Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” ran its last strip twenty years ago, pretty much neatly dividing my life into periods of before and after “family at full strength.” Watterson effectively hid from the public eye, despite one cameo drawing appears in “Pearls Before Swine” he had all but ceased to have any sort of real-time presence, and certainly there was very little insight into what made so many of us laugh, chortle and sometimes sniffle a bit at a six year old boy and his tiger.
Watterson has donated his original strip collection to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at The Ohio State University, co-located in the state of his youth, and now Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Cataloguecontains a wonderful interview with Watterson is now in mass market print.
It’s so worthy of a read; I dropped everything else on this quiet Sunday afternoon, put my feet up on my desk, and dove in. It’s the way I consumed comic strips out of the Sunday papers until I stopped getting a print newspaper. The exploration of the themes in the strip – the seasons, landscapes, dinosaurs – is just intellectual enough to be fun. The whole book reinforces the sense that yes, this is a comic strip served with a very small dollop of social commentary, put on your Sunday plate by a kid who sees life and companionship in his stuffed tiger.
“Calvin and Hobbes” decorated cubes and offices in every company that employed me during its print run. Something about a kid who pushed the limits of reasonable behavior, who created overlay landscapes and sci-fi fantasies for the drudgery of elementary school, always spoke to the engineers who tried to turn those fantastic ideas into products. Without Spaceman Spiff, I’m certain there would be no smart phones and certainly no Internet as we know it (one of the engineers at Sun Microsystems who taught me more about networking that just about anyone else was a die-hard Calvin and Hobbes fan). I have the three-volume slipcase bound collection of the entire series; it is a guilty pleasure to sit and read a month’s worth of strips when I find I could use some inspiration.
In the interview Watterson talks about the theme of friendship through the strip. I always found it a way to challenge the status quo, whether it was through commentary on social norms (as seen by a little kid), the art of the possible, or the kind of kind of trouble you get into when you escape into a world just slightly less constrained than Calvinball. Side note: growing up, a group of us used to build “forts” in backyards other than my own; invariably made from construction remainders we liberated from the houses going up on the other side of Schank Road, they were hammered together to suit our fantasies about forts, bravery, and in one slightly strange turn of events, a circus box office. Reading “Calvin and Hobbes” brings so many of those first grade memories back into sharp focus, and also reminds me to relax the constraints when looking at a problem, with Calvin’s naive yet endearing way of seeing things through a Calvin-centric lens, to find out what is in that big world to be explored.
When the things of your young adulthood end up in a museum retrospective, you should be officially considered either old or suffering from stunted cultural tastes (or both), but I’m thrilled to see Watterson’s work get the long-term home it so richly deserves.