The unforgettable, irreplaceable Calvin

Charles Solomon is the author of many books, including "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation," and is a frequent contributor to The Times and National Public Radio's program "Day to Day."

DURING the all-too-brief time it ran -- from Nov. 18, 1985, to Dec. 31, 1995 -- “Calvin and Hobbes” was simultaneously the most old-fashioned and the most innovative comic strip in newspapers. Its creator, Bill Watterson, returned to the principles of polished draftsmanship, visual imagination and character-driven humor that have been the source of comic strips’ popularity since their inception in the 1890s. But he applied those venerable principles in new ways to make his strip personal, contemporary and very, very funny.

Comic strips have always been regarded as a part of popular culture, rather than the arts, but few strips were as popular as “Calvin and Hobbes.” Earlier this year, a character in Jef Mallett’s “Frazz” said she was late to school because she couldn’t put down a Calvin and Hobbes book. The strip ran in more than 2,400 papers and the 17 previous collections have sold more than 30 million copies. Watterson also earned the ongoing respect of his fellow artists, winning the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for outstanding cartoonist of the year in 1986 and 1988. All 3,160 of Watterson’s newspaper strips are collected in “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes,” a three-volume boxed set from Andrews McMeel. Handsomely printed on high-quality paper, the strips look better than they did in the newspaper. The individual books aren’t as heavy as the two volumes of “The Complete Far Side, 1980-1994” that Andrews McMeel published in 2003, but at almost 8 pounds apiece the only comfortable way to read one is to rest it on a table or a desk. To mark the collection’s publication, many papers, including The Times, are reprinting “Calvin and Hobbes” daily through the end of the year.

Looking over 10 years of strips, it’s amazing to see how quickly Watterson hit his stride. In the first weeks of publication, Calvin fought monsters under his bed, appeared as the intrepid Spaceman Spiff and teased Suzie from his tree fort. And it only got better. He founded the top-secret club G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS). The planets and aliens Spiff encountered grew increasingly bizarre and the dinosaurs in Calvin’s daydreams became more lifelike.


Watterson spoofed hard-boiled detective fiction with Calvin as Tracer Bullet: “I’ve got eight slugs in me. One’s lead, and the rest are bourbon. The drink packs a wallop, and I pack a revolver. I’m a private eye.” When his parents wouldn’t let him leave the light on after reading too many scary comics, Calvin imagined them erecting a headstone reading, “Here Lies CALVIN devoured in his bed by a monster. If Only We Had Treated Him Better,” the hilarious and accurate distillation of every child’s dark fantasies.

For decades, comic strips about children had been predicated on things kids do that adults find cute. “The Family Circus,” “Rose Is Rose” and “Dennis the Menace” rely on the characters’ “adorable” mispronunciations and misperceptions. Watterson recognized that for kids, childhood is anything but enjoyable. It’s a strange, often scary time of powerlessness in the face of bullies, anxieties, arbitrary rules and dubious authority figures. “People who get nostalgic about childhood were obviously never children,” Calvin observed ruefully.

Although some good strips have appeared in recent years, notably “Zits,” “Mutts,” “Get Fuzzy” and “Frazz,” Watterson left an enormous hole in the comics page when he retired, a hole no strip has filled. Though many have tried to produce “a new ‘Calvin and Hobbes,’ ” none have succeeded. The excellence and originality of Watterson’s work becomes clearer when it’s juxtaposed with a derivative strip such as Scott Stantis’ “Prickly City.” Watterson’s crisp brush strokes delineated characters that were solid, dimensional and alive. His captionless strips of Calvin and Hobbes dancing were funny because the poses captured their movements so vividly. Similarly, when Calvin sulked or was forced to eat a dinner he didn’t like, his expressions told the story. In “Prickly City,” Winslow the coyote often has no legs; his lumpy body just sits on his puffy feet. Carmen’s scribbly, misshapen lips appear on the bottom or the side of her blobby cranium, like a Mrs. Potato Head gone wrong. More significantly, Winslow and Carmen have no personalities: They’re ciphers who exist to promulgate Stantis’ right-wing diatribes.

Calvin’s rants against the ecological insanity of an advertising-driven consumer culture that repelled him even as he embraced it were a reflection of his personality. His expeditions into the woods sparked his complaints about littering. He tried to construct a “Calvinosaurus” from discarded bottles and plastic utensils, thinking they were fossils; in 1988, he quit the Earth in disgust for less polluted Mars. When Hobbes pointed out that he’d left a candy bar wrapper on the Martian desert, Calvin snapped, “It was just there a minute! I wasn’t going to leave it.”

The humor and calligraphic drawing in “Frazz” reflect Watterson’s influence, but the strip doesn’t feel like a pallid imitation. Songwriter-turned-elementary school janitor Edwin “Frazz” Frazier often plays Hobbes to precocious student Caulfield’s Calvin. When Frazz observes, “Some people like the fact that the seasons change only four times a year,” Caulfield replies, “What good are seasons if they’re not geared to my attention span?” Mallett’s characters have real personalities. The friendship between Frazz and Caulfield isn’t just a plot contrivance: They love to read and play tricks on the redoubtable Mrs. Olsen. When Frazz complains about gas-guzzling SUVs, it’s because he’s an enthusiastic runner and cyclist, not a spokesman for a political agenda.

Sadly, the mediocrity of “Prickly City,” “The Meaning of Lila,” “Rudy Park,” “Arlo and Janis,” “Mallard Fillmore” and “Brewster Rockit: Space Guy!” more accurately reflects the current state of the comics. In the decade since Watterson left, too many artists have concentrated on political screeds, niche marketing, recycled gags and licensing rather than good drawing, entertainment, originality and accurate reflections of life in America. Perhaps it was inevitable that “Calvin and Hobbes,” like King Arthur’s Camelot, could exist for only a brief time.


When Watterson announced his decision to retire in 1995, he wrote: “I believe I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels. I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.” Since then, he has devoted most of his time to painting. His introduction to “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes” includes a small oil study of a desert landscape with the note, “I’m guessing only a comic strip cartoonist would use a 4 x 6 inch board for an eighty mile view.”

The deserts in Watterson’s paintings seem very far from the deciduous Eastern woods where Calvin used to roam. In the final Sunday strip, Calvin looks at the newly fallen snow and declares, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy....” But since “Calvin and Hobbes” left the comics page, readers have had to find that magic somewhere else. *