Well it’s Christmas in Japan. So I’m feeling a little nostalgic. As you can tell from the title I’d like to talk about what is one of my favorite pieces of creative property, let alone favorite comic strip. It’s a little known fact that I can not be friends with any American male of around the same age as myself if they do not agree that Calvin & Hobbes is the best newspaper comic strip ever created.
Rather specific requirements but it’s that serious. Well, if they never heard of it for some reason I suppose to can’t blame them for such a deprivation. For the uninitiated, and those of you that didn’t bother to click the link to Wikipedia up there, Calvin & Hobbes was a newspaper comic strip about a young boy and his stuffed tiger/best friend. Both characters were named after medieval aged thinkers so already the bar is set rather high. I’ll be including some visual examples because that makes for a more entertaining piece. However, I want to be clear, I am not taking credit in any way, shape, or form.
Calvin & Hobbes is the sole property of Bill Watterson and perhaps his newspaper syndicate. I don’t know the rules. What I know is they certainly aren’t mine and that statement is a whole lot more than some of the sites I pulled these images from will acknowledge. So with all of that out of the way on to why I love this comic.
Let me show you a strip that doesn’t have much story but I think speaks very well to the heart of the strip. A little boy with an overabundance of imagination.
Bill Watterson left behind a legacy about how popularity and quality can defeat entrenched rules and traditions in a creative medium. The strip above is a color Sunday strip. What I didn’t know at the time (being a young child of course) but Calvin & Hobbes broke from the standard format on Sunday allowing Watterson to create strips the way he wanted on Sunday’s. Without delving too much into the details (because it’s kind of boring) Sunday comics were a big deal and newspapers liked to cram in as many as they could and so there needed to be a certain standard. Watterson got an exception for C&H which allowed him to do some really magnificent things with the format.
This taught me that if your work is better than good you can get away with a lot. (I didn’t say they’d be absolutely wonderful lessons, just ones that I learned for better or worse)
I love the subtlety of the interactions between Calvin and Hobbes here. I always imagined that Hobbes really came to life in the world of these strips. It’s never explicitly stated but that’s the charm. This strip kicked off a long arc about the terrible haircut, hiding it from his parents, and trying to cover it up (with a yellow marker of all things!). I like the comedic timing that Hobbes displays in the last frame and have included it in a lot of jokes I make with friends. Still makes me laugh to this day.
Maximum subtlety, minimum effort
A simple night camping. Ah the wonders of youth.
What was that?!
There is so much story between the third and fourth panel there. This is something I try to put into my own work. Usually there’s always something lying there underneath the surface that I’ll absolutely refuse to point out directly. I think it comes from a desire to be as good at it as this.
Another of the things I loved about the strip is how smart Calvin can sound when he’s talking to Hobbes and yet he fails constantly at school and does things that are borderline mentally-handicapped like drive a wagon off a giant cliff. (Sled in the wintertime).
This duality really made me feel better about the fact that I really didn’t enjoy school. Like ever, at all. Plus it developed a love of language in me just trying to figure out what the hell he was saying.
Skewed Views of Parents
This one I’m maybe not so proud of. Calvin’s view of his parents (whom are never named in the comic other than Mom & Dad) is fairly detached and aloof at times. This says a lot about the late 80s and 90s and about my own situation which was objectively fucked up, though, not the worst thing ever that’s for sure. But I liked Calvin’s parents. They always seemed like a couple that had been trapped into their relationship by their (unplanned?) child but stuck it out in a dysfunctional yet loving way. Guess I gravitated to that dynamic.
Calvin was a writer
Yep. Calvin wrote stories. I wonder if that had any effect on me as a child?
This still chokes me up a bit when I read it. If you’re a fan then you know there can only be one thing that’s coming. If not, I apologize in advance but hopefully you’ll thank me later.
I present to you: The Raccoon Story
Oh fuck…I’ve got something in my eye…..Excuse me *sniff*
Calvin was me
That’s a strange thing to say perhaps. I think C&H was about a certain demographic to be sure. Suburban white kids that liked to play outside. That was me and everyone I knew growing up. That’s just how it was. However, my best friend’s father would cut out the strips and hang them on the refrigerator. I owned every single book that they put out but almost never read it in the newspaper. Later you would see crazy things like car stickers of Calvin pissing on various things. Those were not officially sanctioned by the way.
And that is one of the reasons why I think C&H didn’t dominate the popular culture and also why it stayed so good. Bill Watterson wouldn’t let it. I can tell you, if you bought anything Calvin & Hobbes related that wasn’t just a book of the strips then you were paying a grifter. Calvin and Hobbes was never licensed for merchandise because the creator didn’t believe in it.
Today we would call something like that hipsterish but back then it was golden. Would Calvin and Hobbes have become crap and derivative if it hadn’t ended when it did? I’m torn of course. On the one hand I remember how sad I was to learn there would never be any more C&H and how much trouble I put my mother through to find the last book on offer. Which was just a collection of old strips with commentary from Watterson, like a DVD commentary before that was even a thing. I admit I was disappointed. I didn’t want it to ever end.
It was honestly, my favorite thing ever at the time. How could I not want more?
Looking back, perhaps it’s for the best that Calvin and Hobbes remained pure. All I know for certain is that I can not read a single strip without grinning like an idiot from ear to ear. I remember the first time a saw a collection was in the dorm room of my Big Sister. She let me keep it and started my love of the comic. The first time I can remember throwing up in the car on a family vacation was while I was reading Calvin and Hobbes. I kept that book despite the vomit stains crinkling the bottom half. Pretty much there is nothing else so integral to my childhood.
Someday I can see this as being the proverbial “back in my day” story that all adults seem to collect somewhere along the way. Though, for what it’s worth, I hope that someday I can have children that I can introduce to Calvin and his best friend Hobbes. And then to my grandchildren.
Merry Christmas everyone.