Oh You Kid

A Strip of Leviathan Quality

by Richard Marschall
from Comics Journal issue number 127, February 1989

Very literally, kids were in at the birth of the comics. The Yellow Kid (1895) was the first star of Sunday newspapers' color funny sections, and he was the most prominent of a ragtag band of kids who populated Hogan's Alley in R.F. Outcault's phenomenally successful series of urban-slum genre drawings. When the comics were born, the color supplement was actually edited for adult readers; although there were simple, child-oriented cartoons, strips, and puzzles, the majority of material in early Hearst and Pulitzer comic supplements was aimed at older readers. But somehow by 1905 the assumption evolved that the color comics were primarily for the kids, and if the pioneer sections were not always for kids, they often were about kids.

The Yellow Kid is often referred to as the first comic strip, with the first continuing character and cast. the first color comic in newspapers, and so forth; in fact, it was none of these things. What was the first comic strip? Well, an earlier feature had all of the criteria ascribed to Outcault's feature, although it has been forgotten by history: The Ting-Ling Kids (1893 - 1897) by Charles Saalburg. Kids, again.

But the first strip, or at least the first successful, sustained feature with continuing characters and weekly stories conveyed by a succession of panels, was The Katzenjammer Kids. Kids again.

And what kids! The Katzies, originated by Rudolph Dirks in 1897, represent not only the comic strip's supreme embodiment of mischievous kids, but arguably The Katzenjammer Kids itself can be considered the most representative of comic strips. Certainly it is the most durable and seemingly the most universal in theme. Illegitimate cousins of Max und Moritz, Wilhelm Busch's mischievous kids from his famed bilderbogen of 1865, Hans und Fritz Katzenjammer spawned countless imitators in America (where at one point there were five separate versions running simultaneously) and abroad (where, besides reprints of Dirks and his successors and sycophants, home-grown versions popped up in England, France, Italy, Scandinavia, and, later, even Israel). The Katzenjammer Kids still runs today after 91 years -- the longest-running comic strip of all. What is the appeal? The answers undoubtedly are many, but one of the answers is the main characters are kids.

Many other strips from comics' establishing period were kid strips: Foxy Grandpa contended with his two grandsons; Poor L'il Mose, about a black kid, was Outcaults major comic after The Yellow Kid; Buster Brown, another boy, followed in Outcault's portfolio; Jimmy Swinnerton created Little Jimmy, about a kid's wayward errands; most typical was F.M. Follett's The Kid (sometimes called The See-See Kid), about a tot who was the calm center of mayhem-hurricanes he initiated innocently; George McManus' The Newlyweds took a quantum leap in popularity when the infatuated couple sired Snookums, the bratty kid; Billy Marriner drew a host of kid strips (he was famed for their delineations in the weekly humor magazines) for the McClure syndicate; and, of course, Little Nemo chronicled the dreams of a boy in Slumberland that Winsor McCay could easily have manufactured for a grown-up star, but didn't.

And there were many more kid strips in the early years; it was almost like the cartoonists used the uninhibited world of childhood to mirror their own sense of abandon, exploration, and excitement during the days when comics were new, when artists had full pages to fill every week with practically no restrictions and certainly no precedents.

But kid strips continued. In the teens, there was Just Boy (later Elmer) and Our Friends Mush (later Just-Kids) and Wide-Awake Willie (which became Reg'lar Fellers). In the 1920s, it became a regular category of strips, as Perry Winkle and his Rinkeydink Club took over the Sunday Winnie Winkle page. Smitty was an office boy, Annie was a little orphan girl, Skippy was a philosophical kid. The Gumps was a solid favorite with readers as it dealt with vaudeville exchanges, domestic strife, and soap opera, but no less a favorite theme in the strip was little Chester's Sunday adventures out west and tracking The Lost City of Gold; similarly, Dick Tracy's exploits thrilled adults, but in the beginning "Dick Tracy Junior" had a strong role in the strip, even as the center of several plotlines. And Terry and the Pirates, the greatest adventure strip of them all, originally starred a tow-headed kid.

