Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Kid + Tiger = comic strip genius

At a time when merchandising and hype often count for more than substance, Calvin and Hobbes achieved its popularity solely through the printed page. Watterson refused to license his characters for films, T-shirts, stuffed toys or other products. (The car window stickers of Calvin urinating on something or praying are all bootleg.) Watterson wouldn't sell original strips, sign books, make appearances or give interviews -- behavior that seemed eccentric, if not downright un-American, in a culture obsessed with publicity.

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Six-year-old Calvin never worked at being adorable, the way the kids in Rose Is Rose or the Family Circus do. Watterson knew that childhood is enjoyable only in retrospect, when its bullies and terrors have conveniently faded from memory. Kids, including Calvin, know they're small and powerless and have to depend on self-proclaimed authority figures.

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Calvin preferred the fantasy world he shared with his tiger companion Hobbes, a world so vivid and intense that reality paled in comparison. The instant he became bored, Calvin could become Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man or private eye Tracer Bullet. He played Calvinball, where the only permanent rule was, "You can't play it the same way twice." He could also change his "duplicator" (a large cardboard box) into an "ethicator" that would create a "physical manifestation of Calvin's good side" who would do all his schoolwork and chores. (Hobbes, often the voice of common sense, commented, "The ethicator must've done some deep digging to unearth him!")

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Many comic strips go on long after the original artist dies and they cease to be funny: Dennis the Menace and Blondie ossified decades ago. Like a speeded-up flower in a nature film, Calvin and Hobbes appeared, blossomed and ended in little more than 10 years, from Nov. 18, 1985, to Dec. 31, 1995. In the final panel, the two friends rode their sled into a forest covered with freshly fallen snow -- and left a void in the comics page that remains unfilled 10 years later.


Developmentally speaking, Junior Bloor is squarely in Calvinland at the moment, and he affirms Bill Watterson's appreciation of the six-year-old mind several times a week (A la Calvin, Junior even fired me as "dad" one night). I miss the strip every single day, but applaud Watterson's decision to walk away when he did. I dunno if the "Watterson as recluse" meme in the media has any validity, or if he simply prefers his privacy. I suspect it's hard for some folks to appreciate the fact that creative genius doesn't necessarily have to involve a marketing bonanza.

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