30 years ago, Calvin and Hobbes, the greatest ever comic strip made its debut, and never left us. And it never will
Shreya Sethuraman | 09 Mar, 2015
“Happiness isn’t good enough for me. I demand euphoria!”
“Are you going to keep the Mom I’ve had, or get a new running mate?”
“Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.”
If you’ve heard about Bill Watterson and his master creation Calvin and Hobbes, you’d know what the abovementioned statements mean. Some would even remember the context.
30 years ago, a six-year-old blonde, spike-haired little boy and his stuffed tiger made their debut and within no time, gave wings to people’s imagination. Wings they never knew they had, and imagination they never knew existed. The little boy was incorrigible, over-confident, precocious, preposterous, and yet, a darling. He was a kid one just had to fall in love with. Clearly, Calvin was and is no ordinary young boy. No, he doesn’t have any super powers; neither does he have a fortune to his name–he is the irregular six-year-old who lives on a street where nobody needs an alarm clock in the morning to wake up.
It is well-known in the comic book universe and even outside, that Watterson is a recluse. He rarely gives interviews and has fought strongly to not let Calvin and Hobbes (C&H) become mere dolls and figurines and mugs. He refused to give in to the merchandising business, which he beautifully described thus, “My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants”. However, that hasn’t stopped fans from painting their favourite character on platforms they fancy, or create a Banksy interpretation of a grown-up Calvin (for the uninitiated, Calvin continues to remain a six-year old in the ten-year run of the comic strip). A few years ago, an endearing documentary came to the fore called Dear Mr Watterson. It was actually a tribute, from a group of C&H fans. The documentary traced what the comic strip meant to people and how it was almost impossible to find someone who ‘disliked’ the incorrigible duo.
The documentary was niche, no doubt, and one had to be a true fan to appreciate what the makers had to offer. Andrew Waruszewski, who was the cinematographer for the documentary describes his experiences as “rare and incredible for a filmmaker”. Waruszewski and Joel Schroeder (the director of Dear Mr Watterson) were film partners at the University of Southern California. “Early on, Joel wasn’t exactly certain what the documentary would become. At one point, it was going to be a simple video letter from fans to Mr Watterson to explain their admiration for his work. Joel told me multiple times that he wanted to make the film even if it was only something to post to YouTube for the fans of C&H. Slowly, the film grew from those original concepts, and after six years (they began work in 2006) of documenting, the film was finished! For me, it was an amazing experience–for a movie that was shot over half a decade, I can see it in the quality of video that we were able to use. We started off with standard definition cameras, and over the years moved towards high definition, and eventually towards HD DSLRS. The movie in this sense serves as a document to the progression of technology, and our competency as filmmakers. The website to the documentary calls the comic the best comic strip in the history of the universe. Explaining the reason behind that, director Joel Schroeder says, “I was looking for a nice little tagline for the film, and I knew it would refer to how great Calvin & Hobbes is. And, I really do believe it is the best comic strip in the history of the universe—I wanted to make sure all ground was covered. Maybe I should have said ‘future’ too.”
Sharing his experience, Mike Boggs of We Were Pirates fame, who gave the music for the documentary said, “I loved the process. The director, Joel Schroeder, and the rest of the crew, were very easy to work with. I think the fact that we were all such big fans of the comics made it really easy to be on the same page. I’ve been a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan since I was a kid, so it was not all that challenging to imagine the kind of soundtrack that would fit into Calvin and Hobbes’ world. Bill Watterson is such an incredibly talented artist and storyteller, so I think the bigger challenge was trying to create something that would honour the legacy of the strip.”
It’s tough to challenge that thought. Especially when what Watterson created three decades ago rings true for contemporary times. Whether it was Calvin’s take on politics, his thoughts on how the ‘system’ functions, how ‘smartly’ he answers his exams, or how his parents convinced him to eat a meal because it would make him a mutant or had spiders’ legs (it’s pretty common to find houses like those)–Watterson understood what we famously call the ‘pulse’ of the people. Nobody knows what Calvin’s surname is, nobody knows what the parents’ names are, and clearly, nobody cares. However, in all probability, it seems that the parents are modelled on Watterson and his wife.