Many adventure strips during the '20s and '30s revolved around kids -- Tim Tyler's Luck, Little Annie Rooney, Bobby Thatcher, Phil Hardy -- or were ostensible adult strips featuring kids as strong secondary characters. In the latter category were Buck Rogers and even the violent Red Barry, where the 'Terrible Three' provided juvenile interest. Even the high point of adult, violent, mature, sometimes sexy adventure comics did not suppress the strips' natural preoccupation with kids. The genre perhaps ceased to dominate the field, but it hardly disappeared.

And in the -50s the kid strip reasserted itself. Barnaby, begun in the -40s, might have led the way; it was a very special fantasy strip written and drawn in unstated brilliance, appealing to intellectuals. Dennis the Menace was a freewheeling throwback to the era of mischievous kids -- the flavor and characters of the Katzenjammers in Eisenhower suburban settings. Then came a strip that might not have been the greatest of all kid strips, but could very well be the greatest of all strips.

Peanuts, it may be argued (and was -- by Al Capp in a parody, and by others) was not at all a strip about children, but about psychology-spouting pedants with assorted neuroses. Nonsense. I was a kid when Peanuts hit the scene, and those kids were real to me; and when they spoke in a highly abstract manner (from my perspective) or in brainy syntax, I didn't give up, but rather emulated Schulz' brand of humor, even his worldview, and gag delivery. Countless readers thus absorbed Schulz' work, and so, too, did a generation of cartoonists.

Schulz- genius was so overwhelming that his brilliance and approach stifled that generation of cartoonists raised on a diet of Peanuts. Some artists adapted Schulz' modes well (Doonesbury, I maintain, might seem light-years dissimilar to anything resembling Peanuts, but it is in many ways -- its structure, its character development, its gag delivery, all, I am sure, unconsciously -- a carbon copy of Peanuts, but Schultz' impact also prevented the emergence of any other first-rate kid's strip for a generation.

Great cartoonists are great often because they determine to be. They work their hardest at creating a quality product -- purely for the intrinsic joy and internal demands. But comic strips are frequently at their best when their creators are at their least self-conscious: thinking of one's place in history, keeping a crossed eye on the competition, aping another's style, stealing another's premise, are all certain ways for going crazy or, more predictably, creating a crummy strip. And it happens all too often in this business; witness the glut of nitwit cat features manufactured by prescription over the past decade.

Another thing that makes great cartoonists great is that their features speak to, and for, their times; and this is more often part of that unselfconscious mode than a calculated design. Thus, let us pick a few kid strips at random. The Katzenjammers manifested an anarchic abandon (and their punishment appealed to an authoritarian steain) that struck chords at the turn of the century. Terry Lee, with or without Pirates, represented an elevated sense of fantasy and transference in the hard Depression days. Caniff provided humor, but also a little action, danger, and cheesecake in those new times. When that blockhead Charlie Brown first walked down the sidewalk, his creator, too, was perfect for his time. America had moved into an era of seemingly contradictory moods -- insecurity, growing sophistication, cynicism, and hopefulness -- and Peanuts was there. Add to Schulz' creative consonance the fact that he was -- is -- an absolute master of comic strip construction, and you have a classic comic strip, a great kid's strip.

Calvin and Hobbes is its heir. Its current, and sudden, brilliance does not actually eclipse that of Peanuts, because I believe one of the remarkable things about Schulz is that he has maintained through the years a constant sense of fun and innovation while other strips (some much younger) have grown stale. And, of course, the rise of one great strip does not imply in the least that others' days are numbered. In addressing the greatness of Calvin and Hobbes, it may be too soon to examine Bill Watterson's role in the spirit of our times (although we'll attempt to do so anyway, in a few inches and for a few inches), but it is not too early at all to claim that here is one of the great comic strips of comic strip history.

There have been some fine strips and even some great strips since Peanuts (to avoid sidetracks, we'll forego suggesting a list in order), but Calvin and Hobbes belongs with the great strips of any era, and it certainly can be stated that, when histories are written many years hence, the lifeline tracing quality in that all-important category of kid's strips will jump directly from Charlie Brown to Calvin.

