30 for 30: Calvin & Hobbes

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

21. CALVIN & HOBBES

Calvin & Hobbes

I love the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, and the work/life of it’s creator, Bill Watterson.

The very first track on the very first album I ever released was a song called Calvin & Hobbes.

I’m a person who thinks about things from a million angles before doing anything. So choosing a song to come first on the first album I ever released was something I spent a long time thinking about. I am keenly aware of all the great opening tracks on all the great debut records.

And I’m happy to tie my flag to Bill Watterson’s greatest creations. I find the strip hugely inspiring, and a comment on the magic of life and the power of imagination.

Calvin & Hobbes started in 1985, and ended in 1995. Reading them 20 years after their context, it seems solid but unremarkable. But Watterson was a pioneer – subtly in print and more so outside of it.

Watterson, like JD Salinger, is one of the world’s more famous recluses. He also wanted to make comic strips for the sake of comic strips – not as a lead in to cartoons or films. He was fiercely independent and controlling. It led to a long hard battle throughout the years of Calvin & Hobbes.

It’s much like the music industry today. Comics Syndicates are what runs the business of comic strips. Watterson and his new Calvin & Hobbes strip became a success, and the Syndicate wanted to do more – sell C&H merch was one. Watterson said no.

I remember in the 90s, the worse thing you could ever do was sell your song to a TV ad. Nowadays, it’s a sign of credibility. I’m not sure how I feel about that to be honest. But it’s the end of the 80s, and Watterson’s company could not understand why this guy was “leaving money on the table”.

He did a lot more to get on the nerves of his paymasters – all boiling down to him not making more money, and by default his syndicate not making more money.

He even pushed the boundaries of the strip itself. Playing outside the normal box sizes, it made it impossible for newspapers to cut and crop a C&H strip to fill their needs. Newspapers happily got together and sued Watterson.

Throughout all this, Watterson fought his corner, yet never gave an interview. After all the court cases and battles were over (which he won, as there is still no C&H merch and artistic freedom is more common in strips), he quietly put his characters to rest, barely doing anything ever again.

So the parallels are abound. Artistic integrity vs. Commercial Imperative.

Comic strips were still the product of a troubled marriage with newspapers. They were the “funny pages” and of little value. But Watterson didn’t see it that way. Far more than Charles Schulz and his generation. And maybe that’s why. The Beatles excelled because they grew up with (disposable) rock ‘n’ roll. 70s cinema excelled because those filmmakers grew up with the (disposable) movies of the 50s and 60s. Watterson was the second generation of comic strip creator. The idea that he wasn’t 100% an artist probably never occurred to him.

Which could be why he fought so hard against the power imbalance levelled against comic strip creators. Again, mirroring the Hollywood Studio system, or early record companies – the young artists usually got screwed. And could barely fight for themselves.

So along comes Watterson. Who just wants to make comic strips. Who wants to grow and experiment with his art form. Who didn’t want to see his creations watered down to images on a mug or a calendar.

(Of course, with many making a stand, Watterson was rich enough to make a stand. C&H is still one of the most successful strips ever)

On the page, the strip was remarkable. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of two friends and one central conceit. Six year old Calvin and his fluffy toy tiger Hobbes. Except when no one else is around, Hobbes comes to life.

Or does he?

Or is the live Hobbes just how Calvin, a boy with a huge imagination, sees him? It could be, as Calvin’s world is full of fancy. Dinosaurs, spaceships, clones and all manner of madness fill the strips. It’s how Calvin fills his mind to get through a mundane childhood that powers the strip. And the wonderful way that Watterson draws it all.

So all that stuff about Watterson’s court fights and legal wrangling are better told elsewhere (I suggest the Tenth Anniversary collection, with a great introduction and as close to a best-of collection there is). Even the story of his reclusiveness – and the odd interview he did earlier this year – can be found elsewhere.

What’s important about C&H for me was another story of holding the line about the things you believe in. And when it comes to art and being creative, thinking about your personal rights and wrongs about it.

Sure, there are artists in the world who just do their thing and then let people do whatever they want with it. Then there are those who are fiercely protective. And I’m always drawn to the protective types. When I read articles about sampling laws, I always support the sampled artist side over the sampler. Why? I just think that the person who created it should have final say.

Watterson got the final say in more ways than one. He has yet to follow up his greatest creation with anything. Fifteen years later and I’ve stopped waiting.

From the stories, I learnt a very different lesson. Which is to give in completely to imagination. It’s best summed up by the very last Calvin & Hobbes strip.

Final Calvin & Hobbes strip. Click to embiggen.

Some say there is nothing scarier than a blank page. I’m worried about the blank pages running out.

This stuff touches ever so slightly on my belief system – which is another reason I love it so much. That you make your own truths. I can’t fault anyone for believing in God, for example, because I got my moral code from Superman, and he’s not real either. But I learnt right and wrong and that’s more important than what got me there.

The names ‘Calvin’ and ‘Hobbes’ come from two philosophers anyway. It’s a big subtext in the story. When as a kid, you believe in things, and how sad it is when your grow out of them. I read Calvin & Hobbes to remind myself to not grow out of them, if I can.

There’s lots in the strip to get into if you want to. Growing up. Authority. Morality. The things we learn. An amazing series of strips that dealt with a burglary. It’s this extra facet that makes this strip so beloved and so acclaimed. There’s plenty of critical analysis elsewhere if you want to discover more.

For me, looking at this six year old kid and his imaginary tiger, I think of one thing;

You make your own happiness.

I have an iGoogle C&H comic strip set up. Every morning I am greeted by an old strip.

I have a couple of collections. The ones to get are the landscape ones. The books in portrait have cut the squares around to fit the page – an unforgivable sin. It’s like watching the pan-and-scan of Pulp Fiction. You miss out of half the action.

I have read a lot of the strips, and have for ten years. I’m not sure if I’ve read every one though.

In 2005, they put out a Complete Collection. Two gorgeous hardcover books (in landscape!) in a hard slipcase for stupid money. I had my money already to buy one at Dymocks in Sydney when the shop clerk brought it out and asked me how I was going to get it home. It doesn’t fit in a bag. It’s going to be tough to carry on a train. I didn’t have a car or anything. I put my money away and said I’d come back after I worked it out. I never did.

(Why can’t they do them in lovely volumes like the Peanuts Collection?)

I wrote about Calvin & Hobbes in my first zine. I still try to hunt down the odd collection when I can. I made myself a Calvin & Hobbes badge with a friend’s badge machine. I just love it.

Every so often I see someone in a Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt. It has to be a fake. None have every been officially produced. I am kind of jealous. Who is making these C&H bootleg t-shirts? But am I buying into the thing Watterson rallied against?

So, I still love this strip. It’s mixed in the soup that swirls in my head when I think of terms like “artistic integrity” and “creative control”. And it’s endlessly inspiring.

It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy… let’s go exploring.

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