Watson is the creation of artist and writer Jim Horwitz, a suave, mysterious young man who it’s my pleasure to have finally met and to then introduce to you, the readers, by using a sentence that has no ending, only beginnings, much like a Groundhog Day New Year, and that originally started when
I discovered Watson, a topical weekly webcomic that features the titular character, Watson the dog, and the children he guards in the Good Haven neighborhood and uses a variety of art styles and cameo appearances by other characters, brilliantly drawn by Jim Horwitz, a strange, sophisticated
young man who
BC: Who are you?
JH: I’m the real Jim Horwitz. It’s really me.
BC: Are there many imitators?
JH: At least seven, nationally, that I know of. There’s one in Japan who created a Watson knock-off site called American Funny Dog; his English is very poor. He calls himself Jim “Hot-wires,” which is funny because that’s what MS-Word spell-checks my last name into. – He may be running Word-2010 on his computer. …I don’t know.
BC: How do the fakers do in-person? Have you ever met any of them?
JH: Most fakers have trouble navigating the chemistry of my warmness with my neurotica. Most fans can usually spot fakers at events, but not always. Supposedly, there’s a Jim Horwitz in Canada who does very well. From what I hear, he hasn’t paid for a meal or hotel room since 2012. A friend with connections to the Ontario police tells me he has a specially designated ambulance he uses to zip through traffic if he’s in a hurry. He also does stand-up at the Elk’s lodge every other Tuesday.
BC: Where is there an Elk’s Lodge in Ontario?
JH: There’s one in Echo Bay on Church Street. The Elks are very big in Ontario. There’s at least 15 chapters; maybe 20.
BC: What kind of comedy does the fake Jim Horwitz do at the Elk’s lodge?
JH: Shticky Jewish stuff, from what I’ve heard. Getting the bagel caught in the elevator door. Forgetting to milk the chicken. The usual drill. – You know.
BC: Do you consider yourself a cartoonist, an illustrator, an artist, or something else?
JH: I consider myself a cartoonist. That’s the best of the four, I feel. I once tried to get a table at Elaine’s telling them I was something else and it went very badly. I got a terrible table by the kitchen.
BC: What did you tell them you were?
JH: A platypus.
BC: Did you get to eat?
JH: Eventually. I made the mistake of going there the night the restaurant was closing for good. I had no idea. It was wall-to-wall people. I remember Gay Talese and Alec Baldwin were having dinner at the table right next to me. Eventually, Gay vouched for me and the platypus thing was soon forgotten.
BC: Did you get a better table?
JH: No. They threw me out.
JH: No one likes a smart-ass platypus.
BC: How did you get your start as a cartoonist?
JH: I started doodling when I was young and just kept with it. I think that’s good advice for any field. Just keep at it, keep learning, and, in time, you’ll probably improve.
BC: What do you think your biggest breaks were?
JH: Not getting syndicated when I was 22.
BC: What’s the story?
JH: In the late 90s, Universal Press was interested in my college strip and we talked steadily for six months. I kept sending them new stuff and we kept talking every few weeks to fine-tune it. It was super exciting, but I was very young. The strip was very elaborate visually and I’m almost certain I would’ve burned out after a few years. Had that happened, I fear it might’ve warped my sensibility about a life in comics. I’m glad things worked out as they did. I’m having more fun now than I ever have before.
BC: Is it true you have a bar in your studio?
JH: Yes, that’s true. Many artists have strange rituals they follow when they work.
JH: Charles Schulz had a favorite pen-nib he used: the Esterbrook Radio 914. When he found out the company was going under, he bought up every last box of pen tips, enough to finish out his career.
BC: What an interesting story. Are there more like that?
JH: The short-story writer John Cheever used to dress in a full suit each morning, take the elevator down to the boiler room of his apartment building, strip down to his boxers, and type for hours at a folding card table. Nabakov, I know, also wrote his novels on index cards and laid them out on the floor in front of him.
