Happy (belated) Birthday, Calvin & Hobbes!

I meant to write this yesterday but real-life got in the way, which is ironic when we’re talking about Calvin & Hobbes, the much loved cartoon-strip by walking demi-god Bill Watterson. Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the first strip and I’m glad that this gives me an excuse to talk about something that has had such an indelible impact on my life. Calvin & Hobbes was a syndicated newspaper strip that ran from 1985 to 1995. It chronicles the adventures of a six-year old boy named Calvin and Hobbes, his stuffed-toy turned imaginary best-friend.

For those of you who have never heard of the strip that last point may strike you as strange. Calvin’s best friend is a figment of his imagination, Hobbes reverting to his stuffed form whenever anyone but Calvin is around. This has left the strip open to a number of academic interpretations; Freudian, Lacanian etc. It can be argued that Hobbes is a manifestation of Calvin’s repressed sexual urges for the neighborhood girl Susie Derkins, but to do so would be missing the wider point of the strip. There is nothing quite like psychoanalysis to suck the magic out of art, and Calvin & Hobbes is most surely a work of art. Calvin’s world is split into two distinct realms; there is the vulgar reality in which his parents, teacher and Susie inhabit, then there is the fantasy realm of his mind, in which anything and everything can happen.

Watterson wrote and illustrated every strip in an almost uninterrupted run (there were two extended breaks which never lasted more than a year), in that time he was able to fill 11 collections amounting to over 3,000 strips. His artwork, especially after 1989, was consistently extraordinary for a cartoon-strip, a medium notorious for the lack of space it afforded its artists. This was a burden for Watterson, who by the start of the 90’s was beginning to experiment more and more with the possibilities of the art-form. The strip became so popular however, that Universal Press Syndicate allowed him to reformat his Sunday strips, giving Watterson a full half page of a newspaper in which to do as he pleased. In ‘The Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book’ Watterson wrote in-depth about this and other issues he had with the syndicate, including the point that they came to loggerheads over the thorny topic of licensing. In his own voice Watterson is intelligent, plain-speaking, and gently cantankerous. He writes of how the licensing fight left him ‘exhausted and disgusted’, and of his steadfast refusal to allow his strip to be merchandised. One day no less a figure than Steven Spielberg wanted to talk to Watterson about the possibility of producing an animated feature based on the strip, Watterson refused the call, ‘Why would I want to talk to Steven Spielberg?’ he is supposed to have said, the man showed strong sack. The story is possibly apocryphal, as is so often the case with these things, but it illustrates perfectly Watterson’s unconventional approach to his art.

But let us get back to the strip itself, and what it means to me. I was six years old, Calvin’s age, when I first became aware of it. My dad was a huge fan, still is infact – after giving me all of the books he bought himself this – and would buy each new collection as it came about. Calvin & Hobbes came as a revelation because here was a character I could most definitely relate to. Calvin was not the same social character I would find in other fiction depicting children, he had a low regard for the company of others, he was often caught deep in his own fantasy world, probably because the vastness of the real world around him was simply too confusing, he was happiest on his own and, I should reiterate, his best-friend was a stuffed-toy. I still keep mine next to my bed by the way, though the secret messages he whispers me have become decidedly more sinister. I’m not sure how much Calvin’s temperament reflected my own compared to how it actually influenced me. When my Grandmother wonders where my demented hatred of society comes from I think I know which direction I should point her.

What made Calvin & Hobbes unique more than anything else was its profound world-view. It is no mere coincidence that the two are named after eminent philosophers, one ‘a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination’ and the other ‘a seventeenth-century philosopher with a dim view of human nature.’ It is not often that you find a cartoon-strip, ostensibly a children’s medium, deal with such universal themes as good and evil, love, life and death. Watterson infused the strip with a moral clarity unmatched by his peers. Politics rarely entered into it, but when they did it was not in the cynical, side-taking style of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury, it was never partisan. Rather, the characters looked at the topic in a broader sense, touching on corruption and ignorance, particularly in regard to the environment, which was a common theme. There was a strong anti-consumerist message in the series, and a low opinion of television and popular culture. Watterson often commented on the state of art via Calvin’s elaborate snow sculptures, many of which amusingly defied physics.

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Many critics are quick to pick up on Calvin & Hobbes’ philosophical issues and the implications of Calvin’s imagination bleeding out into his real world, what they are less inclined to discuss is how funny the strip is. Watterson has an unparalleled comic sensibility, never afraid to ascend to slap-stick. The most amusing strips are often the simplest, particularly when the two friends are driven to fighting. The elasticity and exaggeration of the character’s expressions echoes the great cartoons of the 40’s and 50’s, especially Tom & Jerry, and whenever somebody is hit with a snowball, normally with a great deal of force, one has to be reminded of the surrealist brick-hurling antics of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strip. Calvin & Hobbes was unique in its art-direction. Whenever Calvin indulged in one of his flights of fancy Watterson would change the style accordingly. Whenever Calvin and Susie play ‘house’ or ‘doctors’ (don’t even think about it, psychoanalysts) it is depicted in a hyper-realistic style evoking soap opera strips, and in the frequent incidences when Calvin sees himself as a Tyrannosaur the depictions of the dinosaurs are brilliantly detailed. Some of my favourite strips feature ‘Spaceman Spiff’, an intrepid space adventurer who more often than not finds himself crash-landed on some alien planet reminiscent of Krazy Kat’s scorched desert landscapes. The aliens Watterson draws are both hideous and hilarious. I would like to say more, I would like to discuss Rosalyn the baby-sitter, and Calvin’s perennially grouchy teacher Ms. Wormwood, who smokes two packs a day, unfiltered. I would like to tell you about Calvin’s parents, who added so much to the strip and whose relationship with Calvin was in equal amounts adversarial and touching. I would like to speak of my hatred of Moe the Bully, but really you should discover all this yourself. There are many strips online, and some crude appropriations best left ignored, but it is best to buy the collections, to hold the strips in your hands. You can see the influence the strip had in almost every aspect of popular-art, especially in web-comics, whose experimentation with style and form Watterson was practicing before the internet held such sway on our culture.

There is so much to discuss when it comes to this strip, so much to admire and extol. The breadth and depth of emotion marks it not only as the greatest cartoon-strip of our time (only beaten by Charles Schulz’s seminal Peanuts, though I don’t think I even believe that) but also one of the greatest achievements in popular culture. That’s a pretty big statement, but I’ll gladly stand by it. The strip’s honesty and lack of malice makes it a rarity in these pessimistic times. Even a jaded cynic like me can’t help but have his heart melted by the warmth Watterson infused in every brush stroke.

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No joke, no punch-line, just a vast and meaningful subject dealt with great sensitivity. It has been almost ten years since Watterson put down his pen. He does not do interviews, and will not sign any autographs, he has become, in any definition of the word, a recluse. Apparently he spends his time painting. Some fans are perturbed by his lack of acknowledgement of Calvin & Hobbes, but I think I understand. It would have been remiss of him to turn back on the principles he held so tightly during the series’ run. He did something very simple; he gave the world a gift, and earned his solitude. I wish him a lot of happiness, in return for all that he gave me.

 

 

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Calvin and Hobbes is copyright © Bill Watterson and Universal Press Syndicate.


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