The mood in Room 9 was expectant, audience members asking each other, “Do you think he’ll show?” and, “Will he be here?” It was noon on Sturday, traditionally one of Comic-Con International’s biggest days, and it seemed as though all of the people packed into the event billed as “Berkeley Breathed: The Last Comic-Con Panel” expected something to happen; they just weren’t sure what.
“Bloom County” and “Outland” creator Breathed had not given much to go on in his panel description, but the brief text was tantalizing. “There is unofficial word that he may be revealing recent illicit photos and art of his best friend Bill Watterson, ‘borrowed’ from the latter’s secret retreat in the foothills of Colorado.”
Breathed took to the podium, accompanied by large entourage of his children, other teenagers, and a woman dressed as Wonder Woman. He stepped up to the microphone and raised his eyebrows. “You think Watterson’s gonna show up, don’t you?” he asked. “I know how to promote myself.
“I want everyone to hold up their right hand and testify that none of this will show up on the Internet. Absolutely swear to God. Nothing on YouTube. No one has these photographs.
“Are we full?” Breathed asked. There was only enough space in the room to fit three more people, and while they were being seated, Breathed leaned over and said to his son “It will always end up on YouTube. Watch. I’ll check ten minutes after the show. It’ll be there.”
Once the room was filled to capacity, Breathed offered empty seats on the panel to audience members standing outside. He pointed to one seat and said, “This chair is for the guy with the night goggles to see if anyone is filming this secretly.
“Was anybody at the speech I gave two years ago here, in a somewhat larger room?” he asked. There was applause. “Cool. Know in advance that you’re going to see a few repeat slides. I apologize about that, but it’s all toward a larger point.”
Breathed took a dramatic pause and said, “My heart is heavy for my personal good close friend Bill Watterson. The speech I gave a couple of years ago pretty much covered my career up to that point, lowly as it was, and I don’t want to repeat most of that today. I thought that I’d take the opportunity to address a growing controversy and to shoot down and kill the recent spate of vile rumors between Bill and me. There’s been forty-two books about Bill, there’s been two films, three documentaries. I think this is all very distressing, since I take the art form so seriously.”
Breathed showed a series of slides featuring books with made up titles like, “For Christ’s Sake, Where’s Calvin and Hobbes?” “Of course, this ended this last year with ‘Dear Mr. Watterson,'” said Breathed, referring to the 2013 documentary film. “Did anybody see this, by the way?”
One person applauded.
“Probably we would have had a bigger applause if they’d actually found Mr. Watterson,” said Breathed. “When they came to me, they said, ‘We’re going to find him. We’re very optimistic about this. The end of the film will be the big reveal, and he’s going to talk to us.’ And of course, that wasn’t likely.
“They had celebrities. They had great luminaries of our industry. They had Cathy Guisewite. My friend Charles Solomon, who’s a professor of animation and cartooning. They had,” Breathed paused, clicking to a slide of Mother Teresa in a Calvin and Hobbes tee-shirt.
“And of course, in 1999, Calvin became an official Catholic saint,” he said, showing a slide of Pope John Paul II holding a picture of the infamous “Peeing Calvin” knock-off, urinating on a caricature of the devil.
“They even conned me into contributing comments, and that was the problem,” Breathed said. “It was a problem, because I opened my big mouth as I tend to do, as I made my living doing. I was stupid enough to mention a few critical letters by Bill to me.
“They created a slight kerfuffle in the industry media,” continued Breathed, as he showed slides of Photoshopped magazines covers implying a feud between himself and Watterson. “I take my business just as seriously as Bill does. I think that there’s been some major errors. I’d like to announce the new Kickstarter campaign: ‘Dear Mr. Breathed, You’re So Fucking Easy to Find.’ In it, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to maybe review a few things, maybe talk about a few projects on the way, and yeah, maybe a few dollars will be made out of it. But more importantly, I wanted to address the controversy and set the record straight.
“The film is going to have luminaries in our business,” he continued, as he began to show a series of Photoshopped celebrity pictures. “I can compete with Bill’s film on every level.” He finished with a picture of Miley Cyrus striking a pose and looking very similar to Breathed’s Bill the Cat.
“This is what’s going to be in the film. I want to just go over a few things before I get to the controversy. These are a few films that are set up, either in pre-production or in production now. Most of them I can’t talk about, and I can’t even mention the studio, because that’s just the way they are.”
He showed slides from a project called “Flawed Dogs.” “This is about a band of dogs that attack the Westminster Dog Show and set things right,” explained Breathed.
Breathed showed some slides from a project with the title redacted, which is apparently about a steampunk pig and an elephant. “This is what I’m doing now, by the way, other than cartooning. Most people don’t have a post-cartoon life. I’m trying to figure one out. And it is films, which is what I’d always wanted to do. But I put it on hold while I cartooned for twenty five years, which was totally unexpected. So now I’m back doing what I thought I was going to do when I was seventeen, which is an interesting way to conduct a career.
“This is another movie that’s in development called ‘Something About C-Mo.’ This is a book that may or may not get published, but the movie is going ahead,” Breathed said. It’s a story about an alien dog that comes from a planet where the human/dog dynamic is reversed. “I don’t believe that anyone’s made a really great dog movie in a long time, so I’m intent on doing that.”
