Bill Watterson is the Bigfoot of cartooning.
Few in the cartooning world have ever spoken to him. Even fewer have ever met him.
In fact, legend has it that when Steven Spielberg called to see if he wanted to make a movie, Bill wouldn’t even take the call.
So it was with little hope of success that I set out to try and meet him last April.
I was traveling through Cleveland on a book tour, and I knew that he lived somewhere in the area. I also knew that he was working with Washington Post cartoonist Nick Galifianakis on a book about Cul de Sac cartoonist Richard Thompson’s art.
So I took a shot and wrote to Nick. And Nick in turn wrote to Watterson.
And the meeting didn’t happen.
Bill apparently had something to do. Or more likely, wanted nothing to do with me.
Which is smart.
But Nick encouraged me to send an email to Bill anyways. I said I didn’t want to bother him.
But a week or so later, this Pearls strip ran in the newspaper:
And I figured this was as good of a time to write to him as any.
So I emailed him the strip and thanked him for all his great work and the influence he’d had on me. And never expected to get a reply.
And what do you know, he wrote back.
Let me tell you. Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?
But he was. And he had a great sense of humor about the strip I had done, and was very funny, and oh yeah….
…He had a comic strip idea he wanted to run by me.
Now if you had asked me the odds of Bill Watterson ever saying that line to me, I’d say it had about the same likelihood as Jimi Hendrix telling me he had a new guitar riff. And yes, I’m aware Hendrix is dead.
So I wrote back to Bill.
I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”
So he wrote back and explained his idea.
He said he knew that in my strip, I frequently make fun of my own art skills. And that he thought it would be funny to have me get hit on the head or something and suddenly be able to draw. Then he’d step in and draw my comic strip for a few days.
The cartoonist who last drew Calvin and Hobbes riding their sled into history would return to the comics page.
To draw Pearls Before Swine.
What followed was a series of back-and-forth emails where we discussed what the strips would be about, and how we would do them. He was confident. I was frightened.
Frightened because it’s one thing to write a strip read by millions of people. But it’s another thing to propose an idea to Bill Watterson.
The idea I proposed was that instead of having me get hit on the head, I would pretend that Pearls was being drawn by a precocious second grader who thought my art was crap. I named her “Libby,” which I then shorted to “Lib.” (Hint, hint: It’s almost “Bill” backwards.)
At every point in the process, I feared I would say something wrong. And that Bill would disappear back into the ether. And that the whole thing would seem like a wisp of my imagination.
But it wasn’t that way.
Throughout the process, Bill was funny and flexible and easy to work with.
Like at one point when I wanted to change a line of dialogue he wrote, I prefaced it by saying, “I feel like a street urchin telling Michelangelo that David’s hands are too big.” But he liked the change. And that alone was probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.
I don’t want to say any more about our exchange because to do so would probably be to compromise the privacy he so zealously guards. But I will offer you this one biographical tidbit:
Technology is not his friend.
I found that out when it came to the logistics of the artwork. I drew my part first and then shipped him the strips. I wanted him to fill in the panels I left blank, and simply scan and email me back the finished strips.
I asked him to do this because I did not want to be responsible for handling his finished artwork. Partly because I knew it would be worth thousands of dollars. Partly because I knew he wanted to auction it off for charity. And partly because my UPS driver has a tendency to leave my packages in the dirt at the end of our driveway. (I could just imagine the email I’d have to write the next day: “Dear Mr. Watterson – The first comic strip you’ve drawn in 20 years was ravaged by a squirrel.”)
So this left doing it my way. Digitally.
And this is when I found out that Bill Watterson is not comfortable with scanners or Photoshop or large email attachments. In fact, by the end of the process, I was left with the distinct impression that he works in a log cabin lit by whale oil and hands his finished artwork to a man on a pony.
So I proposed working out our technological issues over the phone. But he didn’t want to.
At first I thought it was because he didn’t own one. Or have electricity. But then I remembered we were emailing.
And so I soon came to the sad realization that he probably just didn’t want me to have his phone number. Which was smart. Because I would have called that man once a week for the rest of his life.
And so we worked through the technological problems via email.
And unlike every other technological problem I’ve ever had, it was not frustrating.
It was the highlight of my career.
The only thing Bill ever asked of me was that I not reveal he had worked on Pearls until all three of his strips had run. (And if you haven’t yet seen those three strips, they can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.)
And so I did not reveal his participation until now. And it was the hardest secret I’ve ever had to keep.
Because I knew I had seen something rare.
A glimpse of Bigfoot.