A fascinating investigation of a beloved comic strip
The internet is home to impassioned debates on just about everything, but there’s one thing that’s universally beloved: Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Until its retirement in 1995 after a ten-year run, the strip won numerous awards and drew tens of millions of readers from all around the world. The story of a boy and his best friend a stuffed tiger was a pitch-perfect distillation of the joys and horrors of childhood, and a celebration of imagination in its purest form. In Let’s Go Exploring, Michael Hingston mines the strip and traces the story of Calvin’s reclusive creator to demonstrate how imagination its possibilities, its opportunities, and ultimately its limitations helped make Calvin and Hobbes North America’s last great comic strip.
About the Author
Michael Hingston’s writing has appeared in Wired magazine, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. His novel The Dilettantes was a #1 regional bestseller. He is also co-creator of the Short Story Advent Calendar. Hingston lives in Edmonton.
Read an Excerpt
You can't please all the people all the time.
Nowhere is that free-floating internet maxim truer than when it comes to a work of art, with its baked-in subjectivity, its reliance on context and historical precedent, and its right-brained appeal to emotion and the senses. Storytelling itself is as old as it is diverse, with a palette containing everything from Homeric ballads to hashtag rap. Illustration is an equally tricky beast, capable of turning viewers off with something as innocent as the thickness of the artist's pen stroke. Mediums aside, creators must also stick their project's flag somewhere on the continuum between realism and abstraction, each with their attendant fans and detractors. And if, on top of all that, your art is meant to be funny? God help you. Most of the time, a joke broad enough for everyone to understand is by definition too bland for anyone whose taste veers toward the deep end of a particular niche or genre — and that's when the joke is successful. A vague, failed stab at comedy might be the most painful outcome of all.
And yet, even in our world of jumbled, almost hopelessly opposing tastes, sometimes the stars do align. Sometimes, you wind up with a comic strip like Calvin and Hobbes.
Created by Bill Watterson, and making its newspaper debut in 1985, Calvin and Hobbes is the story of a six-year-old boy and the stuffed tiger that, in Calvin's eyes, becomes his real-life (and occasionally feral) best friend. The strip is a blend of casual intelligence, rich characterization, visual panache, and noble goofery, and it ran in thousands of papers across North America from 1985 until its abrupt retirement ten years later. Since then, the strip has lived on in tens of millions of books, in dozens of different languages, all around the world. But most impressive of all is the fact that almost nobody seems to actively dislike it.
"I've never met anyone who doesn't like Calvin and Hobbes," Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, once said. "And I can't say that about any other strip." During its run, Calvin and Hobbes quickly established itself as both a critical and commercial juggernaut. It won seven consecutive Harvey Awards for Best Syndicated Comic Strip, and by 1988, Watterson had become the youngest cartoonist, at age 30, to win the prestigious Reuben Award twice. Meanwhile, the strip routinely topped newspaper readers' polls, and its annual book collections each enjoyed first printings that ran into the seven figures. Even when you take this query to the internet at large, where hatred for any conceivable topic is always just a few keystrokes away, the lovefest continues. Aside from a single newspaper cartoonist who in the '90s once said that he never bought Watterson's premise, the closest I came was Google suggesting some alternate search terms. Did I perhaps mean "calvin and hobbes i hate when my boogers freeze"? (No, but now that you mention it ...)
So how did Watterson do it? The secret to the strip's appeal was that it had multiple appeals. Watterson infused Calvin and Hobbes with a winning mix of high-minded philosophy and gross-out humor from the very beginning. One strip might feature Calvin looking to the sky, solemnly mulling over the meaning of life; in the next, he's wrestling a sentient bowl of oatmeal. Meanwhile, Hobbes — named after the 17th-century philosopher who had, as Watterson put it, "a dim view of human nature" — was as likely to serve as the rational check on Calvin's harebrained schemes as he was the animal id, ready to pounce on his best friend the moment he got home from school. Watterson wasn't afraid to name-drop obscure French painters, or to write multi-day stories in which the majority of the characters are dinosaurs. And present in all of his work was a seemingly limitless sense of creativity. Watterson walked the line between reality and fantasy with uncommon agility, and he took even greater delight in smooshing the two realms together, showing all the ways his six-year-old hero could use his imagination as a refuge from a real world that was too oppressive, too literal-minded, and too flat-out boring to be tolerated for any significant length of time.
Calvin won readers over because he remains one of the most perfectly distilled visions of childhood ever committed to paper: rude, petulant, screamingly funny, gross, wise beyond his years, and utterly oblivious — sometimes all at the same time. In a strip about the threat and the promise of growing up, Calvin was our Peter Pan, allowed to remain young forever while we were forced away into the rank and file of adulthood. And his creator's decision to avoid topical references has allowed Calvin and Hobbes to live on, too, unscathed by the passage of time, as potent now as it ever was. While undeniably a product of his time and place (the American Midwest, circa 1985 — 1995), Calvin embodies the enduring nature of what it means to be six years old about as well as any fictional character ever has.
