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When Cartoonists Go Kapow! : Comics: Bill Watterson is the latest in a series of artists to cap the inkwell. What's going on?

November 16, 1995|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the old days, successful comic-strip artists drew till they dropped dead--and sometimes longer, if their strips were bequeathed to others.

Then, in 1983, "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau rattled the industry by taking a 20-month sabbatical.

"That sabbatical inspired other sabbaticals, and those sabbaticals led to retirements," says Steve Moore, whose "In the Bleachers" panel appears in about 200 papers, including The Times.

The latest to take that plunge is Bill Watterson, 38, the man behind "Calvin and Hobbes." After two nine-month hiatuses in five years, the reclusive cartoonist said last week that he was hanging up his pen for good.

"I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels," he said in a letter to newspaper editors. "I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises."

So on Dec. 31, Watterson's Ritalin-deficient juvenile delinquent, Calvin, and his stuffed tiger sidekick, Hobbes, end their 10-year run on the funny pages and head for that Big Cartoon Panel in the Sky.

They join a growing clique of comic strip corpses: Berke Breathed's Opus the penguin, Jim Unger's Herman and Gary Larson's loony bin of talking cows, half-wit humans and cigarette-smoking dinosaurs.

The exodus has disheartened not only fans, but also the cartoon world itself. Watterson's departure triggered a new round of bewilderment and debate among those who draw for a living.

It used to be that "you did it forever, no matter what the quality was," says Moore, who doubles as a Times news editor.

"The new camp [of cartoonists] says that when the quality of the strip starts diminishing, you get out of the business."

*

That shift in attitude has some industry veterans shaking their heads, but others scrambling to make the cartoonist's life easier.

Universal Press Syndicate, which has been hardest hit by the trend (Larson, Trudeau, Unger and now Watterson), now offers a month's annual vacation to artists who have five years with the company, says Lee Salem, editorial director.

"I don't think newspapers are crazy about it . . . but I'd rather have cartoonists take one month off every year than 20 months every five years," Salem says.

So far, three of the syndicate's seven eligible artists have opted for the annual break. Among the takers: Trudeau and Cathy Guisewite ("Cathy").

But others are either afraid of losing newspaper clients or simply skeptical of the need for special time off.

"If I'm going on vacation, I just work ahead," says Mort Walker, 72, whose "Beetle Bailey" strip has run for 45 years. "Most of us feel a responsibility to our readers. I would hate to disappoint them."

Walker, however, has help. "I took on an assistant pretty much from the beginning," he says. "Now I have two guys help me write ideas . . . [and] my son inks in my [pencil drawings]."

He concedes that those who go it alone have a tougher time. "You need someone to bounce your ideas off. . . . It's a lonely life [otherwise]."

And a potentially stressful one.

"It's not like any other job," Salem says. "If you have dinner or lunch with [cartoonists] even in a non-business setting, you can still hear their minds turning and clicking."

And some wilt under the pressure of having their work on public display all the time and having to crank it out 365 days a year, he says.

The result is what's known in the industry as "white-paper fever," staring at a blank sheet and panicking for lack of ideas.

Moore and Lynn Johnston ("For Better or for Worse") get around it by working many weeks ahead of their deadlines. It takes the pressure off and the ideas flow better, Moore explains.

But not everyone enjoys that luxury.

Trudeau, for example, works under a much tighter deadline to keep his strip tied to current events. Others, like Watterson, reportedly devote extra time to the illustrations, again compounding time constraints.

*

In 1994, when Watterson's syndicate announced that he was taking a second hiatus (the first ended in 1992), the move prompted hoots and jeers from some of his cartoon colleagues.

"I think it's a tad much," cartoonist Greg Evans ("Luann") told Editor & Publisher magazine at the time. "Even Johnny Carson didn't get this good of a deal."

Not surprisingly, Watterson's upcoming retirement has drawn similar comments.

"We just had a big meeting [of cartoonists] in Connecticut, and everybody was talking about it," Walker says. "It's mystifying to me, but I suppose we're each built differently."

So will others follow suit?

Universal's Salem considers the recent spate of retirements "a fluke." Larson, he says, simply wanted to move on to something else after more than a decade of "The Far Side"; Breathed decided comics were a "moribund art form" and trashed his "Outland" as he had previously abandoned "Bloom County"; Unger reportedly quit for health reasons.

There wasn't any common denominator, Salem says. "There's no test we can give where if the patch turns blue, we know they'll quit after 10 years."

But Walker suspects otherwise.

"Most of these guys [who retire] are not very sociable." Larson constantly turned down invitations to appear before the National Cartoonists Society, and Watterson, who is regarded as the J.D. Salinger of comic strip creators, was "a complete recluse. . . . We gave him two Reuben Awards [for outstanding artist of the year] and he didn't even write a thank-you note."

Still, Walker says he feels a loss at the strip's demise.

"I'm just sad," he says with a sigh. "I've always said that what cartoonists do is create friends for readers. I feel like I've lost a friend."

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