From the book, "Calvin and Hobbes - Sunday Pages 1985 - 1995"
It's been five years since the end of Calvin and Hobbes, the longest time I can remember in which I haven't drawn cartoons. Calvin and Hobbes was a wonderful experience, but it was an all-consuming career. When I quit the strip, I put my cartoons in boxes, and jumped into other interests. I haven't really considered the strip since, so at the invitation to do this show, I thought it might be time to look back at some of my work.
My first reaction in going through my old cartoons was some amazement at the size and weight of the pile. For most successful comic strips, ten years is just a drop in the bucket, but even that amount of time yields a huge amount of material. It's no wonder that decade seems like a blur.
Going through my old strips is sort of like looking at old photographs of myself: they're personal and familiar, yet somewhat bizarre at the same time. There are cartoons I've drawn that are the equivalent of pictures of my younger self wearing yellow pants: I know I'm responsible for that, but what on earth was I thinking? As my tastes have changed, and as I've learned more, I imagine that I would do many strips quite differently today. Not better necessarily, but certainly differently. I was twenty-eight when Calvin and Hobbes was first published, and, of course, I would make other choices now at age forty-three.
It's also sort of strange to see a record of my own learning curve. Pick up a given strip, and I see how I struggled with various writing and drawing problems, or how I finally surmounted one. I remember sometimes feeling that the strip was better written than I could actually write, and better drawn than I could actually draw. I learned a great deal over the years by trying to push the strip beyond my own abilities, and I'm very proud that Calvin and Hobbes explored and developed all the way to the end. By the final years, I see naturalness or a sense of inevitability to the drawing and writing that is very satisfying.
I'm more appreciative of this kind of grace since returning to the awkward stages of new learning curves. Of course, I'd also say the times have caught up with some of my strips. It's frankly a little discouraging to see how ordinary some of them look now. When Calvin and Hobbes first appeared, it was somewhat surprising to treat reality as subjective, and to draw a strip with multiple viewpoints, juxtaposing Calvin's vision with what others saw. I did this simply as a way to put the reader in Calvin's head and to reveal his imaginative personality. Now these juxtapositions are a visual game for many comic strips, and after all these years, I suspect readers know where this sort of joke is headed as soon as they see it. The novelty cannot be recaptured.
Novelty, however, is probably overrated anyway. The Calvin and Hobbes strips that hold up best, to my eye anyway, are the ones where the characters seem big, vivid, and full of life, and where the strip's world seems genuine and inviting. Punchlines come and go, but something in the friendship between Calvin and Hobbes seems to hold a small piece of truth. Expressing something real and honest is, for me, the joy and the importance of cartooning.
The Sunday strips were usually the cartoons I had the most fun with, and for this show I've chosen a few Sunday strips from each year that I think show off the strip's strengths.
I have fond memories of reading the Sunday comics when I was a kid. As far as I was concerned, the Sunday comics were the whole reason for newspapers to exist. On weekdays, I read only the strips I liked; but on Sundays, I read them all, and often several times. The Sunday comics were always the most fun to look at, so when I finally got the chance to draw my own comic strip, I knew I wanted to make the Sunday Calvin and Hobbes something special. It took me a little while to learn to use the larger Sunday space effectively. It requires a somewhat different pace for the humor, and, of course, a big color panel is no place to find out that you don't know how to draw the back of your character's head. The Sunday strip shows off both strengths and weaknesses.
Occasionally I would see that an idea I'd written for a Sunday strip was not as substantial as I'd hoped it would be, and I'd realize that some of the panels and dialogue weren't adding anything significant to the story. If that were the case, I'd remove everything extraneous and use the trimmed idea for a daily strip instead. I held the Sundays to a different standard: any idea for the Sunday strip had to need the extra space. I felt a Sunday strip should do something that was impossible the rest of the week.
Over the years, I learned that daily strips are better suited for certain kinds of ideas, while Sunday strips are better for others. The daily strip is quick and to the point, perfect for a simple observation, or a short exchange between characters. Daily strips are also better for long stories, where a certain suspense can be fostered by continuing the story day after day, and the reader can remember what happened previously.
Extended conversations with real back and forth dialogue, however, don't work very well in four tiny panels - the dialogue balloons crowd out the drawings and the strip loses its grace. In a Sunday strip, you can spread out, and let the characters yap a bit. This is often funny in itself, and it's a wonderful way to let the characters' personalities emerge. It also lets you explore a topic a bit more fully.