At the same time, Calvin's success as a character owes a lot to the larger universe he traveled within. Calvin and Hobbes has a cast of fewer than ten regular characters, and the majority of the strips take place in and around its protagonist's house. Yet the strip has enough imaginative firepower to suggest an almost infinite supply of people and ideas hiding around every corner — most of which came straight out of Calvin's almost uncontrollable imagination. Spaceman Spiff. Tracer Bullet. Stupendous Man. The transmogrifier. Calvinball. These weren't mere throwaway gags; rather, they were fully realized strips-within-the-strip, each with its own vocabulary, tone, and even visual style. And when Watterson did decide to reference something outside the world of the strip, it was always with the intention of surprising readers, pushing their curiosity into realms well beyond the funny pages.
Most comics are content to half-heartedly riff on the news stories covered elsewhere in that day's paper, but despite the medium's lowbrow reputation — or maybe because of it — Watterson strove to make his references as lofty as possible, shouting out Paul Gauguin or Karl Marx rather than whatever celebrity was making headlines that week. Even in his vocabulary, Watterson went above and beyond, sprinkling in exotic words and phrases like avant garde, cognoscenti, and hara-kiri. In one strip, Calvin asks Hobbes, "What if somebody calls us 'a pair o' pathetic peripatetics'?!" He adds, "Shouldn't we have a ready retort?"
Untold numbers of kids, newly galvanized as they read this strip over their morning cereal, banged their spoons on the table in agreement: Shouldn't they?
* * *
This is the part of the introduction where I neatly pivot into a long, meandering reminiscence about what Calvin and Hobbes meant to me as a kid, how it shaped and broadened my understanding of the world, and why the strip continues to take up more than its fair share of real estate in my head, all these years later.
I'll spare you all that. Not because it isn't true, but because I now know there wasn't anything particularly noteworthy about my experience with the strip. For a certain kind of kid in the late '80s and early '90s — reasonably intelligent, prone to daydreaming, alternately curious and skeptical about this adult world their parents gave them only occasional glimpses of — Calvin and Hobbes was a revelation. It was a strip about childhood, written in large part for children, that never condescended to them about it. Even if the people in Calvin's family didn't appreciate or respect the finer points of his inner life, Watterson always did. And despite Calvin being a middle-class white kid living in middle America, his interests and concerns were universal. Every kid who read the strip dreamed of having a best friend like Hobbes, and also saw a bit of themselves — maybe more than they'd like to admit — in Calvin. I was no different. Reading the strip felt like a secret message was being passed through the newspaper each morning, one that only I was able to decode. Perhaps the strip's greatest virtue was being able to forge that same personal connection with so many readers at once, all around the world. The effect Calvin and Hobbes had on me was significant on a personal level, and yet completely ordinary.
At the same time, that ordinariness is exactly why the strip matters: not because it hit home for one kid, but because it did so for millions of them. And for an entire generation of artists, writers, and other creative types, Calvin and Hobbes isn't just a reference point; it's part of their origin stories. Watterson's strip was one of the catalysts for their own journeys, following their imaginations into whatever weird, tiger-infested corners they could uncover.
That isn't to say that kids are perfect readers, of course. I certainly wasn't. For instance, while religiously reading and rereading those Calvin and Hobbes book collections, I had no inkling that, behind the scenes, Watterson was having a series of tense standoffs with his publishing syndicate about creative control — or that those grievances had actually worked themselves out onto the page. At the tail end of the strip's run, Watterson published The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, an annotated collection of his favorite stories from over the years. But it opens with a series of oddly prickly mini-essays about the perils of licensing, the restrictions of the newspaper format, and the decline of newspaper comics in general. I ran out to buy a copy, then flipped right past these sections, oblivious, in hot pursuit of the parts where Watterson talked about Calvinball. Only now, looking back, do I really see the creative churn going on in the background, which fueled many of the strip's greatest achievements and which ultimately led to its demise.
Again, that response is likely typical among my age group. Even though Calvin and Hobbes has always been a strip about the collision of fantasy and reality, mind and body, and, yes, even art and business, it still worked if all you wanted out of it were those silly drawings of treehouses and alien planets. After all, it was only Calvin's parents who were in favor of things like nutritious breakfasts and building character — and who in their right mind identified with Calvin's parents? Reading the Tenth Anniversary Book now, however, I have to admit that choosing between these opposing forces isn't as easy as it once was. (Calvin's dad has his charms, doesn't he?) Regardless of which camp you fall into, it's obvious in hindsight that the strip was powered by these kinds of tension, both on and off the page. It turned out that Watterson's work tended to improve whenever he was forced to work within restrictions: either the kind dictated by the newspaper format, or the constant pressures exerted by his publisher, who really hoped their star client could be convinced to give up a small amount of creative control in exchange for a line of plush Hobbes dolls and a bus full of cash. But Watterson could not be swayed. He had a vision, and he was going to stick to it, no matter the cost.
