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Book Review: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

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When I first heard that Bill Watterson came from a place called Chagrin Falls, Ohio, it seemed too perfect for two reasons&#8212that 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&#8212except 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&#8212except 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&#8212brain-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&#8212like 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.
Edited: PC

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About Steven Hart

  • It was another Chagrin Falls — Minnesota, I believe — that was home to a different genial, philosophic, tall animal cartoon character: Bullwinkle.

    Great review, Steven!

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places as Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • Vern Halen

    I think Bullwinkle was actually from Frostbite Falls, just down the road from Chagrin Falls apiece.

    Calvin & Hobbes – right up ther with Walt Kelly’s Pogo & Gary Larson’s The Far Side. The big three.

  • Eric Olsen

    very nice job Steven, thanks! He is vastly talented, always has been. I went to high school with Bill – he illustrated a couple of my stories. He is back in Chagrin last I heard, pulling a Salinger. I wrote about it here

  • Very nicely done. Though I own all the books already, this is on my christmas list.

    EO, is there anyone you don’t know?

  • El Bicho

    Looks like a great collection, but I already have all the books. Still that would look glorious on a bookshelf.

    I consider myself lucky to have discovered his genius, especially while he was active. I stopped reading the daily comics once he quit.

    The only thing I find enjoyable there now is Fox Trot, which is not to say that it rises even close to the same level of brillance in its stories, art or thought-provokingness.

    El Bicho
    Grand Poo-Bah and Vice Potentate of G.R.O.S.S.
    (Get Rid of Slimy girlS)

  • Funny, Chagrin Falls also happens to be the place where Tim Conway grew up (he was born in Willoughby).

    Perhaps Watterson knew me as a child. That’s what my mom always said when she read C&H. I was the female equivalent of Calvin. I had a little stuffed tiger, too.

  • Good work. Steven (and the Washington Post). Is there any meant-to-be funny comic that’s better?

  • Timzloff

    “Chagrin Falls” is also a great song on the Tragically Hip CD Phantom Power.

  • Late notice but,

    This post was chosen by the section editor as a BC pick of the week. Go HERE (link) to find out why.

    And thank you

  • Scott Butki

    great review. Welcome to BC. I’m going to have check out this book. I’m hoping I can read it while
    at Borders – that they don’t have it in a bag or anything. I’ll just camp out until I finish reading it
    since I can’t afford to buy it.

  • Evan

    Calvin does stuff i that i used to do

  • Katniss Everdeen

    i heard these are funny