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Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” At 35 By Matthew Rizzuto

Calvin and Hobbes…in their element.

35 years ago, we learned that tigers can be captured using tuna fish sandwiches.

It’s true!!!!

That’s how cartoonist Bill Watterson introduced the world to precocious 6-year-old Calvin and his cynical stuffed tiger and best friend, Hobbes and the rest, as they say, is history.

Although Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” appeared in newspapers for only a decade, from November 18, 1985, to December 31, 1995 — far too short a time, the many fans will agree — its influence on cartoonists and readers is immeasurable.

Bill Watterson, a native of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, was able to capture and convey the unfettered imagination of childhood as Calvin battled aliens, wreaked havoc as a dinosaur and constructed menacing armies of snowmen.

Born on July 5, 1958, William Boyd Watterson II, known professionally as Bill Watterson, is currently a retired American cartoonist and the author of the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes”, which was syndicated from 1985 to 1995. Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes at the end of 1995 with a short statement to newspaper editors and his readers that he felt he had achieved all he could in the medium. Watterson is known for his vast negative views on licensing and comic syndication, his efforts to expand and elevate the newspaper comic as an artform and his move back into private life after he stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The suburban Midwestern United States setting of Ohio was part of the inspiration for Calvin and Hobbes.

It’s utterly phenomenal what we have learned through the joys of endless possibilities, courtesy of Calvin’s imagination, thanks to Watterson’s work.

However, it wasn’t always flights of fancy for “Calvin and Hobbes”. They pondered weighty subjects, like mortality, our place in the universe, friendship and more.

During the short and stellar 10 year run, Watterson’s work progressed and flourished, most noticeably in the Sunday comic strips, where he was free to experiment with styles and layout.

Believe it or not, it is within those installments that Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” moved above and beyond any of the other comics with which it shared the page, to become a beloved classic, especially as the one we know it as today.

Not only did the comic strip show you the adventures of Calvin and his imaginary tiger Hobbes, the comic strip also examined Calvin’s relationships with family, fellow classmates, his favorite teacher, Ms. Wormwood and especially the love/hate relationship between him and his classmate, Susie Derkins.

Calvin and Hobbes exploring.

It’s been exactly 35 years since the two title characters of Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes met in the first strip of the comic published on November 18, 1985.

Bill Watterson drew Calvin and Hobbes for the next decade, giving life to six-year-old Calvin and his tiger friend Hobbes—named after the Protestant reformer John Calvin and the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a choice the cartoonist called “an inside joke for poli-sci majors” at Kenyon College, Watterson’s alma mater—until their final appearance on December 31, 1995.

In the first strip Calvin explains to his dad that he set up a tiger trap with a tuna fish sandwich for bait: “Tigers will do anything for a tuna fish sandwich!” In the final panel, Hobbes, held upside-down by a rope, eats the sandwich and says, “We’re kind of stupid that way.”

As Watterson’s style developed from the spare drawings of that first strip, he often played with artistic styles and created rich and realistic details for scenes from Calvin’s imagination, contrasting them with reality. Watterson’s drive for his art eventually won him greater creative freedom to draw Sunday strips without the usual panel restrictions. His syndicate agreed to sell his Sunday comics without the rigidly formatted cells, allowing him to create his own half-page layouts. In these color panels, he would play around with the design to create larger panels for landscapes.

He also famously found the themes and imaginary world of his comic incompatible with consumer products. He refused to license it for merchandise because he thought the comic could not be condensed “without great violation to the strip’s spirit”, as he wrote in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book: “My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination and the specialness of certain friendships. Who would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overpriced knickknacks that nobody needs?”

The lack of licensing was distinctive. Joel Allen Schroeder, who made the documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson”, which Watterson does not appear in, told Time Magazine in 2013 that not having outside representations of the characters was crucial to let fans’ imaginations run wild: “I really think that had he handled licensing differently, had things played out differently, this strip might not be as special for me, all these years later.”

Since Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strips have appeared, the fearless and philosophical duo still delight millions of readers. Some are rereading their well-worn collections for the 39th time, while others are just discovering the incorrigible twosome. No matter where readers are coming from, the pair’s adventures and conversations seem just as genuine today as they did when they were first committed to paper. Yes, the strip’s creator, Watterson, was a phenomenal artist, his Martian landscapes, seasonal backdrops and depiction of a Tyrannosaurus Rex flying a F-14 are all classics and yes, he was a great writer, but it is the strip’s ring of truthfulness that may have been its most attractive quality.

Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” follows the adventures of the mischievous boy Calvin and his best friend Hobbes, a tiger who may or may not actually exist. Their relationship is by turns playful, combative, thoughtful and fantastical; they act and sound like real best friends. But they do things that most kids can only dream of – they time travel, dig for dinosaur bones in the backyard and build legions of abominable snowmen. Sometimes, Watterson sketched out memorable parables that drove their point home with a chuckle (often at Calvin’s unwitting expense) and at other times he gave readers straight-up gags, explored family dynamics or sent his intrepid duo hurtling through time and space and over cliffs.

No matter what magic Watterson concocted, there was rarely a moment when the strip felt forced or worse yet, meaningless.

As earlier mentioned, several major characters in Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” are named after fictional or historical characters.

Bill Watterson at the drawing board in 1986.

Watterson named Calvin after the 16th Century Protestant reformer and theologian John Calvin, who believed in predestination. Hobbes is named after the social philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the 17th Century philosopher with a dim view of human nature. Miss Wormwood is named after Wormwood in The Screwtape Letters, a low-level demonic tempter. Appropriately, it’s also the name of a bitter substance. Coincidence is funny like that.

This makes the origin of Calvin and Hobbes’ names fairly clear and the same goes for Miss Wormwood’s tag.

It’s pretty mind-blowing to experience something that you expect to be nothing more than ordinary, only to find that it is changing the way you look at the world. Kinda like stumbling across the Beatles on the radio in 1964 sandwiched between Harry Mancini’s “Pink Panther” theme song and a Jan and Dean tune.

Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” was intended to transcend the funny pages, but no one could have guessed just how far. Watterson knew that his comic strip allowed him access to his readers’ brains for a few moments every morning and he was determined to make the best of it. He didn’t see it as a time to deliver clichés, easy gags or sloppy artwork; he saw it as a moment when he might get people to think outside the box or to rethink how they think inside it. Even though his efforts were often constricted to three black and white panels, Watterson used that space to discuss everything from mortality to the existence of God and the perils of mankind’s self-destructive habits. It was always heartening to see a cartoonist discussing issues of such depth with his readers, some of whom were so young that they were learning how to read using the strip or had never thought about what happens when we die.

The strip’s authenticity is secured by Watterson’s refusal to sell out. He didn’t become a cartoonist for the attention, the accolades or the money. He just wanted to create the best comic strip possible. As he once wrote in the introduction to a Krazy Kat collection, “We seem to have forgotten that a comic strip can be something more than a launch pad for a glut of derivative products. When the comic strip is not exploited, the medium can be a vehicle for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.” So, instead of embracing the fame his work afforded him over the years, he gave only a handful of interviews, rarely appeared in public and maintained a very modest lifestyle. He was equally withholding of his creations, whom he never allowed to be merchandised. Again, there were no Hobbes dolls, no Spaceman Spiff action figures and no coffee mugs with Calvin and Hobbes one-liners splashed across them. Considering that all his peers were cashing in on their creations – Charles Schulz and Jim Davis each earned tens of millions of dollars a year at the height of their fame – it was a tack that was as admirable as it was confounding.

Readers may have never thought about Watterson’s personal choices when they read the strip, but that strength of character echoed throughout his work. Calvin and Hobbes is complex, thoughtful and thought provoking.

Calvin and Hobbes aren’t plastic and one-dimensional, like so many of their contemporaries on the funny pages whose creators strove to make them explicable in a single sentence. Garfield is a fat, lazy cat who loves to eat and give his owner grief. Beetle Bailey is an inept and lazy army private who is forever running afoul of his superiors. That’s all you need to know to laugh at either of those characters (and lazy is the operative word here). Now, we come to Calvin and Hobbes – a hyper-imaginative kid and his pet tiger who may or may not be real, depending on who’s looking at him.

But that’s just the surface.

If anything, that doesn’t really begin to explain Watterson’s unique storytelling device in which readers switch between the world as Calvin sees it – a fantastical place – and as adults see it – a cut ‘n’ dried conventional reality. You need to immerse yourself in Calvin and Hobbes to truly understand it. Sure, you could read one strip, get the gag and move on with your life, but you’d be missing out.

Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” may have whisked its readers away to faraway planets, the Mesozoic era and a cubist world, but Watterson was always most concerned with having his richly detailed characters parse real issues. That element of genuineness continues to draw in, engage and hearten readers. We still love Calvin and Hobbes because it manages to make imaginations real – and that is a rare thing indeed.