You can talk about things without reducing them to one-liners right away. And, of course, in today's minuscule comics, if an idea requires any real drawing, the Sunday strip is the only possible place for it. Likewise, any complex storytelling problem-a strip illustrating a long expanse of time, for example, or an event depicted in a succession of very tiny moments-is futile in the daily format. Calvin's fantasies generally migrated to the Sunday page for this reason.
In short, the Sunday page offered unique opportunities, and I deliberately tried to come up with ideas that could take advantage of them.
I usually wrote the Sunday strips separately from the dailies. For the daily strips, I tried to write an entire month's worth of ideas before inking any of them. This allowed a long period for editing and rewriting. I was less able to do this for the Sunday strips because the Sundays need to be drawn weeks further in advance and because the strips took so much longer to draw. If at all possible, however, I would try to keep two or three Sunday ideas ahead of the deadlines. I always wanted to reserve the option of abandoning an idea that didn't stand up to a few weeks of scrutiny.
For those who are interested in technical matters, the early strips were drawn on any cheap pad of Bristol board the local art supply store happened to stock. The paper was usually rather thin and sometimes the sheet wouldn't accept the ink consistently (bad sizing or something), which would make drawing aggravating and time consuming. Eventually I switched to heavier Strathmore Bristol board, which was much nicer. I used a 2H pencil to rough in the drawing, and then inked with a small sable brush and India ink. I did as little pencil work as possible in order to keep the inking more spontaneous, although the more elaborate panels required more preliminary drawing. For lettering, I used a Rapidograph cartridge pen. I drew the dialogue balloons and a few odds and ends with a crow quill pen. To cover up unwanted marks, I used various brands of Wite-Out, and in the early days, typewriter correction fluid. (Remember typewriters?) No doubt this stuff will eat through the paper or turn green in a few years, but as the original cartoons were intended for reproduction, not picture frames and gallery walls, I did not overly concern myself with archival issues or, for that matter, neatness. At some point along the way, however, I did ask the syndicate to send the printers a quality reproduction of the Sunday cartoon, rather than the original drawing, in order to reduce the amount of tape, registration marks, and general crunchings and manglings to which the drawings had previously been subjected.
Coloring the strips was a slow and tedious process. My syndicate gave me a printed sheet showing numbered squares of color, each a mixture of various percentages of red, yellow, and blue. Using this sheet as a guide, I taped some tracing paper over the finished cartoon, and painted watercolor approximations of the available colors in the areas I wanted. This would give me a very rough idea of what the newspaper version might look like. Then I numbered each little spot of color. As the Sunday strips became more visually complex, and as I started to use color more deliberately for effects, this process became a real chore. These days, I believe much of it can be done with a few clicks of a mouse.
Colors take on different characteristics when placed next to other colors (a neutral-seeming gray might look greenish and dark next to one color, but brownish and pale in relation to another). Because of this, I came up with one little trick for coloring the strip. I cut out each of the color squares provided by the printer, so I had a stack of colors (like paint chips), rather than a sheet. By laying out the cut squares and physically placing one color next to the others I expected to use, I could see exactly how each color behaved in that particular context. As I got better at this, I was able to choose approprial "palettes" for each strip, and create moods with color. One strip might call for contrasting, bright colors; another strip might be done with a limited group of soft, warm colors; another idea might call for a close range of grays and darks, and so on. If I made Calvin's skin a dull pink-gray to suggest dim lighting at night, I would have to find a dull yellow-gray that would suggest his hair in the same light. These challenges took an inordinate amount of time for work on deadline, but I was often quite proud of the results. A comic strip should always be fun to look at, and good use of color can contribute to that appeal More than that, color creates its own emotional impact, which can make the drawing more expressive.
The half-page Sunday format required certain guaranteed panel divisions. The strip had to be drawn in three rows of equal height, and there was one unmovable panel division within each row. This allowed editors to reduce and reconfigure the strip to suit their particular space needs. The same strip could run in several shapes by restacking the panels.
Editors commonly removed the entire top row altogether, so in essence, a third of the strip had to be wasted on "throwaway panels" that many readers would never see. The fixed panel divisions were also annoying because they limited my ability to compose the strip to best suit the idea. For example, they often forced a small panel where I needed more space for words.
Of course, a big part of cartooning is learning to work effectively within tight space constraints. Much of cartooning's power comes from its ability to do more with less: when the drawings and ideas are distilled to their essences, the result can be more beautiful and powerful for having eliminated the clutter. That said, there is a point at which simplification thwarts good storytelling. You can't condense Moby Dick into a paragraph and get the same effect. Over the years, my frustration increased and I became convinced that I could draw a better comic strip than the current newspaper format was permitting. Looking at examples of comics from the 1930s, when a Sunday strip could fill an entire page, I was amazed by the long-forgotten possibilities out there.
