Sunday, August 31, 2014

A boy and his tiger

My hometown newspaper was one of the original 35 newspapers that ran Calvin and Hobbes when it debuted on November 18th, 1985 (eventually it was in over 2,400 papers).  Reading the funny pages was a daily ritual, and I loved strips like Bloom County and Peanuts.  And honestly, I didn't think much of Calvin and Hobbes that first day, or even the second.  The art was a little rough and the jokes weren't especially creative.  But on day 3, I was hooked.  That's when you first glimpse the dual-reality of Calvin and Hobbes – Calvin's view compared to everyone else's.  Some people make the mistake of thinking Hobbes is only "alive" when he's alone with Calvin, but that's wrong.  The truth is that Calvin sees and believes Hobbes is real, not just a stuffed tiger; that is his REALITY.  It's the same as when he thinks he's Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet, Stupendous Man, or even Safari Al (yeah, I know - Safari Al was only in one strip, but I loved that one!).

Can you tell I'm a little passionate about Calvin and Hobbes?

I've had Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip by Nevin Martell on my to-read list for quite a while, and always been put off by the negative reviews.  But when Watterson recently emerged from his self-imposed exile to contribute to several days of Pearls Before Swine, I decided it was time to check it out (and those few days were the only times when Pearls Before Swine was actually worth reading), and what I realized was that many of the negative reviews were missing the point.  Everyone knows Watterson disliked the fame and hates being interviewed, so why would you complain when the book doesn't have an interview with him?  And if you're already aware of Watterson's abhorrence of licensing and merchandising his product, why would you expect this book to be full of reproductions of the strips?

What Nevin Martell did - despite his best but failed efforts to interview Watterson - was to talk to a lot of other cartoonists and those who knew or know Watterson.  That's about as close as we get folks.  A few words from Watterson's mom, some friends, his agent, and those cartoonists who wish they could be as good as Watterson.  He chronicles what is known about the reclusive artist, his ordinary upbringing, and a few jobs before Calvin and Hobbes debuted and became an instant classic.  He talks about the strip's evolution, as well as the artist and the struggles he had with his syndicate.  He explains what is known of Watterson's views (from what he's written and said in a few interviews and other speaking engagements), especially as it relates to his wish not to see his creations plastered all over calendars, t-shirts, coffee mugs, post-its, television commercials, etc. etc. etc.  Watterson could have made a FORTUNE, and we'd all have stuffed Hobbes' in our homes and suctioned to the back windows of our cars (remember the ubiquitous Garfield dolls?).  But he didn't.

See, to him, his art was special, and he worked hard to make it something worthy of being called art.  Remember all those strips where Calvin talks about art, usually in relation to his snowmen?  That's likely Watterson talking, and the way the artwork improved and became something special is because of his commitment to it – not to making a buck.  Take a close look at the furniture, the trees, the movements and facial expressions of the characters – then compare it to other strips.  There is no comparison.  He transcended all the others, and it took a huge toll on the man.

So, maybe you've already obsessively read everything about Calvin and Hobbes online that you can, and you own every single book that ever came out (as well as the rare calendar and t-shirt), and you read it all over and over again.  If so, there might not be much new here for you – and you might very well be a stalker.  This book isn't amazing, but it's good enough, and for those of us who admire and applaud Watterson's decision NOT to cash in and make a FORTUNE, it's a fun and interesting little insight into the ten years of absolute joy in the funny pages – even though we desperately miss Calvin and Hobbes (and would have bought the calendars and t-shirts and everything else).  Thanks Mr. Watterson – it was fun.

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