"Childhood is for spoiling adulthood" by Juliana Froggatt
[Author's note: While I toyed with the idea of submitting a three-word review (to wit: BUY. THIS. BOOK), on further reflection I was willing to admit that most people might feel they need more than my say-so to justify plopping down $150 for something they might already own, albeit in lesser form. (And if it helps any, Andrews McMeel apparently think they're not charging enough for it.) Therefore, if that initial review was enough to convince you, you're welcome; if not, read on . . .]
In August of 2005, the Oakland Tribune ran a short article in its Bay Area Living section that was all too easy to miss, and which announced the return of Calvin and Hobbes to its comics page. (Similar articles appeared in newspapers nationwide.) Lest the reader get too excited, after noting that "When we surveyed readers in 2002 the strip was among the Top 10 most requested—even though it hadn't appeared in any newspaper for years," the article said that it was "returning to our pages for a limited time" in the form of "selected classic strips [which] will appear daily and on Sundays for 17 weeks." They weren't new, there wouldn't be many, but to this fan at least, it was as if choirs of angels were singing. (Another nice note was struck by the final, somewhat defensive-sounding paragraph, which stated that "We are thrilled to have 'Calvin and Hobbes' back, but unfortunately we have a limited amount of space for comics. To make room for the strip we will no longer carry 'Mary Worth,' which finished last in a recent reader survey." Tee hee hee! And is there anyone, besides, apparently, the article's author, surprised by either of those results?)
The strip was like Calvin's fantasies: better and more vivid than real life. I don't know how many children were, like me, disappointed when their stuffed animals didn't talk back. (And who wouldn't want a tiger as a best friend? Especially one as fun, self-confident, and stylish as Hobbes?) Kids are bored by depictions of childhood that don't ring true, so Watterson's proverbial popularity among that age group is especially impressive. Perhaps more impressive, and a sign of true art, is the way the strip rewards rereading decades later. Those who grew up with it may be amazed by how much it has to say about the lives of adults—who paid attention to that back then? But the fact is that the portraits of Calvin's mom and dad are as indelible as those of the strip's namesakes, even though they're rarely seen not interacting with or reacting to their son. What strikes me now is how patient Calvin's mom is, how much she's able to put up with—not that she seems to have much choice. But there's a grace in her acceptance (it never feels like resignation) and the way she defends her kid, even against her perfect foil of a husband. While she is empathetic in interactions with her son, her spouse seems less able to cope with Calvin; fortunately, his defense mechanisms are funny and seemingly harmless. Thus, for example, his frequent sarcasm: anything to make him feel like dealing with this incomprehensible creature—somehow his own offspring—is at all on his own terms. But this sense of alienness runs both ways, and Calvin's dad is just as inscrutable to Calvin. The latter may know the formulae of manipulation, but although they get his dad to respond, it's never in the obvious way:
Of course, they have more in common than they know, or would like to think: is Calvin's claim that a Venusian invader caused a mess in the kitchen really less plausible than his dad's explanation of old, monochrome photos as color pictures of a pre-1930s world that was actually black and white?
The great goodwill engendered by the above explains the jubilation felt at the announcement of a run of "classic" Calvin and Hobbes, even though this glorious return, too, had a disappointingly prosaic explanation. So it was a publicity stunt—but so what? (I know somewhere Bill Watterson is shaking his head over sentiments like that.) The stunt itself heralded further good news: the impending publication of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, gleefully touted by Andrews McMeel as "likely to be the heaviest and most expensive book ever to hit the New York Times best-seller list." Watterson, notoriously prickly about the publicity to which he and his strip were subject, even participated in "Fans From Around the World Interview Bill Watterson," although he did have final say over what questions were answered (and, obviously, how). But despite the distaste which the method might have inspired, the arrival of this 23-pound behemoth is indeed a Very Good Thing. The strip's author is happy with the end product, and given the love and care he always put into it, this is great news for his fans.
This set has been put together by people who have thought through and understand everything about the experience of owning and reading Calvin and Hobbes. Every detail has been considered, and the correct decision reached in every case: for instance, serial strips are run in order, with unrelated interstitial Sunday strips appearing afterwards, and with the dates of the strips on each page appearing at the bottom of the page in small but completely legible, unobtrusive type. The page and color quality are faultless, and although the books are large, they are by no means unwieldy; the size is a happy compromise between usability and page space, with three daily or one Sunday strip per page, in sizes much larger than what was allotted on newspaper funny pages and here big enough to see the wonderful detail Watterson lavished on each panel. Happily for completists, the collection also includes not just every strip ever printed, but also cover and spot art and every special story and poem from the previous, much smaller collections. Even if you own those earlier books, they are now best thought of as stopgaps to fill the time before the arrival of this set, or as the books you can share with those too young for The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (they're too big for small hands, and it would be a shame if anything—like crayons—were to happen to them). And all this is to say nothing of perhaps the single greatest gift for fans of the cartoon—a long, revealing essay by Watterson himself about life before, during, and after Calvin and Hobbes. It can't have been easy for him to write, and that's a compliment—and a testament to its remarkable openness and honesty.
The universal appeal and excellence of this exceptional cartoon are reflected in the beautiful set Andrews McMeel have created to house it. Despite some initial misgivings (from the Acknowledgments page: "As flattering as it is to have a lavish book like this, it can be a little disturbing to see one's own career embalmed in a box"), even its author seems wholly pleased with it. It's a real treasury, and one sure to bring joy for many years.
