Gone, but Not Forgotten

18 02 2010

Fifteen years ago, one of my favorite things in the world came to an end. Bill Watterson’s comic strip creation “Calvin and Hobbes,” vanished from newspapers, retired after a seemingly too-short run from 1985 to 1995.

Watterson, who has always shied away from fame in a manner similar to the late J.D. Salinger, granted a rare interview this week to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, a newspaper near the author’s home. Reading the piece led me to reflect on my own affection for the blond-haired 6-year-old and his tiger.

For me, “Calvin and Hobbes” has always been more than a comic strip. It’s been a guiding force in my view of the world and a source of comfort through difficult moments. The pages are old friends, thought-provoking and comforting at the same time.

I grew up reading the strip in the newspaper and in printed anthologies, and its influence on me changed as my age did. At first, the expressive illustrations and humor captured my imagination but with each re-read I appreciated the strips on deeper levels.

I’ve also always liked to believe it influenced my decision to become a writer by giving me an early love for the intricacies of the English language. Calvin’s expressive vocabulary outmatched his 6 years of age and showed me the purpose of finding the perfect phrasing for any given thought.

Sometimes it may have even prompted difficulty for my parents as I can clearly remember once asking my mother what a “communist” was after reading one strip in which Calvin rails against his parents’ oppressive bedtime policies.

I’ve read and re-read and read again the strips so many times that I find myself quoting them word-for-word in casual conversation. In college, I once challenged my roommate and fellow fan to a “Calvin and Hobbes” read-off. We had another friend read the first few panels of a random strip and we had to correctly fill in the rest. My victory was resounding and complete.

One day, it’s possible that I will have children of my own (God help the poor things). A central tenant of my parenting strategy will be to hand my progeny the complete edition of the strip’s 10-year run and say “Listen to Watterson, not to me.”

What Watterson had that most newspaper comic strips lack is an underlying philosophy each joke or storyline reinforced. Calvin, Hobbes and the rest of the cast had beliefs and this is in turn made them mean something to readers.

Watterson frequently targeted what he saw as the corrupting influence of television. Yet, he also acknowledged the power of mass media over us, its inherent appeal voiced by its in-strip defender, Calvin. Here was the heart of the strip’s transcending appeal, for it tackled the human experience by expressing our capacity for ambivalence, our ability to love and hate something at the same time.

Essentially, “Calvin and Hobbes” looked at our modern world and its influences set against the contrasting background of the natural world (and its intrinsic order) around us. Calvin — loud-mouthed, self-centered, demanding 6-year-old brat — represents the baseline of human weaknesses while Hobbes embodies our more natural, noble aspirations.

Everyone feels this struggle and we fight it to varying measures of success. “Calvin and Hobbes” enjoyed so much acclaim and attention because we could identify with all its characters to one degree or another.

Of course, it was also reliably hilarious. The strip’s scope grew from its simple premise but always kept its endearing amusement.
Along with its depth and humor, Watterson used the visual power of comics in a way no modern newspaper offering does to really elevate the strip to legend.

Take a look at a regular newspaper comics page and you’ll see a bland wash of illustrations communicating little in appearance. The characters resemble cardboard cut-outs, stand-ins duplicating the same poses against the same backdrop day after day.

Now compare that to a “Calvin and Hobbes” Sunday comic from the 90s. As the strip developed and gained popularity, Watterson grew bolder, his artistic vision larger. He leveraged the power of his success and demanded that his Sunday strips be published as he presented them. It is common practice in the newspaper industry to cut or rearrange Sunday panels to fit pages — hence the “throw-away” panels in many Sunday editions.

These strips are “Calvin and Hobbes” at its best, creative in presentation and content. Watterson considered himself an artist first and a writer second. He brought those two aspects together in a fusion that hasn’t been replicated on newspaper (or Web, for that matter) pages since.

Fifteen years since it ceased to appear in newspapers, I still re-read the entire “Calvin and Hobbes” library a few times a year. The depth of Watterson’s work encourages this, and in fact, the overall message resounding through the strip is a call to discovery — of ideas, of people, of place.

The last strip, published Dec. 31, 1995, summarizes this sentiment. The intrepid duo sit poised on their trusty toboggan after a winter blizzard, facing a wilderness of white.

“It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy … Let’s go exploring.”

This first appeared in The Kentucky Standard Feb. 10

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6 responses

19 02 2010
Becky

Ah, a Johnson family staple. Remember how we would have to get new books because we would “wear” the old ones out. I often used Watterson’s comics for my theatre auditions. Sometimes this would result in success and sometimes people would like at me like I was a crazy as I gave a poetic speech before my descent down a hill in a red wagon with an imaginary friend. Classic.

19 02 2010
Jim Gibbons

Not many people can get away with putting this phrase in a newspaper: “…led me to reflect on my own affection for the blond-haired 6-year-old…”

Not many people, but Frank Johnson, he pulls no punches!

19 02 2010
relativepragmatism

Haha, oh wow, I did not even notice until you pointed that out! That is quite funny actually, oh silly me.

20 02 2010
Paul

Wonderful article Frank. Different generations have different cultural icons but Calvin and Hobbes was a great bridge between parents and young people. While everyone else was identifying with Calvin or Hobbes, I often found myself identifying with the father.

1 03 2010
david chico pham

Frank,

It’s because of you, leaving your Calvin and Hobbes in our bathroom that I read and continue to read the strip. I bring my Calvin and Hobbes to the student I tutor so we can doodle after working on some math. By the way, I still want that complete collections. How about giving that to me for my birthday. You owe me, buddy.

1 03 2010
relativepragmatism

I have to agree, a large chunk of my Calvin and Hobbes reading has occurred in the exact same spot.

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