JH: There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil, I know. Supposedly, it was a favorite of Nabakov, John Steinbeck, Stanley Kubrick, and Truman Capote. People in Hollywood seemed to think it had magical properties. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I enjoy the idea of rituals and understand why people have them. They make life a lot more fun.
BC: Do you have any cartooning rituals you swear by?
JH: I do write my gags on diner checks, the kinds of little pads waitresses use to take your order at restaurants.
BC: That’s unusual. Why those specifically?
JH: There’s not a lot of space to write, so it encourages simplicity and economy. It also reminds me that readers are coming and going and have places to be, like workers in the city grabbing a sandwich. “…Whatever you’re gonna say, make it good and make it fast.” – Something kind of like that.
BC: And, you also have a special kind of coffee cup that you like to use.
JH : Yes. They’re the blue-and-white Greek Anthora coffee cups. I like them as well for the same reason. They’re hard to find, so I have to order them specially from New York. The pads and the cups kind of go together. Whenever I travel I bring both with me. Whenever I stay at a hotel, I always have them in my room. The coffee at some hotels is very good and I don’t like the idea of putting it in a paper cup, but if I’m at some little place I have no problem switching out one of my cups for the cup and saucer on the table. I like to have things a certain way.
BC: What sort of tools do you use when you draw?
JH: I draw on paper that’s very large because I don’t like feeling crowded when I draw. I don’t like to feel the edges of the paper creeping in. I always like to feel that I have more room to fiddle and explore. I also don’t draw everything on one page. I cut things out.
BC: I’m confused. What do you mean?
JH: I don’t draw my strips on a single page. I used to, but when I made mistakes too much erasing caused the paper to wear and thin. Now, I draw all the elements separately on one large sheet like a shopping list, and then cut them out with a scissors arranging them how I like. If something needs to be changed I can just switch things out.
BC: That seems kind of brilliant, but also very strange. Who else does that?
JH: No one that I know of.
BC: Do you ever re-use elements in your strips? Re-use clippings from other comics?
JH: Very rarely; not if I don’t have to. If I’m crunched for time, maybe I’ll re-use a little something, but I don’t like to do that. If you don’t re-create the elements of the strip, then the strip doesn’t grow. When you draw a comic strip, nearly every element of the strip changes with time. It’s seldom intentional. It’s just an inherent process of applying your mind to the same thing over and over again. It’s very much like a giant ship turning in the ocean or water boiling on the stove. The process is very gradual, but if you look back over time the differences are quite clear. I very seldom make conscious choices to change the look of the strip, but when you look back you can see that those changes are both gradual and inevitable. That’s why I like to keep drawing. When I do, I know that process is at work whether I want it to be or not. I’m interested in having it do the things it does, the small little turns that I don’t see happening. — I’m waiting for it to make the strip better.
BC: So, you draw the strip by hand and color it digitally?
JH: Yes. I color it in Photoshop.
BC: What kinds of pens do you use?
JH: Different kinds. I’ve been very into flexible-tipped brush pens for the past few years. They work very well. Although the brand I use is designed to be disposable, I’ve learned that I can leave the empties soaking upside down in a shot glass of ink so the internal inkwell refills. The ink I use is thinner than the ink that comes standard in the pens, but I’ve learned to correct my inking to manage it. I can always tell when I’m inking with a new pen or one that’s been refilled. The refilled pens glide much faster. I prefer a bit more drag when I ink. Using toothier paper also slows the pen down a bit. There are lots of little tricks one can use.
BC: How do you approach that blank sheet of white paper when you decide to start your next strip?
JH: After I finish a strip, I usually give myself a few hours to relax, and then re-raise my mental antennae to start receiving new ideas. As long as I’m moving around and interacting with things, ideas usually come to me. I have a mental queue of about two-to-three jokes and fiddle with them a bit on my little pads before committing one to a strip. When it’s time to draw, whichever idea is the best makes it out into the world. I seldom come back to old ideas that were in the queue, but it happens every so often.
BC: How long have you been drawing Watson?