Now, I wanna pose a couple of questions here.

Calvin and Hobbes dancing their cares away.

First, is there any recent-vintage daily comic strip being published regularly in North America that’s as widely recognized, never mind beloved, as Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes”, similar with Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” and second, is such a scenario even conceivable and possible?

I’m pretty sure the answer to both questions is “no”, but I’m throwing them out anyhow in hopes that someone will persuade me otherwise.

I love the comic strip form, but I feel fairly certain it’s either dead or doomed — because even if there were somebody out there doing early Schulz-quality work, who’d know about it or even dare to care at all about the format?

I mean, besides die-hards who consciously go spelunking for good new strips online and spread the word when they find something?

Seriously, does anyone even do that?! The world has changed to the point where that’s less possible, even impossible.

It all comes back to the daily newspaper and the comic strips they carried. The daily strip was a gateway into appreciating all sorts of comics simply because it was right there on your doorstep or in your local news box and the comics were one of the reasons you read the paper.

Jim Davis’ “Garfield”, Cathy Guisewite’s “Cathy”, Gary Larson’s “The Far Side”, Jim Unger’s “Herman”, Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County”, Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”, Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury”, Patrick McDonnell’s “Mutts” and yes, even, Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes”, were probably the pantheon strips during the years that most individuals read newspaper comics pages regularly roughly the 1960’s through about 2000 because those were the years that many people read newspapers on paper.

I will admit, I continued to read “Peanuts” during that period — though admittedly, more out of nostalgia than because Schulz was doing great or even fabulous work. In fact, he always did.

By that point, the comic strip had become pretty gimmicky and thin, more often focusing on Snoopy’s fantasy life and Charlie Brown’s sitcom-style farce than on the psychological dynamics of the little round-headed kid and his pals, but as my tombstone will one day read: I digress.

The daily strip is (or was) inextricably associated with daily newspapers and as the daily newspaper ebbs in prominence, the daily strip must ebb, too.

Maybe, just maybe I should say “has”. Past tense.

If so, too bad.

One of the beautiful things about the daily newspaper — something the self-reinforcing ego chamber of the internet can’t provide — is the ingrained certainty of discovery.

The first appearance of Spaceman Spiff on November 25, 1985.

The daily paper was an omnibus format, a potluck. Even if you picked up a paper for something you already knew you wanted — the sports section, the crossword, Dear Abby or the latest dispatch from an Op-Ed columnist you absolutely despised, but couldn’t stop reading and that was the key to the success of what appeared in the comic strip.

The physical act of separating the sections and leafing through the pages meant that you might stumble onto something you weren’t looking for, perhaps even something interesting, well-done and in general, worth knowing about.

That same dynamic applied in microcosm to the comic page.

Maybe you went there to read Schulz’s “Peanuts”, Larson’s “The Far Side”, Scott Adams’ “Dilbert”, Lynn Johnston’s “For Better Or For Worse”, Dik Browne’s “Hagar The Horrible”, Tom Batiuk’s “Funky Winkerbean” or Nicholas P. Dallis’ “Apartment 3-G”.

I will admit, I just threw “Apartment 3-G” in there for the hell of it. By the way, I feel relatively certain that nobody in the history of human civilization ever actually read “Apartment 3-G”. Just saying.

In any case, if anybody did grab a newspaper and you just happened to glance upon a comic strip that was either brand-new or that had previously escaped your notice and voilà, you were hooked and so you added another title to the daily list of the must-reads that captured and cultivated your complete and undivided attention.

That’s how many first discovered Bill Watterson’s beautifully sublime “Calvin and Hobbes” sometime into its first year of publication.

My parents local paper used to bury it at the bottom left-hand side of a two-page spread of comics, bumped right up against the vertical fold.

Then, one day, out of the clear blue, it moved up a couple of rows so that it was directly beneath one of my favorites, Unger’s “Herman”, at which point I noticed it and became a fan.

As I continued to read “Calvin and Hobbes” over the next few years, I watched it climb to the very top, above “Herman,” until it sat right next to Schulz’s “Peanuts” — a vicarious pleasure that ranks with watching a talented franchise expansion team make its way to the playoffs faster than you expected or a single by a talented new band skyrocket to the top of the charts.

It’s hard to envision anything like that happening to a daily strip now. That tiny pleasure is mostly gone because the conditions no longer exist — mainly, I think, because the daily newspaper we once knew no longer exists.

