Introduction by Jaune L’Enfant
As I write this, we near the twentieth anniversary of the arrival of Calvin & Hobbes to our comic pages, and the tenth since its, in my opinion untimely, departure. I miss Calvin. He was reckless, mischievous, self-absorbed, and refreshingly innocent. And I miss Hobbes, his stuffed tiger. Hobbes was the full time companion I wish I could have. At times, Hobbes was as childlike as Calvin, scrappy and playful. At other times, Hobbes was more observant, pragmatic, and reflective than his friend – more counsel than playmate. There must be deeper ideological parallels between these comic characters and their namesakes, John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes; I just enjoyed them. Bill Watterson created Calvin & Hobbes. He was born on July 5, 1958, in Washington, DC. When Bill was six, the family moved to Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Bill still lives there. Bill graduated from Kenyon College in 1980, and worked briefly as a political cartoonist for an Ohio newspaper. There ends, more or less, his career as employee. On November 18, 1985, Calvin & Hobbes was first published and was an instant success. Bill became a celebrity and entertainment mogul. In 1986, he won the Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year from the National Cartoonists Society. He won the award again in 1988, and was nominated a third time in 1992. Calvin and Hobbes would enjoy, however, only a short run. The final Calvin & Hobbes ran on December 31, 1995. Over the ten years, C&H delighted us. It was the best strip on the funny pages, and itself worth the price of the newspaper. Off the panels, however, Bill was waging a crusade against his syndicators and newspaper editors over the artistic value of comics. He fought campaigns over the size and format of his strip, and over licensing his characters for merchandise and animated features. After a decade fighting the “good fight,” Bill just picked up his ball and went home. When C&H arrived on the scene, the big dog on the funny pages was Snoopy, with the rest of the Peanuts cast. The two strips and their creators together make, I believe, an interesting study. The strips, themselves, invite comparison; both followed the antics of children and their pets. Their drawing styles, at least in the weeklies, also were similar: clean, economical line drawings. In popularity, they both towered over the world of comics like Everest and K2. Peanuts and C&H are the high-water marks of comic entertainment. There is a mainstream market today for the complete collection of every strip ever published of Peanuts and C&H. Try saying that about just about any other strip with a straight face. Show me someone who would purchase, let alone read, the complete collected works of Bushmiller, Walker, or Hart, and I’ll show you an obsessive collector off his Paxil. C&H may have been influenced by, but was not derivative of, Peanuts. C&H was much… well, “edgier.” While the Peanuts gang would often scrape with each other, they were generally respectful of and deferential to their parents and other adults. Not so, Calvin, who had no misgivings about criticizing his parents and other adults. In the Peanuts universe there were, perhaps with only the aberrant exception, no adults. In
Peanuts, adults were, like subatomic particles, inferred by their effects, rather than seen directly. In C&H, adults were on stage and, therefore, fair game for Calvin. In Peanuts, Schulz borrowed freely from current events and pop culture. There were references to the peace symbol, the moon landing, and a recurring character named after some proto-palooza down at the old Yasgur place. The C&H universe was sealed tighter than Biosphere 2, and shared with our world only the calendar. In Calvin’s world, the seasons changed with ours, but current events of our world did not sully Calvin’s. Calvin’s dad was never called up to help expel the Republican Guard from Kuwait. Calvin’s mom did not trade junk bonds. I don’t begrudge Schulz the use of his devices, but C&H is, I think, more timeless and universal for the forbearance. Calvin was genuinely childlike, free and funny. He could remind us of ourselves. He was rowdy, impulsive, and did real kid things. There were no psychiatry booths or self-organized Christmas plays in C&H. Perhaps the early Peanuts, circa 1950 were believable kids, but by the time I was introduced to them, they had become deeper, more philosophical, and somehow heavier. At times, the Peanuts cast seemed to have souls far older than their apparent ages. Frequently, they showed the strain of considerable emotional baggage. A well-adjusted ten-year old simply does not plod through life sighing every fifteen minutes. Outside of Waco, seven-year olds do not quote scripture. Even if the foregoing differences somehow eluded you, there was one distinction no-one could miss: the Sunday C&H. Six days a week, C&H was drawn much like any other strip. On Sundays, however, Bill went all Prince Valiant on us. Where the Sunday Peanuts, like most Sunday comics, was mostly more of the same, only in color, Bill astonished us with eerie alien vistas or steaming prehistoric jungles spanning multiple panels. His Sunday strips could hold their own next to the best of Buscema or Tartaglione. In retrospect, I guess Bill wanted us to know that this line drawing stuff was just to satisfy the editors, that he could “do” art when he wanted. If their titanic strips bore any similarity, the men behind them could not be more different. Watterson’s home town of Chagrin Falls sounds like a name lifted from the pages of a Keillor story. It is only by odd coincidence that Charles Schulz was born, in 1922, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Schulz appears to have lived by the Scout Law. At his country’s call, he served in the Army in WWII. Schulz began drawing Charlie Brown in 1947, shortly after he returned from the war. His strip did not, however, take right off and he spent a few years honing his creation before taking it to syndication. When he got