The Calvin and Hobbes Generation
“By the end of ten years, I’d said pretty much everything I had come there to say. It’s always better to leave the party early. If I had rolled along with the strip’s popularity and repeated myself for another five, ten, or twenty years, the people now ‘grieving’ for Calvin and Hobbes would be wishing me dead and cursing newspapers for running tedious, ancient strips like mine instead of acquiring fresher, livelier talent. And I’d be agreeing with them. I think some of the reason Calvin and Hobbes still finds an audience today is because I chose not to run the wheels off it. I’ve never regretted stopping when I did.”
–Bill Watterson, in a 2010 interview for The Plain Dealer
My brothers and I grew up collecting Calvin & Hobbes books. Back in elementary school and Jr. high, my friends and I would draw pictures of Calvin playing Spaceman Spiff or of Hobbes pouncing on Calvin. I even recall a conversation where we speculated over what a video game based on the comic might be like. Since high school, I’ve discovered that we weren’t as unique as we thought we were at the time. In college I had conversations with students from all over the country–as well as a few from out of the country–about growing up with Calvin, what his stories meant to us at the time, and what they still mean to us today.
I’ve yet to see a comic that is as equally relatable to both kids and adults. It was childish but still dealt with very grown-up issues. It was imaginative and whimsical, yet poignant at the same time. When the comic took a political stance, it did so without adopting a snarky attitude or pointing fingers. And aside from Moe the bully, I find all of the main characters to be relatable on multiple levels. I still love the comic and periodically pull the books off the shelf to re-read.
But I think the most important gift Mr. Watterson gave us wasn’t the comic itself, but the comic’s legacy. People who argue that comics haven’t been as good since Calvin & Hobbes ended (and I’ve talked to a lot of them) aren’t paying attention. I constantly find ways in which post-C&H comics have been influenced by Watterson’s style, approach, and attitude toward the comic medium.
Artistically, formatting constraints prior to C&H had long since forced many comics to become sadly minimalist, consisting of Xeroxed talking heads on Xeroxed backgrounds, relying mainly on dialogue to tell the joke, rather than a visual, more artistic humor. Each panel of each comic showed the characters from exactly the same angle, and often characters had the same proportions and head shapes, but with different clothes and haircuts being the only way to tell the characters apart.* Watterson was something of a revolutionary in drawing every panel of each comic freehand, changing the angle of point of view, and in making every character structurally unique. (Actually, Calvin and Suzie are probably the two characters who look most alike.) Since Calvin, many (I won’t say ‘most’) newspaper comics have become more free-from and visually interesting.
* Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at old Garfield, Eek & Meek, Family Circus, and other similar comics. I mean, Jon Arbuckle and Liz the veterinarian have exactly the same head shapes. Not that these are bad comics, but they could stand for a little more artistic variety.