JH: It first stated appearing online in 2010, but I’d been working on it as early as 2007. It’s been at least 10 years, but it’s only really been up-to-speed in a way that I feel good about for the past 4-5 years. As an artist, my work is never done. As long as I’m producing the strip it will always continue to grow.
BC: Since 2010, it seems like the look of the strip has changed a lot. The strip has used different dimensions, paper quality, line-art, and tone. Where do these ideas for the shifts in the strip come from? What rules or schedule guides the changes?
JH: There’s no schedule, per se. Different ideas flow into the mix from many different places. If I stumble upon something that interests me and that idea can be represented visually, or in the context of the strip, then I’ll implement it to develop the strip as best I can.
JH: The old paper series that you mentioned was probably the most memorable period, visually, that I’ve worked on so far. I had this idea that we tend to experience most things as brand-new, and looking at old comics that are visually decayed, in a sense, plays with the readers’ sense of nostalgia, which I think is true. – Other visual elements have floated in and out, of course, and as I said the strip continues to grow. Visually, I like where the strip is right now, but I’m always open to new muses and ideas as they float in through the window.
BC: Your readers are called “Watsoneers,” correct?
BC: What’s the most common trait that Watsoneers share? Who reads Watson?
JH: Based on what I’ve seen, Watsoneers tend to be thoughtful, kind, open-hearted, and fun-loving. My readers are very good-natured, creative, kind, and sweet people. There are some who read, comment on, and share every strip I draw. In that sense I’m very lucky.
BC: Is it true you worked for The Onion?
JH: Yes. I was a headline writer from 2001-2004, when the offices where still in the Mid-West. It was a lot of fun.
BC: Any Onion stories?
JH: I was hired by the then Editor-in-Chief, Robert Siegel, who wrote the screenplay for the Oscar-nominated Mickey Rourke film “The Wrestler.” The Onion never published its address, so if you didn’t know where the office was you probably didn’t belong there. As I recall, it might’ve been against the rules for Onion staff to tell non-Onion people where the office was; that seems right. Most of The Onion people that I worked with have gone on to other areas: SNL, The Daily Show, Comedy Central, etc. – The Onion’s a good place to pass through if you’re a creative person, writers especially. Most people have heard of The Onion, so it’s a good resume-builder to help open doors if you need it.
BC: Have you opened any doors with it?
JH: I use it to open the bathroom door on occasion, and sometimes to rein in the Lazy Susan if it acts up.
BC: Do you have any favorite headlines that you wrote?
JH: None of my personal favorites were ever used because they were too dirty. The ones that were chosen were funny, but not as remarkable. I wrote a lot of headlines about the Silver Surfer. None of them were ever used, but submitting them always made me happy.
BC: Do you remember any of those?
JH: “Brittany Spears annuls marriage to Silver Surfer.” – Oh, that makes me giggle.
BC: In the comic strip, what kind of dog is Watson supposed to be?
JH: A Labrador.
BC: He’s very floppy.
JH: When my friend Dan Piraro (“Bizarro“) did a cameo day for the strip he sent me a note that said: “For some reason, I always thought Watson was a bloodhound. But then, I thought Snoopy was a balloon animal.” – That made me laugh.
BC: I get the feeling you draw Watson to be extra floppy on purpose. Is that the case?
JH: Of course. Who wants to hug a chair?
BC: I know you mentioned before that you went to art school. How important do you think it is for cartoonists or other artists to have formal training?
JH: Not too important. I had already been drawing comics for many years before I went to art school. I went as a change of pace, but not necessarily to learn how to draw. The most valuable resource I got from art school was just time to work. The social aspect, of course, was also very enjoyable. That said, I think the most important ingredient in most endeavors is probably just persistence. I think practice is the great equalizer in most things. I absolutely believe in the power of the 10,000-hour rule, the notion that one can become good at most anything with roughly ten years of study.
BC: So, in that sense, do you feel art school was a waste?
JH: Lord no. It was great fun. Amazing things happened there. I met amazing people and did things I never would’ve done otherwise. I have the fondest memories of that time.
BC: What are some stories you can tell us?