* * *
This is a book about imagination: its sources, its powers, and, ultimately, its limits. From the beginning, Calvin and Hobbes was built around the inner world of its six-year-old protagonist, and that spirit would define the strip for the next decade. Watterson expertly framed childhood as a tug of war between endless possibility and total lack of control. When Calvin is forced to interact with the people around him — his parents, his teacher, the girl next door — he comes off as aloof, scattered, gross. It's only when he is on his own, trudging through the forest behind his house, stuffed tiger in tow, that Calvin can truly be himself. This makes for a comic strip that is thrilling, hilarious, and impossible to predict, and yet one that is also tinged with a distant sense of sadness. Calvin's imagination is the saving grace that makes his childhood bearable. But he has no human friends to speak of, and very little in the way of an adult role model. He is, deep down, a lonely kid. By using his mind as an endless internal playground, Calvin is able to keep that loneliness at bay and insulate himself from the real world around him. This act of imaginative cocooning is what gave the strip its bittersweet edge, and also what made it such a potent source of nostalgia for readers, especially as time went on. Because we had to grow up, and Calvin didn't. Each time we return to the strip changed, yet he will forever exist just below the horizon line of adulthood, unburdened by social norms, but also completely unaware of all that he's missing out on.
We'll begin by looking at the role of imagination in the strip itself, charting the progression of Calvin and Hobbes from minor characters in a totally different comic to the stars of one of the most beloved strips of its generation. Over the course of two chapters we'll consider the strip's meteoric rise, as well as its sudden, painful end. From there, we'll look at the way C&H fans have tried to use their own imaginations to fill the void the strip left behind — especially since Watterson himself has largely kept out of the public eye. Finally, we'll look at the strip's legacies, both accidental and intentional. Watterson's staunch refusal to merchandize the strip means that there have been no tie-in products to keep the strip alive in mainstream culture. And yet it lives on anyway: through the books; through a wide swath of tributes, imitations, and cameos in other creators' work; and through one bizarre — and bizarrely popular — bootleg industry.
Now grab a scarf, and hop on this sled. We've got some exploring to do.CHAPTER 2
Calvin and Hobbes existed as a typical comic strip for exactly three panels.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now state definitively that over the course of the strip's ten-year run — more than 3,000 strips in all — Bill Watterson's creation would redefine the medium, in the process leaving a permanent wonder-scar on its readers that few other strips would ever match. When it comes to the title of the Last Great North American Comic Strip, there are no other serious contenders. In terms of critical acclaim, book sales, durability, influence on later strips, and even the basic ability to lasso an entire continent's worth of eyeballs every morning — unimaginable in the fractured 21stcentury media landscape — Watterson stands alone. But even on that first day, November 18, 1985, in a quiet, four-panel debut in a handful of daily newspapers, there were already clues that this newcomer might have legs. Something was afoot.
In the first panel, we see a young boy in a pith helmet telling his father that he's off to check his tiger trap. The panel's framing puts the reader squarely in the shoes of the adult, who is washing the family car. The child is shown only from the neck up, as if stretching to get into the frame, while we can see that the father looks clean-cut and suburban, with a neat haircut, glasses, and a collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He has a blank look on his face, as if he's waiting to hear what this new game will require of him.
In the next panel, we pan down to get our first good look at the boy. He's as compressed as his dad is lanky, with a big, triangular smile, wearing a horizontally striped t-shirt and a smudge of dark pants, a pair of white sneakers poking out underneath. The boy is pounding his right fist into his left palm excitedly. He's proud of himself. See, he put a tuna sandwich in the trap.
In the third panel, we're back to the adult perspective. Dad now seems to have finished his internal risk assessment, and, satisfied that nothing disastrous is on the horizon, he turns back to the car. The boy, too, is already walking away.
So far, so good. We have an easily recognizable family dynamic between the kid with big dreams and the pragmatic father just trying to get through his chores. It's clear that these two are ships passing in the night, each with a head full of plans that do not overlap with each other's in the slightest. But in the strip's fourth and final panel, things go sideways. Now we cut straight past the kid, directly to his tiger trap, where an actual tiger is there, dangling upside-down with one ankle caught in a rope snare. But the tiger looks happy, too: he did get his sandwich, after all.
And ... that's it. To be continued. See you tomorrow.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Let's Go Exploring"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Hingston.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
2: Treasure Everywhere
3: Pretty Tough Sledding
4: Leave Bill Watterson Alone
5: Imagine a Six-Year-Old Peeing on the Ford Logo Forever