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Looking for Calvin & Hobbes

April 21st, 2010

It is easy to run short on adjectives when describing Bill Watterson’s beloved comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes.

Running from 1985-1995, Calvin & Hobbes is undoubtedly one of the triumphs of modern newspaper cartooning, and the strip has lost none of its humor, warmth, or potency in the over-a-decade since its end.

In the prologue of his new book Looking for Calvin & Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip, Nevin Martell writes:

Though Watterson’s influences are somewhat easy to ascertain, the man himself is an enigma.  During the ten years that Calvin & Hobbes was drawn and was entrancing millions and millions of readers around the world, the man behind it tried to remain as anonymous as possible.  As the boy and his tiger reached new highs in readership, their creator shrank deeper into self-imposed obscurity.  Watterson never felt comfortable sharing himself with his readers in a public way and he never allowed his work to be licensed.  On the extremely rare occasion that he did make a public appearance or grant an interview, he only spoke openly about his work and went to great lengths to avoid discussing, or divulging, any details from his personal life.

To call him the J.D. Salinger of American cartooning is to take the easy road, but the fact remains that this incredibly talented comic artist is one of the most elusive characters of the late twentieth century — so elusive, in fact, that only a handful of pictures of him have ever been published.  He gave his last interview with a journalist in 1989 and his last public appearance was a commencement speech he gave at his alma mater, Kenyon College, in 1990.  Since officially retiring Calvin & Hobbes, Watterson has emerged infrequently and sporadically, and never in person.

So how do you find the man who doesn’t want to be found?

Although Mr. Martell does make some effort to actually find Mr. Watterson physically in order to conduct an interview with him (spoiler alert: it doesn’t happen), most of Looking from Calvin & Hobbes consists of Mr. Martell’s attempt to piece together a picture of Mr. Watterson’s life and work based on an exhaustive review of pretty much every interview Mr. Watterson has ever given and every essay he has ever written, supplemented by an array of new interviews conducted with a wide variety of Mr. Watterson’s friends, family, and peers, as well as the legion of creative folk who were inspired by his work.

It’s an effective approach, and the result is a fairly comprehensive look at Mr. Watterson’s development as a cartoonist as a kid and in college, his years-long post-college efforts to establish himself as a cartoonist, the creation and development of Calvin & Hobbes, and his many struggles with the success that followed which lead to his ultimate decision to abandon the strip.

As has become popular for many documentary filmmakers these days (I’m thinking of people like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock), Mr. Martell has inserted himself as a character in his book.  While of course Mr. Watterson is the primary focus, as Looking for Calvin & Hobbes progresses we continually return to Mr. Martell’s descriptions of his efforts to put the story together, to track down his interview subjects, to answer his questions about Bill Watterson, and his thoughts on those experiences.  This is occasionally distracting (I didn’t really need to read about Mr. Martell’s google searches in order to find cartoonists who felt they had been influenced by Watterson, nor was I all that interested in his description of his recurring nightmare in which Mr. Watterson calls him for an interview, only for Mr. Martell to discover that his digital recorder is broken), but on the whole this lends the book a light, peppy style that makes it engaging and easy-to-read.

For me, the most interesting sections of Looking for Calvin & Hobbes were the chapters entitled Working on a Dream and Making Friends.  These chapters recount, in impressive detail, Mr. Watterson’s early years as a cartoonist and his efforts to establish himself as a working illustrator.  It was very interesting to read about the ups and downs that Mr. Watterson went through after college, and I was endlessly fascinated by all the little twists and turns that lead his early comic strip ideas to develop into what would become Calvin & Hobbes.  How easily he could have gone in a slightly different direction, and the world would have been denied a masterpiece!  Mr. Martell does a great job at filling in the blanks of Mr. Watterson’s younger days, and, despite my being fairly knowledgeable about Bill Watterson and Calvin & Hobbes, these chapters were a treasure trove of new information for me.

I was slightly less interested in the sections of chapter 4, A Boy and His Tiger, that recounted the different characters in the strip.  Anyone who has bought a book called Looking for Calvin & Hobbes surely doesn’t need to be reminded who Miss Wormwood is.  I also found myself getting a little bored by chapter 8, Under the Influence.  This chapter is filled descriptions of Mr. Martell’s interviews with a variety of cartoonists and other creative individuals about how they were influenced by Calvin & Hobbes, and while I was extraordinarily impressed by the depth of Mr. Martell’s research (and the wide variety of individuals he contacted, including Jonatham Lethem, Craig Thompson, Jeff Smith, and Dave Barry), the interviews got pretty repetitive, pretty fast.

But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed Looking for Calvin & Hobbes.  For fans of that dearly-missed comic strip (and who isn’t??), I recommend this new book.  I also highly recommend the Calvin & Hobbes 10th Anniversary Book (from which Mr. Martell quotes liberally).  Published in 1995, this wonderful collection of cartoons from throughout the strip’s run are accompanied by extensive essays and notes by Mr. Watterson himself, in which he details numerous aspects of his work on the strips, his goals and aspirations, his struggles with the syndicate, and much more.  If there is a reason why some aspects of Looking for Calvin & Hobbes felt like they covered familiar ground for me, it’s because I have pored over that 10th Anniversary Book for years and years.

No matter.  I applaud Nevin Martell for his efforts in devoting scholarly attention to one of the greatest creative talents of our time.  Looking for Calvin & Hobbes only reinforces my appreciation for Bill Watterson’s genius, and my sadness that he has not produced any new public work since 1997.  Needless to say, after finishing the book, I went over to my bookshelf, picked up my battered copy of Something Under the Bed is Drooling, and started reading.  What a delight it is to re-live, once again, the brilliance of Calvin & Hobbes.

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