I am sitting in my favorite cafe, Breaking New Ground, in Portsmouth, NH. I just finished reading the Sunday Paper and was thinking about the Sunday comics when I was growing up.
In 1985, American newspaper readers met an appalling little boy. He taunted his mother (“Prepare for annihilation, pitiful Earth female”), tormented a classmate by telling her he had brought a “thermos full of phlegm” for lunch and kept a sign on his bedroom door that read “Enter and die.” Millions fell in love with him.
Running in hundreds of papers for the following decade, Bill Watterson ’s “Calvin and Hobbes” was not only the strangest American comic strip. It was also the funniest, the most touching and the most profound.
But in 1995, at the height of its popularity, Mr. Watterson, then in his mid-30s, retired. Barely a peep has been heard from him since, although a retrospective show that ran last year at Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum drew crowds. The exhibition catalog, “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes,” is published this week. It deepens our sense of what Mr. Watterson accomplished—and the mystery of why he stopped.
At its simplest level, the strip is about the friendship between a bright 6-year-old misfit (Calvin) and his pet tiger (Hobbes). Its “trick” is that Hobbes is a lifeless stuffed animal when others are present and a rollicking, witty companion when they are not. So the story can be understood on many levels. It is about the richness of the imagination, the subversiveness of creativity and the irreconcilability of private yearnings and worldly reality. Where Calvin sees a leaf-monster trying to swallow him, Calvin’s father sees his troublemaker son scattering the leaf-piles he has spent all afternoon raking.
Two things set the strip apart. First, the artistry of it, from its broad color palette (on Sundays) to the dynamism and physicality of its brush-drawn figures. Calvin and Hobbes have their conversations on a toboggan as it flies off the lip of a mogul, or stretching their arms to balance as they cross a wobbly log over a creek, or tumbling through frames at the reader as they fight. Calvin is drawn as simply as Charlie Brown, but the dinosaurs that pass through his mind are drawn in the heavily shadowed photo-realism of 1950s comic books. Calvin’s fantasies are always more vivid, more real than reality.
It is these dreams that are the real subject of the strips: the city of Stupidopolis that Calvin builds out of sand castles and destroys, the Transmogrifier (actually a cardboard box) that will turn him into a tiger like Hobbes, the efforts of Stupendous Man to duck schoolwork and of Spaceman Spiff (“poised precariously over a percolating pit of putrid pasta”) to avoid the inedible meals that Calvin’s mother serves. (Calvin’s own preference is for a breakfast cereal called Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs.)
From these situations emerges a social and a philosophical vision, unsystematic but nonetheless profound. The late political scientist James Q. Wilson described “Calvin and Hobbes” as “our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle.” Wilson meant that the social order is founded on self-control and delayed gratification—and that Calvin is hopeless at these things. Calvin thinks that “life should be more like TV” and that he is “destined for greatness” whether he does his homework or not. His favorite sport is “Calvinball,” in which he is entitled to make up the rules as he goes along.
Day-in, day-out, Calvin keeps running into evidence that the world isn’t built to his (and our) specifications. All humor is, in one way or another, about our resistance to that evidence.
Did Mr. Watterson make the right decision when he stopped “Calvin and Hobbes” 20 years ago? “The strip’s world seemed complete,” he says in the Ireland Library interview. He didn’t want to “mow the lawn,” to go back over territory already covered.
“Calvin and Hobbes” would have faced big challenges if Mr. Watterson had decided to carry on. The Internet has cut a swath through the press. There are no longer hundreds of independent newspapers to which a cartoonist can syndicate his work.
And today’s cultural climate might have made it more difficult for him to render a boy’s imaginative life in a realistic way. Calvin fantasizes not just about dinosaurs flying F-14s but also about shooting up his school with a tank. At one point, he tells Susie Derkins—his neighbor, rival and secret crush—“I’m sure it’s frustrating knowing that men are bigger, stronger and better at abstract thought than women.” That these are all jokes matters little. Enforcers of taste are not known for their humor.
So one feels a double nostalgia in looking back at Mr. Watterson’s cartoons—first for an artist who is probably the greatest his genre has produced, second for the culture he spoke from, which was in ways freer than our own.