Saturday, August 02, 2008

Remembering the glory days of 'Calvin and Hobbes'

My girls made a discovery recently, and dang if it wasn't a big one.

It wasn't my Star Wars figures, complete with their weapons, still inside my carrying case at my parents'. Nor was it my wife's Looney Tunes puzzle. When I was packing everything into boxes so we could paint the living room, they discovered my old "Calvin and Hobbes" collections. It was as if they had been digging for buried treasure in the back yard one summer afternoon, and actually found it.

The girls already had read "Something Under the Bed is Drooling" and "Revenge of the Babysat," but these other collections had been on a bookshelf in the living room for so long I completely had forgotten they were even there. There were four of them, including "The Days are Just Packed" and "Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat." The girls love them, and will sit there for an hour or more at a time, reading them.

I can't say I blame them. "Calvin and Hobbes" was consistently high-quality in a way only a few strips ever manage to be. It combines the high-humor quotient of Gary Larson's "The Far Side" or the more contemporary "Pearls Before Swine," with the same level of subtle and thought-provoking commentary that you might find in "Bloom County," although Watterson's topics were more timeless and less topical than those Berkeley Breathed dealt with.

A lot of the appeal the strip held for me was that Calvin is a real kid. He wasn't artificially wholesome and sweet like the kids in "The Family Circus," and he wasn't as gentle-hearted as good old Charlie Brown. Calvin was a rapscallion, plain and simple, the sort of thing Dennis Mitchell could have been with a little more octane in his fuel; but he also had moments of great tenderness, remorse and vivid imagination.

Re-reading these forgotten collections is like catching up with an old friend after 20 years and laughing ourselves silly over hijinks from college. In the course of these collections, Calvin "turns into a bug," travels through time, and can't do his homework because "My parents forgot to pay the gravity bill."

There are the fantasies he acts out, all bizarre and immediately accessible to anyone who ever was a small child or at least knows someone who was, times when he disappears into an imaginary persona like Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man, or Tracer Bullet. The fantasties are familiar to anyone who has ever been a kid, as are the reasons for his escape. He's bored, or he's faced with some other challenge typical of first-graders.

Then there are the people who populate his world. They think they live in the same world as him, but the truth is that they exist only when he wants them to, and only on his terms. There are mom and dad, who have no names or identities beyond their relationship to him; there's the babysitter who doesn't understand him despite being the one person who intimidates him; and there is Miss Wormwood, an archetypal spinster of a first-grade teacher.

On Calvin's own level are Moe, the school bully; Susie Derkins, the girl next door who Calvin can't bear to admit liking; and of course Hobbes, Calvin's best friend, comrade-in-arms, and possibly just a stuffed tiger through whom Calvin channels feelings and thoughts he doesn't understand entirely.

Bill Watterson, who created "Calvin and Hobbes," stopped making new strips some years ago, after wrapping the strip up with one of his great sledding comics. That strip had Calvin and Hobbes ride off into a clear wintry day to see what's out there, much like "The House and Pooh Corner" closed out with Christopher Robin talking to Pooh about having to grow up.

Since "Calvin and Hobbes" ended, it seems like the comics section of the newspaper has grown duller and duller each year. Comic strips continue long past the point that they should have stopped, like "Doonesbury"; they retread the same three worn-out jokes, like "Garfield"; or they settle for being cute and clever instead of brilliant and funny.

There are a few strips worth reading, like "Pearls Before Swine" and "Foxtrot," but by and large, the comics section is something read out of habit rather than for actual amusement value these days. "Calvin and Hobbes" shows how high the medium can reach, when it's done by artists who really care about what they're doing.

Thanks for the laughs, Bill. And thanks for sharing them with my kids.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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