Fans of comics, or really animation as a whole, would be doing themselves a disservice if they weren’t familiar with Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. As much as I try to distance myself from mainstream opinion on so many things, I have to agree that this strip was a masterpiece that’s served to inspire and delight endless viewers since its inception in 1985. With Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, a companion book to an exhibition of Watterson’s work that was displayed at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Ohio in 2014, we get a look at the man behind Calvinball, Spaceman Spiff and so many other classic moments that defined childhood for scores of young readers and artists.
This isn’t a deep look and it’s certainly brief, but when it comes to Bill Watterson – an artist who famously shuns the limelight – it’s really the best we can hope for.
The most significant portion of the book is an interview with Watterson himself conducted by Jenny Robb, a rare treat given the artist’s notoriously reticent demeanor. As interesting as this is, the interview is relatively short and it doesn’t tell us much about the man that we couldn’t already surmise – before you ask, he’s not interested in licensing the strip and we probably aren’t going to see a series of AAA Calvin and Hobbes platformers from Ubisoft anytime soon. He’s got principles, he’s stuck to them for this long and he intends to continue doing so. I’m sure you didn’t expect anything else!
Instead, we get a look at Watterson’s methods and techniques that’s unique to this book, both in the interview and in the semi-complete strips that punctuate the strip gallery later in the collection. Rather than disappointment, it’s intriguing that Watterson was willing to “play ball” with an interviewer at all, so the lack of new information is less of a let-down than it might have been otherwise. It’s particularly interesting to hear about the early days of Watterson’s career as a cartoonist, comparing his description of a young artist and designer trying his best to get into the business with the confidence of today.
The strips, of course, are beautiful, hilarious and worth the read. This strip is famous for a reason; the art is sharp, endearing and at times awe-inspiring while the writing features a characteristic snappy wit. There aren’t too many strips here, but that’s to be expected; chances are any fans of the medium will have read the entirety of Calvin and Hobbes several times over by now. While there’s the odd unusual early strip here and there, you aren’t going to see many surprises, so if you want a full strip collection you’re probably better off going with the Complete Calvin and Hobbes box set.
You do get to see some strips in the process of being completed, typically during the header pages detailing a particular theme or device in the strip that serve to split the gallery up. This is a glimpse behind the scenes that’s not usually offered in this particular franchise. Personally, I’m completely devoid of any artistic skill whatsoever, so the technical details offered meant little to me, but I can appreciate their presence. There’s also a ton of information about the classic comics that inspired Watterson; long-time fans will know about his love of Krazy Kat, for example.
There’s only so much that can be said when discussing such a monolithic topic in the comics landscape. As print media continues its decline into complete obsolescence (a point Watterson touches on during his interview, and one that hits close to home as a journalist) it’s a nice touch of nostalgia to see a book that pays homage to a classic comic strip as this one does; we’re led to reflect that one day there may be no more comic strips at all. Fans of Calvin and Hobbes and aspiring artists seeking inspiration from one of the greats will be well-served by Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, though they might end up thirsty for more.