Here are two things that don’t happen every day. Bill Watterson, creator of the revered comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, has released a new graphic novel — his first published work in the 28 years since Calvin and Hobbes ended. And the infamously reclusive, publicity-shunning artist has also spoken about the book in an illuminating and funny video describing his collaboration with the book’s co-creator, artist John Kascht.
The Mysteries, published Tuesday, is described by its publisher Andrews McMeel as “a mysterious and beautifully illustrated fable about what lies beyond human understanding.” Written by Watterson, it’s an elusive story about a medieval-style kingdom afflicted by terrible events, and what happened to the knights dispatched to discover the source of these calamities. Its haunting, black-and-white mixed-media illustrations, which combine painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture, were a collaboration between Watterson and Kascht, a caricaturist.
The collaboration between the two artists took years to bear fruit, and was often a frustrating process of trying to find the common ground in their mismatched styles and temperaments. All this is detailed in the video, in which we listen to the two artists’ accounts of the process while watching their hands paint, cut, paste, and assemble artworks for the book.
Watterson’s wry humor is in full effect as he appears to revel in how difficult he made the process of producing something new, both for himself and his collaborator. He reveals that he wrote The Mysteries a decade ago as a painting subject for himself but was “baffled to discover that I had no idea what the pictures should be for what I had written. [...] There was no particular audience for it and, so far as I could tell, it was unillustratable.”
He turned to his friend Kascht to help, but the problems didn’t stop there. Watterson had left gaps in the story for the pictures to fill in, but then realized he didn’t even want the illustrations to do that, preferring readers’ imaginations to do the work. “We were trying to make pictures that didn’t show things for a story that didn’t say things — which was probably the aspect of the book I liked the best,” he says.
Also, Kascht’s realistic style and methodical, researched process clashed almost irreconcilably with Watterson’s intense need to keep things sketched and improvised. “Our process was appallingly inefficient and wasteful, we were basically drawing the map as we wandered around lost,” Watterson says in the video. “John would emerge from weeks of work with some carefully considered, beautiful object, and my heart would sink. It wasn’t what I wanted at all!”
“It would be hard to overstate the incompatibility of our creative approaches,” Kascht agrees. “Now I understand why bands break up in the recording studio. [...] Our collaboration wasn’t a matter of compromise so much as collision — my detailed realism smashing into Bill’s stripped-down primitivism. This dumb method created tons of debris, and also flashes of lightning that couldn’t have happened any other way.”
After a year’s work, the pair dumped everything they had created and started over, realizing that juxtaposing their clashing styles within one image created interesting results with a “weird energy.” “Things clicked when we gave up,” Kascht says.
“Working through differences toward a common purpose is practically an act of defiance these days, and I’m as proud of that as of any other aspect of the collaboration,” Watterson says.
Whether you’re interested in The Mysteries or not, the video is a rare and frank look at the artistic process from an important creator we almost never hear from. Give it a watch. The Mysteries is out now.