What are the origins of Calvin and Hobbes? What were the wellsprings from which Watterson was nourished? He tells us that he was unaware until recently of Barnaby, a strip whose thematic preoccupations and "gimmick" -- a fairy godfather, worldly-wise, seen only to the kid hero and, of course, the readers -- comes closest of any strip to Calvin and Hobbes and the relationship between the title characters. This makes the amazing things Watterson does even more amazing.

Let us attempt for a moment to appreciate the value of Calvin and Hobbes' synchronicity with the times, and Watterson's instinctive understanding of contemporary currents. When future generations look back at Garfield, they will grasp a profile of 1980s business activity, marketing mentality, and clever commercial exploitation. When they look back on Calvin and Hobbes, they will behold (besides a superbly-crafted comic strip) a profile of American attitudes in all their forms. The "hard" interchanges between Calvin and his parents speak volumes about current relationships: a new frankness, affection couched in sarcasm, the old wines in new skins that characterize generational coping these days. (The picture of American manners that Watterson humorously but faithfully presents is more real than that in any other comic strip, straight or comic, and certainly truer than -- God help us -- that of any sitcom family on television). Watterson's dialogue is always realistic, and often real.

Even Watterson-s fantasy work, which is considerable in the strip, has resonance for what it plays against. His relationship with Hobbes is pure magic, and there oughta be a law against the speculation that often crops up surrounding it. Let it be: I suspect Watterson's grand design here is as evanescent as McCay's possibly Freudian outlook in Little Nemo's dreams, or Herriman's motivations in Krazy Kat's shifting gender; those cartoonists shrugged their shoulders in genuine bewilderment to interviewers, and continued to have fun drawing comic strips. However, the Spaceman Spiff interludes, the horror-movie references, Calvin's Lilliputian explorations of household appliances -- all tell us something about the kid hero, but also about contemporary America. And we can let that be, too: Calvin and Hobbes is one of the occasional strips that comes along that can be read happily on several levels (or one of several levels), and the rarity of those occasions is reinforced by melancholy reminders of how Pogo and L'il Abner, near their ends, demanded to be read on only one level -- strident politics -- in abrupt changes from their creators' modes and readers' hopes.

Calvin and Hobbes as a reflection of our times will become more evident, as forest and trees become distinct from each other. Eulogists are already calling this the Reagan era, and clucking about yuppies and greed and New Age music. Once again, that all seem appropriate for Garfield to represent; Calvin and Hobbes is documenting how we live, how we speak, how we interact, in fresh ways that are hip, aware, and unselfconscious.

The child-as-adult is a social transmogrification that has marked the middle 20th century. Such kid are now real, not dreamed of or urged upon us; their prophet was Charles Schulz and their spokesman is Bill Watterson. Nevertheless (here are those several levels again), Calvin -- mature, cynical, hip, sarcastic, worldly-wise if not wise -- does not lose his essential kid-ness. He is still a child. He is frequently child-like, but never childish.

The adult-as-child motif is easier to construct (or at least it is done more frequently than vice-versa), and we have with us Laurel and Hardy, Lucy, and the repentant Ralph Kramden, among others. But the comics have done a fair turn at child-as-kid premises. This is not as silly as it sounds, considering the humorous lode to be mined in kids adopting other personas and, given our premise that kids have been a central obsession of strip cartoonists, that few have done it well. Percy Crosby's Skippy was a misanthropic adult philosopher's soul in a kid's body; and it was only when Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie lost her original vulnerability and became instead indestructible that the strip hit a stride; Annie was no longer a kid. Among comics' genuine, true-to-life kids, however, were the assorted rural gamins of Dwig (School Days, Huck Finn, etc.), the kids of Ad Carter's Just-Kids, the boys in Reg'lar Fellers, and -- maybe closest of all to Calvin's personality -- Desp'rate Ambrose of Charlie Payne's S'matter, Pop?

In these strips, the preoccupations of childhood -- the ontology of kid life -- was paramount, and gifted cartoonists were able to capture, or recapture, the real concerns of kids. Anyone can call himself a satirist by depicting adults as infantiles; we can seize upon "important" things and ridicule them. But only certain geniuses can remember (we all once knew) how important the small things are to kids, and then relate those perspectives to the rest of us. Bill Watterson never forgot, and he has a magical way of reminding us without being patronizing to us or kids -- and without being saccharin. His brief plots are more than hangers for gags. They are Petrie dishes for recognition, shared responses, and fresh reactions to people that interest us.