it right, however, Schulz knocked it out of the park and started a fifty year run unmatched by any other strip, ever. To Schulz, Peanuts was more than a livelihood, it was his life. It appears he worked hard, regularly, and generally amicably with his syndication partners throughout the years. He did not set down his pen until shortly before his death, and even then, not willingly. After he was diagnosed with cancer, Schulz is quoted, “I never dreamed that this would happen to me. I always had the feeling that I would stay with the strip until I was in my early eighties or something like that. But all of sudden it's gone. It's been taken away from me.” Amazing - Fifty years later is “all of a sudden.” Those are the words of a man who dearly loves his creation and his work. Schulz announced his retirement in December 1999. In a sad coincidence, Sparky died on February 12, 2000, the day before his last original strip was published. Like millions of others, I mourned his death and still regret there will be no more original Peanuts comics. 2
Watterson, as I’ve written, was born in Washington, DC, in 1958. His career, in contrast to Schulz’s, reads almost like some cynical commentary on the Baby Boomer generation and, perhaps, the East Coast mentality. Watterson’s strip rocketed to commercial success, popularity, and critical acclaim right out of the gate. Where Schulz cooperated with and made concessions to his business partners, including accepting their proposed name for the strip, “Peanuts,” Watterson immediately began pushing back and drawing lines in the sand. While on the pages, Calvin and Hobbes frolicked, Watterson fought his syndicators and papers on many issues related to the strip and generally, it seems, was a big pain in the neck. Almost midway in his career, in 1989, he delivered a speech at Ohio State University on, “The Cheapening of the Comics.” Watterson, it appears, enjoyed biting the hand that fed even more than drawing the strip. He wanted more than an amazing career creating one of the most popular comics of the time, he wanted a crusade. He created one and generally prevailed on most counts, but burned out in just over a decade. Sadly, Bill took our beloved Calvin and Hobbes with him. In retrospect, maybe we should have seen it coming. Bill took long breaks from the strip during its short life. He took one break from the strip from May 1991, to February 1992. He took another a year before quitting, from April to December 1994. What was Bill’s problem? Where did all this self-righteous indignation come from? Maybe in the “days of yore” comic panels were larger with unlimited license on the presentation, but in 1985, for about a quarter’s worth of research, Bill could’ve gotten all the information he needed about how big comic strips were and what the format was, before he got into the business. If he wanted bigger and freer, he could’ve signed up with Marvel or DC from the start, I’m sure. Instead, Bill signed on with Universal Press Syndicate and shortly thereafter began telling them exactly how it was going to be. I can imagine if Watterson’s job had required him to travel, he would have laid down a Van Halen-like M&Ms clause. Of those extended hiatuses, isn’t there some covenant with the readers, let alone the business partners, not to let slip eight months between deliveries? At the risk of over simplifying, I think the key difference between the men and their careers may have been as basic as self-perception. Schulz, it seems, considered himself a working cartoonist. Watterson considered himself an “artist,” with all the attendant temperament thereunto appertaining. Unlike Watterson, Schulz went with the flow. He ceded ground on occasion. Schulz accepted the syndicate’s name, bore silently the standard panel formats and let flow a torrent of merchandise. Peanuts was a media empire and Schulz was made wealthy for it. Watterson, in sharp relief, picked every fight and made sure everyone knew his contempt for selling out. Was Schulz, then, a true professional or merely Uncle Sparky, patsy for The Man? The first C&H book I bought had a foreword by Schulz, praising C&H to the skies. I wonder now if Schulz realized yet that Watterson must have regarded him as a Collaborator? Regardless which was the better, nobler path, however, there’s no dispute that we, the readers, enjoyed fifty good years of Peanuts, and only a brief decade of C&H. That’s not an “attitude;” it’s a fact. It would be unfair, however, to damn Bill as stubborn, unreasonable or childish. Who hasn’t, at some point become disenchanted with, or felt underappreciated at their job? The difference, I think, is most of us generally don’t go around kicking our boss and co-workers in the shins and laying down the law about working conditions. Still, who hasn’t wished, at some point, they could announce, “Take this job and shove it?” Bill 3
could and he did. In fact, in hindsight we can see he telegraphed his punch to Universal months before he dropped the bomb. In September 1995, Calvin told us exactly what Bill was thinking. And with Watterson acting the belligerent prima donna of the funny pages, and obstructing the way to the substantial revenues represented by merchandise and animated features, I doubt Universal made any heroic gestures to get Bill to reconsider his decision.
Bill / Calvin
September 19, 1995 Despite this criticism of his tempest in a teapot activism, Bill did do a lot of things right. Watterson did not use his strip to advance his personal religious or political agenda. Unlike, say Hart, he never derailed the internal consistency of his story universe to promote his own evangelism with, for example, plugs for Christianity in a prehistoric world. True, C&H was laced with Bill’s anti-consumerist sentiment, but it was funny and it fit the world and its characters. If we could forgive Sparky for Linus’s annual show-stopping reading of the gospel according to Luke, even look forward to it as an integral part of the holiday, then we can forgive Bill for pointing out our cultural fascination with excess.
