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Calvin and Hobbes: A 30th Anniversary Tribute


               On October 18th 1985 a comic strip appeared in a few dozen newspapers across the United States for the first time, featuring a kid telling his dad he’s going to check his tiger trap which he rigged with tuna. His dad uninterested asks “tigers like tuna fish huh?” to which the boy responds, they’ll do anything for a tuna fish sandwich. The last panel cuts to a tiger hanging in a rope saying “we’re kinda stupid that way” while eating the sandwich.

                Thus began the run of the funniest, most heartwarming, artistic, imaginative, smartest, and all round best comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes! Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson is about a boy and his tiger. But it’s also about childhood, imagination, friendship, and the little moments that make life both wonderful and terrible, among other things. This was a strip that was more insightful and more intelligent than it had any right to be. That it also happened to be more consistently funny than just about any other strip was a bonus.
                Calvin’s a six year old kid who loves making trouble. He’s named for reformist John Calvin. He’s poor in school, is a miscreant, has a bad attitude, almost no friends, but yet he’s still clever, and has a wonderfully active imagination! His tiger Hobbes appears to him as a best friend, sparring partner, foil, and sort of conscience figure, lively, energetic, but just a little aggressive. He’s named for philosopher Thomas Hobbes. To everyone else he’s Calvin’s inseparable stuffed toy, and the only relationship he seems to value (I like Watterson, am resistant to defining Hobbes as either a magical apparition or just Calvin’s imaginary friend. As Watterson himself said in The Tenth Anniversary Book: “Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.”) Other characters include his suffering parents. But his mom is also caring and neat, while his dad is old fashioned, and sarcastic. There’s next-door neighbour Susie Derkins the target of a lot of Calvin’s meanness who has a great degree of kindness but’s also devious enough to be more than a match for Calvin. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Moe the brawny bully, Miss Wormwood Calvin’s poor and waiting for retirement teacher, and Rosalyn a vicious babysitter who’s also often the victim of Calvin’s mischief, but is the only person who can instill fear in him.

The strip delighted not only in Calvin’s everyday life, his issues with the world, but his escapes into realms of imagination and fantasy. During say a boring class lecture or a particularly unappetizing family dinner, he would retreat in his mind to the Flash Gordon-esque adventures of the daring Spaceman Spiff or the ongoing fights for justice of Stupendous Man. A few times he even took on a Bogart film noir detective Tracer Bullett, and all sorts of other characters, animals, dinosaurs, objects, or concepts (at least twice he envisioned himself as a light particle). On golden summer days he would go on adventures with Hobbes, travelling to Mars or creating a bunch of duplicates, time travelling or transmogrifying or planning an attack on Susie on behalf of their club G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS). In the bleakness of winter he would unleash his inner artist creating gruesome and very creative snow sculptures (every year for a while I tried to replicate one) and fight the everlasting battle between good and evil just so he can get more presents at Christmas. Calvin and Hobbes would reflect on life and ideas while hurtling through the woods their house backs out on, in a wagon or toboggan; and play Calvinball in their off-time a sport of Calvin’s own invention as a rebuttal to the world of athletics that operates on the same rules as Whose Line is it Anyway?

All the while the strip was tremendously funny! Bill Watterson’s background as a political cartoonist paid off and every single strip that’s meant to be funny is. And I say ‘meant’ because this strip didn’t always have to be funny which was part of its’ magic. Soon enough these characters and their environment became so endearing that the strips could just get away with being heartwarming or philosophical. Which was really fitting with the warm and rich artwork. From the earliest days of the strip Bill Watterson was obviously putting so much effort into each day’s cartoon. A bit of a conservative though for the old cartoons like Pogo, Peanuts, and Krazy Kat, which would take up whole pages in newspapers and be artistically impressive, Watterson eventually won the freedom to do away with the old Sunday strip format, which for a long time was just a strict set of panels, always with two ‘throwaways’ at the top that had to be self-sufficient yet still fitting, so that certain newspapers could discard them if they wanted. He’d gotten to a point where the strip was popular enough that he could call some shots, and few newspapers WANTED to throw anything away so he could use the space to his advantage. And those later Sunday strips are pure art, beautiful and glorious and often engaging, emotional, and enlightening. They’re the only strips I know of that you can look at all day in wonder.
Watterson also notoriously fought his syndicate over licencing his work. And he won in the end. Ergo why there are no Calvin and Hobbes products of any kind, no afternoon animated show or any other version in another medium of entertainment. He felt it would take away from the strip and his own work. Watterson always saw the comics as an art form and took them as seriously as anything in a National Gallery. He turned down millions that could have made his strip a bigger media presence than Peanuts and Garfield, but he stuck to his artistic integrity and won it out, forever becoming an inspiration for artists not to sell out. He even made fun of this battle often in his strip, experimenting once in a while with different types of art and using commentary within his strip to critique both the art world and his syndicate!

