Calvin and Hobbes

This time Donny reviews a comic strip.

Calvin and Hobbes 1

Calvin and Hobbes
By Bill Watterson

So, you open up your newspaper to the Sunday comics section, and there you have your same old Garfield, and Wizard of Id, and the Family Circus (which was never funny once in its whole, sad run)… and there on one page is something very startling: an uncommonly large panel featuring a realistic rendering of a dead bird in stark black and white. Six-year-old Calvin and maybe-imaginary tiger Hobbes have found a dead bird, prompting Calvin to muse: “Once it’s too late, you appreciate what a miracle life is. You realize that nature is ruthless and our existence is very fragile, temporary and precious, but to go on with your daily affairs, you can’t really think about that… which is probably why everyone takes the world for granted and we act so thoughtlessly. It’s very confusing. I’m sure it will all make sense when we grow up.”

This is the touching (and smart) beauty of Calvin and Hobbes.

In another of my favorite strips, Calvin is looking to the sky and demanding it produce snow, and when none appears he shouts, “Do you want me to become an atheist!?” It’s classic Calvin and Hobbes: a funny joke with a larger philosophical question lurking not so far underneath it. After all, the characters are named after Protestant theologian John Calvin and political philosopher Thomas Hobbes. The comic is genius at bringing up very interesting philosophical questions in simple, humorous ways. Watterson was particularly scathing about the academic world’s tendency to use “pop psychobable” to “inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity.” Simplicity and humor is his philosophical method.

In another strip, Calvin is querying Hobbes: “I’ve been wondering, though. Is it truly being good if the only reason I behave well is so I can get more loot at Christmas? I mean, really, all I’m doing is saying I can be bribed.” It’s a philosophical quandary worthy of Plato. Is your only reason for doing good that you want to be rewarded in Heaven and not punished in Hell? This whole gag reminds me of an exchange between Penn Jillette (a vocal atheist) and a Christian who challenged him: “If there is no God, why haven’t you raped and murdered everyone you want to.” Jillette brilliantly replied, “I have raped and murdered everyone I want to. I don’t want to rape and murder anyone. Are you telling me you want to rape and murder people but you’re afraid of being punished?” In the comic strip, Calvin adds: “In other words, do I really have to be good or do I just have to act good?”

In another strip, Calvin wonders, “If Heaven is good and I like to be bad, how am I supposed to be happy there?” And in another classic, Calvin asks Hobbes if he could have anything he wanted what would he wish for? “A sandwich,” the sage tiger answers. Calvin rages at Hobbes lack of imagination and rants about how he would wish for trillion dollars or a space shuttle or his own, private continent. The last panel shows the back in the kitchen eating sandwiches, and Hobbes smugly says, “I got my wish.” Very Buddhist. Very wise. Very funny.

Watterson made fun of academia, he mocked the art world, and he satirized consumerism. In one of my favorite strips from the ‘90’s, he even goes after the violence and exploitation that had taken over superhero comics (especially in Image comics). Where most “political” and editorial cartoons tend to be shallow and on-the-nose, Watterson always had a deeper, wider, and more thoughtful perspective – and a funnier way of expressing it!

This series has head, but it also has heart. It is the most perfect rendering of the wonders of a child’s imagination and flights of fancy. I myself was a very imaginative boy – much like Calvin. I was always lost in daydream and make-believe. The “big question” posed by this series was: is Hobbes really alive and animated or is that just Calvin’s imagination? Usually we see Hobbes as a stuffed toy unless only Calvin is with him and then he’s a living, anthropomorphic tiger, but then some strips imply that he is real and autonomous of Calvin. Watterson said he always kept it an open question because the point was for the reader to choose. Here is the world how Calvin sees it; here is the world of the adults; which do you think is more “real?”

Most of the best stories to run through the strip revolved around Calvin’s wild flights of imagination: The first “box story” in which Calvin turned a cardboard box into a “transmogrifier” and hilarity ensues… When Calvin later built a “duplicator” out of a cardboard box… and then he upgraded it by adding an ethicator so it would create a “good twin” Calvin… When they go digging for dinosaur bones and discovered the remains of the Calvinasaurus… When he tried out for baseball and finds that he hates rules so much it lead him to invent Calvin-ball, a game where the rules change as you go (and he meditates on the relative costs of conformity vs. individuality)… The numerous strips in which Calvin pursued his “art” of creating crazy snowmen sculptures… The recurring art jokes about cubism, postmodernism, and the classic “Nude descending a staircase” gag…

Amongst all the zany misadventures, there are lots of really touching stories as well, like the aforementioned strip about finding the dead bird. In another famous story, similar to that one, Calvin finds a baby raccoon and tries to nurse it to health, but when the little creature dies we see Calvin move through sadness to anger to arguing with God and finally acceptance. It has a real tear-jerker ending when Hobbes promises Calvin not to go anywhere. The story in which Calvin breaks his dad’s binoculars and is overcome with guilt also has an emotional power to it that goes beyond what you expect to find in a newspaper daily. One of the happiest moments is the last baby sitter story, in which Calvin resolves his longstanding feud with babysitter Rosalind by joyously playing Calvin-ball with her (and, naturally, she wins). One of my favorite stories is about a break-in that happens at their hose while they are away. Hobbes is missing and Calvin fears he was stolen. Later Hobbes turns up lying under the bed, and the way finding this beloved toy helps heal Calvin’s anxiety in turn helps his parents move past their lingering fears about the break-in. It’s an amazing story!

