- - Thursday, August 13, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

By Bill Watterson

Andrews McMeel Publishing, $19.99, 160 pages

It’s hard to believe the brilliant comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, has been gone for nearly two decades.

Bill Watterson’s modern masterpiece about a wildly imaginative six-year boy, Calvin, and his faithful companion Hobbes, an anthropomorphic stuffed tiger, ran from 1985-1995. The strip was intelligent, thought-provoking and (unsurprisingly) rather philosophical. Academics, scientists and people from all walks of life were among its faithful followers.

The final strip, which ran on Dec. 31, 1995, had a poetic ending. Calvin and Hobbes waxed philosophically about the new snow and a “day full of possibilities.” They climbed aboard a sled, and Calvin remarked, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!” Down the hill they went, in search of great adventure.

We’ll never find out where they went that day — or any other day, for that matter. Mr. Watterson has no interest in reviving Calvin and Hobbes. Except for a few interviews, pieces in the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, and being a surprise guest illustrator last June for three comic strips of Pearls Before Swine, he’s been fairly silent.

Fortunately, this great comic strip’s story isn’t completely over. We have another chance to visit with Calvin and Hobbes.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University released a new book, “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: A Exhibition Catalogue.” This exhibition, which was held last April, included Mr. Watterson’s influences, early work, and examples of his syndicated brainchild.

While there were one-off strips in Calvin and Hobbes, it was the recurring storylines that remain deeply etched in our memories. This includes: Calvinball (an unorganized sport with an ever-changing rule structure), Spaceman Spiff (one of Calvin’s alter egos, who fought imaginary aliens), the Transmogrifier (cardboard boxes that could become anything), and evil snow sculptures.

One of the book’s highlights is Billy Ireland museum curator Jenny Robb’s wide-ranging interview with Mr. Watterson. It’s an opportunity for readers to better understand the quiet, withdrawn man behind this powerful, awe-inspiring comic strip.

Mr. Watterson grew up reading Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts. He didn’t realize “what a weird, strange strip” it was, noting “Snoopy and the more fantastic, silly stuff … really grabbed me,” especially the “Red Baron strips.” In his view, “Peanuts was one big, long cartooning class for me - even the writing, which I wasn’t aware I was absorbing.” The length and pace of a story, how to create suspense — I soaked up all those things just from reading it so much.”

Walt Kelly’s Pogo was also a major influence. He originally felt the cartoons “were so dense and black, with a thousand words in every strip,” which made it a “visually oppressive thing to look at when you’ve grown up on Peanuts.” In time, “the lovely drawings pulled me along until I grew to love the whole strip.”

Mr. Watterson briefly became a political cartoonist for the Cincinnati Post. He never had “strong beliefs or opinions” for this medium, and “the subject matter was not any sort of genuine passion.” He eventually signed a six-month contract with United Features “to develop what became Calvin and Hobbes.” Incredibly, they passed on it — and the strip was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate.

Calvin and Hobbes started in 35 newspapers. It exploded in popularity in its second year after his first book collection, “[w]ith zero promotion on my end,” became an instant hit.

Mr. Watterson notes, “the writing pushed the drawings into greater complexity.” The “flatter, more cartoony and loose designs I started with” moved into a “more three-dimensional conception of form and space.” Meanwhile, “[a]nother factor was simply that I got better at drawing as I went along, so I wanted to throw in whatever I was capable of doing.”

While there were a few other important characters, including Calvin’s parents, his teacher Miss Wormwood, and classmate Susie Derkins, the strip’s main focus was Calvin and Hobbes’ relationship. In an extraordinary passage, Mr. Watterson tells Ms. Robb their friendship “was not so much constructed as revealed. … It means the relationship is organic and alive. At some level, it’s unknowable; it’s just there.” Moreover, “you’re listening to them. They talk on their own, and you just follow along behind. The characters write their own material.”

It’s the perfect explanation for Calvin and Hobbes’ long-lasting appeal. As we revisit this wonderful strip, or discover it for the first time in this excellent book, all eyes and ears will be focused on these two lifelong friends.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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