The next slide showed Breathed’s Opus and Bill the Cat next to the Gainsborough painting “The Blue Boy.” An equal sign hung in the middle. “I think this illustrates my approach to cartooning,” he deadpanned. “I take it just as seriously as Bill does. I put it in the lofty pantheon of fine art. He and I are dancing to the same tune.”
Breathed then told the story of how Watterson and he exchanged a series of letters in the 1980s. Breathed collected them and showed them in his previous Comic-Con panel, illustrating their friendly, often off-color relationship.
“When I quit,” Breathed said, “it annoyed him. It was bothering both of us that the space was shrinking on the pages. I wasn’t coming back up to the daily comic pages. I had given up. So he was a little annoyed that I quit and left him back in the dungeons.”
Watterson would frequently comment on the merchandising and product generated by “Bloom County,” as well as Breathed’s business choices. Watterson drew a cartoon of Breathed’s character Milquetoast telling Watterson’s Hobbes, “Quit the daily papers like I did, buy a boat, blow all your savings. When you run out of gas money, sell your home and move to a smelly pier in Seattle.”
“It created a little controversy, and it ended with the final cartoon, in which he’s suggesting that I bought my Pulitzer with the merchandising. The next frame I’m going to show is my drawing that I sent back to him. I’m going to run by it really fast, so no one has time to take a picture of it and put it on the web, because he would sue me to high heaven,” Breathed said.
He then flashed the infamous drawing of Hobbes and Bill the Cat in a compromising position with Chic Young’s Blondie. He showed it a couple of more times for good measure.
“I was forced into merchandising with a gun to my head,” Breathed joked. “I gave all the money to… no I didn’t give it to charity. It was reasonably tasteful, and I consider cartoons just as classy as he does.”
“Before I end, this is gonna be quick, and I’ll answer some questions and we can get the heck out of here and get some lunch,” Breathed promised. “I have a few secret photos from Bill’s new life. I don’t mean to suggest that this is some sort of payback. I know he’s a private person, but I think he wouldn’t mind me showing these.
“That’s his estate,” Breathed said, as a photo of a mountain mansion Photoshopped to include a giant flying saucer appeared. “He didn’t buy that with just cartooning royalties — I suspect there was some merchandising, too.”
Breathed showed a photo of Watterson Photoshopped into a group of blonde, scantily-clad women. “It’s the 2012 Tokyo Tattoo Invitational. The Calvin and Hobbes Tattoo Invitational. You would like to think a certain image follows him around, and I can promise, you it’s not what you think!”
After the slideshow, Breathed talked about his collections that were available through IDW. “There will be some limited merchandise,” he said as a final slide appeared: the three speed “Bildo.”
Breathed introduced his panel, “This is kind of my new family. This is my son and, I don’t know if it’ll embarrass everybody, Austin, Gigi, Abby, Heather, Zoe and Jill. They are here because they are much better looking than me. I am marrying Wonder Woman in a matter of months.”
Asked if he would ever reprint his college comic strip from the University of Texas from the 1970s, “Academia Waltz,” he replied, “Yes. As a matter of fact, the contract is sitting on my desk right now. I was talked into reproducing these by [IDW’s Special Projects Editor] Scott [Dunbier]. Most of them should never see the light of day again, not just because they’re drawn horribly but they just represent a sensibility that has rightfully passed.”
“It got me through Law School,” commented an audience member. “I have to thank you for that.”
“Thank you,” replied Breathed. “Do you think they should be reproduced and sold and given to children?”
“Well,” she replied, “Maybe I’m remembering them better than they were.”
After a discussion about the status of the Opus pilot and the development troubles that it has faced, Breathed said, “Will there ever be a movie? It’d be a huge roll of the dice, and I’m not sure I want to take it. I’d have to have more control than I had before, and I might have in the future, to be a real producer on it rather than a bullshit producer, which they’d be offering now.”
“Is there anybody right now that you’re reading?” asked an audience member. “In comics?” Breathed asked. “I used to sit down and have lunch with the ‘L.A. Times’ every single day for two hours, and I can’t say that I’ve done that in years. I am not reading the comic pages anymore. I’m kind of embarrassed by it now, but I got into [comics] in a backdoor way. I didn’t get into films, which was where I wanted to be. I just like to tell stories. Comics became a way that someone let me tell stories. I didn’t come at it like Bill did, which is a love for the art form, and with a depth that I never competed with.
“I’m kidding that I can approach it on any level that he does,” Breathed added. “And I respect how he has done it. I think that it is so cool that he has messed with the syndicate. You don’t see this in business at all very often. You certainly don’t see it outside in this convention center, or anywhere in the popular world, where an artist like Bill comes along and they have on the table almost a half a billion dollars in contracts for merchandise if they would just sign. The syndicate of course, in those days, owned most of ‘Calvin and Hobbes.’ They were going to get most of that money, and he just said, ‘No, I’m going home.’ Technically, they had the right to do it anyway. They would have had to face the firestorm of pissing him off. None of us know what happened, because it was all behind the scenes. Those letters he was writing me at the time, all of that was happening then. As he was gently mocking me for doing this stuff, it was because he was on the other side of it, battling to keep from having to do it.
“Charles Schulz was the most successful and richest entertainer in history,” Breathed continued. “That’s the kind of money Bill walked away from. He didn’t care. Where do you see that anymore? You don’t. I think he’s a frigging hero. He can hide as long as he wants. And I apologize for those pictures that are going to be on the web soon, of him with those girls.”