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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Calvin and Hobbes

In 1985, Bill Watterson began syndication of what is quite possibly the greatest comic strip of all time: Calvin and Hobbes. Showing the adventures of an imaginative, precocious six-year old named Calvin and his stuffed tiger, Hobbes, this comic strip is both witty and profound, silly and serious, entertaining and thought-provoking. It follows Calvin along through his imaginary worlds, his schooling, his sled and wagon rides, and his interactions with his parents, neighbor girl Susie, teacher Ms. Wormwood, and, of course, Hobbes. The strip ran for ten years before Watterson chose to bring it to a close, wishing to quit while he was ahead. While Calvin and Hobbes is a remarkable strip, almost as remarkable is the story of Bill Watterson's determination to not have his strip licensed for merchandizing.

As with all great artists, Watterson's drawing and writing style changed and matured over the years. The early Calvin and Hobbes strips were overtly cartoonish and exaggerated, becoming more streamlined and smooth as the years went on. The gags became funnier too. The main premise of Calvin and Hobbes is Calvin is a six-year-old who says things that no normal six-year-old could ever be imagined saying, yet at the same time wantonly engages in childish behavior which any normal six-year-old would do. He regularly engages in long-winded, philosophical monologues, and then turns around to throw snowballs at Susie. He makes up excuses to get out of school when he's actually a very intelligent young man who could do his homework with ease. In his own words, "You know how Einstein got bad grades as a kid? Well, mine are even worse!" This characterization makes scenarios such as a school report ripe with possibilities.

Hobbes is the perfect foil to Calvin, yet is also his best (and only) friend. Where Calvin is loudmouthed and immature, Hobbes is quiet and composed, presenting a facade of knowledge, but plenty of wisdom. When Calvin drags him into his outlandish plans, Hobbes may voice a reticent objection, but will nonetheless go along with them. After all, it is Calvin, not Hobbes, who will get in trouble. The nature of Hobbes is something of a conundrum for readers. Calvin sees him as a walking, talking, anthropomorphic tiger; everyone else sees a mere stuffed toy. Watterson explicitly states in The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book that he doesn't want to present one perspective as "correct" over the other, wishing instead that the reader decide for themselves which is more "real." Considering that Hobbes seems to be able to influence events around him, such as actually injuring Calvin when they fight, I would be inclined to believe that the "imaginary" version of Hobbes has some hold on the reality of Calvin's world. Regardless, however, it's deliberately designed to ambiguous.

Calvin and Hobbes, in addition to providing genuinely humorous writing and art, touches on several complex philosophical issues. These include the importance of imagination, life and death, environmentalism (that's a particularly heavy theme which I'm a bit more cynical on), friendship, and varying amounts of sociopolitical commentary. The most prominent display of this comic strip's philosophical nature is in the strips where Calvin and Hobbes go careening down a hill in a wagon or sled, depending on the season. The frenetic, fast-paced nature of these wagon or sled rides is the perfect juxtaposition to the loquacious philosophical monologues that Calvin is so fond of engaging in at the same time. Such topics include God, ignorance, fatalism, the nature of reality, delayed gratification, and a whole host of other "weighty subjects." Watterson also used the strip to indulge in satire, such as using Calvin's... creative snowmen creations to make fun of the art world, or using Calvin's use of polling data (in which Calvin polls himself) in an attempt to influence his dad's decisions as a parody of politics. These strips are among the most memorable Watterson ever wrote and drew, and many of them are among my personal favorites.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of Calvin and Hobbes took place behind the scenes, when Watterson adamantly resisted attempts by the comic syndicate to license his work for merchandizing purposes. He fought a years long legal battle over his rights as the creator, which he won, but resulted in him having to take a sabbatical. This is why there are no official Calvin and Hobbes t-shirts, coffee mugs, greeting cards, animated specials, etc. Mind you, no official merchandise. The only official Calvin and Hobbes merchandise to be found are the book collections, a couple of old calendars, and a children's textbook. Anything else you see is bootleg merchandise which should be destroyed on sight, including the Comic Irregulars' David Morgan-Mar's t-shirt. Alas, legal action has done little to deter this bootlegging. As Watterson himself said, in reference to car decals depicting Calvin, "I clearly miscalculated how popular it would be to show Calvin urinating on a Ford logo." Why does Bill Watterson have such a distaste for licensing? Because, my friend, he is doing it for the art. The long and short of it is that Watterson feels that cashing in on the popularity of Calvin and Hobbes in order to sell a bunch of cheap knickknacks would violate the spirit of the strip in every sense of the phrase. Not only that, but doing so, that is, saturating the market with the aforementioned cheap knickknacks, would make people grow tired of the strip and wish it would just die already. Case in point, Garfield. That darn cat's everywhere, yet at the same time he's nowhere. Thought I'd mention that.

But in spite of these events, all of the Calvin and Hobbes strips have been collected in wonderful book collections, ranging from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes to It's a Magical World to the aforementioned The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book. In this last book, Watterson gives personal commentary on a wide range of strips, not to mention his own thoughts on various subjects related to comics. Watterson's work is a tribute to the medium, and while I begrudge him for his dismissive view of comic books, I still credit him and his style of humor as one of my principal inspirations in writing. I love the books, and I my personal collection of the books contains all of the strips. I remember my mom picking me up The Indispensible Calvin and Hobbes from the thrift store, my first book, and I've cherished the books ever since.

In sum, Calvin and Hobbes is a wonderful, masterful series which everyone should read. It can be enjoyed by readers of all ages, having a very widespread appeal. That appeal stems from the intelligent and funny writing, the great art, the innocence of the characters, and the awesome visuals. There was even a documentary made last year about the strip, titled Dear Mr. Waterson. I've received reports that the documentary is merely mediocre, but I hope that I will find it good. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the strips for what they are: a masterpiece.

Image courtesy of alphacoders.com