When I first heard that Bill Watterson came from a place called Chagrin Falls, Ohio, it seemed too perfect for two reasons—that a) there would even be a place called Chagrin Falls, and b) it would be the birthplace of the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, a comic strip in which the weekly mix of emotions could rival a fat novel for range and depth.
Most of the daily comics, even the very good ones, are nothing more than wind-up toys that click along for three or four panels, deliver their gags and fall over. You knew Bill Watterson had something more in mind when you realized his main character, a fractious little boy named Calvin, was named after an exceptionally sterm philosopher—except that Watterson’s Calvin was free-spirited, deeply imaginative and, for all his rebelliousness, a generous soul. His sidekick, a stuffed tiger who came to life whenever Calvin was alone, was named after Thomas Hobbes, who told us that life among the unwashed masses was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short—except that Watterson’s Hobbes was tall, civilized, endlessly friendly, rich in companionable qualities and eternally bonded (in imagination, anyway) to Calvin.
This nicely done Washington Post feature reminds us that it’s been a decade since Watterson rang down the curtain on his strip for the very best of reasons: he felt he was getting stale, and he didn’t want to spend his life cranking out something like Andy Capp or The Lockhorns—brain-dead, laughless comics that linger for decades because nobody will pull the plug as long as there’s a penny or two to be wrung from their existence.
Ending his masterpiece was part of the same thorny integrity that pitted Watterson against his syndicate, which wanted to cash in by marketing all kinds of Calvin and Hobbes products, but backed off when he threatened to stop drawing the strip. It also leads him to shut down devotional Web sites put up by fans who, with the best intentions in the world, run afoul of his commitment to keeping the strip within its own private universe. He even told Steven Spielberg to go fly a kite when the auteur dangled the prospect of a film based on Calvin and Hobbes. When a man turns down that kind of money, you know he’s serious, even if he does draw comic strips.
Watterson, unlike just about all of his colleagues, could really draw—like a great watercolorist, his style looked simple but his casual lines always fell in just the right spots, and he could light up a face with a few quick touches. He could really show his stuff in the big Sunday layouts, but even his daily strips were well-rendered, whch is why he jousted with newspapers that were shrinking down his panels in order to squeeze more funnies onto a single page. It’s also why this new deluxe three-volume set, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, is way more than a cartoonist’s vanity project. Like Winsor McCay and Walt Kelly, Bill Watterson produced comic strips that deserve the A-level treatment. Another reason to be happy for this new edition is that it’s led some newspapers to start re-running the old strips. I don’t suppose it will inspire Watterson to limber up his pen one more time, but we can always hope.
Originally published in The Opinion Mill.