Watterson's drawing style is something special, too. As wild as I am about theme and premise, I see in his brushstrokes the final element that turned me from a pessimist about modern newspaper strips into a cautious optimist. Calvin and Hobbes has reasserted the value of artwork, the sanctity of talent, the importance of composition, the results of capability. Graphic sterility is not necessarily the lot of newspaper strips. (Watterson's own syndicate -- Universal Press Syndicate -- has been a singular offender in this regard, tossing contracts to amateurs who can't draw.) Watterson has revived a sense of craft to the art, and reminds us that a truly great comic strip must be well drawn.

Can this be revolutionary -- that a cartoonist ought to be able to draw well? In 1989, it seems so, but Bill Watterson can draw wonderfully well. He uses the brush, and handles it masterfully. His characters display a myriad of expressions, and therefore they have personality, even before dialogue and plot tell us so. His compositions inspire awe, with well-placed blacks, a judicious use of shading, and delightfully distorted perspective and anatomy. It is evident that Watterson discovered Walt Kelly, and has recently discovered George Herriman. Designs, motifs, patterns, touches -- personalized thumbprints -- are all turning up in Calvin and Hobbes, at a time when other cartoonists are discovering ways to eliminate detail from what they evidently consider their drudgery.

Most impressive is Watterson's employment of angles and points of view. Twenty years ago, Pat Oliphant, in political cartoons, started adopting unorthodox settings -- up-shots, down-shots, broad panoramas, dramatic effects of broad or stormy skies, and so forth -- and Watterson has brought the same to his strip work. Oddly, for all the political cartoonists who have drifted into strips recently, Watterson is the first ex-political artist to adopt these striking modes. His strip becomes interesting to look at immediately, even before the dialogue, before the plot, before the compelling expressions.

Watterson's brief tenure as a political cartoonist was a good training period, probably, but the frustration surrounding his efforts to advance in the profession was probably his best teacher in the long run: thus tempered, Bill Watterson seems to have adopted a sense of perspective about himself, his creation, and his profession, that is admirable.

(The greatness-through-adversity and starving-artist-in-a-garret things can go too far, of course. I'm reminded of the story about Churchill during the blitzkrieg: bombs raining down upon London, and someone says to him, "This could be a blessing in disguise." Churchill harrumphed, "Some blessing. Some disguise.")

For several years the only consistent outlet for Watterson's work as in the pages of Richard Samuel West's publications. Magazines like Target featured work and interviews of major political cartoonists, with covers and ads by this "Watterson" or "W" -- and his work was usually better than anything else in the magazine. There arose behind the loyal and perceptive West a cult of Watterson devotees well before Calvin and Hobbes.

Finally, there is the facet of Watterson's riffs in his strip. There are gags that emanate from the major premise of Hobbes' "reality," and the relationship between him and Calvin. There are the Spaceman Spiff routines, which liberate the kid from the tiger and allow him to fly solo. There are the occasional sallies with Susie. There is the poll-taking riff on Dad's performance as a father (Charles Schulz, a fan of Watterson's work, once told me he thought the father-son relationship would eventually supplant the kid-tiger relationship). One thing we must appreciate about Calvin and Hobbes may seem at first glance to be opposite the way things should be: it is not merely the quality of these themes but the variety that impresses.

When things are fresh, varied, and unpredictable for the readers of a quality strip, you know the same is true for the cartoonist who sits down each day at the drawing board confronted by the blank sheet of drawing paper. Bill Watterson doesn't just create happily; he dares. He dares us to see the world the way his kid sees it, and he dares himself to present it to us in ways that the kid magically alive inside him sees it, and in ways that no other cartoonists today are showing it.

There's a Half-Pint Hall of Fame of the comics that's very honorable indeed. Once, there were just little people -- the Brownies, the Kewpies, the Teenie Weenies. Then there were the kids -- the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammer Kids, Charlie Brown and Company. Lately, Calvin has scrambled up on a tall pedestal, and no one's gonna tell him to get down. Nor should anyone.

But don't turn your back for too long. That kid puts weird stuff in his pea-shooter sometimes.