From the Archive: Flashback Friday — 1985

calvin right

I should really find more excuses to write about Calvin and Hobbes. This piece was posted in my former online home as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.

1985: Calvin and Hobbes debuts

It’s about a young boy with a shock of yellow hair that looks like the teeth of an upturned saw blade, one of the big ones that requires two men to use. And it’s about his best friend in the world, a stuffed toy tiger. Or maybe he’s not stuffed. Maybe he’s a real tiger that the boy ensnared from the wild, rigging a trap with tuna fish as bait. He certainly seems real to the boy, serving as his conscious, sparring partner, confidante, supporter and stalwart partner. The boy is impetuous and a little wild, carried along by the force of his own id in a way that reflects the doctrine of predestination posited by his namesake. The tiger is inherently skeptical about the ways of humanity, thoroughly in line with his namesake. Together they move through the world, finding balance and adventure.

Calvin and Hobbes first appeared on November 18, 1985, added to the funny pages of approximately thirty-five newspapers. It was funny and smart from the very beginning, building a loyal following with remarkable speed. Eventually creator Bill Watterson found that the characters were adaptable enough to shoulder storylines that still fit nicely within the structure of daily strip, but had greater emotional possibilities. As Watterson allowed the narrative of the strip to become more far-ranging, he equally stretched the parameters of the art itself, most notably restructuring the layout and format of the Sunday strips from the rigid march of panels to image configuration that better suited his needs and allowed for bolder visuals. He saw his strip as not just a mild diversion amidst the rumble and grumble of the daily news, but as a genuine opportunity to create something that could be its own distinct work of art, something that was worth preserving.

Blessedly, he also saw the strip as something that had it’s own value that required no lucrative spin-offs. While Charles Shultz’s Peanuts was one of Watterson’s self-admitted greatest influences (the others were Walt Kelly’s Pogo and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat), the cartoonist couldn’t be further away from Schultz’s view of licensing run amok. Despite undoubtedly lucrative offers, Watterson never acquiesced to his characters appearing on coffee mugs or mouse pads. There were no animated TV specials, and it’s highly unlikely that Hobbes will ever come to life in some disastrously garish CGI feature, at least in Watterson’s lifetime. The comic strip is what matters. It was never the means to building a fortune-fueling greeting card empire. No matter what, the characters always belonged to him.

And, of course, there a bit of an ownership stake held by those who believe in Watterson’s vision and the way he chose to share it. Calvin and Hobbes tributes abound, many of them as sweet and warm-hearted (and rambunctious and happily inspired) as the strip itself. They’re expressions of the affection for the strip, for the characters, for the contemplative worldview that Watterson brought to the comics page on a daily basis for several years. Yes, there’s an entire cottage industry based upon decals of Calvin urinating on an astounding wide abundance of items, but I’m always amazed at how much of the appropriation of the characters is respectful and even loving.

It’s an impressively long shadow for a comic strip that lasted only ten years, and has now been defunct for longer than it ran. The final strip appeared on the last day of 1995, the boy and his tiger joyously greeting the blank page of a fresh snowfall with the pledge to “go exploring.” It’s nice to think of those two still out there, bounding down the slopes. As Calvin said on that last day, “It’s a magical world.” It’s just a little more magical with those two in it.

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