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Posted at 1:30 PM ET, 02/ 1/2010

'CALVIN & HOBBES': How a Cleveland reporter landed a rare interview with reclusive Bill Watterson

By Michael Cavna

Nevin Martell, author of the recent book "Looking for Calvin and Hobbes," spent years trying to establish direct contact with Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive cartoonist.To no avail.

John Campanelli, a features reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, was recently handed Martell's book. "Instead of doing an article on the book," Campanelli says he "wanted to use the book -- and the announcement of the ['Calvin and Hobbes'] postage stamp and the 15th anniversary of the retirement of the strip -- as hooks for a wider-look article on the timelessness and enduring nature of the strip itself."

The result: Campanelli (as reported earlier today in Comic Riffs) himself hit upon the Holy Grail of many a cartoon-enthusiast journalist: an e-mail interview with Watterson, who the Plain Dealer says hadn't done an interview for more than 20 years. (Not for nothing was Watterson, who lives in Greater Cleveland, known as the J.D. Salinger of cartooning.)

Comic Riffs asked Campanelli, a 12-year veteran of the Plain Dealer as well as a former college cartoonist, how he came to score the interview that so many had futilely sought for so many years:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So, how and when did this interview come about?

JOHN CAMPANELLI: I interviewed Martell, [executive] Lee Salem at Universal [Press Syndicate] and the brilliant Lucy Caswell at Ohio State. Something she told me, that "people still grieve the loss of Calvin and Hobbes. It's genuine," became the theme of the article.

I then e-mailed Watterson a list of questions and -- to my complete amazement -- he responded. I've never had contact with him before.

MC: Were you aware of the dogged attempts by other journalists and authors to secure an interview with Watterson over the years?

JC: Oh yeah. I wasn't very hopeful I'd get a response, that's for sure. But you still gotta try.

MC: On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate yourself as a "Calvin and Hobbes" fan?

JC: I'd say a 9, maybe 9-and-a-half. It was an 8 until my son, who's now almost 10 years old, began looking through my "C&H" books a few years back. As with lots of other stuff, when you have kids, you get reintroduced to treasures. And you look at them differently, as a older person, a father, and you gain an even higher appreciation for them. These include children's books, music, some films, and, of course, comic strips. It really is one of those pleasures of having children that no one mentions.

MC: Were any limits or conditions placed on the interview?

JC: No limits, really. When he sent his answers, Watterson mentioned that he trusted his words would be used in context and that the questions behind them would be clear. That's it.

MC: Why do you think Watterson chose to speak now? What might have prompted this interview after all this time: the stamp? The anniversary? In some tangential way, perhaps even Salinger's death?

JC: I really have no idea. The interview happened before J.D. Salinger

MC: Had you interviewed any other noted cartoonists?

JC: I actually got into journalism because of cartooning. I was an engineering student at Ohio State and started doing cartoons for the student newspaper there, The Lantern. I fell in love with the newsroom and switched majors to journalism. While at OSU, I was able to attend one of Ohio State's triennial Festivals of
Cartoon Art, where I got to chat up the likes of Mort Drucker, Jim
Borgman and Buck Brown. It was incredible. I do not write about comics
as much as I like, that's for sure. Guess I am spending too much time
lobbying my paper to pick up "Mutts" by Patrick McDonnell.

MC: Was there any one thing about Watterson's responses that most surprised or intrigued you?

JC: You mean, besides that he answered them at all? I'd say what most intrigued me was his frank insight and, of course, his humor. And that
he has never regretted leaving the comics pages when he did. Amazing.

By Michael Cavna  | February 1, 2010; 1:30 PM ET
Categories:  General, Interviews With Cartoonists  | Tags:  Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes  
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I was hoping somebody would ask Campanelli how he did this! Thanks.

Man, I can't imagine being him right now. To shoot off a list of questions basically "knowing" that they were going into a black hole, and then to actually get a response from Watterson...dang.

Posted by: RKaufman13 | February 1, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

What a coup for Campanelli and the Plain Dealer! Since he is a comics fan, has he also interviewed one-time Cleveland resident R. Crumb and/or Cleveland native Harvey Pekar? They are certainly not the reporter's elusive target that Watterson is, but they nevertheless have interesting stories to relate that would be all the more meaningful to Clevelanders.

Maybe the Plain Dealer can set Campanelli out to get an interview with Thomas Pynchon next?

Posted by: seismic-2 | February 1, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

How does Campanelli know that the person who actually answered the questions via email was in fact Mr. Watterson? Was his email address

Posted by: iamevilhomer | February 1, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

What a treat to hear from Bill Watterson after all these years! I only wish he had given us a peek at what he's been up to since 1995, and what lies ahead. But of course, he's entitled to his privacy. More at:

Posted by: Baxter24 | February 5, 2010 4:42 AM | Report abuse

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