Friday, February 05, 2010

brief interview with Bill Watterson link (HT to Mockingbird)

Though I have written often about theology and classical music one of my most enduring artistic heroes throughout my life has been Bill Watterson. When I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist, like many kids, really. Initially my role models were Schulz and (to my everlasting adult shame) Jim Davis. But in the later 1980s I found a new focus for my admiration and awe at the beauty of cartoons, Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes.

For some the signal moment in pop culture history from the 1990s was the death of Kurt Cobain or the ascendency and descendency of grunge (one of my friends loathes almost everything about 1990s music and rues the day that 80s glam rock and metal somehow stopped being niche market music). For me, the most memorable change in the arts (popular or otherwise) for me from the 1990s was the retirement of Calvin & Hobbes. I was glad, not because the strip ended. In fact Calvin & Hobbes is easily my favorite comic strip ever created. I know intellectually that Krazy Kat and Peanuts are the more important comic strips but I don't love them the way I love Calvin & Hobbes. I own a few volumes of Krazy Kat and Peanuts but I own every strip ever made of Calvin & Hobbes.

Yet I was glad that Watterson retired the strip because it meant that he was retiring the strip at the peak of his creative powers. My friends and I had seen Peanuts linger on for decades past its prime and I saw from his few interviews that Watterson was gracious about what many of the rest of us were not so gracious about, that Sparky may have been a genius in the medium decades before but he was no longer where he was. Snoopy had more traction as the mascot for an insurance company than as a character in himself.

Watterson was able to do what many artists can't or won't, take something at the peak of its artistic accomplishment and just move on to something else. This was the equivalent of the Rolling Stones decided to permanently call it quits after Let it Bleed or Exile on Main Street (which I admit I wish they had done). A band like the Beatles can retain its legend and allure because they quit while they were ahead. To pick an example of a strip that failed to live up to its potential or demonstrate its lack of potential from around the time Calvin & Hobbes was retired, when Bloom County mutated into Outland it demonstrated that B. B. was completely losing his touch. Even he admitted he was no Bill Watterson.

I admired Watterson for the reasons any child could admire his work during my childhood. His drawings were lively, wonderful, beautifully designed. I admired his way with words just as much as I admired his profound visual acumen. Calvin and Hobbes were able to hold forth on ideas while still being funny and somehow not seeming overly preachy. I loved his ability to swtich back and forth between visual styles without missing a beat and unfurling outlandish dreamscapes and fantasy lives for Calvin.

In my teens I loved the intellectual content of his humor, his social and political commentary and his willingness to directly engage in questions about religion, though compared to the actual demagogues for particular religious views he tended to pull punches, which I think is appropriate in an idiom that is designed to entertain. C. S. Lewis is said to have said that there is no book worth reading at eight that isn't more worth reading at eighty, or something to that effect. In the case of Calvin & Hobbes I will stoop to quoting the formerly great Frank Miller and say that anyone who reads Calvin & Hobbes quickly shouldn't really be reading!

I admire that Watterson was not only the greatest cartoonist in his idiom during his career but that he had the strength of artistic vision and wisdom to do what other people didn't, quit while he was at the peak of his powers and go do something new with his life. There is a time to keep moving forward, keep innovating, to continue doing what you've been doing. A Bach or a Beethoven can do that. Watterson, perhaps sensing that he is despite all his gifts not a Herriman, decided to not push beyond the strength and limits of his best work. He was also, I think, seeing the nadir of Peanuts and wanting very much to not go that route.

But there is, I believe, a humility in recognizing the limits of who you are, what the value and scope of your work is, and what can be done with it. The old rock axiom is that it is better to burn out than to fade away but the paradox inherent in that observation is that burning out is still fading away, just faster than usual. Burn out is blazing through all your best ideas in, say, your twenties and then having nothing new or substantial to say or do beyond that.

An old guy once told me that rock is a young man's game. You burst through all the ideas you'll have that are ever worth having and then you're done and if you have any dignity or common sense you retire and then live off the money you made. Jazz and classical are lifelong avocations. It takes you your whole life just to get decent at the art of those styles so you'll never run out of things to explore.

Appropos of comics, Watterson had the good sense to recognize that he was, in the best sense of the term, a rock star in comics. He also did not burn out or fade away. He just graciously said the song is over and went on with his life. Burning out is fading away with less dignity, assuming there is any dignity to be had. There's wisdom in knowing when and where to stop and when and where to carry on. If this wisdom were more commonplace there would be fewer Bill Wattersons in comics because there would be fewer mediocre strips against which his genius could stand in contrast. I think an author on Slate rightly saw the retirement of Calvin & Hobbes as the end of the era of the Sunday serialized strip. It was the last truly great and widely loved Sunday/weekly strip.

Watterson is right, his deepest fans understand why he did what he did. I haven't pursued being a cartoonist but I have pursued composing duo sonatas. In a small but precious way Watterson served as an example of how to be an artist in a commercial idiom without having his work completely subsumed by commercial interests. I like to think of him as a modern-day Josef Haydn, he managed to simultaneously sell out yet retain his artistic integrity. That's the stuff that artistic legends are made of.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

something a little bit different than the Peasant Princess

I heard the `99 sermons and so excused myself from the `08 version but these little blog entries represent an interesting alternative to Driscoll's approach to song of songs. Peter Leithart doesn't see the contrast between Driscoll's sex manual approach to Song of Songs and the typological/allegorical approach (which the Puritans often affirm in a variety of ways, notably Sibbes and Edwards).

A few interesting samples via link:

The "I love Jesus, but not like that." makes for a memorable joke but since we are called to love Christ MORE than "that" both in the sense of loving Father, Son, ,and Spirit with more than "that" level of passion and more than the subject of "that" desire then the risk of "I love Jesus, but not like that" is that in this sort of cultural millieu how does one differentiate between "that" sort of love and what is higher and more ardent than it?

I admit I skipped out on Peasant Princess because I figured, if anything, I'd be doing myself a favor. I'm at a stage in my life where I realize that what Mark wouldn't let singles hear at church retreats suddenly became some kind of sweeps week homiletic year-ender for 2008. Sure, I'm sure people were helped by those sermons but I still prefer to hear that other people benefited from the teaching rather than hear it myself. Meanwhile, Leithart's little commentaries are a reminder that while Driscoll has said there are the folks who would allegorize Song of Songs and while he himself transforms Song of Songs into what in my crankier moments I consider "Mark Driscoll's adventures in Christian porn" there are Christians who hold to one without letting go of the other.