Exploring Calvin and Hobbes is the catalogue of an exhibit
of Bill Watterson’s work at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at
Ohio State University in 2014. Sadly, the show didn’t travel. Luckily, publishers Andrews and McMeel are making the catalog available for purchase as of next month.
It’s hardly news that Calvin
and Hobbes was one of the greatest strips in the history of the art form. The
hole Watterson left in the comics page when he ended the strip it is still all
too evident, despite some interesting new work.
Fans will recognize the finished Calvin strips that form the bulk of the exhibit, but the catalogue also
includes examples of Watterson’s early work, strips that influenced him and an extended,
candid interview. The earliest drawings, including self-caricatures from
Watterson’s student days at Kenyon College, are promising, but little more.
They feel like student work from their time. His drawing was markedly stronger
during his brief attempt at political cartooning, but, as Watterson notes, he
lacked the gut-level anger of a great editorial cartoonist.
After his stint as a political cartoonist, Watterson began
exploring ideas for comic strips. Calvin and Hobbes began as minor characters
in another strip. An editor at King Features paid him $1,000 to develop them,
only to reject the finished strip. Fortunately, Universal picked it up. Calvin
was originally “Marvin,” a boy with blond bangs that covered his eyes. An editor
suggested the hair might make the character’s expressions hard to read, so
Watterson gave Calvin his familiar spikey coif.
When he discusses the strips that influenced him, Watterson
says Peanuts “made me want to be a
cartoonist, and it largely defined my idea of what a comic strip should be:
funny, beautifully drawn, expressive, and intelligent.” He admires the
freewheeling humor of Bloom County, the
intelligence of Doonesbury and the
expressive draftsmanship of Jim Borgman, Ralph Steadman and Pat Oliphant.
It will come as no surprise to Calvin fans that the greatest influence on the strip is George
Herriman’s Krazy Kat, which “made me
more attentive to the use of language, timing, and space—the ‘poetry’ of it
all. Krazy Kat is a loving
exploration of comic strip form, and the deeper I got into my own work, the
more I found in Krazy Kat to inspire
The original artwork looks less different in the catalogue
than it would have in the exhibition hall. There’s no indication of how large
the originals are, and it’s difficult to see any corrections or patches of
whiteout. As Watterson says during a discussion of a Steve Canyon original, “And comics are just paper and ink, so
there’s an intimacy and simplicity that I just love in the originals…A real
person made these things, and when you see the actual drawings, you can
participate in that.”
Despite the rumors, Watterson states that he did not end the
strip because of quarrels with his syndicate, deadline pressure or his refusal
to allow any merchandising of his characters. He explains that “a comic strip,
like anything else, has a natural life span…after a point, the strip is on the
machines and not breathing by itself anymore.”
“By the end, I felt I’d reached the top of the mountain,” he
adds. “The strip was as close to my vision for it as I was capable of doing. I
was happy with what I had achieved, and the strip’s world seemed complete.
There’s a point at which you realize that doing more doesn’t add anything and
may actually make things worse. I didn’t want to mow the lawn—just go back and
forth over the same ground. Art has to keep moving and discovering to stay
alive, and increasingly I felt the new territory was elsewhere.”
His readers may disagree, given extraordinary level of imagination
in the final strips. But it’s impossible not to respect an artist who would
rather quit at the top of his game, leaving the readers wanting more, than
settle into the comfortable groove lesser cartoonists maintain for years or
decades, producing work so formulaic other artists can continue it.
Still, the final strip, when Calvin and Hobbes sail into the
snowy woods on their toboggan, leaves the reader wishing we were still sharing
the magic they found wherever they went. The comics page is a poorer, less
imaginative place since they left it, 20 years ago.
Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue By Bill Watterson, Andrews McMeel: $19.99; 152 pp.