Meeting Old Friends

On New Year's Day I met some old friends. I slept in. While in the shower in the late morning, for some inexplicable reason a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip came into my head. When I was done showering I asked my 12-year-old if she had a Calvin book hanging around somewhere. To my delight, she did. I hadn't read Calvin and Hobbes in twenty years, not since reclusive artist Bill Watterson (heartbreakingly) ended the strip in 1995. Sure, I've seen a single strip now and then, but I haven't spent any time reading them, one after another.

Over coffee, I spent the next couple of hours reading the book, and I was blown away. It amazes me how differently I see these comic strips at age 38 compared to how I read them as a boy. In my youth I was amused, yes. And only. Now, I am equally amused, but have an appreciation that goes far beyond amusement.

The first thing I noticed, and I mean really noticed, was how incredible Bill Watterson's artwork is. The pure economy with which he packed in action and dialogue, without a hint of being tedious, is really something to behold. His skill at portraying motion mesmerized me and had me really looking at the drawing. His massive backgrounds supporting "Spaceman Spiff" and "T-Rex" are wonders to behold. Moreover, the pure cleverness of the writing is so consistent; I don't believe there ever was a single strip that was a "dud." Like when Calvin, being scolded by his mother, comes up with a lavish story to cover his tracks and then later tells Hobbes: "Mothers are the necessity of invention."

How's that for a brilliant wordplay?

Second, reading Calvin and Hobbes as a parent is quite simply a doubling of the original delight. I always loved Calvin because I could identify with him. But now I love Calvin because I identify with his parents. The sarcasm of his father and the loving, patient frustration of his mother ring so true. It really amazes me that the comic strip made it ten years without either of them ever being named. It is universal parenting. If you have a son or daughter, you can relate to Calvin and Hobbes.

Third, the recurring themes of transcendence, meaning, and friendship are timeless. Calvin's occasional philosophical monologues to Hobbes, as they fly down a hill on a toboggan or red wagon, tend to be truly profound. They are just flawless works of art. And, try as I might, I never can make a snowball as perfect as Calvin could.

I felt like I was meeting friends I hadn't seen in twenty years. Calvin, Hobbes, Suzy Derkins, Moe, and Ms. Wormwood.  If you grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes, or if you read them regularly as an adult when the strip ran, do yourself a favor: find a book and reacquaint yourself.

And I am not the only one who feels this way. I discovered this documentary (Now available on Netflix) about Bill Watterson's impact on the comic strip world with Calvin and Hobbes, and it is very enjoyable. It is not an exaggeration to say that Watterson changed the medium with his brilliance, and you'll hear basically every major comic artist today say so: even those who disapproved of his maniacal non-licensing stance * or otherwise felt threatened by his greatness.

* Incidentally, some theorize that the enduring power of the strip was (counterintuitively) supplied by the fact that nobody ever had a "Hobbes" plush toy, a "Calvin" lunchbox, or saw millions of decals in the back windows of cars like "Garfield." The saturation arguably harms the art in the long term. Watterson turned down possibly HUNDREDS of millions of dollars for that decision; whatever you make of it, there's no not respecting it.

Some very informed people in that movie say that Calvin and Hobbes is one of the three or four most influential comic strips of all time. But three of those four are comic strips few outside the comic strip "guild" even know about or can remember. So as a layman I feel perfectly justified in my opinion that Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest comic strip ever created.

Funnily enough, one of my fondest memories was sitting in my childhood home with an adult family friend, Greg, reading a Calvin and Hobbes book out loud on our couch. We laughed, and I mean really, truly, belly-laughed, for a very long time over that book. He, an adult, laughed so hard I remember his cheeks were bright red.

And it was on a New Year's Day.

Brian Mattson