The beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes transcended its genre to become one of the most enduring works of pop art of the twentieth century. At The Guardian , Nevin Martell explores how it was able to “be authentic in a way that very few cartoons ever are”:
The strip’s authenticity is secured by Watterson’s refusal to sell out. He didn’t become a cartoonist for the attention, the accolades or the money. He just wanted to create the best comic strip possible. As he once wrote in the introduction to a Krazy Kat collection, “[W]e seem to have forgotten that a comic strip can be something more than a launch pad for a glut of derivative products. When the comic strip is not exploited, the medium can be a vehicle for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.” So, instead of embracing the fame his work afforded him over the years, he gave only a handful of interviews, rarely appeared in public and maintained a very modest lifestyle. He was equally withholding of his creations, whom he never allowed to be merchandised. There were no Hobbes dolls, no Spaceman Spiff action figures and no coffee mugs with Calvin and Hobbes one-liners splashed across them. Considering that all his peers were cashing in on their creations Charles Schulz (Peanuts) and Jim Davis (Garfield) each earned tens of millions of dollars a year at the height of their fame it was a tack that was as admirable as it was confounding.
Readers may have never thought about Watterson’s personal choices when they read the strip, but that strength of character echoed throughout his work. Calvin and Hobbes is complex, thoughtful and thought provoking. Calvin and Hobbes aren’t plastic and one-dimensional, like so many of their contemporaries on the funny pages whose creators strove to make them explicable in a single sentence. Garfield is a fat, lazy cat who loves to eat and give his owner grief. Beetle Bailey is an inept and lazy army private who is forever running afoul of his superiors. That’s all you need to know to laugh at either of those characters (and lazy is the operative word here). Now we come to Calvin and Hobbes a hyper-imaginative kid and his pet tiger who may or may not be real, depending on who’s looking at him. But that’s just the surface. That doesn’t really begin to explain Watterson’s unique storytelling device in which readers switch between the world as Calvin sees it a fantastical place and as adults see it a cut ‘n’ dried conventional reality. You need to immerse yourself in Calvin and Hobbes to truly understand it. Sure, you could read one strip, get the gag and move on with your life, but you’d be missing out.
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