Calvin and Hobbes ran in papers for a decade from 1985 to 1995, and then …stopped. Bill Watterson ended his strip in the time that’s often just a blink for other comic strips. Few successful strips have lasted that short a time with the likes of Blondie and Garfield still running today and Peanuts having been in papers for a round fifty years! But he felt it was as far as he wanted to go, he’d set out what he’d accomplished to do, and wanted to leave on top for other aspirations. It was a bold move, and it was a sad day on December 31st 1995 when we saw the last Calvin and Hobbes strip. Because of his refusal to licence, it would be the last we’d ever see of this world and these wonderful characters apart from re-reading through the book collections. And it’s a Sunday strip, a more bittersweet ending than many a film, TV show or book, with very little colour in a wintry setting leaving the characters, the most important part and pure heart of the strip, to occupy the last moments. Taking in the beauty of nature Hobbes comments on the world looking new, full of possibility, having a blank canvas to start fresh on. As they ride off in their toboggan Calvin observes “it’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…let’s go exploring”.
Calvin and Hobbes has had an immense effect on my life. After discovering them through a copy of The Tenth Anniversary Book my mum had owned for some unknown reason, Calvin and Hobbes books became the first series of anything I started collecting. Slowly and surely I grew my bank account, worked for the $20 to $25 they’d cost, and eagerly anticipate the next chance I had to go to a bookstore. Some I got as birthday and Christmas presents, but for the most part they were something, usually the only things, I was saving money for. Because Calvin and Hobbes was worth it to me! To me it felt like something completely my own, as no one I knew read it and it was very personal. Somewhere in my parents’ house is an old Christmas photo of my brother and I presenting our favourite gifts that year, and ten year old me is holding a copy of Revenge of the Baby-Sat.

Mere panels of black-and-white could entertain me more than many a two hour movie. Random strips, some belonging to stories, others just one-offs inspired my imagination in unparalleled ways. A six year old boy and his tiger companion became a couple of my favourite characters ever! But I was never the troublemaker that Calvin was, nor was I particularly a poor student getting relatively good grades through my school years. But it was his imagination and creativity that I could really latch onto and helped influence my own as a kid. Reading Calvin and Hobbes books was also always refreshing because I felt they were addressing me on my own terms. That Bill Watterson knew so well how to talk to kids on a level they can appreciate and understand. I felt smarter and entertained, which were two responses I didn’t get from any other cartoon. And because these characters so resonated with me, the strip itself felt so real even in its most fantastic detours. It captured the wonder of childhood, but also the tedium and how kids respond to it.

There was a sense of profound philosophy to the strip and a commentary that was sharper than anything else. It wasn’t enough that Watterson time and again demonstrated his poetic skills proving he was a great writer in addition to a cartoonist; I’ll particularly never forget his macabre “A Nauseous Nocturne” and his terribly sweet Christmas Eve 1989 Sunday poem. But like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes quickly earned the freedom to address rich ideas. Indeed Calvin’s contemplative tendencies relating to life, the world, art, the environment, and many other ideas in spite of his bad behaviour is a big part of what endears him to me. And he’s able to convey intelligent observations and notions: “Sometimes I think the surest sign intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”; “There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want.”; “If good things lasted forever, would we appreciate how precious they are?”; “That’s one of the remarkable things about life. It’s never so bad that it can’t get worse.”; “I say if your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.”; and of course  “Who was the guy who first looked at a cow and said “I think I’ll drink whatever comes out of these things when I squeeze ‘em.” Calvin was a kid who expressed the responses most children do when faced with death (“I suppose it will all make sense when we grow up.”), frustration (“Life’s disappointments are harder to take when you don’t know any swear words”), and bullies (“In my opinion we don’t devote nearly enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks”) and that always connected with me. Situations and quotes from the strip have stuck with me for years. When I was in a car accident for instance, one of the first thoughts that came to my head in the despair was Calvin’s parents’ honest observation after their house had been broken into: “This is one of those things you always figure will happen to someone else. Unfortunately we’re all someone else to someone else.” Because you knew these were not just musings in a strip when the cartoonist couldn’t come up with a gag. They meant something and it struck a chord. Even if children may not have understood quite what the characters were saying (Calvin and Hobbes had incredible diction), they still understood the point and related to the meditations of the characters. And again, these avenues on par with the wondrous ambition of Calvin’s imagination made those later Sunday strips works of art.
                I was inspired by Watterson’s creativity and drive, his constant goal to make each strip better and grow his world, while also bringing something back to the comics’ page he felt had been lost. His artistic integrity is a gold standard I could never achieve. The fact he turned down so much money out of a desire to keep true to his strip and not cheapen the art form, is more than I’d be able to do and I have a ridiculous amount of respect for him for that. But it inspired me to appreciate and create art for its own sake (which has possibly doomed me financially). Watterson’s famous fights with editors over the standardization of the Sundays may have even influenced my own aversion to formatting. In short, both Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes have become a very important part of me for their impact on my life, and I can never repay them enough for that.

                So yeah, Calvin and Hobbes is pretty great. More than that, it’s phenomenal and all the other synonyms I can think of. It’s both very child-sensitive and very adult. It’s the funniest, most enjoyable, inspirational, visually beautiful, endearing, philosophical, and creative comic strip and is still without equal. A comic strip both vastly universal and intimately personal. It’s been thirty years since we were first gifted with this child, his tiger, their life, and imaginative adventures and twenty since they rode off into the snow forever, but it feels like no time has passed. Because each time I open up one of the books it feels as fresh, as relevant, and as fantastic as ever! Bill Watterson may not have had the most pleasant time in the decade he drew the strip, fighting his syndicate, editors, and stagnant regulations, earning him a couple long sabbaticals during the early 90’s, but it paid off. He truly did bring life back into the comics’ page giving visual excitement to the Sundays for the first time in forty years, and imbuing his dailies with rich, memorable characters, humour, and stories without resorting to just one-off gags that only once in a while work. Though the comics’ page today is once again not the most visually interesting, you can see his clear effect on a number of cartoons in the decades since he left. His leaving though sad, did open the gates for new artists to try and fill the void of Calvin and Hobbes working in a massive shadow to emanate. But they never would recapture the Calvin and Hobbes magic and it would be futile to try, because though their faces aren’t plastered on mugs and pajamas, they are pop culture icons leaving more of a profound impact than a six year old and his tiger had any necessity to.
                So let’s raise a glass to the 30th anniversary of Calvin and Hobbes! Go and re-read those books! I certainly am! Together, let’s go exploring once more!


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