Between November 18, 1985 and December 31, 1995, Bill Watterson and his strip Calvin and Hobbes made sure you started your day with a smile. The strip gave us a glimpse into the life of Calvin, a devilishly mischevous and intelligent six year old, and Hobbes, his closest (and only) pal who also happened to be a tiger, albeit a stuffed one, as they experienced life through witty quips and thoughtful insights. The strip successfully compressed the essence of daily life, human nature, politics, environmental awareness and the power of human imagination into three or four panels while being consistently inventive and funny. Needless to say, it was a very popular strip in it's time.
The magic of the strip lay in its simplicity, accessibility, and most importantly, its universality. Calvin and Hobbes (I'll henceforth refer to the strip as 'C&H') could be read and enjoyed by people of all ages and from around the world. These were characters you either knew, or wished you knew, or wished you were. The situations ranged from normal activities like waking up in the morning and going to school, to bizarre rides through Calvin's imagination. C&H was able to do for a decade, what a work of art should, it entertained you, and it made you think.
To learn more about C&H, we would require to learn a bit about it's creator Bill Watterson. Not much is known about his childhood aside from the fact that it was very “ordinary”, but we do know that Watterson's exposure to newspaper cartoons began when he first came across his father's collection of 'Peanuts' comic strips. He was instantly taken in by it's simplistic (but effective) line drawings and subtle philosophical and observational humor. Putting deep ideas and bare truths in the mouths of small innocent children seemed to amplify their meaning, an idea Watterson clearly adopted for his strip. On digging a little deeper, Watterson also stumbled onto two other strips that would play a major influence on the development of C&H, Walt Kelly's 'Pogo' and George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat'. While Pogo's lush and immaculate drawings must have influenced C&H's equally beautiful art, Krazy Kat's surreal visuals and extremely practical, almost deadpan humor must have contributed to the way C&H's characters sometime looked at life. Watterson's next major contact with comics was during his student years at Kenyon College where he studied political science. Watterson drew political cartoons for the College Paper, and hoped to continue his passion when he got an opportunity to work in Cincinnati Post. However he realised that political cartoons were not his forte, and unfortunately so did the editor. He was promptly laid off. Watterson soon got a job drawing up advertisements for grocery products in the basement of a supermarket, but the aimlessness and dead end nature of the job soon pushed him into questioning his goals. He decided that he really wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist, and began sending samples to syndicates that could get his work printed. After four years of rejection, one of the syndicates pointed out to a minor character in one of his strips, a boy who carried a stuffed tiger, and asked him to develop that character because they found him the most interesting. The rest, as they say, is history.
C&H's unique popularity stems from many factors. It is very hard to pick faults, if any, in the strips. They are all well drawn, the jokes are often multi-layered and the characters are well developed, far from the stock caricatures that comic strips often resort to. Calvin and Hobbes have small family of characters they interact with like Calvin's Dad, Mom, Calvin's classmate Susie Derkins, his babysitter Rosalyn, his teacher Mrs. Wormwood, and the school bully, Moe. All of them, with the exception of Moe, have developed personalities that make them feel human. Calvin himself is an anomaly because we identify with him as a protagonist although he is a loner, preferring to live in his own head than really interact with the people outside. Hobbes meanwhile is the yin to Calvin's yang , and usually stands as the voice of reason during Calvin's harebrained schemes. The strips are issue-focused, and rarely resort to a pointless setup-joke mechanic to get the laughs. Any wisecrack in the strip is enhanced by the character spouting it. And the message is usually cleverly disguised by it's method of presentation.
Here, Bill Watterson shows the hypocrisy some people use to reason out hunting, but he doesn't preach down to the viewer. Instead, by transferring the message into the mouth of an irresponsible six year old he asks us to decide for ourselves the significance and relevance the statement holds for us. Instead of devaluing the message by pushing it down our throats, the reader is treated as an intelligent individual who will recognise hypocrisy for what it is. By making Calvin the messenger, Watterson effectively asks the reader to think, because Calvin's statements can range from the insightful to the absurd.
Another characteristic feature of the strip was the way it often captured your eye and made you linger on it for that tiny extra minute. Watterson treated each strip as a work of art and it shows. While most strips settle on a style and a type of humor and stick with it for the rest of their life, C&H kept it's readers on their toes. The varied nature of jokes in the strip also contributed to the richness in characters that few other strips could dream of. Instead of labelling characters as comedians and straight men, Watterson allowed each character to develop into his or her own breathing space. By doing that he invited the reader to participate in development of the character to the extent where you as the reader became familiar enough with a character to predict his or her reaction to a situation.
A major feature of the strip was the art style; it was definitely one of the best drawn strips of it's time. As mentioned before, Watterson took a page out of Pogo's book and depicted the details in Calvin's life with beautifully inked strokes and vivid bright colors. Once Watterson got enough of a clout to run the Sunday strips without worry of reduction (In the case of a flash news, the paper used to reduce the space taken up by the strips, cutting them down to the first row of panels), he experimented with some radical designs and page layouts. Here are two examples, one from from his earlier strips and the other from his adventurous phase.
The fact that Watterson had such a clout not only shows how popular the strip had become, but also how seriously Watterson took his vocation. He took extreme pride in his work, and guarded it fiercely. Unlike his contemporaries like Jim Davis of Garfield, Watterson was against merchandising of his creations and drew every strip himself. He had disdain for anybody who would not be sincere to his or her creations and that sincereity showed both in the subject matter of his strips and the way in which his strips always seemed to be in the cutting edge of presentation. Bill Watterson really cared about his work.
In the ten years that C&H ran, it is remarkable to see how little has changed – everyone has remained as they were, never aging or evolving. This however doesn't mean that the strip was stagnant, no, it was always fresh, if not in it's subject matter, then in the way it looked at issues. Watterson wanted the strip to occupy a world of it's own, and he intentionally restricted Calvin's toys to a bunch of nondescript objects such as action figures and cardboard boxes that any child would have access to. Current issues were never addressed, and politics was ignored, unless it was a throwaway gag that had something to say about human behaviour. The strip was a place populated by humans, but you could go there anytime to forget the real world. I think this was a very important choice, because this is usually an essential ingredient for any great work of art - to be timeless. Unlike the Doonesburys and Penny Arcades of this world, Cavin and Hobbes will remain relevant and entertaining as long as humans exist, and that is a very reassuring thought.