Calvin and Hobbes, All Over Again
A 22-pound package of joy arrived at our front door. No, it was not
delivered by the neighborhood stork, but rather by the man in the big
It was the arrival of the long-awaited and anticipated three-volume
set of every Calvin and Hobbes comic strips ever published during its
much too-brief life. Every one of them, from 1985 through 1995.
But first a personal disclaimer. Years ago I was asked what I
thought of Calvin and his imaginary Tiger playmate and without
hesitation, I answered, "It is the best comic strip ever." And that
wasn't an easy thing to say because I have always thought of Charles Schulz as
a true genius and his Peanuts as a strip whose images and words and
gentle humor and wisdom will echo in our hearts and minds for years and
years beyond its existence.
I have equal respect for the works of Garry Trudeau,
who, with Doonesbury, brought an exciting and biting and
thought-provoking brand of commentary to what we used to call the funny
pages, following in the footsteps of the brilliant Walt Kelly and Pogo. The same for Gary Larson, whose Far Side panel was as original and side-splitting as any that have graced the pages of newspapers. And for Berke Breathed and his original Bloom County, but not today's pale imitation of himself, and also for Aaron McGruder and Boondocks, when he really works at it, which is not often enough, and Scott Adams and Dilbert and Jim Davis and Garfield. And let's not forget the realistic family life in Lynn Johnston's For Better or Worse, the angst and anxiety of Cathy Guisewite's Cathy, especially in the early years, and the wonderful sarcasm and insight of the late Jeff MacNelly's Shoe, which isn't what it used to be.
And then there were three other notable panels,
Family Circus and Dennis the Menace and Marmaduke, and those favorites
of my youth, Li'l Abner when Al Capp was at his best, Blondie and
Dagwood, Annie, the Katzenjammer Kids, Mutt and Jeff, and the
continuity strips of Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates, and
perhaps the most beautiful art of all captured in Prince Valiant.
I must confess I don't read the comics as avidly as I used to. And
it has nothing to do with not being an active editor any more. There
are simply too many wannabees, such as Prickly City, or too many
not-so-funny ones, such as Non Sequitur and so many others,
or too many older strips whose discharge papers should have been served
But in 1985 a brand new strip hit my desk at the Sacramento Bee.
It was my introduction to Calvin and Hobbes. And I fell in love with
the little guy created by Bill Watterson. The best of the syndicate
salesmen, as most editors know, would be first ballot selections in any
Hype Hall of Fame. For too many of their offerings they need the hype,
but this was one of those times when it wasn't needed. Some strips
simply sell themselves.
Watterson, who had failed as an editorial cartoonist, struck the
golden vein, even though, as he says in the introduction of this
collection, his editor, Lee Salem, told him to keep his day job
designing car and grocery ad layouts.
But it wasn't long before it became clear that Calvin was here to
stay. At least as long as Watterson wanted to keep him going. What a
stretch of humor that turned out to be. If only it had lasted longer.
I have previously read every strip in the three beautifully
reproduced books back when they were first published, but revisiting
them was like revisiting a friend that you haven't seen in years. And
the Sunday color is so much better than any of us could ever produce.
first, I just randomly turned the pages. Page 95, Volume 1, Calvin and
Hobbes are sitting under a tree. "Do you think there is a God?" Hobbes
asks. A panel without words, and then Calvin answers, "Well, somebody's
out to get me."
260: "What's the subject of your report?" Hobbes asks. "The brain,"
Calvin replies. "What do you know about the brain?" "Well, I saw this
movie where they kept this guy’s brain alive in a tank of water. Then a
power surge mutated the brain, and it crawled out and terrorized the
populace." "That's informative," Hobbes says. "Unfortunately for my
report, mom caught me and I didn't get to see how it ended."
161 of Volume 2. Tell me if this doesn't ring true today, 16 years
later. "I've decided not to go to school this fall," Calvin tells
Hobbes as they sit in a tree. "I don't need an education. I don't need
to learn things. I don't need to develop skills. It's too much
trouble." To which Hobbes asks, "How are you going to make it in the
world if you don't know anything and you don't have any
skills?" "I'll go on talk shows and hype myself."
page 375. Calvin's dad is trying to read a book and Calvin says, "When
I grow up, I'm going to be phenomenally rich. I'm going to be the
richest man alive. But I won't let wealth change me." "Rats. That
was our last hope," his dad says. Calvin gives his mean look and
retorts, "You are going to be pretty lonely in the nursing home." Dad
again: "Maybe then I can finish my book."
Or one of the Sunday strips in Volume 3. Calvin starts the
conversation. "Isn't it strange that evolution would give us a sense of
humor? When you think about it, it's weird that we have a physiological
response to absurdity. We laugh at nonsense. We like it, we think it's
funny. Don't you think it's odd that we appreciate absurdity? Why would
we develop that way? How does it benefit us?" Then Hobbes answers, "I
suppose if we couldn't laugh at things that don't make sense, we
couldn't react to a lot of life." Then you see Calvin all by
himself and he says, "I can't tell if that's funny or really scary."
As Calvin grew more and more popular and appeared in more and
more newspapers, Watterson became more reclusive. "As happy
as I was that the strip seemed to be catching on," he writes in his
intro, "I was not prepared for the resulting attention." He moved out
West, got an unlisted number, refused to give interviews. He was
isolated from his readers and he says now that he was drawing Calvin
primarily to entertain his wife.
And he also walked away from a small fortune, refusing to license
Calvin, other than in books, much to the chagrin of Universal
Syndicate. He could have been a mega merchandiser. "Even though I
finally got my way," Watterson writes, "the whole mess is depressing to
recall, even all these years later." For several years, he said, it
poisoned his relationship with the folks who had given him his break
and eventually made him decide he didn't want to spend the rest of his
life cartooning. But thank goodness, all was forgiven on both sides
years ago and this collection is in print.
Today, Watterson has switched to fine art.
But he always will be remembered for the little guy and his stuffed tiger who, on our comic pages, became his real-life pal.
Through Calvin, "I learned about what I love," Watterson says in the
book. "Imagination, deep friendship, animals, family, the natural
world, ideas and ideals ... and silliness."
And we learned with him. With this collection we can learn again, as
can the children who may have missed the originals, and our
Just as Charles Schulz did with Peanuts for 50 years, Watterson did
with Calvin and Hobbes. He never forgot what it was like to be a kid.
He understood the fears and hopes and imagination of children.
Watterson did it in adult language, but he always captured those
emotions in strip after strip.
Watterson once said this about Peanuts, "It may seem strange that
there are no adults in [the] Peanuts' world, but in asking us to
identify only with children, Schulz reminded us that our fears and
insecurities are not much different when we grow up." There were
adults in Calvin's world, but they were strictly supporting actors.
And just as I said about Mr. Schulz at a celebration of his work
several years ago, Watterson brought a little bit of psychology, a
little bit of philosophy, and a whole lot of the human condition into
the pages of our newspapers.
The proof can be found again in three joyful volumes, weighing in at 22 pounds.
"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy," Calvin says in the final
Sunday version, the two of them floating away on their sled. "Let's go
If only they could find their way back. Calvin, we hardly knew you.