Peals and Pearls of Collaboration from Watterson and Pastis

Available at Amazon

Available at Amazon

Everyone who really knows me remembers that I used to adore Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip drawn by Bill Watterson.  When the strip ceased almost 20 years ago, my loud laughter from reading the comics page in the morning also declined.  It wasn’t nearly as much fun to grab the comics page from my husband to savor it before he could!

Available at Amazon

Available at Amazon

My happiness quotient went up when the Pearls before Swine cartoon entered my life.  I savored the unrelenting nastiness of Rat, the happy  obliviousness of Pig, the wise ways of Goat, and the easy manner with which “Zeeba” the Zebra foiled the hunter-crocodiles next door.  I laughed when the cartoonist Stephen Pastis injected himself into the strip to be mocked and disdained by his own characters.  My daily grab of the comics section resumed.  With our own “Zeeba” in the house, our unusual black and white, retired racing greyhound, my vision took on a rose-colored tint again.

A funny thing happened in the cartoon. Pastis was absent as a cartoonist for a few days, and he had a guest cartoonist, 7 year old Lib, fill in. When Pastis revealed June 7 that “Lib,” who outdrew Stephen Pastis in his own cartoon strip was really “Bil” Watterson, I laughed at being outwitted myself.  What also impressed me was how they formed and did their collaboration.  They worked together via email before they ever talked with each other on the phone.   Obviously, long-distance collaborations online can yield wonderful results.  Today, we’ll explore how they worked to learn what their experience suggests to us aspiring collaborators.

So think about this … a legendary master is guided by an admiring and accomplished practitioner in the same field to use digital tools as they create new artwork together.  Opening up to each other, trying new ways of working, and selecting the right communications tools were vital to their success.



Pastis and Watterson admired each other’s work from afar. Pastis called Watterson “Bigfoot” because of his award-winning, legendary work product and almost 20 years of professional semi-hibernation. In contrast, Pastis was visible everywhere through his cartooning and public speaking.  Their membership in the world (network) of professional cartooning set the stage for collaborating.

Linking up

Pastis tried to meet Watterson when he traveled through Cleveland early in 2014.  He relied on Washington Post cartoonist Nick Galifianakis, a mutual friend to set it up.  Watterson did not respond positively at the time; Galifianakis encouraged him to email Watterson anyway.  But when Pastis left Cleveland, Pastis needed a reason to reach out because his geographic proximity to Watterson had ceased, too.


Always creative, Pastis used Watterson’s fame as a cartoonist to craft a storyline in the Pearls before Swine strip to lure a woman into bed.  He then emailed a copy of the strip to Watterson lauding his drawing and cartooning contributions to make people think and laugh.


Watterson’s response thrilled Pastis:  “Just getting an email from Bill Watterson is one of the most mind-blowing, surreal experiences I have ever had. Bill Watterson really exists? And he sends email? And he’s communicating with me?”


Watterson’s email commended Pastis’ work AND said that he had an idea for working with Pastis on a comic strip.Pastis nearly combusted with excitement.“Dear Bill,I will do whatever you want, including setting my hair on fire.”



Watterson outlined his idea to draw Pastis’ comic strip for three days while Pastis was out due to an alleged head injury.  The idea evolved into Lib, the 7 year old guest cartoonist, who would try to draw Pastis’ strip better than he ever could.


Pastis feared upsetting Watterson with any criticism and that he “would say something wrong. And that Bill would disappear back into the ether. And that the whole thing would seem like a wisp of my imagination.”But the collaboration proceeded because Watterson was “funny and flexible and easy to work with.”



Pastis began drawing Pearls before Swine in 1997 coinciding with the communications shift to speedy email and other digital tools whereas Watterson exited professional cartooning in 1995 when the vast majority of home internet users still relied on AOL and dial-up access to email.So they had to decide how to send their work back and forth.


Pastis said that Watterson was not initially comfortable “with scanners or Photoshop or large email attachments.” But Pastis convinced him that digital transmission was the way to go because Pastis worried about the UPS man leaving Watterson’s special packages in the driveway only to be “ravaged by a squirrel.”



The public purpose of the Watterson/Pastis collaboration was to raise money, but not for themselves.  Proceeds from the sale of the original artwork for the three comic strips are supposed to go to the Team Cul de Sac charity, part of the national Team Fox grassroots fundraising effort for Parkinson’s Disease research and education.  Richard Thompson drew the cartoon strip Cul de Sac before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.


I suspect another equally compelling purpose for two superb cartoonists (and good people) Watterson and Pastis was to have fun collaborating and learning together.

To recap, two extraordinary talents who ordinarily create art independently came together to collaborate.  We all have the same potential to bond with peers and make wonderful things happen.

We need to

  • stay networked in our fields of practice to know enough to respect each other’s contributions
  • have mutual linkages who might facilitate introductions
  • create or seize opportunities to work together
  • take risks that might reveal gaps in our knowledge or skill base such as Watterson did with technology, and trust that our peer(s) will do right by us
  • truly collaborate to bring out our best ideas
  • identify purposeful work that means something and satisfies us

It’s really that simple.  What long-distance collaborations might you be thinking about?  What gentle reassurance or push do you need to take the first step?

Read Pastis’ follow-up blog post discussing the evolving collaboration and links to the cartoon strips here. 


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