"Spiff coolly draws his deathray blaster…"
For ten years – starting in late 1985 and going through the end of 1995 – readers of the comic pages were treated to the (mis)adventures of grade-schooler Calvin, his (usually) walking and talking stuffed tiger Hobbes, his long-suffering mother and sometimes clueless father, next-door girl Susie, schoolyard bully Moe, and a host of other chracters in Calvin and Hobbes.
Someone growing up after that era – especially today – probably has a hard time understanding the way things worked back then. While there were a few online comics around, passed about the dark and mysterious electronic halls of Compuserve and such, modern webcomics really didn't even start emerging until after the Web – in 1993 – and didn't really get rolling until years later.
So in those days if you wanted a daily dose of comic entertainment, there was really only one place to get it: the back pages of a newspaper. Newspaper comics were (and still are) controlled by a syndicate that determined which comics would be published and distributed, and this tended to keep the "funnies page" a relatively conservative, slow-changing landscape of often outdated amusement – Blondie recycling many of the same jokes it had been using since sometime in the 1930s, Dennis the Menace still playing in the backyard in a sort of timeless 1950s setting with the immortal Peanuts gang somewhere above him on the page.
Every once in a while, though, something new would appear; in 1980, Bloom County made its first showing, a comic that partook of some of the spirit of the early Doonesbury while modernizing it and giving it an even more quirky cast of characters. Five years later, Bill Watterson gave us the first look at what became one of the most beloved and thought-provoking comic strips of all time: Calvin and Hobbes.
In some ways, Calvin and Hobbes was a throwback strip – quite deliberately so, as Watterson made clear that his influences sometimes went back to the very dawn of the drawn comic age. Calvin, like the Peanuts gang and Dennis and many other comic characters, is eternally fixed in childhood, his behavior and interactions with the towering adults around him allowing him to comment on the world from a perspective that is very different from that of the adult reader and more sympathetic for the younger readers.
Calvin also partakes of another comic tradition, the "flight of fancy", possibly exemplified by none other than that voiceless yet articulate beagle, Snoopy. As Snoopy had his many aliases – the famous World War I Flying Ace, a snake crawling through the grass, "Joe Cool" the unflappable hang-about, and others – so too does Calvin, but his are more defined – less gags and more characters that Calvin invents to populate his universe with things more dynamic and less mundane than the world around him. Spaceman Spiff, a daring explorer of dangerous alien worlds, is a distillation of old pulp tales; Tracer Bullet, the living incarnation of the hard-bitten gumshoe; Stupendous Man, the essence of the superhero.
Many of Calvin's fantasy sequences blend with reality, going back and forth, showing us Calvin's interpretation of the world and then what's really going on – Spaceman Spiff holding off a horde of aliens before making a daring escape, versus Calvin threatening everyone with a rubber band before dashing out the door.
What makes the strip itself stand out more than any other may well be the frequent interaction between Calvin and his imaginary (?) friend Hobbes. The two of them interact not as a boy talking to a stuffed toy, but as two friends, who have shared interests but not complete agreement. Calvin and Hobbes may wander through the woods simply enjoying a day away from school and responsibilities, or have a philosophical debate about choice and inevitability while careening down a steep hill on a wagon, or get into a fight over the "minutes" of their two-person club. Hobbes himself often stands by as the "I told you so" onlooker when one of Calvin's schemes backfires on him (such as duplicating himself and discovering that his duplicates are just as lazy as he is).
As can be seen from the above, Calvin's life – at least as we, the readers, see it – is often filled with a surreal quality, a sort of Wonderland of Suburbia. This is not entirely incorrect even from outside Calvin's head; Calvin himself creates surreality for those around him on occasion, building literal armies of mutant snowmen or launching an attack as Stupendous Man on Babysitter Girl (his take-no-crap babysitter Rosalyn), or sprinting out of the school as Spaceman Spiff shouting "I'm FREE".
There are even questions of basic reality touched on in the strip; for the most part it seems obvious that Hobbes is merely Calvin's imaginary friend, yet there are moments where one has to wonder whether there is a reality to Hobbes, where Calvin performs feats that seem impossible for a child yet easy for a child accompanied by an intelligent semi-anthropomorphic tiger...
It's no wonder that this strip caught the imaginations of many children – and adults who remembered what it was like to be a child. For geeks like me, Calvin was especially appealing; clearly smarter than almost everyone around him, yet "wasting" his life with flights of imagination that sometimes interfere with even things like taking tests (Susie: "Psst! Calvin! What was the capital of Poland until 1569?" Calvin: "Krakow." Susie:"Thanks, Calvin!" Calvin: "Krakow! Krakow! Two more aliens bite the dust!"). He also shared the common experience of being bullied, his quick wit only rarely being able to outmatch the brutish power of Moe.
Above, and behind, the strip's surface humor and surreality, Watterson often addressed real-life issues through Calvin and his family and friends; these ranged from death (a raccoon found near-death, that Calvin is unable to save) to self-referential musings on the nature of comics themselves, and of course the worries and frustrations faced by parents dealing with a child of such a… unique temperament, as well as the fact that parents are neither identical nor always right. And sometimes, in the case of Calvin's father, just downright twisted, like the time he explained to Calvin that the reason old photographs are all black-and-white is that the WORLD was in black-and-white until sometime in the 1950s. "… and for a while there it was still pretty grainy color."
Calvin and Hobbes ended its run while it was still tremendously popular, something rarely seen in commercial properties. This was, according to various accounts, partly because Watterson felt he'd done all he could with the strip, but also because – contrary to Watterson's express negotiations and conditions when he had signed with the syndicate – there had been tremendous pressure placed on him to permit various licensing deals that he did not want, and this had sapped him of much of his time and energy.
In addition, the comic pages had continued to become more constrained as time went on; the number of panels allowed even in a Sunday strip, and their size, had become smaller, meaning that Watterson could not present the comic as he truly envisioned it (in some of the collections, the bonus material allows you get a sense of what Calvin and Hobbes could have been if Watterson had had completely free rein, and it's both wondrous and heartbreaking).
Whatever the reasons, however, this meant that we were left with a body of work that was all worth keeping. Looking at other series – comics, movies, television, books – one has to wonder, very seriously, if that doesn't make Calvin and Hobbes that much better, as it does not have to live under the shadow of the "should have ended sooner" that so many other entertainments do.
Today, some of Calvin and Hobbes is outdated; the modern computer age had barely started by the time it ended, as the Web was only two years old, the ubiquity of cell phones was years in the future, and of course much of what Calvin referenced was even older; his household echoes, in a twisted fashion, that of the classic American White Family – mother, father, child, living in a suburban house backing on semi-tamed wilderness. Yet much of it remains as fun and thought-provoking as it was the day it was printed. If you've never read Calvin and Hobbes, give it a try. And if you have… it's worth reading again!