"I hate it when I can't gird my loins with fuzzy animals" by Mattia Valente
Back in November of 1985 (on the 18th, to be precise), one of the greatest comic strips ever created was first published. Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes swept us along for the adventures of a perennially 6-year-old Calvin and his best friend, the tiger Hobbes—to Calvin as real as you or I, to his parents nothing more than a stuffed animal. The slippery reality of the comic strip is one of its most endearing features. Watterson's classic is a beautifully drawn, often hilarious, sometimes thoughtful, always engaging strip, on par with Peanuts in terms of lasting quality and accessibility (no matter how old you are, you're always the perfect age for Calvin and Hobbes), and far exceeding it in terms of visual flair. Calvin and Hobbes featured the kind of creative artwork and settings rarely seen in mainstream comic strips. From the extraterrestrial vistas of Spaceman Spiff's adventures, to the Snowman House of Horrors, the Jurassic majesty of Calvin the T-Rex, the suicidal sled and wagon rides, or the more subtle but wonderful detail of one of Hobbes's signature tiger pounces—each strip is a joy to see and read. Calvin's vivid imagination and outlandish vocabulary perfectly complement Hobbes's combination of wisdom and naiveté, and Watterson's beautiful writing, wild imagination, and stunning artwork come together to create a true classic.
It isn't merely escapist fun; Watterson often used the strip to comment on the nature of the world and consumer culture (Watterson is notoriously taciturn, and his absolute refusal to merchandise his creation legendary). Yet even at these times, his respect for the characters was paramount. The various levels on which one can enjoy the work just make it that much more interesting. Watterson wrote Calvin and Hobbes for ten years before deciding, at the height of his popularity and success, to call it quits. Reruns of the strip are still reprinted in countless newspapers, and its popularity has never really faded. Many of us still read and re-read the various collections of strips, know them all inside out, and yet return to them with great joy again and again.
It's impossible to pick a single favourite strip; there are simply too many to choose from. Though I have a soft spot for Hobbes's stretches and pounces, and simply love the snowmen Calvin creates, it's often the simpler strips—artistically speaking—that draw me in (although there's something special about engaging in philosophical discourse while hurtling down a hill at breakneck speed on a sled or a little red wagon). It's Watterson's wit and wisdom that does it. One of the most memorable strips, to my mind, is the following:
The simple, genial, hilarious truth of the strip, the wording, makes it classic. In fact, I'm grinning as I write this. Much like "Scientific progress goes 'Boink'?" (a choice Hobbes quote), "Verbing weirds language" has achieved catchphrase status among many of my friends. There's a lot to love, and I could go on about what's so great about more or less every strip drawn and written, but those who know Calvin and Hobbes know, and I don't want to spoil the fun for everyone else.
And now, for the collectors among us, there's The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a 23-lb, 3-volume, 1400+ page slipcased collector's edition featuring every strip ever published and most—but unfortunately not all—of the full-page watercolors and other illustrations that graced the pages of previous books and ironically titled collections (such as the Essential and the Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes books, which were nothing of the sort). A minor niggle is Watterson's own edit of one of the older strips to make it a touch more PC (replacing the phrase "biological mother" with "good mother"), but frankly, this is pretty much irrelevant. This edition is a work of beauty; burnt umber volumes with brown cloth spines presented in a large, cloth-bound slipcase make it a collection to treasure dearly. Featuring 3 strips to each large, archival-quality paper page (including date of first publication for each strip), full color Sunday strips, and peppered with occasional 1- or 2-page watercolor spreads (and even the odd full-page, full-color enlarged Spaceman Spiff adventure), these are books to curl up with on a winter's evening (with a large pillow to support the book) and simply relish. The printing is excellent; the colors crisp, sharp, and attractive. The only thing I wish they'd done is give us a proper, sewn binding, as I foresee the day in the not too distant future when I'll have to take these to get them professionally bound when the glue holding the pages in place decides to fail. For a collection that costs around $100 (retail, list $150), printed in Hong Kong, I don't think that's too much to ask.
Those hoping for deeper insights into the creation of Calvin and Hobbes may come away disappointed; short of a moderately interesting 14-page introduction, this collection features the strips, the watercolors, and that's it. Truth be told, The Calvin and Hobbes 10th Anniversary Collection contains far more information, insight, and details about the history and process of creating Calvin and Hobbes than The Complete Collection does. And frankly, if you've got all the "regular" books already, this doesn't give you anything you don't already have; in fact, it probably gives you a little bit less. It also isn't nearly as intimate and detailed as the ongoing series of Complete Peanuts collections (the strips aren't indexed by subject, for instance, or in fact indexed at all), but for the serious fan, it's still an unmissable set: the production quality will see this edition outlast the other books by a fair margin (the pages on my Something Under the Bed is Drooling are already yellowing), and the knowledge that you own a copy of every single Calvin and Hobbes strip ever published is simply priceless. Buy it, and enjoy it, because Calvin's last words say it best:
"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy . . . let's go exploring!"
Mattia Valente is a dreamer, med student, and guitar builder, and makes a mean pizza. He speaks five languages, has two nationalities, and thoroughly enjoys quality speculative fiction on screen and in print. He sometimes likes to talk about it, too.
Juliana Froggatt, a Strange Horizons Review Department editor, thinks everyone should read Calvin and Hobbes, and would lend you her collection if she could.