Yes, it really has been twenty years since Bill Watterson’s brilliant strip about a six-year-old boy and his friend Hobbes stopped being a daily part of so many lives. Some of us are still sad over it.
There are people making careers — or at least significant portions of a career — out of analyzing Calvin and Hobbes. I’m not going to try and climb those mountains. What I will say is Calvin and Hobbes was really special. One of those iconic creations that truly did change the face of its medium. So many cartoonists cite Watterson as a major influence on them, or as an inspiration, or both. And it’s fair to say, even to a casual peruser of the funny pages, that Calvin and Hobbes was unique in its appeal.
Everyone has stories about the strip; things that it did or affected in their lives. I’m no different.
My favorite comes from when I first found it. In the mid and late 80s, there was no Internet. The discussion of pop culture hadn’t even begun to head for — much less reach — the kind of density we see today. Whatever the thing was, you generally had just it and maybe some — literally — water cooler or coffee machine chit-chat about it. “Did you see the-” and “Have you heard the-” kind of conversations. So it wasn’t like there were any easy references to catch me up on Calvin and Hobbes.
I enjoyed the strip, but the brilliance and true appreciation of the level Watterson was working at took a while to creep up on me; for me to figure out. The main thing that threw me for a pretty big loop early on was Hobbes. Sometimes he was a tiger, sometimes he was a stuffed animal. Again, remember, I just had the little four panel strip each day. There wasn’t any explanation that came along with it. And I was still in school, so that factored in as well. The way I remember things, it was about two months into the strip before it occurred to me that Hobbes was Calvin’s imaginary friend.
That was a pretty big “ooooohhhhhh” moment for me.
I still remember the exact strip where it clicked too. Mom trying to make sure Calvin’s ready for school, and she finds Hobbes waiting outside the door to Calvin’s room dressed in a hat and coat. As a stuffed animal. The final panel is Hobbes telling Calvin “See, I told you it wouldn’t work.”
Once I got past that ‘hurdle’, I really began to lose myself in Watterson’s work. The thing about Calvin that I endlessly love is how Calvin’s imagination is infinite. Truly infinite. One of the best things about being young is how anything seems possible. The expression “out of the mouths of babes” nearly always means some truly stupid and bizarre suggestion or stratagem that is actually a really great, usually brilliant, idea. Because kids see endless possibilities; they haven’t had the curse of learning how to think in limitations. This is one of the absolute worst things about growing up, that you add layers of cynicism and “that’s impossible” to yourself. This limitation permeates us and holds us back, and it’s just awful.
Calvin wasn’t just a kid, he was an especially boundless kid. He had Hobbes and usually that was about it. Sometimes a ball, but even then he didn’t play catch or shoot hoops or kick it against a wall. Calvinball is one of the simplest things to point to if you find yourself in the position of having to explain to someone else what the strip was about. Or the boxes; my God, the boxes. I think most of us had the experience of playing with boxes, but where Calvin took them was pretty far beyond what most of us probably came up with. One of my favorite strips was where Calvin explains to Hobbes that no, this is the (whatever it was) not the (other thing that had already been in the strip) because “see, you enter it from this side instead of that one; get it?” Hobbes agrees this does make sense.
I’m not going to discuss the business politics that Watterson had to fight with his entire twenty year run; it’s depressing. I think it probably did accelerate the end of the strip. I will touch on the final strip, which truly did wrap the series up about as perfectly as could have ever been hoped for. Everything that Calvin and Hobbes encapsulated was in the sign-off strip.
Let’s go exploring. A new day is like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on. I’m not a cartoonist, and wish I could draw beyond the most basic of doodles, but I can easily grasp the metaphor of how appealing a clean piece of paper is to an artist skilled with pencils or chalks or some other drawing media. And how it applies to life as well.
When Watterson left the funny pages, that was pretty much about the time I did too. I basically drifted away from them for most of the reasons Watterson had repeatedly cited during his career. The comics were getting squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces, it was hard to even read the text much less see any of the drawings. I think how newspapers treated things like the funny pages — as irrelevancies and not being serious draws for consumers — is a decent part of why they’ve contracted so heavily in the last thirty years.
But I heard about when Watterson came back, which he did in a very brief guest stint in a current strip in 2014. One of my Internet sites linked into a blog post Stephan Pastis had written, after the fact, about the experience. I remember the way the links to the post was written didn’t ‘reveal’ the guest artist’s identity right away. The link post just had the strips, which were from something called Pearls before Swine that I’d never heard of. The first one Watterson drew maybe rang a few subliminal bells, and was really funny; but the second one made me sit up in my chair and exclaim “That’s Calvin and Hobbes! That’s Bill Watterson!” So I clicked over and read Pastis’ full write up, and studied the strips wistfully.
I still miss my daily dose of Calvin and Hobbes. A lot. I know a lot of us do. Today it’s twenty years since we had that little bit of something we could use to help us get through the day, to inspire and enlighten and brighten. Twenty years. Even legends hang it up, but I’ll always think Watterson pushed back from the drawing board too soon when it comes to a six-year-old and his best friend.
When you’re a kid, everything takes forever. It feels like forever since we had Calvin and Hobbes.