(Book Review) Exploring Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

By David Nilsen

calvinhobbesIt would be hard to overstate the influence Bill Watterson’s work had on me when I was growing up. I was too young to read Calvin and Hobbes when it was first syndicated in newspapers in 1985, so I caught up with the series through the annual books that were published during the strip’s ten-year run. In 1990, at eight years old, I bought the second book in the series – Something Under the Bed Is Drooling – with my own money from Waldenbooks in the now shuttered Salem Mall in Trotwood, Ohio. Over the next few years, I amassed the entire collection.

To say these books had an impact on me would be a gross understatement. I consumed them, rereading every page in every book more times than I can count. They contributed significantly to my sense of humor, my creativity, and my vocabulary. They accompanied me on my family’s many trips (including more than one camping trip resembling the ones Calvin’s family takes), were devoured along with a hoard of candy inside makeshift forts under dining room tables, were pored over by flashlight inside a cozy nest of blankets on late winter nights. Rainy days, snow days, summer afternoons, Christmas Eve – they were all best accented by Watterson’s brilliantly imaginative strip. No cartoonist – no writer I know of – has ever better captured the thrills, defeats, fantasies, and terrors of childhood better than Bill Watterson.

When I bought the final annual – It’s a Magical World – in 1995, I was unaware it was the end of the line for my beloved comic strip. Bill Watterson, the strip’s famously reclusive and protective creator, was calling it quits. In Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue, he explains why:

“By the end, I felt I’d reached the top of the mountain. The strip was as close to my vision for it as I was capable of doing. lI was happy with what I had achieved, and the strip’s world seemed complete. There’s a point at which you realize that doing more doesn’t add anything, and may actually make things worse. I didn’t want to mow the lawn – just go back and forth over the same ground. Art has to keep moving and discovering to stay alive, and increasingly I felt that the new territory was elsewhere. That’s partly why the last strip was about exploring. I had always assumed I’d draw cartoons my whole life, so in a way, I was as surprised as anyone. But it was the right decision.” (page 18)

The book serves as a catalogue for an exhibition of Watterson’s work at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at The Ohio State University. The greatest value of the book is found in the extended interview that fills the first half – the only interview of its type with Watterson I am aware of in existence. Conducted by Jenny Robb, the curator of the museum, the interview gives readers a fascinating look at the history of the strip, as well as Watterson’s education and career, and takes us inside the cartoonist’s creative process. It allows Watterson’s humor to shine through even as his insight informs our understanding of popular art, and it’s is peppered with gems of wry artistic angst like, “Things are never so good that I can’t make myself miserable.” (page 17)

There are outlets of popular culture that affect me so wholly and acutely, that cause a quiet place inside my spirit to resound cleanly like a shining bell. The music of The Smiths and The Cure, the films of Shane Carruth and Sofia Coppola, the drawings of Kurt Halsey, the comics of Randall Munroe, the film writing of Kim Morgan, and so many others. But very few have carved such a spacious and lovely room in my heart as Calvin and Hobbes. A Saturday morning can still find me sitting at the kitchen table, eating cereal and reading Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons or The Days Are Just Packed. I miss the world of this strip, but I admire Watterson’s integrity in making the decision to end the strip when he felt he should, sticking to it the decision, and protecting the strip from the merchandising bastardization that has lowered the level of other comic strips.

I’ve never met a casual Calvin and Hobbes fan. Everyone I know who has spent time with the strip adores it wholeheartedly. Their eyes light up when its mentioned. Randall Munroe, creator of the brilliant XKCD webcomic (every reference to C&H in XKCD is listed here), references Watterson’s work often. Emily St. John Mandel warmly mentioned the strip in her gorgeous 2014 novel Station Eleven. An entire generation of us (or the creative segment of it who dreaded dodgeball day in gym class) grew up on Calvin and Hobbes, and I hope to pass that experience on to my daughter in a couple years. For now, I’m savoring Exploring Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a gift, this peek behind the curtain of Watterson’s mind. Come take a look.


Exploring Calvin and Hobbes is available now at Greenville Public Library.

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