“If good things lasted forever, would we appreciate how precious they are?” Hobbes, Oct. 15, 1995.
This is my tribute.
The first comic strip that I really liked was Garfield. Jim Davis’ lazy cat appealed to me for some reason, his laziness, his constant abuse of Jon and Odie, all entertained me to no end. As I continued reading, and as I grew older, Garfield started to lose his appeal. More and more, the strip appeared mediocre and boring. Nothing ever happened. Day after day, Garfield abused Jon and Odie, ate lasagna and slept. There was little to entertain me, and almost nothing to excite me. My early infatuation with Garfield ended as quickly as it had begun.
Luckily for me, my disillusionment with Garfield couldn’t have come at a more opportune moment. It was around then, that I discovered Calvin and Hobbes. In a medium populated with inane punchlines, mediocre art, and flimsy characters, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes was a godsend. Calvin, a six-year old with an overactive imagination and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, go on a series of adventures, often times no farther their own backyards. Calvin is a genius or so he claims himself, and Hobbes is the ego to Calvin’s id.
But it wasn’t just the characters or the things they did that appealed to me. Watterson had a way with words and pictures. His strips were often clever critiques of social issues, the school system, and often philosophical discussions. He used the humor of a precocious six-year old to satirize many important issues. And all the while, drawing some of the most beautiful strips ever seen in newspapers. The regular three strip comics ran on weekdays and didn’t allow much room for creativity but on Sundays, when Watterson had a whole nine strips to work with, he painted with the enthusiasm of a zealot. He did away with the traditional introduction, set-up and punchline format that most comic strips ran with in the day. Often times, there was no set-up or even no punchline. He used the strip as a canvas, drawing with wild abandon, and challenging the very notion of what a comic strip should be.
Watterson cites Peanuts, Krazy Kat and Pogo as his three major influences and you can see reflections of each of them in his work. From Peanuts, the quirky characters that were so appealing and lovable, from Krazy Kat, the surrealism, the creative use of the comic format and from Pogo, the philosophical discussions and the clever wordplay. Inspired by such amazing strips, Watterson took the medium to a whole different level. He set the bar so high, I don’t think anyone since has ever crossed it. For a sampling of some of the best Calvin and Hobbes, go here: http://progressiveboink.com/archive/calvinhobbes.htm.
But just the strip is not why Watterson is one of my heroes. Granted, Calvin and Hobbes is some of the best reading I’ve ever done. It has entertained me for hours, prompted me to think about issues and ideas, and marvel at the ingenuity of a master artist who worked within such a limited space. No, in addition to this, what makes Watterson so amazing, is his unflinching belief in his ideals: that art should be valued for its own sake, that art should not be commidified and sold like a product, that art is not a business and the artist not a businessman, and that anything could be art, even comic strips. In comparison to Jim Davis’ Garfield, which adorns everything from t-shirts to mugs to plates and everything imaginable, Watterson was unwavering in his staunch belief that Calvin and Hobbes would never be commidified. In short, he never “sold out.” Despite numerous offers for merchandising, Watterson never relented. There were even offers for an animated series but he refused to sell the rights, believeing that the comic strip should remain a strip and that animation would take away the originality. Unlike Jim Davis, he didn’t make millions, but he never disappointed. Every strip, year after year, was fresh, original and brimming with life. Sadly, Watterson decided to end the strip after ten years. Here’s the letter he sent to newspapers:
My love for Calvin and Hobbes knows no bounds. I keep reading the strips over and over again, nostalgic about the times when it would appear daily in newspapers, each day a fresh new strip and a new adventure. Watterson chose to go out on top, despite the money he was making from it. I wish he hadn’t but then again, its best that he did. I’m secure in the knowledge that there are no bad strips and that his genius didn’t diminish. It might’ve, if he’d continued, but we’ll never know. As for Watterson, he paints nowadays, in some secluded place, away from the world, secure in his own self.
For every Calvin and Hobbes strip ever drawn, go here: http://www.marcellosendos.ch/comics/ch/index.html
For Bill Watterson’s commencement speech to Kenyon College, go here: http://home3.inet.tele.dk/stadil/spe_kc.htm
For everything related to Calvin and Hobbes, and a lot more, go here: http://ignatz.brinkster.net/calvin.html