'LIO' creator MARK TATULLI shares the secrets of spoofing 'Calvin & Hobbes'

The 'Riffs Interview: Being Bill Watterson -- 'LIO' creator MARK TATULLI shares the secrets of spoofing 'Calvin & Hobbes'

By Michael Cavna  |  August 11, 2010; 12:05 PM ET

Will the real bespectacled, besweatered Bill Watterson please stand up? Because a fellow Universal Press Syndicate creator, it seems, is cribbing your look.

Numerous cartoonists have been accused over the years of borrowing their inspiration a little too liberally from "Calvin and Hobbes." But "Lio"creator MARK TATULLI might be the first to stand accused of borrowing his actual look a mite too directly from the great and reclusive Watterson.

Comic Riffs, though, does give Tatulli credit: The front and back covers to his just-released "Lio" collection, "There's Corpses Everywhere,"might well be the most inspired cartoon "jacket" we've seen this summer.

Not that the publisher, Andrews McMeel/Universal, was initially too thrilled with Tatulli's spoofing of their universally acclaimed property that is "Calvin and Hobbes."

"Mostly, it was the nameless suits in AMU corporate that were against it," Tatulli tells Comic Riffs. "They sent messages through my editor, at first outright rejecting it. Then they tried another tact: They said it wasn't funny; nobody would get it; it's bad taste would hurt sales.

"The more they balked, the more I knew this was right."

The front cover features Lio excavating a "Calvin" skull while his pet cephalopod examines a stuffed Hobbes. The back cover features a photo (taken by the creator's son) of Tatulli mimicking the iconic Watterson image -- one of the very few publicity stills of Watterson actually known to exist.

Comic Riffs caught up with Tatulli to talk spoofs, goofs and whether Lio the silent upstart speaks volumes about the creator's own personality.

MICHAEL CAVNA: When did inspiration strike that you wanted to spoof "Calvin & Hobbes," and how much time/energy/money did it take to convince AMU that it was indeed an inspired idea? 

MARK TATULLI: Well, "Calvin and Hobbes" is sort of this sacred cow among comic strips that others dare not touch -- although you do see spoofs online...but print people tend to stay away. And there's nothing I like skewering more than a sacred cow. It's a perversity that harks back to my childhood ... knowing I shouldn't do something makes me want to do it all the more.

It was that same excitement I would feel when I knew my sister was having a multi-girl slumber party and I was told by my parents not to scare them. Well, of course I lined up the rubber masks and prepared ever sort of high-tech method of audio and visual monster I could think of, sitting and waiting for the proper moment to pounce. That same feeling of excitement rarely comes as an adult, but this feeling was very close. Plus, when I had done a Sunday "Lio" strip spoofing the last "Calvin" strip, it received such passionate feedback, good and bad -- really angry -- that I knew I wanted to push my luck and try it on a book. Finding out my publisher was against it really convinced me I wanted to do it.

MC: What did they say to try to talk you out of it? And did you consider not doing it? 

MT: Mostly, it was the nameless suits in AMU corporate that were against it. They sent messages through my editor, at first outright rejecting it. Then they tried another tact: They said it wasn't funny; nobody would get it; it's bad taste would hurt sales. The more they balked, the more I knew this was right. Finally, I went to [Universal Press Syndicate executives] Lee Salem and John Glynn, who both said they were fine with it, and corporate capitulated to to the UPS editorial adults. Good guys, John and Lee ... they know funny trumps corporate concerns everytime. That's why I love UPS. And it's parody, after all. What cartoonist would be offended by parody?

Seriously, in my experience, every comic strip that I have spoofed in my strip -- no exceptions -- have generated good responses from the creators. Would Watterson be different? I don't know, but my guess is he couldn't care less. It is my understanding that he is so absorbed in his own world that he doesn't move in anything close to my circles. And that's fine, God bless 'im, I wish I had the financial stability to drop out completely like he has. I think most cartoonists would.