Calvin and Hobbes 2

In 1985, Calvin and Hobbes immediately set itself apart from the morass of repetitive jokes, dumb political cartoons and bad puns that had dominated the dailies for decades. (The exception being Gary Larsen’s The Far Side which began in 1980.) However, all the humor, the philosophical quandaries, and the flights of creativity would still have made this only a really good comic. What puts it over the top into the realm of one of the three or four greatest comic strips of all time is the art. Returning to Watterson’s philosophical strips, he makes these strips work by using one of his classic techniques. Calvin and Hobbes aren’t just standing there like a pair of talking heads. They are racing down a hill on their sled… into a tree. Watterson usually marries his philosophical musings to some physical gag – often a sled or wagon ride. (In one of my favorite strips, he has them just walking along when Calvin asks, “What if someone calls us ‘a pair o’ pathetic peripatetics?’ … Shouldn’t we have a ready retort?”)

Watterson is simply one of the greatest cartoonists of all time. He can draw anything and never allowed himself to get lazy. Calvin and Hobbes was better drawn than anything else in newspapers or magazines had been since the early decades of the twentieth century. After the brilliant and beautiful work of Windsor McCay, George Herriman, and Chester Gould, newspaper strips had, for decades, settled into the simple, boring, reparative, and easy visual style of Peanuts and Garfield. Watterson raised the bar and threw down the gauntlet. His influence on cartoonists today has been tremendous; it can be said without much exaggeration that every new syndicated strip that has come along since the ‘90’s looks like Calvin and Hobbes.

Watterson fought battles to make the strip the fantastic artistic expression it was. Newspaper comics pages (once a major attraction, but no more) had been shrinking. Panels were getting smaller and smaller, necessitating ever simpler drawing styles. Watterson’s ten-year run on Calvin and Hobbes was a mighty struggle to push back these limitations, to try and roll back time to the days when artistic geniuses like McCay, Harrimon and Gould were given full color, full pages to work their wonders. In the early Sunday strips of Calvin and Hobbes, not every paper would carry the first two panels, chopping them for space, so Watterson had to write the strip so it would work without them often by turning the first two panels into a simple stand-alone gag that always irritated Watterson. In time, as Calvin and Hobbes became ever more incredibly popular, Watterson won that battle. All papers that wanted his strip had to carry the whole thing, allowing him to make use of every panel and grow more inventive with his panel arrangements. The bonus stories published in the collected books give us a wonderful look at what Watterson could do when he was properly unleashed: full-page, Krazy Kat inspired layouts with unusual panel arrangements.

Because he earned more and more page space and artistic control, and because he was sharpening his always impressive game, the last few years of Calvin and Hobbes, the strips from around ’92 to ’95, mark the best of the best. By those years he commanded and unbroken half page in the Sunday papers and was at the top of his creative game. The Sunday pages from that ’92-’95 period look so good, they each look like a page from a really well drawn graphic novel.

Bill Watterson himself is something of a cartoonist JD Salinger: a genius recluse who retired after completing his masterpiece (of course, Watterson’s masterpiece took 10 years to complete) and since then is never seen or photographed. Even during his working years he was the Bigfoot of comics: rumored to exist but never caught on film. Soon after launching Calvin and Hobbes in 1985 he started getting fan mail – and he didn’t care for it. To this intensely private man, even fan mail seemed like an intrusion.

That he retired when he did is one mark of Watterson’s almost-mad integrity. He was on top of the comic strip world. He’d won his battle: getting all the page space and creative freedom he’d wanted. However, he had, by his own admission said all he had to say, and, in his words, he didn’t want the strip to become like Peanuts and Garfield: repeating the same three or four jokes over and over and over and over again long after everyone had ceased to find them funny or interesting. Watterson said he preferred to clear the way for a new generation of cartoonists to see what exciting things they could make.

There’s another famous sign of his mad integrity: He never licensed Calvin and Hobbes for any merchandizing. All of those insipid window stickers of Calvin pissing on Ford logos or praying before a cross are all pirate merchandise. Watterson turned down millions of dollars he could have made by licensing Hobbes dolls and animated spin-offs. He just didn’t want the money. Calvin and Hobbes was his thing. It was what it was (the greatest American comic strip in 40 years) and he’d done what he wanted to do with it. Besides which, Watterson had frequently railed against commercialism and its corrupting influence on art, and when the money was on the table (huge piles of money) he stuck to his guns. When Calvin and Hobbes were having debates in the comic strip about artistic integrity vs. selling-out, behind the scenes Watterson was resisting enormous pressure from his syndicate to merchandise and license the characters. In 1991, Watterson took a nine-month sabbatical, exhausted after a long fight with the syndicate over merchandizing and the renegotiation of his contract. (The strips he produced when he retuned from ’92 to ’95 where the best in the series.)

Even without movies and toys, Calvin and Hobbes will always stay in print and always be remembered and loved. However, Watterson’s real legacy may be his artistic integrity and his love and respect for a maligned medium. In 1989 he delivered a speech called “The Cheapening of the Comics” at a professional conference. He threw down the gauntlet at the feet of his fellow cartoonists and attacked them for their sins: They had commercialized comics. They had taken the art out of the equation. They had stretched money-making strips into a shambling after-life beyond what the strip was intended to do or say. They had let the syndicates have too much power where art should always and absolutely come before commerce.

Few have had the moral strength or idealism to completely take Watterson’s torch in hand. But it still casts a powerful light… as do his ten amazing years of wonderful, funny, challenging, beautiful comic strips.

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