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NONFICTION

THE CALVIN AND HOBBES TENTH ANNIVERSARY BOOK, by Bill Watterson (Andrews & McMeel: $14.95; 208 pp., paperback). For 10 years, “Calvin and Hobbes” has been the best-drawn, most imaginative and most admired comic strip in America. To celebrate its anniversary, Watterson has chosen an assortment of daily and Sunday panels, and added his comments on them and the general state of newspaper comic strips. Unfortunately, the publication also coincides with the cartoonist’s decision, announced last week, to retire the strip at the end of this year.

A comic strip is a fragile combination of words and drawings. If the artist sticks too closely to his original ideas, the strip may ossify: “Heathcliff” and “Andy Capp” have been recycling the same weary gags for years. But if the artist strays too far from his initial premise, he risks losing the qualities that initially attracted readers.

Watterson has steered a middle course, retaining the original fantasy and humor as he gradually explores 6-year-old Calvin’s unbounded imagination. He remembers his own childhood too well to depict Calvin’s as an idyllic time. If Calvin lives primarily in his imagination, it’s because the worlds of Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet and Stupendous Man are so much more enjoyable than a reality dominated by bullies, teachers and chores.

In one telling series based on the artist’s memories, Calvin is railroaded into playing organized baseball at recess--with disastrous results: “The kids teased me when I didn’t play baseball. Then they yelled at me when I did play. Then the teacher called me a ‘quitter’ when I stopped playing.” Who wouldn’t prefer the flags, masks, bonus boxes and perpetually shifting rules of Calvinball?

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As his comments make clear, Watterson believes the comic strip is an art form. He argues that a strip has a life of its own, and that it is the artist’s duty to protect his creation: He’s turned down multimillion-dollar licensing deals, and nearly quit the strip when his syndicate tried to force him to do “Calvin and Hobbes” merchandise five years ago.

Watterson emerges from these pages as a prickly perfectionist. But this nagging devotion to excellence enables him to create the wonderfully original “Calvin and Hobbes.” Newspaper readers would be better off if more cartoonists shared Watterson’s preference for quality over a quick buck.


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