JH: In my first year, there was an event called “Studio Days,” where faculty members came around to artists’ studios to pop-in to see what folks were working on. I was told that it was common to have little treats waiting as a way to “entertain,” but I wasn’t sure what to get. Most of what I knew about professional artists came from TV and movies, so I wasn’t sure what tone to strike with my professors. I ended up preparing a folding card table with 40 plastic cups of Jack Daniels and 20 packages of Marlboro cigarettes. I thought that’s what artists liked.
BC: How did that go over?
JH: Most of them thought it was a kind of installation piece, a kind of put-on or something. No one really knew what to make of it. – I do remember the visiting professor from Australia slammed a whole glass of whiskey after the other professors had left. He didn’t take any of the cigarettes, but he did like the booze.
BC: What happened to all the remaining whiskey?
JH: It went back into the bottles and slowly disappeared over the course of my first year.
BC: Was liquor allowed in the studios?
JH: Of course not. What fun is that?
BC: What kind of art did you make in art school? Were you drawing comics?
JH: I did a lot of different things. It was a great, aimless, meandering sort of adventure. At one point, I made a kind of art film that had a scene involving dead bodies. I remember I contacted the head of the anatomy lab at the medical school to see if he would sign-off on it. — We worked it out. He said I could film what I wanted, provided I kept towels over the faces of the cadavers to protect their identities, which I did. In the end, the bodies weren’t an integral part of the film, but it was still a memorable experience. In retrospect, I don’t think I did enough at art school. If I could do it all over again I’d have twice as much fun. I was much too sedate.
BC: What was the most important thing you learned in art school?
JH: How to make a martini.
BC: Funny. Who taught you that?
JH: My adviser, David Becker. Learning to mix a martini without bruising the gin can be tricky. Not everyone can do it.
BC: So, what’s the secret?
JH: Go to art school. — You’ll see.
BC: Do you have any stories or gossip about other cartoonists you can tell us?
JH: I was very friendly with the late cartoonist Roy Doty. I would always see him once a year at the annual cartoonists’ event, The Reubens, which is like our version of The Oscars. One year, I told Roy that I was worried about my career and asked if there was any advice he could give me to help set my mind at ease. Roy put his hand on top of my head and said, “There! I’ve blessed you. Now you’ll be a success. You can stop worrying.” From then on that got to be our regular routine; whenever I saw him at The Reubens he would always bless me. He passed on in 2015. That was very sad. He was a lovely person.
BC: How many times did Roy bless you?
BC: Did it work?
JH: Oh, yes.
BC: Do you follow any other comic strips right now?
JH: I follow the strips of my close friends as a way to see what they’re doing. I read “Bizarro” by Dan Piraro. “WaynoVision” by Wayno. “Arctic Circle” by Alex Hallat… And, a few others. I don’t spend as much time reading comics as I should. I’m a poo-poo head in that regard.
BC: What do you look for when you read someone else’s strips?
JH: Honesty, clarity, and ingenuity. Personally, I enjoy strips that are a little more airy than overly tight. I like the idea of simplicity in a strip, even though I sometimes having trouble maintaining it myself.
BC: What do you think makes for a good comic?
JH: Simplicity. Economy, And, the truth. – Big crazy hands are funny, too.
BC: Which of your works are you most proud of?
JH: My children.
BC: If your strip had a soundtrack, what would it be?
JH:I like the sound of a distant train at night. If there’s a slight current of howling wind underneath, that makes it even better. It’s not a song, per se, but it’s a sound I really like; it’s best heard from a dark room under a warm blanket.
BC: Do you have any projects coming up?
JH: I’ll be starting dinner in a few hours. I can set some extra plates, but I’ll need to know how many are coming.
(All artwork here has been reproduced with the permission of the artist. Copyright Jim Horwitz (c) 2016.)
(This interview is the copyright (c) of Curtis H. Hoffmann and Jim Horwitz 2016. It may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of the author(s).)
(The dinner was great, by the way. You should have been there. It was BYOB (Bring your own bagel). But, you really need to watch the elevators…)