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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Calvin and Hobbes

It’s been a while since I have done a featured blog entry on a comic strip (and, no, the Josie and the Pussycats blog entry that I wrote last week won’t count either). 

If any of you were around at the very beginning when I first created this blog, you might recall that Sundays were originally dedicated to comic strips.  But a couple of weeks in, I realized that I forgot to include a music category.  Luckily, I just combined the comic strips into the Saturday morning entry and made Sunday the music day.

It’s a decision that I don’t regret because I needed a music themed day (after all, there’s lots of interesting stories and facts that one can get from listening to a CD single or an entire album of songs).  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe I should talk about comic strips more often than I do.  After all, everyone has their favourite comic characters, and everyone who is close to me always reads the funnies first in the newspaper.  And, I figure that since Wednesdays are dedicated to toys, games, books, and magazines, this would be a great day to talk about comic strips.

When I was a kid, our newspaper would have a rather decent selection of comic strips.  I’m trying to think back to what comic strips were in the Brockville Recorder and Times twenty years ago, in September 1992.  If my memory serves me, the list went like this.

(There were a couple of others but I can’t remember what they were now.  I do know one of them was illustrated by Ben and Vince Wicks, but the name escapes me.)

Twenty years later, only two of these strips are still being printed (Garfield and For Better or for Worse).  As well, Dilbert, Zits, and Adam are a part of the current comic line-up. 

You may notice that a few popular comics were missing from that list.  I don’t believe my newspaper ever carried “The Far Side” or “Beetle Bailey”, which is a shame, as I liked both.  But then again, my newspaper spared us “The Family Circus”, which could be viewed by some as a good decision (for the record, I didn’t mind it THAT much.)

Today, we’re going to be putting the spotlight on a comic strip that also never appeared in my newspaper.  And I found that to be quite shameful because many people regard this comic strip as one of the best.  It wasn’t until I read a collection of these comic strips (that I checked out of my school library) that I realized how great it was. 

That’s why I also found it surprising that the comic only lasted ten years, considering its popularity, as well as the fondness that some of the strip’s biggest fans still have for the comic, seventeen years after the final edition was printed.

We’re going to take a look at the comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes”, illustrated by Bill Watterson.

How did “Calvin and Hobbes” come to be created?  We’re going to take a trip back to the 1980s to get the answer to that question.  At that time, Watterson was making a living working at an advertising agency.  And he hated it! 

Watterson would have rather had a career in his one true passion...cartooning.  He came up with dozens of ideas to sell to comic strip syndicates, but each idea was rejected. 

But then in 1985, Watterson got the break of a lifetime when he showed off a comic strip creation he created.  The main characters were a six-year-old boy with blonde hair and a striped shirt, and a stuffed tiger who could magically come to life with the power of a child’s imagination.  United Feature rejected the idea, but United Press Syndicate decided to take a chance on the comic.

November 18, 1985 marked the debut of the “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip.  Here’s the iconic first strip below.

Within the first year of the serial, the comic strip became syndicated in over 250 newspapers, and by 1987, the strip soon found distribution outside of the United States.

Now, although this has not truly been confirmed as fact, it is speculated that Watterson came up with the names for the characters as a shout out to the political science department at Kenyon College (in which he earned a degree in the subject in 1980).  It’s rumoured that Calvin came from sixteenth century theologian John Calvin, and that Hobbes came from seventeenth century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes.  Again, I’m not sure if it is exactly one hundred per cent gospel, but it does sound logical.

Anyway, back to “Calvin and Hobbes”.

The cartoon was a masterpiece of sorts, and what worked in regards to the strip was the fact that the audience for the strip was quite broad.  Little kids loved the comic because I’m sure they could relate to playing with a cherished stuffed animal that ended up becoming their best friend.  I should know, as I had an entire menagerie of stuffed animals that I would pretend were guests at my own diner.

(Yes, I did have a vibrant imagination as a child.)

But adults loved Calvin and Hobbes as well because it often dealt with subjects that most parents could relate to as well.  There were lots of gags that involved various subjects such as environmentalism, political activism, and lots of philosophical questions.  Parents could also relate to Calvin’s own relationship with his family as well, because a lot of the situations that Calvin’s family went through were situations that they themselves went through.

