April 14, 2015

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Calvin and Hobbes 20 years later- a look at Exploring Calvin and Hobbes


Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue
By Bill Watterson and Jenny Robb
Published by Andrews McMeel Publishing

Comic strips are such ephemeral things.  Even with the permanence of book collections, they tell their stories is such short and magical three to five panel sequences meant to be read one strip a day.  Yet there is so much that can happen in those few short panels and Watterson was a master of that.  The artwork reprinted in Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue reveals so much more than I think we already appreciated about his work.  In a great interview conducted by Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, Watterson talks a lot about his college strips and the submissions he made to newspaper cartoon syndicates trying to get a comic launched.  It was a process of trial and error but when he landed Calvin and Hobbes at Universal Press Syndicate with an early Calvin whose hair hung down over his eyes, it wouldn’t take long for him to develop his classic style.  Unlike other strips that may take a few years to really establish themselves, Watterson’s early strips quickly set the tone that he would excel at for 10 years.


The first three published Calvin and Hobbes strips from November 18, 19 and 20, 1985
It’s hard to tell if the artwork assembled for this book represent a “Best of Calvin and Hobbes” collection but they definitely show what Calvin and Hobbes was best at doing.  And there is so much that it was the best at.  From the start, Watterson’s timing matches the greatest comedians who know just when to hit you with the punchline. The innocence of a boy and his "pet" tiger seems so genuine and honest

Actually the timing in his first strips is fairly simple; three panels to set up a joke and then one panel that humorously turns the world on end.  It’s Charles Schulz 101.  But as he develops, he finds different ways to mess with the timing using either a one panel, a three panel or a five panel strip.


July, 24, 1989
And eventually, he would transform the Sunday strip into something new.  The format for comics of the Sunday strips, in color and about twice as long, was a staid thing to allow newspapers to work the strips into their own tabloid or broadsheet format.But Watterson would break out of that to construct a story in those strips that would owe more to the unpredictability of Krazy Kat than to the dependability of Charlie Brown.


November 22, 1992

This strip from November 22, 1992 is particularly interesting for the ways that Watterson frames the action.  Most cartoonists would keep their attention on the characters throughout the sequence, centering them in each panel while using their poses to depict the chaotic melee.  That second tier where both characters are flying all over the panels and not even in one leave so much to the readers imagination; the speed of the action, the sounds of the attacker and the victim, the damage that is being done to the house around them, etc… And the way that Watterson is playing here is all part of the punch line.  It’s the perfect set up to the perfect joke and it’s not something that you have seen much of before or since in comics strips. Artistically, we probably don’t give Watterson his due.  He’s an artist who does his most with as little as possible.  Hobbes is just a few quick marks while Calvin is a bit more complicated but not much.  And so many panels are just the two of them but Watterson never seems to repeat a brushstroke or copy a drawing.  He could draw these characters from any angle, in any action, conveying any emotion and getting into all kinds of trouble.  At first, that’s a lot of what he relied on, adding in a few other characters and simple props or settings.  But as he moves through the strips and through the years, you can see his art getting more complex, his storytelling getting more daring and him just doing more drawing within the space he has.  The amount of real estate he has doesn’t change all that much over the ten years but as he gets older, you can see him doing things on the page that are quite revolutionary in comic strips and art.  

Watterson gives his influences their due credit in this book; Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly, George Herriman, Alex Raymond, Garry Trudeau, Berkeley Breathed, Pat Oliphant, Jim Borgman and Ralph Steadman.  With the possible exception of Raymond (but all you need to do is look at a Spaceman Spiff to see some of him,) it’s easy to find all of these cartoonists in Calvin and Hobbes.  Whether it’s Steadman’s crazy and chaotic line or Kelly’s lively characters, Watterson takes all of these artists, processes them and hits upon Calvin and Hobbes, a strip that sweetly reminds us how to have that innocent mindset again (although I don’t think half of those artists really wanted us to remain so innocent.)  He doesn’t go as reactionary as his contemporaries Trudeau and Breathed but with them he shares a contemporary vigor for his art that created comics that were complex and relatable in a modern world. As the book breaks down it’s exploration of Watterson’s cartoons into categories (the seasons, the cast, devices and even the last years 1992 to 1995,) its compartmentalization of Watterson’s career is fairly easy to understand but doesn’t make what he was doing feel any smaller.  Watterson’s geography remains fairly small; his characters exist within loosely defined world but it’s as big as Watterson’s imagination.  And considering that this strip is all about its main character’s imagination, the boundaries of Calvin and Hobbes are boundless.  So when Watterson returns to a fall pile of leaves or to the wide vistas of Spaceman Spiff, Calvin’s imagination leads us down different paths and into new experiences.

 

December 2, 1988
His growth over time never gets in the way of or complicates the true heart of his strip- a little boy’s relationship to the world around him.  Whether he’s reacting to the world through his imagination or interacting with his parents, teachers, friends or bullies, we see Watterson’s own childlike amazement of the world.  In the interview, you get the picture of a much more practical man than Calvin can ever hope to grow up to be but between Watterson’s words, you can see that same twinkle in his eyes as you can see in Calvin’s almost always alert eyes.  Watterson sounds like he wants the world to be the way it is for Calvin but the rigors of daily work, the demands for merchandise and having to be a practical adult gets in the way of that. Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995) has now been gone for twice as long as it ran.  Unlike Charles Schulz, Watterson never allowed his characters to be anything beyond the comic strip.  There are no toys, no cartoons, no movies or television shows that kept alive the love of these characters outside of those drawings that Watterson produced for a decade.  And even unlike Schulz where you can look at strips and tell pretty well what decade, if not what year, they were produced in, Watterson’s comics still remain timeless.  You can see his drawings grow and develop but there’s no radical shifts or seismic changes to make Calvin and Hobbes anything more than an incredible consistent and enjoyable experience for the audience and, one hopes, for the cartoonist. 

Note: You can find a complete archive of Calvin and Hobbes at Go Comics.