No other comic strip has experimented with “size” quite like Calvin and Hobbes. Despite only lasting 10 years (1985 – 1995), Bill Watterson’s celebration of childhood quickly became one of the world’s most popular strips, after Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and did so without ancillary media to bolster its “brand”. Despite protests and begging from fans and corporations around the world there would be no animated features, no toys, no stuffed tigers; Calvin and Hobbes would exist solely, completely, and absolutely in its original form: a comic strip.
As the strip’s popularity grew so did attention towards its creator to monetize its characters, much like Schulz with Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Jim Davis with Garfield. Instead, Watterson would maintain his strip’s integrity by demanding more space to better showcase artwork that was becoming more fantastical and psychologically complex, a mixed-medium of craftsmanship that was beginning to strain under the constraints of its mass-market platform.
Fans witnessed this in real-time as Watterson would leverage his strip’s unparalleled success by forcing newspapers eager to publish the strip to stop hacking his Sunday strips into resizable chunks and, eventually, dedicating entire half-pages of their valuable weekend ink solely to Calvin and Hobbes.
This expansion would affect the collection reprints, which blossomed from 8” x 8″ squares into 12” x 9” rectangles, a size that would become standard in other comic collections, despite how unwieldy they’d prove to be fitting comfortably into most bookcases.
Given all that, it’s a little disappointing to see Calvin & Hobbes shrunken to a size its creator wouldn’t prefer with The Calvin and Hobbes Portable Compendium Set 1, the first of seven planned sets reprinting Watterson’s entire comic strip into a smaller 9″ x 6″ format the publisher calls “compact, more portable”. Included are two volumes compromising nearly 500 daily and Sunday strips originally published in newspapers between November 1985 and March 1987.
Of course, all were also previously published in 1987’s self-titled “Calvin and Hobbes” and 1998’s “Something Under the Bed Is Drooling”, but this new collection isn’t a 1:1 reprint of those beloved editions as not all of their content is here. Apart from the reduction in size, gone are Garry Trudeau and Pat Oliphant’s heartfelt essays promoting the strip, as are Watterson’s additional sketches that opened and closed both books. But there are improvements; all Sunday comics are now presented in full, nicely reproduced color. The paper quality has improved quite a bit, too.
Indeed, the only contributions Watterson made to this reprint was choosing the artwork for both covers and slipcase. While it would have been wonderful to have his thoughts on this collection (or anything, really), given Watterson’s battles with his syndicate over the years I suppose we should be lucky to have anything handpicked by the creator.
But what of the comic strip itself? For fans and newcomers alike it’s another chance to meet our spiky-haired hellion and his stuffed (make-believe?) tiger best friend. From page one it’s remarkable how fresh and vibrant their adventures still feel, how alive and honest Watterson was able to capture not just the essence of childhood, but imagination itself with watercolors and ink.
Here Spaceman Spiff takes to the skies, dinosaurs still exist, and a stuffed tiger is as real as a six-year-old blessed with a 8 syllable vocabulary. More than real, they’re authentic, and we’re playing in Calvin’s world, a place where imagination is the only currency that matters and consequences are for tomorrow. It’s a magical world that needs exploring.
It’s almost depressing to think, in 2023, that the comic strip itself is a dying medium, at least in newspapers, and how invigorating Calvin and Hobbes must have seemed to readers back when it debuted in 1985, the last decade when a comic strip could still command national attention and influence (indeed, C&H was one of three that would dominate most of the decade, the others being Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Berkely Breathed’s Bloom County; all three would retire in 1995, though some would unretire, repeatedly.
For many Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest comic strip of all time, for others it’s simply one of the best. That only leaves new readers yet to discover it for themselves with The Calvin and Hobbes Portable Compendium Set 1 and see what all the fuss has been about these past 40 (!) years. And it’s taken that long to prove that Watterson’s insistence his characters remain in their original domain has paid off, and our love for them has only grown exponentially so. There’s just something about Calvin and Hobbes printed on paper that feels intimate and right, even with their reduction in size.