It’s important to note that what we’re seeing now — the daily strip becoming a nostalgic art form rather than something central to popular culture — isn’t some out-of-nowhere coup de grâce.

It’s the final phase of a de-evolution that’s been going on for a century.

Comics were once much bigger that they are now, much bigger — and I don’t just mean in a figurative sense. The comic page used to be where publishers flaunted their ability to print in color and flaunt they did.

In the early years of the form, the more visually daring, draftsmanship-driven strips were spread out over a half-page on Sundays, even a full page and the best were as aesthetically ambitious as any modern graphic novel, even with Richard F. Outcault’s “The Yellow Kid”, George Herriman’s “Krazy Kat”, Georges Remi Hergé’s “The Adventures of Tintin”, Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” and Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo”.

After all, those Depression-era kids that thrilled to the daring exploits of certain comic strips were more than hungry to read what happened with Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie”, Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Buck Rogers”, E. C. Segar’s ”Popeye”, Chic Young’s “Blondie”, Chester Gould’s “Dick Tracy”, Fred Harman’s “Bronc Peeler”, Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon”, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s “Superman” and others, they obviously weren’t just captivated by what appeared on the page. They were moved by it enough to follow it.

Thanks to newsprint shortages in World War II, papers started offering less acreage for cartoonists to play in.

The shrinkage continued over the next few decades, to the point where daily strips were busted down to near business-card size, a visual correlative to their diminished presence.

Supposedly, this is one reason — but by no means the only reason — why Bill Watterson got out of the business. “Calvin and Hobbes” was an aggressively visual strip, a haven of detail for detail’s sake and as the strips shrank, he had neither the opportunity, nor the motive to strut his stuff.

The last time we saw daily strips being regular conversation pieces was the 1990’s — maybe the early 2000’s, tops. I’m thinking specifically of “Dilbert” and Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks” and to a lesser extent Bruce Tinsley’s “Mallard Fillmore” and the continually evolving and seemingly indestructible “Doonesbury”.

Not coincidentally, that’s the period when internet access turned into a utility, the virtual world started to eclipse the “real” world and all sorts of pop culture delivery devices, like the daily newspaper, the magazine, the CD, the ink-on-paper book endured identity crises or crippling, often irreparable financial blows. In some cases, often both.

Unfortunately, the world simply didn’t need or want daily newspapers anymore. The spreading lack of interest was nothing personal.

Yet, changes in technology and lifestyle meant that newspapers had stopped making sense, in much the same way that the nightly half-hour network newscast stopped making sense.

Thus, their fates were sealed — along with the fates of genres and formats that were all bound up in the daily newspaper experience.

Granted, every strip I’ve mentioned in this piece is available online, either at a dedicated website or as a piece of syndicated content.

For instance, Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World”, once an alternative press mainstay, is a regular Salon feature, and Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” has partnered up with Slate.

And yes, new comic artists have thrived in the post-newspaper world, but they’ve done it by thinking of their strips not as self-contained creations but as components of a digital-age brand.

The first Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, dated November 18, 1985

One conspicuous example is animator Simon Tofield’s “Simon’s Cat”, a British animated web cartoon and book series by the British animator featuring a hungry cat who uses increasingly heavy-handed tactics to get his owner to feed him, is one of many modern comic strips to position itself as a brand that just happens to include comic strips. In case you weren’t aware of it, Tofield regularly produces YouTube shorts that drive traffic to his website, where he hawks printed anthologies of old-fashioned black and white strips, plus t-shirts and other unique pieces of merchandise.

As stated earlier, speaking of merchandising, Watterson has been vehemently against any “Calvin and Hobbes” merchandise and in any form. It’s one of the many reasons why you don’t see Hobbes on any clothing or Spaceman Spiff dolls in your local stores.

Such comic strips exist apart from the venue that once served as a reliable launching pad. They’re little islands of personal expression in a sea of data. Now, that’s no small accomplishment, but perhaps not enough to counteract a certain sadness over the realization that we all must comprehend.

As to no humongous surprise, when it came to Watterson, his art somehow makes every day dramas palatable, even humorous, populating his comic strip with characters who, years later, still comprehend the greatness and the power to make us laugh.

Now, it’s the standard to which all other modern comic strips are compared, to the dismay of many a cartoonist.

Yes, over thirty years ago, we said hello to Calvin and Hobbes, but even when the strip ended, we never really said goodbye.

Like Calvin himself, we merely went exploring, poring over the many collected editions to discover something both new and familiar…and we’ve been exploring ever since.

Thank You.

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