I took a sabbatical after resolving a long and emotionally draining fight to prevent Calvin and Hobbes from being merchandised. Looking for a way to rekindle my enthusiasm for the duration of a new contract term, I proposed a redesigned Sunday format that would permit more panel flexibility. To my surprise and delight, Universal responded with an offer to market the strip as an unbreakable half page (more space than I'd dared to ask for), despite the expected resistance of editors.
To this day, my syndicate assures me that some editors liked the new format, appreciated the difference, and were happy to run the larger strip, but I think it's fair to say that this was not the most common reaction. The syndicate had warned me to prepare for numerous cancellations of the Sunday feature, but after a few weeks of dealing with howling, purple-faced editors, the syndicate suggested that papers could reduce the strip to the size tabloid newspapers used for their smaller sheets of paper. Another strip could then run vertically down the side. Consequently, while some papers, primarily in larger markets, ran the strip as a half page, other papers reduced it. In some of the latter papers (including the one I read at the time), I actually lost ground: the new Sunday strip was printed even smaller than before. I was in no mood to take on new fights, so I focused on the bright side: I had complete freedom of design and there were virtually no cancellations.
For all the yelling and screaming by outraged editors, I remain convinced that the larger Sunday strip gave newspapers a better product and made the comics section more fun for readers. Comics are a visual medium. A strip with a lot of drawing can be exciting and add some variety. Proud as I am that I was able to draw a larger strip, I don't expect to see it happen again any time soon. In the newspaper business, space is money, and I suspect most editors would still say that the difference is not worth the cost. Sadly, the situation is a vicious circle: because there's no room for better artwork, the comics are simply drawn; because they're simply drawn, why should they have more room?
Business controversies aside, the new format opened up new ways to tell stories, and I drew different kinds of strips as a result. I could write and draw the strip exactly as I imagined it, so it truly challenged my abilities. Whereas Sunday strips had previously taken me a full day to draw and color, a complex strip would now take me well into a second day to finish. Deadlines discourage this kind of indulgence, and I had to steal that extra time from what would have been some semblance of an ordinary life, but I was thrilled to expand the strip's world.
Laying out the panels became a job in itself, now that I was no longer confined to horizontal rows. could place boxes anywhere and any size, but the reader's eye needs to flow naturally to the proper panels without confusion, and big panels need to be designed in such a way that they don't divert attention and spoil surprises. The graphic needs of each panel must be accommodated and the panels themselves should form a pleasing arrangement so the entire page is attractive, balanced, and unified as well. Here again I looked for guidance in the gorgeous Sunday pages of George Herriman's Krazy Kat.
The new Sunday format necessitated a change in the format of my book collections as well. Having won a bigger strip in newspapers, I wanted the book reproductions to reflect the strip's new impact as much as possible by printing the Sunday strips large. This resulted in the rather awkward horizontal format of my later books. They stick out of bookshelves, but the strips look nice. From this point on, the Sunday strips were reproduced in color with each collection, not just in the "treasury" collections, as before. (Here's a piece of trivia: because of the timing of the book format change, the cartoons from the Snow Goons collection were never put in a treasury book, so those Sunday strips have been reprinted only in black-and-white.)
Ten years after starting Calvin and Hobbes, I ended the strip. As much as I knew I'd miss the characters, the decision was long anticipated on my part. Professionally, I had accomplished far more than I'd ever set out to do and there were no more mountains I wanted to climb. Creatively, my interests were shifting away from cartooning toward painting, where I could develop my drawing skills further. And personally, I wanted to restore some balance to my life. I had given the strip all my time and energy for a decade (and was happy to do so), but now I was that much older and I wanted to work at a more thoughtful pace, out of the limelight, and without the pressures and restrictions of newspapers.
The final Calvin and Hobbes strip was a Sunday strip. The deadline for Sunday strips being early, I drew it well before writing the daily strips that would eventually precede it in the newspaper. I very much wanted to hit the right note for this final strip. I think it worked, but it was a bittersweet strip to draw.
Since Calvin and Hobbes, I've been teaching myself how to paint, and trying to learn something about music. I have no background in either subject, and there are certainly days when I wonder what made me trade proficiency and understanding in one field for clumsiness and ignorance in these others. On better days, I enjoy having so many new challenges and surprises. Even so, these new endeavors have only deepened my appreciation for comics. I no longer take quite so much for granted the versatility of comics and their ability to depict complex ideas in a beautiful, accessible, and entertaining form. For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form. Five years after Calvin and Hobbes, I love the comics as much as ever.