We are all solitary folk by nature and control freaks, which leads us to comic stripping, the ultimate personal expression with very little outside influence. But because of the state of comics and newspapers, we must self-promote and stay in the public mainstream to remain viable. Watterson, the lucky duck, does not have to do that. But my guess is Watterson will never see it and wouldn't give a hoot if he did. Out of domestic print syndication since 1995, "Calvin and Hobbes" is probably still in more newspapers than mine [worldwide], so the last laugh is really his.

MC: So did you sketch out a number of different approaches before deciding on this cover -- with Lio clutching "Calvin's" little skull?

MT: No, this is always the only approach that sprang to mind and the only "Calvin" book I wanted to parody. It seemed to fit the Lio world perfectly and it had been worked out in my mind long before I proposed it. The original thumbnail [above], measuring about four inches across, is pretty close to the final inked drawing.

MC: Either directly or through backchannels, have you received any comment or feedback from the esteemed recluse that is Mr. Watterson?

MT: Nope, nothing from the J.D. Salinger of the comics, and I never expect to hear from him. It's not his M.O. I did, however, get a lovely and thoughtful note from Gary Larson's wife, Toni Carmichael, who got a copy of the book and is a "Lio" fan! Very sweet lady! The only person, besides my mother, who sends me snail-mail letters! Well, aside from the entirely awesome fan letters from older readers or young fans that I do get from time to time. There's nothing like tearing into an envelope and unfolding a page full of nice, hand-written words of encouragement. In this electronic age, you don't get that much anymore.

MC: So is the back cover meant as the deepest form of heartfelt homage to the great master -- or are you simply just mocking Watterson's '80s-era specs and sweater with typical "Lio" mischievousness? 

MT: Most fans of Watterson and cartoonists know that famous iconic photo of Watterson ... practically the only one that exists. Do you think Bill covers lenses at family gatherings? Or do his relatives just know not to photograph him? I figure there's tons of pictures of him on Facebook in family photos that nobody knows about. ... Family is just instructed not to "tag" him under penalty of death. And I know that today, Watterson must cringe at the thought of that photo that he willingly posed for and I'm sure he regrets. It's screaming to be made fun of, don't you think?

That photo, [which] my son and I made, was especially fun for me. My son Dean actually took the picture, but I spent a bunch of time in PhotoShop getting it the way I wanted it. I went to a joke shop and bought those nose glasses with the mustache, and that's where the mustache came from. Thankfully, the big glasses are back in style -- all the kids are wearing them] and so I was able to get those in Spencer Gifts at the mall. My own sweater wasn't right, so I "stole" Watterson's sweater from his pic and PhotoShopped it onto me. I PhotoShopped my hair and even my teeth. The chair I am sitting in is the same one from the Watterson pic. And I tried to burlesque Watterson's "newspaper photo smile" as much as I could. Go completely over the top.

I cannot tell you how much I laughed making that photo. I laughed until I cried. It was a real joy and really just an inside joke for those who are in the know about Watterson. Of course my wife's big concern was that people will think I really look like that. But I would love to see Watterson's face the first time he saw that pic. I think he would laugh, that weird laugh you make when you don't want to laugh but you can't help it because you know it's funny. I would kill to see that.

MC: So what's your single favorite strip in this collection?

MT: I hate looking at my collections in the editorial process. I never read through them after they actually hit print. They depress me because I always wish I had more time to make them right. They always could be better. Make no mistake, daily comic stripping is nothing near a thoughtful pace, and ever strip is rushed, no matter who the artist or writer. Nicholas Gurewitch of "Perry Bible Fellowship" got it right...one, two or three strips a month. And he kept readers hanging, waiting for what he would do next. His strips are art, every one.

MC: Anything you'd like to add? Say, any cheeky comeuppance you'd like to dish out as you call out your feeble-minded detractors and give them a good what-for?

MT: Naw, I love the detractors. If some people hate what you're doing and telling the newspapers to stop printing it, you know you're doing something right. The real enemy of the comic stipper is reader apathy.