“Calvin and Hobbes” was definitely a labour of love for Watterson, and he put every bit of effort into making the strip shine.  As a result, he ended up winning several awards for his work on the strip including the following;

Two-time winner of the Reuben Award for Cartoonist of the Year (1986, 1988)

National Cartoonists Society; Newspaper Comic Strips Humor Award (1988)

Sproing Award (1988)

Harvey Award, Special Award for Humor (1989)

Seven-time winner of the Harvey Best Syndicated Comic Strip Award (1989-1996)

That’s just a few of his achievements.  To win the same award seven years in a row in the same category...that’s almost unheard of today!

That’s not to say that Bill Watterson didn’t have his fair share of problems and concerns while he was drawing the strip.  One of his biggest pet peeves in regards to drawing the comic was the fact that the syndicate put pressure on him to merchandise the characters of Calvin and Hobbes, and that was something that Watterson was not willing to do, aside from putting out collection books of his strips from time to time.  To Watterson, he felt that the integrity of the comic strip would be compromised and the impact of the strip would be lost in the sea of commercialism.  So while Jim Davis and Charles M. Schulz inked merchandising deals for Garfield and Peanuts respectively, there were never any Calvin and Hobbes baseball caps, keychains, breakfast cereals or cartoon shows on Saturday mornings, although Watterson did briefly entertain the idea of animating Calvin and Hobbes into a 30-minute television program.

Watterson also took issue with the amount of space that he had to work with on his cartoon.  Around the early 1990s, newspapers shrunk the space available for cartoonists to work with, and that frustrated him incredibly.  Watterson’s argument was that the limited space would force cartoonists to omit detailed artwork from the panels, making the cartoons look dull and unoriginal.  In fact, Watterson lobbied to have his Sunday comics take up an entire page, and he craved more artistic freedom than the syndicate would allow him.

As a result of these frustrations, Watterson ended up taking two sabbaticals from the strip.  The first one lasted from May 1991 to February 1992, and the second one lasted for eight months in 1994.  During this time, many newspapers re-ran old Calvin and Hobbes strips.

By 1995, however, it became clear that the run of Calvin and Hobbes was soon to come to an end.  And, in November 1995, Watterson made that clear in a letter to the editors of the newspapers that carried the strip via his syndicate.

I will be stopping “Calvin and Hobbes” at the end of the year.  This was not a recent or easy decision, and I leave with some sadness.  My interests have shifted however, and I believe I’ve done what I can do with the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels.  I am eager to work at a more thoughtful pace, with fewer artistic compromises.  I have not yet decided on future projects, but my relationship with Universal Press Syndicate will continue.  That so many newspapers would carry “Calvin and Hobbes” is an honor I’ll long be proud of, and I’ve greatly appreciated your support and indulgence over the last decade.  Drawing this strip has been a privilege and a pleasure, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity.

And with that came the end of an era.  Below is the final “Calvin and Hobbes” strip, dated December 31, 1995.

Since ending “Calvin and Hobbes” seventeen years ago, Bill Watterson has shifted his focus from drawing cartoons to painting landscapes.  He has also become a bit of a recluse, and very rarely gives interviews to the media.  In fact, over the years, many newspapers and news outlets have sent reporters out to try and locate Watterson for an interview, but all of them came back empty-handed.  Some may be disappointed that Watterson has disappeared from the public eye, but as far as I’m concerned if Watterson wishes to live the rest of his life privately, he certainly has earned that right.

In fact, Watterson also refuses to give out autographs and refuses to let people license his characters, which I can understand as well after reading a story.  Initially, when Watterson became famous, he would often sign a few copies of Calvin and Hobbes anthologies and place them in a bookstore in Ohio for people to be surprised.  Instead, the surprise was on him, as he found that some of the very books that he signed were being sold on eBay for huge money...a principal that he was very much against.  It’s a shame that because of a few people, he had to stop that practice, because to tell you the truth, I thought that it was a neat idea. 

As far as Calvin and Hobbes goes, I think it’s a safe bet to say that they won’t be coming back any time in the near future (if at all), and I think that people are missing out because of it.  It truly was a gem in the crown of comic strips.  It still is.

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