Calvin and Hobbes: The last great newspaper comic strip

An article from the online journal Slate by Chris Suellentrop
Monday, November 07, 2005

Ten years ago Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, left newspaper cartooning for painting. Since then, no new comic strip has matched the quality, longevity, or cultural dominance of Watterson's daily drawings about a boy and his tiger. There remain good strips, such as Jef Mallett's Frazz; acclaimed strips, such as Aaron McGruder's Boondocks; and venerable strips, such as Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. But these days, the best-selling comics books tend to be either graphic novels or hardbound anthologies of the greats, such as Fantagraphics Books' The Complete Peanuts. Peanuts invented the newspaper comic strip as we know it: Charles Schulz scrapped big, colorful melodrama and substituted a tiny series of boxes featuring spare drawings of characters who tell jokes and muse on the meaning of life. With October's publication of the new?and best-selling?23-pound, 1,440-page hardback anthology The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, it's become apparent that, just as Charles Schulz was the first master of the modern newspaper comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes' Bill Watterson was likely the last.

In recent years, comics have been ensconced as high art in the pages of McSweeney's, the New York Times Magazine, and The New Yorker. In the comics issue of McSweeney's last year, Chris Ware?the author of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and of the Times Magazine's serialized strip Building Stories?noted that, "In the past decade or so, comics appear to have gained some greater measure of respect and acceptance than ever before, due in no small part to the number of cartoonists who have begun to take the medium seriously, appearing in magazines as journalism, museums as art, and literary magazines as writing." Magazines, museums, and literary journals may have longer shelf lives than newspapers, but they don't offer cartoonists a daily relationship with millions of readers. Barring the mainstream emergence of Internet comics, only a newspaper strip can accomplish that level of intimacy. With Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson took newsprint as seriously as graphic novelists take magazines and books.

"I'd always resisted the idea of doing a 'kid strip,' partly because of the long shadow that Peanuts cast over the whole genre," Watterson writes in the introduction to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. In Watterson's first strips Calvin and Hobbes is practically an homage to Peanuts. Calvin tilts his head back, screaming, and his mouth fills his entire face, so all we see is his tongue. Calvin and Hobbes converse about a girl atop a brick wall, just like Charlie Brown and Linus (although Calvin's desire for Susie Derkins is, shall we say, more sublimated than Charlie Brown's unrequited love for the little red-headed girl). When Calvin falls off his bike, he flips upside down and looks as if Lucy had just pulled the football away from him. Calvin sits behind an overturned cardboard box with a sign that reads, "Insurance, 50?." You half-expect it to also say, "The insurance salesman is IN."

Schulz's biggest influence on Watterson, however, is evident not in his brush stroke but in his sensibility. Watterson's Calvin talks with the wit and intelligence of an adult about a child's fears and dreams. "I've never understood people who remember childhood as an idyllic time," Watterson wrote in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, published in 1995. Like Charlie Brown, Calvin is a perpetual loser. He's terrible at school. His baseball teammates make so much fun of him that he quits the team. He's repeatedly bullied. He doesn't appear to have any real friends, other than his tiger Hobbes. Yet unlike Charlie Brown, Calvin doesn't seem to mind his fate. His main quality, other than imagination, is enthusiasm. Calvin, as befits his name, is a carefree fatalist.

Calvin's imaginative play is the central element of Watterson's strip, and the reality of his friendship with Hobbes is never resolved. The tiger's true nature is left ambiguous. Perhaps Calvin's parents just can't see Hobbes as he really is, or worse, their presence turns him into a plush toy. In a 1989 interview published in Comics Journal, the questioner mentioned to Watterson that Hobbes was a figment of Calvin's imagination. "But the strip doesn't assert that," Watterson said. "That's the assumption that adults make because nobody else sees him, sees Hobbes, in the way that Calvin does. ? It would seem to me, though, that when you make up a friend for yourself, you would have somebody to agree with you, not to argue with you. So Hobbes is more real than I suspect any kid would dream up."

Calvin, too, is more real than the typical comic-strip character. He's a recognizably modern boy, a lazy TV-watcher who would rather play inside than outside. In some strips, he's astonishingly mean, while in others he's sickeningly cute?almost Family Circus-ish. Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau called Bill Watterson "the reporter who got it right" about boyhood, a statement Watterson disputed because he has no children. But Calvin is strikingly familiar, and like any friend or family member, his hold on readers grew with time.

