A couple of decades ago, most people probably read Calvin and Hobbes, holding the daily newspaper over a bowl of cereal or a plate of toast. I know I did. It was one of the few comic strips that was actually funny or interesting. By the time Calvin and Hobbes started running in 1985, most of the old standbys that I’d read were no longer funny to me or were just recycled material. Along with Bloom County, The Far Side and a few other clever strips, Calvin and Hobbes kept the funny pages going.
Recently, when I learned of a new book called Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip, I knew I had to read it. I wanted to learn the story behind the strip and about the man who created it. I managed to procure a review copy. Once I started reading, I quickly read the thing cover to cover. It ended up not being the book I was expecting. It was different, more, better.
Nevin Martell, the author of the book, knew that Bill Watterson is an elusive character. Many other journalists had tried to score an interview in recent years, but all had failed. Nevin tried anyway, while still respecting the cartoonist’s privacy. This book is what resulted.
Nevin wrote the book as if he is a friend sitting down with you and telling a story. The tone is conversational, and the story unfolds a little bit at a time, building anticipation. Will he talk to Bill Watterson? What will he learn along the way? The way the book leads from chapter to chapter, the order and progression of it, makes sense and takes you along on Nevin’s journey of discovery.
Note: This, dear reader, is where I warn you of spoilers ahead. I will discuss many parts of the book, including the ending. So if you want to be surprised, stop here and go read the book. Otherwise, continue on, learn some of what the book contains, and then go read the book.
Since Nevin unfolds the story as he goes and shares it in chronological order as well as by topic, it reads more like a novel and less like nonfiction. He starts by describing Bill’s early career including when he learned to draw, his drawing experiences in college, early work as a political cartoonist, how he missed the mark with early strip ideas, how Calvin and Hobbes originally got passed over, and how and where it finally found a home. Along the way Bill’s influences are discussed, the strip itself is reviewed and other cartoonists that have been influenced by the strip are interviewed. Every aspect of Bill’s career is covered. Nevin describes what makes Bill Watterson different and special, and what details Bill includes to make it a rich comic strip, full of imagination and longevity.
One of the first things we learn in the book is that Bill Watterson always worked hard on his strip. He never wanted to put anything out there that was mediocre. He probably threw away strips that were better than other cartoonists’ best strips. The best comic strips can both be taken and enjoyed individually, or, when read as a whole, convey a deeper or more complete meaning. Calvin and Hobbes can do both of these.
Throughout the book, Nevin quotes liberally from past interviews that were done with Bill, and also from Watterson’s published Calvin and Hobbes books. He also includes many quotes from the people he interviewed himself, to allow you to hear directly from those who knew and know Bill.
In Bill’s own words, this is why his strip differed from others and had more thoughtful content: “Behind the jokes, I try to talk about life in a serious way. I don’t look at cartooning as just an entertainment. It’s a rare privilege to be able to talk to hundreds of millions of people on a given day, and I don’t want to squander that privilege with mindless chatter. There is an opportunity here to talk about real issues of life with sensitivity, warmth and humor.” (Quote originally from Lee Nordling’s book, Your Career in Comics. It was then quoted in Looking for Calvin and Hobbes.)
One ongoing thread in the book is the lack of Calvin and Hobbes merchandise. You may wonder why there were never Calvin plushies, Hobbes lunchboxes, Spaceman Spiff bed sheets or snowman playsets. Bill Watterson didn’t want fame. He just wanted to pay his bills and draw his strip. He wasn’t in it for the millions that he could make by licensing his characters. In the end, he only did two authorized calendars and the book collections of strips. He wanted the strip to stand on its own. During an interview for The Comics Journal in 1989, Bill said, “I’m not interested in removing all the subtlety from my work to condense it for a product.”
In a Cleveland Plain Dealer interview during the summer of 1987, Bill gave what was “a full-on rant that was Watterson’s manifesto against celebrity,” according to Nevin Martell. Bill felt all along that you have to hold onto and protect your privacy and personal life or else you will lose it. Developing merchandise and becoming omnipresent in our society would have threatened his way of life. Some might think that he gave up a lot to keep his personal life private. I think that he made the better choice. Bill Watterson knows what he wants and what he doesn’t. He never sold out, not even a little. Nor did he compromise his stance on merchandising or sacrifice the world that he created in his strip.
In the end, Nevin never did talk to Bill directly, but he did speak with Bill’s mother on the phone. Perhaps that was enough closure. But throughout the book, you still really get to know Bill Watterson as a cartoonist and how he feels about the cartooning industry. He never wanted anyone else deciding how he should do the strip.
While I was reading Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, I wondered with anticipation, will Nevin ever find and talk to Bill Watterson? I could feel the uncertainty that Nevin probably felt during his research and writing process. But in the end, it is better that he didn’t talk to Bill. It fits perfectly with how Bill Watterson rejects celebrity and wants Calvin and Hobbes to stand on its own. Which it certainly does.
For more information, see Nevin Martell’s book preview video, or read an interview with him. The book retails for $24.95 in hardcover, but costs less on Amazon. In addition, you can get The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995 and a variety of other Calvin and Hobbes collections.
Wired: Learn as much as you can about Bill Watterson and his wonderful strip, Calvin and Hobbes. Isn’t that enough?
Tired: My only complaint is that when the author would nest quotation marks, both the outside and inside marks would be double quotation marks, instead of using single ones inside. This would be confusing upon occasion, but distracting always.