The website curator Brain Pickings put up a speech that Watterson had delivered at Kenyon College’s graduation ceremony. The speech, on life and creative integrity, was predictably insightful, with one of the best lines being, “The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive.” One can see the smiling cartoonist pouring over his drawing board, and you realise he looks a lot like the Dad that Watterson draws—actually a mix of Dad and Uncle Max, since the Uncle has a moustache and Dad wears glasses. Watterson looks endearing, real, raw and goofy, even.
Like many other children, Waruszewski discovered Calvin and Hobbes when he was eight, and at a school book fair. “I remember buying Something Under the Bed is Drooling (the second Calvin and Hobbes collection, published in 1988), and reading that cover to cover countless times. I spent my nights tracing my favourite strips, and even creating my own anthology book by having my Dad photocopy my favourite strips at his office so that I could paste them into my own highlight book!”
As a cartoonist, Sumit Kumar has learnt “To be limitless when it comes to ideas, but to limit when it comes to commerce,” from Watterson. A self-confessed fan, but not a fanatic, Watterson has been a great influence on him as, “Very few achieve their dream, live it and innovate, and yet understand ethics. Bill Watterson broke the cartoon strip guidelines and spoke actively against mass cartoon strip making—by hiring staff. He even drew strips about the strip business. And yet he knew when to say no, and when to stop.” In fact, stand-up comic Rajneesh Kapoor says he took to comic strips after coming across Calvin and Hobbes.
It’s easy to spot fans of this little tyke and many were mere kids like Calvin himself when they discovered this genius of a young boy. Helina Desai, for instance, was in school, when her ‘fan’ cousins introduced her to the comic. Calvin’s imagination and Hobbes’ carefree outlook drew her to them. She also feels that certain strips can be used in contemporary contexts to make them relatable. “I bet the comic strip can be used in so many diverse situations,” she says. As an example, she talks about the Charlie Hebdo attack and shares a quote from Hobbes (often perceived as Calvin’s voice of reason): ‘You know, there are times when it’s a source of personal pride to not be human.’ As Joel Schroeder says, “It is just so wonderfully drawn and written, that I don’t think that his mastery of the art form will ever be matched.”
There’s another Calvin and Hobbes fan in lawyer Shrinivas Sankaran, who has the entire collection with him and has read them five times over. He doesn’t need any specific occasion to go through these comics, though. And there are several occasions when he feels he can relate to the characters, or the particular situation. “A lot of what Calvin says makes me go ‘Oh, he has pinned down in words what has always remained a vague concept or thought in my head’. For example, when Calvin’s dad tells him that life is unfair, he responds by asking ‘…but, why can’t it be unfair in my favour?’”, he explains. And he’s just as paranoid and possessive about his collection as Calvin, about his personal comic book collection. Keen readers would remember how Calvin once instructed Hobbes to wear gloves and use tongs to turn pages so that no creases or fingerprints can mar his revered collection. Sankaran recommends reading the preface to the Calvin and Hobbes Complete Collection. “It’s a heart-warming read, more relevant with each passing day”, he adds.
There can never be another Watterson. Although the master cartoonist did pen some drawings recently that went ‘viral’ by virtue of being drawn by him, would a sequel to Calvin and Hobbes ever work? Maybe, maybe not. For Joel Schroeder, he’d be happy to see Watterson work fulltime only if he “really felt called to do so”. “I think he gave us a wonderful decade of Calvin & Hobbes, and it strikes me as a bit greedy to ask for anything more. But his influence has remained etched in the minds of people. “When the 10th anniversary book came out and included some of Bill Watterson’s essays, I connected really strongly to his philosophy on artistic integrity. Seeing that he stood by those principles and chose not to merchandise or license Calvin and Hobbes was something that I have always admired tremendously,” says Mike Boggs.
For Trinankur Banerjee, “Calvin and Hobbes was my transition from Asterix and Tintin to something more contemporary.” He was introduced to the comic strip in his teens, thanks to the cartoon section in The Telegraph. The simplicity of the comic is what drew him to it. “There is a uniqueness I find in those strips that they are humorous within the three or four panels that get published each day. And yet, strung together, they usually form a lovely narrative. My impression is, it is difficult to do it like that,” he explains.
Watterson had this uncanny knack of introducing readers to words and concepts that they’d have perhaps been alien to otherwise. The transmogrifier, for instance, which could essentially turn you into any living being (or make several clones of yourself) was a popular trope used often throughout the comic. “Such words stay with you,” says Banerjee. Whether you’re a child, or an adult, there’s no chance that the characters won’t speak to you in an illegible language.
