In 1995 Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson gave the commencement address at Kenyon College and offered the graduates some advice: Forget traditional ideas of “success”, and follow your own passion. Watterson told the students that raising a family instead of pursuing a career was perfectly okay as was taking less pay to do something that makes you happy.
In the last few weeks a strip by Gavin Aung Than paying tribute to Bill’s speech became a popular item on the internet, one that many artists readily embraced and shared. And, as you’ll see if you follow the link, it is a good piece of work repeating some inspirational opinions by one of the most popular creators of the last fifty (or more) years.
But—here it comes—not everyone can be Bill Watterson.
Watterson retired from cartooning at the end of 1995 a millionaire multiple times over: Calvin and Hobbes was appearing in 2400 newspapers worldwide, reruns of the strip still appear in 50 countries, and the books compiling the series have sold over 50 million copies (and counting) and continue to pay him royalties. He turned down licensing opportunities which would have most certainly generated gobs of cash for himself and his syndicate—he had signed away his licensing rights, but he was fortunate that he had contracted with Universal Press and they respected his feelings, turning away everyone wanting to create authorized merchandise (including an animated film by Steven Spielberg) while going after pirates. As he said in 2005, “Actually, I wasn’t against all merchandising when I started the strip, but each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I love.”
Being principled—and, more, being able to stick to those principles in the face of financial temptation—is wonderful and admirable. Bill Watterson’s popularity is well-deserved.
But it also doesn’t mean that his success is achievable by every artist. It is nice to hope, to want, to dream…but the reality is that a Calvin and Hobbes doesn’t come along every day. Not everyone can create characters that appeal to millions of people; not everyone can draw and write stories that engage enormous audiences. Not everyone can afford to follow their passion regardless of cost.
Sometimes—maybe too often—we have to do the crappy jobs to pay the bills. Sometimes we’re stuck doing work that is less than rewarding. But here’s the thing…it is not a failure to do those crappy jobs. It is not a failure to be responsible. “Failure” can only come in one of two ways: by allowing the “have to” jobs to undermine the passion so necessary of being an artist…or by allowing the passion to override the ability to stare reality in the eye and take (or keep) the “have to” jobs when necessary. There’s nothing romantic about being a starving artist.
Bill Watterson’s commencement speech was terrific and motivational, but it was also given from the outlook of someone who had achieved an unimaginable level of success, of someone whose genius—and, yes, absolutely, Bill is a genius—allowed him to retire wealthy at the age of 37.
It’s not quite the same for the rest of us. Which is not a bad thing, really; what we do accomplish, what we do achieve as artists, has meaning. I’m just saying we have to keep things in…perspective.
On another note, a documentary about Calvin and Hobbes, Dear Mr. Watterson, will be released in November.