Watterson refused to license a single Calvin and Hobbes product: no dolls, no greeting cards, no boxer shorts, no TV shows. Without specifically naming, say, Jim Davis of Garfield, Watterson scorned the cartoonists who enlist teams of assistants to draw their strips while they dream up new products for their corporate empires. Unfortunately for Watterson, though, the public perception of his strip was affected by unlicensed products. Replace the water balloon in the leftmost panel of the middle row in this strip with the Ford logo or Osama Bin Laden, and you have the image of Peeing Calvin, still slapped on the back window of pickup trucks across the nation. In part because of Peeing Calvin, the selfish brattiness of Watterson's character is remembered more than his sweetness, or his laziness, or his environmentalism. Peeing Calvin proves Watterson right: A static logo fails to capture the nuances of his characters, and it also limits the public's understanding of them. (Syrupy, sentimental Calvin posters in the school nurse's office would have had the same effect.)

Watterson's first job after graduating from Kenyon College was as a political cartoonist at the Cincinnati Post, which fired him after only a few months. Unlike political cartoons, most Calvin and Hobbes strips exist in a timeless setting, so much so that Watterson's rare references to dated popular culture (at one point, Hobbes calls himself "New Wave") are jarring. Calvin and Hobbes discuss the meaning of life, the existence of God, and the nature of free will, not the merits of the Reagan administration. This strip, however, was published in February 1991, on the eve of the first Gulf War. "It's an incredibly rare privilege to have your work read by people every day, year after year," Watterson writes in the Complete introduction. "If you're inclined to go beyond jokes and say something heartfelt, honest, or thoughtful, you have a tremendous opportunity. And best of all, because the comics are generally regarded as frivolous, disposable entertainment, readers rarely have their guard up."

Beginning in May 1991, Watterson took a nine-month sabbatical from Calvin and Hobbes, the first of two such leaves of absence during the strip's 10-year run. When he returned, he demanded that newspapers run his Sunday strips full size?one-half of a newspaper broadsheet?which allowed him to experiment with unusual panel sizes and shapes. (Typically, comic-strip artists must use the top panels of their Sunday strips for a throwaway gag, in case newspaper editors choose to save space by running only the lower two-thirds of the strip.) Inspired by George Herriman's full-page Krazy Kat strips from the 1920s and '30s, Watterson wanted to try something less rigid. Beginning in 1992, sometimes he would draw a single panel on Sundays. On other occasions, his Sunday strip would be filled with 20 small squares. In this strip, the third Sunday after Watterson's return in 1992, the "assembly line" snowballs are a clear metaphor for the comics, even as Watterson pokes mild fun at his own ambitions.

In the last years of Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson used his characters more and more to complain about the state of the newspaper comic strip. The economic power of the syndicates, he felt, encouraged cautious, committee-approved comics and market-tested strips for niche demographics. Calvin and Hobbes never became cautious, but the late Sunday strips, despite the visual inventiveness, occasionally felt formulaic: Calvin starts out in his imagination as a spaceman, or a dinosaur, or an insect, only to return to the dreary reality of the classroom or his parents' car in the final frame. Watterson says the post-sabbatical strips are his favorites, but you can also see him struggling, wondering what is left for his characters to do.

When Watterson returned from his second sabbatical, the first words of his Jan. 1, 1995, strip were, "The end of the Mesozoic Era ?" At the end of that year, the last new Calvin and Hobbes strip would run. At the end of the Mesozoic Era, the dinosaurs went extinct. It's difficult not to think that Watterson knew at this point that soon his strip would be, too. He tried to reinvent the comic strip, to bring back the bold and colorful illustrations that filled newspapers before Schulz and Peanuts. But today, it is graphic novels that are filled with lively experiments, and the comic strip feels more moribund than ever.

On the last day of 1995, Watterson published his final Calvin and Hobbes strip. His two characters toboggan away to forever "go exploring." At the same time, Watterson seems glad to be liberated from the burdens of daily cartooning. In the Complete introduction, Watterson writes of the collected Calvin and Hobbes strips, "Together, they're pretty much a transcript of my mental diary ? I meant to disguise that better." On his last day, Watterson didn't disguise much of his delight in abandoning the "familiar" for "a fresh, clean start." Or his desire to start painting full-time: "It's like a big white sheet of paper to draw on." With this strip, the last great newspaper comic strip ended after only a decade in print. "There will always be mediocre comic strips," Watterson said in a 1989 speech titled "The Cheapening of the Comics," "but we have lost much of the potential for anything else."