Calvinball, Transmogrifiers, Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Men… It’s been 28 years since Bill Watterson let us into the inescapable world of a precocious six-year-old and his sarcastic stuffed tiger
November 18th marked the 28th anniversary of the day Bill Watterson’s Calvin And Hobbes was syndicated, back in 1985. The young boy and his stuffed tiger have been making big waves ever since. When Watterson finally said goodbye to the duo on December 31 1995, he had penned a total of 3,160 strips. Eighteen different compilations have come out — between 1987 and 2012 — chronicling the adventures of the six-year-old and his striped companion. Now, Joel Allen Schroeder’s documentary Dear Mr. Watterson tries to explore everything from Watterson’s early influences at Chagrin Falls, Ohio, to his policy on merchandising.
Calvin and Hobbes continues to appear in many newspapers even today. The only 1990s entertainment that has had more reruns is Friends. But how is a comic strip that ran for a mere decade more than 15 years ago still able to generate such buzz?
A magical world
Mediocre comic strips are drawn well but are extremely derivative. The good ones are well written as well. But to make it relatable and well-loved, a cartoonist needs something extra — a bit of magic. And Calvin’s is a magical world, as he himself exclaims. Not only are the characters very well-defined, they are innately lovable in their own ways. Even Moe, the class bully, is occasionally endearing.
Calvin’s ego and, often, borderline megalomania is perfectly balanced by Hobbes’ painful pragmatism. Hobbes is the reality that continues to ruin Calvin’s fantasies. And we love him for it. I still cannot decide whether Hobbes is just an extension of Calvin’s psyche or he actually does come alive when nobody else is looking. The truth is I don’t want to decide. There is also a sort of timelessness to the strip that few others seem to possess. People of all ages seem to relate to this skinny boy. Watterson says what he wants to say in a manner that transcends generations. Grandmas and grandsons alike seem to enjoy Spaceman Spiff and Calvinball. And although I’ve read every single strip enough times to be able to recite Hobbes’s password to the tree fort from memory alone, I find myself going back to re-read, every once in a while. And each new reading reveals new insights and poignant meanings to lines that seemed merely light and silly the last time around.
Others such as Peanuts and Garfield have weathered this selfsame test of time. But while most people I know seem to like these others, I am yet to come across anyone who’s told me they don’t like Calvin. While there are some who are tired of spotting Charlie Brown or the ginger cat on billboards and T-shirts, Watterson’s disregard for any form of merchandising has led to our duo staying exactly where they belong — in the funny papers.
Like no other...
This refusal to go commercial might just be the thing that sets Watterson apart from the other cartoonists. His work is not, as Calvin claims, low art. He truly makes everyone’s day a little more surreal and the better for it. And I doubt if any other comic strip will inspire kids, teens and even adults to become post-modern neo-deconstructivists overnight.