And, although he was raising Cain with the syndicators playing print house Norma Rae, Bill also never assumed his success as a cartoonist somehow also conferred upon him the right or responsibility to expatiate on geopolitics. Behind the drawing board, Bill gave us pure Calvin & Hobbes without political commentary. Publicly, he focused his crusade on tilting at the windmills of his industry. Bill was an artist and a cartoonist. He didn’t assume that also made him a statesman. Bill did not destroy C&H on his way out the door. He didn’t undermine the strip at the end with the revelation that the entire last year of C&H had been Calvin’s psychotic fantasy following his father’s fatal coronary at Rosalyn’s shotgun wedding. He did not leave Calvin, Hobbes, Susie, and Moe sitting dumbly in a New England holding cell. The leaf collecting aliens didn’t whisk Calvin away to some non-corporeal plane after a fight to the death with Moe. The C&H universe was not split into seven parallel, yet incompatible, universes following “The Death of Stupendous Man.” Bill also did not turn the reigns of C&H over to a new artist and writer team, giving rise to some abrupt and jarring discontinuity of the C&H universe. As saddened as I was to see the final strip on December 31, 1995, I would have been sadder still to have been greeted on January 1, 1996 with the strip in some foreign visual style, a jolting bizarro Calvin with his Hobbes looking as though freshly exhumed from the pet sematary, to be taken down some odd and distinctly un-C&H-like story path as the new writer and artist endeavored to “make their mark.” I still can’t forgive Greg Howard for jerking us around back in ’92; pick a drawing style, fer Pete’s sake! Bill did not return the very next day with some “new strip” that wasn’t nearly as funny and slowly backslide, introducing the old C&H characters and story. He wasn’t a
one-trick pony trying to keep feeding us the same old penguin guano in a different wrapper. Nor did Bill did destroy himself in a drug-addled, impotent tantrum at having created something larger, and more commercial, than himself. He left us with a charming legacy of a boy and his tiger, upbeat in their parting words, “Let’s go exploring,” not a wall full of three-day old brain and blood and an obnoxious wife attempting to parley her proximity to tragedy into a Hollywood career. Bill may have cashed out, but he never sold out. Whether out of genuine idealism, or stubborn contrariness, he has not changed his position on merchandise or animation rights. To this day there is no authorized C&H merchandise. The back of nearly every pickup truck and a million t-shirts are a testament to the awesome latent demand for such goods, but they’re all black market. Unlike the RIAA, Bill has no stable of pit bulls to keep at bay the scores of small time infringers. In the ten years that have passed since Bill’s retirement from the funnies, we have seen no animated, “It’s National Audubon Day, Calvin & Hobbes!” specials, no snack cake or insurance ads. Whether you agreed with him or not, Bill put his money where his mouth was. I’m sure the corporate vultures were on the phone every day during that salad decade. The phone probably rings to this day with the suits from some cruise line, kids wear, or breakfast food manufacturer calling to test the waters. There is no three thousand seat ice arena in Chagrin Falls, but there could be one tomorrow, if Bill would stoop to a Faustian pact. Bill’s departure followed by Sparky’s left an entertainment vacuum on the comic pages. The funnies just aren’t fun anymore. Some are cloyingly sentimental and faux wholesome. Others are merely thinly veiled, self-important tracts pandering their creators’ agenda for feminism, ethnic diversity, and racism. In this market, Jack Chick could have been picked up for syndication. Still others are simply bizarre, pseudointellectual psycho-babble that defy comprehension, but must appeal to some segment of schizophrenic newspaper-buyers. Then, there are the Old Ones, the strips that seem to endure purely on momentum, having stopped being amusing, interesting, or relevant a long, long time ago. These have inexplicably escaped the occasional purges. It eludes me how the pogroms that rounded up Nancy, Lil Abner, Skeezix, Dick Tracy, and Dondi, failed also to dispose of Cathy, Mary Worth, Mark Trail, B.C., the Wizard of Id, Beetle Bailey, all of the denizens of Apartment 3-G, and so many others. Alas, when one of those life support cases does finally code, it’s usually replaced by something treacle, pushy, or weird. When did it stop being “cool” for comics to be simply fun and funny? Bill joined the ranks of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. He left at the top of his game and left us longing for more. Could Bill ever be persuaded to bring back our beloved duo? If Bill wanted to return C&H to the funny pages, would the suits at Universal be difficult about it? Would John McMeel make Bill eat crow and apologize for leaving in such a huff? What if Bill promised to play nice this time? Would they roll out the red carpet and slay the fatted tilapia at the return of the prodigal cartoonist? I hope so. For ten years, we had a really good thing. There were some words exchanged, but that was a long time ago. Can’t we all make up and bring back Calvin and Hobbes?
For Bill Come home. All is forgiven.