Day 812: The Sunday Funniest

originally published March 22, 2014

Three years ago I was a discontented drone, shackled to a job so heaped in mundane repetition, to describe it to friends would often invoke a yawn the size of Black Chasm Cavern. Alas, this project of passion before you hasn’t yet afforded me a tether to a more interesting day-job, however it has given my percolating cauldron of creativity a daily cerebral tickle, and that triumph in itself offers me a fulfillment I’d been sorely lacking.

People (and by ‘people’ I mean ‘fictional people I invented solely for the purposes of this paragraph’) have asked me whose lead I’ve followed, who has inspired me to embrace this daily act of creation. There are the writers of course, from Tom Robbins to Dave Barry to Tim Kreider. But this project would have blushed to rust in the basement of my ambition were it not for the prime espousers of the “just-fucking-do-it” philosophy: filmmaker Kevin Smith, my father, and the man who subversively taught me about philosophy, postmodernism and fantasy as sociopolitical commentary: Bill Watterson.

You know Bill’s work – Calvin and Hobbes is one of the few comic strips that transcended generational scrutiny by invoking a lost sense of fantasy within adults while at the same time tapping into a yet-unsizzled portion of kids’ brain-meat, incorporating complex thoughts and introspection into four-panel laughs. For Bill, the strip was a work of genuine expression. He worked his world as he wanted to, then left on his own terms, forsaking the stage at the top of his game because dammit, it was just time.

Watterson’s initial career goal was to be a political cartoonist. He spent a brief gig doing just that in Cincinnati, but was hampered by his unfamiliarity with the local political scene. He found himself relegated to an advertising gig, a job that offered an opportunity to keep his creative muscles toned and limber, but without that liberating conduit of true artistic expression.

Inspired by the more inventive comic strips of his youth, works like Pogo and Peanuts, Watterson felt this could be an effective outlet for him. He didn’t wait for an opportunity to drop from the sky or a chance meeting with someone who could kick his dream career into motion. He simply did it. He drew his comics and pitched them in his free time. United Feature Syndicate encouraged him to pursue a side character of one strip – the lead character’s younger brother, who played with a stuffed tiger. They foolishly passed on the revamped comic, but Universal Press Syndicate was smart enough to swoop in and grab it.

John Calvin was an architect of modern Christian theology, a 16th century lawyer turned church reformist. He believed in democracy, separation of church and state and predestination. Thomas Hobbes, a 17th century English philosopher, believed in the power of the individual, natural law and the social contract. Watterson employed both names for his lead characters, inherently placing in his work an ambition to explore a broader scope of conceptual ground than was usually popping up in the Sunday funnies.

Calvin and Hobbes was first published on November 18, 1985 and within a year it had found a home in 250 newspapers. His rise to success was brisk and well-timed – newspaper comic strips were nearing the end of their influence on cultural zeitgeist. The mammoth strips were finding their way into effective merchandizing (Opus from Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County was as ubiquitous an 80’s toy as the Rubik’s Cube), and thanks to the brilliance of strips like Doonesbury and The Far Side, people were still paying attention to the comics page. The medium’s slide away from the public’s consciousness was still years away.

When Calvin and Hobbes was at its most successful was in its clawing exploration of social philosophy. We accepted Calvin’s reality, and Watterson masterfully demonstrated the duality of his universe and everyone else’s. Hobbes was full-on anthropomorphic when one-on-one with Calvin, yet clearly inanimate and dead-eyed to those around him. Watterson juxtaposes the two perspectives and, as he explained in a 1987 interview, invites the reader to decide which is the true reality.

Calvin’s parents – known to us only as “Mom” and “Dad” – are the obvious foils to Calvin’s unmitigated embrace of his own imagination. But Watterson opts not to present them as mere “straight men” to set up Calvin’s antics; he injects them (in particular the father) with a dark streak of humor as well. The rest of the supporting cast is given a similar balance between set-up and punchline: Susie Derkins, the girl whose mere girl-ness prompts Calvin to form his own activist organization (G.R.O.S.S.: Get Rid Of Slimy girlS), Rosalyn the babysitter who becomes the only other person to catch on to the rules (or lack thereof) of Calvinball, and Miss Wormwood, his weary teacher who blends Maalox with prescription meds into a frothy blend of pure exasperation.

Calvin boasts the full complement of childhood indulgences. Like any imaginative youngster he invents alternate identities (Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man, the curious influence of film noir found in Tracer Bullet), laughs in the face of consequence with his toboggan or wagon at full downhill speed, and finds inventive new ways to make use of a cardboard box. Watterson employs these tropes of youth to render a dark comedy that’s simultaneously goofy and too dark for the comics page. Even something as natural as building a snowman becomes fodder for Watterson’s wry pen-strokes.

Watterson wrote every word and drew every panel himself, using pencil, India ink and a Rapidograph fountain pen. He rejected any and all attempts at synergy or merchandising, believing that his art was meant to be appreciated as it was, not to spawn an industry. When the moronic fad of Calvin-peeing-on-car-logos spread through our culture like an insipid itch, Watterson made zero dollars from it. I won’t post one of those stickers here – you’ve no doubt seen a thousand of them – but suffice it to say, those things were born from outright theft. Watterson’s legacy is a heap of books (including a textbook, Teaching With Calvin and Hobbes, which is a rare collector’s item now) and nothing more.

When Bill Watterson opted to hang up his proverbial quill at the end of 1995, concluding a brilliant ten-year, 3150-comic run, he did so because he felt he had communicated all he needed to through that medium. In an act not dissimilar to Jerry Seinfeld’s choice to wrap up his sitcom while it was high in the ratings and still at the peak of its creative life cycle, he went out on top.

It has been nearly twenty years since the final Calvin and Hobbes comic, and while I’m sure I “get” more of the humor now, I’m amazed at how strongly the comedy and philosophy of the strip remains affective and poignant. Bill Watterson was driven by his art, and he created it as he concluded it – by his own rules.

A good lesson for anyone aspiring to flex their creative soul.

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