Calvin and Hobbes

“Dear Mr. Watterson”: Remembering the last great newspaper comic


Bill Watterson combined a reckless boy and a conscientious tiger, and brought down the curtain on a pop-culture era

One day in the fall of 1985, a small boy captured a tiger in a trap (using a tuna fish sandwich as bait, of course). The newspaper-reading public was immediately enraptured, first in the United States and then around the world, without yet understanding that they were witnessing the birth of the last great newspaper comic strip in the form’s history. That strip was Bill Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes,” and it occurred to me while watching Joel Allan Schroeder’s slight but agreeable documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson” that I’ve never heard anyone explore the question of why these two beloved characters are named after such forbidding figures in the history of British moral and political philosophy.
It’s hard to imagine a reader who doesn’t know this, but Calvin is an imaginative, inquisitive and entirely reckless boy of about 6 or 7, and Hobbes is his somewhat more prudent tiger companion, who often functions – albeit ineffectively – as Calvin’s conscience or superego. (To adults inside the strip, Hobbes appears to be a stuffed toy. We, and Calvin, know different.) Their adventures, set entirely in a mythic Middle American landscape that’s partly “Peanuts” and partly “Huckleberry Finn,” range from the straightforward, realistic and sentimental (setting aside the question of how “realistic” a comic strip can ever be) to the satirical and the flat-out surreal, even the postmodern and the meta-textual.
Perhaps you remember the T-rex who sometimes ran roughshod over the playground during school recess, or the vicious and dangerous “snow-goons” summoned to life in winter. Calvin can never resist mashing the button on the Transmogrifier (although it’s never a good idea), and neither could Watterson, who might draw an entire Sunday strip in “neo-cubist” style, or in hilarious imitation of long-gone story comics like “Mary Worth.” As with Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts,” there are very few direct references to the world outside of childhood, although the strip always had a large adult audience and Calvin and Hobbes’ philosophical disputes play very differently to audiences of different ages. But you don’t need to understand the pop-culture or political context of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to enjoy “Calvin and Hobbes,” which may be why children (my own included) eagerly devour it today.

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