Calvin, Bill Watterson's eternal 6-year-old, was a beneficiary of the old Chinese curse: He was born in interesting times. The twilight of the Cold War brought on a brief period of national reflection and bemusement. The funnies, of all things, were there to capture it. And Calvin and Hobbes was the funnies' philosopher king.
Not that Watterson flogged a single philosophy, and thank goodness. His light touch with deep thought is what keeps one thumbing compulsively through The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a treasury of 10 transcendent years in three beautiful, bricklike volumes. Heavy, yes. Dense? Never. In lieu of dogma or some tired lasagna-and-Mondays refrain, Watterson offered a kid on a wagon (in summer) or a sled (in winter), careening down a wildly stylized hill with his stuffed tiger tucked behind him. The tiger's name is Hobbes, but it's the kid who's the nastier, shorter, and more brutish of the two. Hobbes, flesh and fur only in the eyes of Calvin, occupies a state of serenity his owner is just too human to achieve. This, always, is the subject of discussion as the wagon clatters toward disaster. ''I can't think of anything I'd rather anticipate than have right away, can you?'' queries Calvin, oblivious to the minimalist trees and rocks whizzing by. Hobbes deadpans: ''Death comes to mind.''
But perhaps you've seen another Calvin, carousing on the back of an unauthorized frat tee: a spiky-haired lord of misrule with a distinctly adult leer. That ain't our boy; Calvin, at his most sociopathic, is lord only of his own immersive watercolor imaginings, and Watterson makes no mention of the black-market impostor in the introduction (his most comprehensive public address since retiring the strip in 1995). He does discuss his unparalleled decision not to license his characters for merchandising, admitting he's had second thoughts. For a reclusive symbol of anticapitalist defiance, that's a major confusion. For Watterson, I suspect, it's just another honest, intelligent observation.
These come easily to him. Calvin and Hobbes operated in the Schulzian tradition of the contemplative comic, while taking non-Schulzian joy in the mere fact of being. It was not ''about growing up.'' It wasn't cute but, for lack of a safer word, true. ''I never realized killing was so grounded in the liberal arts,'' says Calvin, as Hobbes ? who can go from cuddly to carnivorous in seconds flat ? gives a dissertation on stalking. Still think a strip's range stretches only from Hi to Lois? Treat yourself to Watterson's gorgeous, painterly Sunday strips, which move effortlessly from Wyeth elegiac to Warhol psychedelic, never denying their Krazy Kat roots in throwaway surreality. (My faves: where Calvin and neighbor Susie, rendered as Mary Worth-style adults, play a bitter game of house, with grotesque and discomfitingly familiar results.) For all of his mischief, Watterson came as close as any artist, in any medium, to achieving a kind of American Zen. It's a serenity he probably draws upon when he's sitting in traffic, watching his boy take a whiz on someone's mud flap. Grade: A