazine's list of most reclusive celebrities. Working with him, Pastis says, "is like getting a call from Bigfoot."
So what, exactly, lured Watterson back to the page for the first time since ending his immensely popular boy-and-tiger comic in December 1995?
"Several years ago, when Stephan did one of his strips that mocked his own drawing ability and mentioned my strip in comparison, I thought it might be funny for me to ghost Pearls sometime, just to flip it all on its head," the goateed Watterson said, offering a clear indication that he still follows the funnies. "It was just a silly idea, and I didn't know Stephan, so I never pursued it, and years went by."
A couple of months ago, Watterson says, Pastis got in touch with him when the Pearls author's book tour took him to the Cleveland area, where Watterson lives. At the same time, Watterson knew that editor and designer Chris Sparks was looking for new ways to raise money for Team Cul de Sac, a charity founded by Sparks and cartoonist-illustrator Richard Thompson that raises money to fight Parkinson's disease, in coordination with the Michael J. Fox Foundation.
"Somehow the juxtaposition clicked on a light bulb," Watterson said.
Thompson, a longtime Washington Post artist who lives in Arlington, Va., ended his award-winning syndicated strip Cul de Sac in 2012 as he underwent therapy and surgery to treat his Parkinson's. Watterson is an enormous fan of Thompson's, and the two now have a dual exhibit at Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus.
"I thought maybe Stephan and I could do this goofy collaboration and then use the result to raise some money for Parkinson's research in honor of Richard Thompson," Watterson says. "It just seemed like a perfect convergence."
Pastis was more than happy to give it a shot. For three days, Pastis ceded his middle panels to Watterson.
Both in person and on the page, Pastis is self-deprecating about his artistic prowess. So the conceit in the strips is that a second-grader named Libby (a name that nods to "Bill") boasts that she can draw Pearls better than the feature's creator. Pastis' cartoon avatar turns over his "stick figure" comic to the girl, who proceeds to render rich worlds of imagination beyond the signature style of the strip. From invading Martians to big-mouthed (and Pastis-devouring) crocodiles, the art brims with the life of Watterson's expressive line.
The collaboration is a brilliant pairing of strengths, as Watterson illustrated Pastis' sometimes-meta script. "I think we both got some surprises," Watterson said. "I didn't know what he was going to write, and he didn't know how I was going to draw it."
"It was generous of Stephan to let me hijack his creation and more generous still to donate the originals," said Watterson, adding that he hopes the charity auctioning "meets with some success."
As for the experience of collaborating with Pastis, Watterson said he welcomed the challenge of a limited return to the page.
"I had expected to just mess around with his characters while they did their usual things," he said. "But Stephan kept setting up these situations that required more challenging drawings … so I had to work a lot harder than I had planned to. It was a lot of fun."