Finding the Zen Pencils cartoon is serendipitous; I've actually been thinking about Bill Watterson lately. Earlier this summer I read two books that, in my mind, at least, are natural partners with Watterson's book, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and Art Speigelman's MetaMaus both reminded me of Watterson's book.
All three books offer fascinating views of artists doing their thing, their way, against the protests, concerns or confusion of critics and friends. And all three artists succeeded in doing their thing brilliantly because they ignored the outside voices and followed the direction of their own inner artist's voice.
I was expecting a silly, funny book of jokes, I guess, but Born Standing Up surprised me by focusing seriously (and not-so-seriously) on the development of the author's own artistic voice as a comedian. In the autobiographical book, which begins before Martin commences his professional comedy work and continues until he steps away from stand-up, Martin illustrates the process of conceiving of, developing and sustaining an artist vision. He shows and discusses the fear, hard work, confusion, mistakes, successes and frustrations that are part of the process. I was continually making connections between my own experience as an artist and that of the author, though our media and content choices are vastly divergent. It's a funny book and I recommend it in general, but I highly recommend it for my artist friends and students who might see a connection to their own lives and expression.
I make the connection between Born Standing Up and the Zen Pencils / Watterson quote cartoon because I see both as addressing the fundamental question of how and why we might choose to live a life of art, or expression, or whatever, rather than follow the easier route of a more proscribed life and work that is acceptable and expected beforehand.
MetaMaus, like Born Standing Up, is a book about being an artist, making hard choices, sticking to your idea even when its hard, even when years have gone by, even when the world has changed and even when other people don't "get it." Spiegelman's is a more subdued (though still beautiful and visually intriguing) book than Martin's, but the message for an artist reader is the same, the struggle and the necessity of doing things differently than the expectation is what makes art worthwhile.
All the time I was reading these two books, I kept thinking about the first book I remember reading that really talked to me about what it meant to be a professional artist. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is full of reprints of wonderful Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, but what I really enjoyed reading and rereading was the commentary by the author. Watterson, in the book, discusses his visual choices, inspiration and intent in creating the comic strips. He also discusses some of the changing specifications of cartoons in newspapers and syndication (back before we had any conceptions of cartoons on the internet) and goes into his decision to cease writing the Calvin and Hobbes weekly comic strip.
I must have read this book (and reread it) when I was 15 or 16, roughly the same time I was realizing that I could conceivably "do art" for a living. I remember the discovery that I could be an artist, roughly around sophomore year, as revelatory--since I was surrounded by teachers and had started to assume that I had to be a teacher (yeah, yeah, I know I still ended up as a teacher, but I split time as an artist, too). Watterson's commentary helped me get an early insider's view of what it might mean to be an artist and what it might mean to stick to one's own vision when being pushed, very hard, to change or compromise the way in which that art was made.
I don't mean to get too sentimental here, but The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book is a beautiful book and it was meaningful to me. The others are simply well done, interesting books about being true to one's self and expressing something new and different. I recommend all you artists (and everyone else) go read one or more of these books. Also, if you haven't read Maus yet, get on that.