Boggs and his brother liked to keep a dictionary around when they went through the comic strip, “because words like ‘transmogrify’ went right over our heads. But, I think we could tell that beyond just being funny and well-drawn, there were lessons about life, politics, art, individuality, etc. It felt like it was up to us to decode the meanings just below the surface of the comic strips.” Schroeder, on the other hand, learnt that “bats aren’t bugs”.
Calvin often liked to get into an existential mode, where he would question humanity, life, and various other things that are way beyond a six-year-old’s ken. “Bill Watterson always wrote intelligently, not caring whether he is making it universal enough. Yet he would still be universal, whether for people who would read those words carefully, or for those who would read those only as gibberish,” says Banerjee.
Waruszewski perfectly sums up what perhaps, everyone resonates with. “When Watterson says ‘There’s never enough time to do all the nothing you want’, it sums up my entire childhood.” Should you wish to get introduced to the strip, there’s a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Tumblr page and a mobile app—all of them dedicated to the best ‘best friends’ one can ever find. It’s never too late… “Let’s go exploring!”
Meet Calvin’s alter egos
• Tracer Bullet: “The name is Bullet, Tracer Bullet.” He’s a Private Eye (no shit, Sherlock!) and wears a hat and a smart overcoat. Clearly, his mission is to unearth the truth. “The last thing I wanted this morning was a case to solve, but the dame who brought it was persuasive. Most dames are, somehow.” The dame in question is Miss Wormwood and she wanted Calvin to get started on a quiz. • Spaceman Spiff: He drives a neat space m
achine, escaping to a world filled with aliens that need to be eliminated.
• Stupendous Man: He’s supposed to be a superhero with a facemask and a cape, both of which Calvin is not allowed to wear, at the dinner table. He once tried to transform into Stupendous Man at school and got stuck in his locker.
Characters you ought to know about
1. Mom: She’s a stay-at-home mom, who often calls the shots. When Calvin tells her “Hi. It’s me Calvin, your biggest achievement”, she feels depressed. And you can’t really blame her. Calvin once referred to her as Mom Lady and was promptly strutted back to clean his room. But she loves him to bits, and is more concerned about the well-being of Hobbes than Dad will ever be. You know this because she once sent Dad into the woods to fetch Hobbes.
2. Dad: A typical suburban father, he’s a lawyer and often falls victim to Calvin’s ‘Snowmen House of Horror’ made in snow (what else), and the polls that always give Dad extremely poor ratings. Calvin emotionally blackmails his father into telling him bedtime stories (Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie) and playing horse. Oh and Dad has a crackling sense of humour, such as telling Calvin that he came from Sears and when he scared him to sleep by narrating the story of the ‘disembodied hand’.
3. Rosalyn, the babysitter: She’s a high school kid, and the only one who agrees to babysit Calvin. “Things I do for college”, is her common ruse. She also has a boyfriend named Charlie, who was advised by Calvin to dump her. Rosalyn has been referred to as a ‘nasty barracuda’. The parents think she’s running a racket, since she often hikes the babysitting rates.
4. Miss Wormwood: Calvin’s unfortunate primary school teacher, who has to deal with his abysmal answer sheets, the cheeky show and tell sessions and the frequent ‘bathroom breaks’, which only resulted in Calvin getting stuck in his own locker, while trying to morph into Stupendous Man. She can’t wait for retirement.
5. The Principal: He doesn’t have a name (again) and is often made to punish Calvin for his frequent transgressions in class. The man feels sorry for himself and you do too.
6. Moe, the bully: He’s a lot like Moose Mason, if you’re familiar with Archie Comics. Only, Moe is far dumber and a bigger bully. He refers to Calvin as “twinky” and forces Calvin to part with either his lunch money or get off the swing. Any resistance is met with typical, mild, school-level violence.
7. Susie Derkins: She’s the cute neighbour, who Calvin loves to hate. She’s smart, adorable, plays house and doesn’t allow Calvin to cheat during exams. It was a sort of tribute to her when Calvin founded the club G.R.O.S.S—Get Rid Of Slimy Girls. He even sent her a Valentine’s Day card that had the words “Drop Dead”. Readers think they’ll both end up getting married.