The Return of 'Calvin and Hobbes' - and Fun Funny Pages

Oct. 3, 2005 — -- Almost 20 years have passed since "Calvin and Hobbes" debuted and a decade since the reclusive comic strip creator's retirement. But precocious 6-year-old Calvin and his beloved stuffed pet tiger remain forever young.

In celebration of the anniversary of Bill Watterson's strip, "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes" – a three-volume collection of the duo's adventures – is set to be released on Tuesday. Reprinted "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strips began reappearing in newspapers nationwide in August in a four-month run-up to the book's release.

"Calvin and Hobbes" – named after the 16th century theologian who believed in predestination, and the 17th century philosopher who called human life "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" – follows the adventures of a boy with an adult's maturity and penchant for finding mischief. Despite his often insightful musings, Calvin clings to childhood fantasies, most prominently Hobbes, a stuffed toy tiger dismissed as an imaginary friend by his parents and other adults.

To enthusiasts, it's a welcome return of humor and imagination to the funny pages that some critics say are often neither funny nor creative.

Elsa Nystrom, assistant professor of history at Kennesaw State College in Georgia who has expertise in comic strip history, said comic strips need more than good pictures.

"You need something else there," she said. "But 'Calvin and Hobbes' was very well-drawn. It was original. It was one of those rare strips that have an Everyman appeal. It was simple and straightforward and touched a variety of people."

Perhaps one source of the strip's appeal was that it was not controversial. It did not have the political commentary of "Doonesbury," "State of the Union" and "The Boondocks." It was an escape from headlines about mean-spirited politics, natural disasters, war and social upheaval.

"It's more mainstream. It was innovative without being offensive," said Nystrom. "It's a strip that appeals to parents ... It has that sense of wonder and imagination in children that we tend to lose as adults."

The Reclusive Mind Behind 'Calvin and Hobbes'

Another part of the appeal may be the strip's reclusive and enigmatic creator, Bill Watterson. During his 10-year career, Watterson gave very few interviews and did not let himself be photographed. He did not merchandise "Calvin and Hobbes." The boy and his pet tiger were only available in newspapers and book collections of the comic strip and never made into movies, videos or dolls.

However, that did not stop bootleg T-shirts and stickers of Calvin and Hobbes from being made and sold to this day.

Lee Salem, editor of Universal Press who worked closely with Watterson, said Watterson always viewed himself as a comic strip artist.

"He was a cartoonist who eschewed the opportunities of movies and licensing, preferring the static two dimensions of the comic page to share his vision of what a comic strip can do," he said. "For Bill, the comic strip was born in newspapers and that is where his characters should reside."

Things haven't changed. Watterson has refused all interview requests and would not be photographed for the new book. But he did agree to answer questions submitted by "Calvin and Hobbes" enthusiasts to the book's publisher, Andrews McMeel Publishing.

In the Q&A session posted on the company's Web site, Watterson says he resisted merchandising because the various proposed products violated the spirit of the strip. He also said "Calvin and Hobbes" was not necessarily autobiographical but were his reflections on ideas he thought were humorous at any given moment.

"I'd say the fictional and nonfictional aspects were pretty densely interwoven," Watterson said. "While Calvin definitely reflects certain aspects of my personality, I never had imaginary animal friends, I generally stayed out of trouble, I did fairly well in school, etcetera," he said.

"Of course, a lot of Calvin's adventures were drawn simply because I thought the idea was funny," he added. "Keep in mind that comic strips are typically written in a certain amount of panic, and I made it up as I went along."

The Boy and His Pet Tiger ... Forever

Many comic strip artists, like "Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder, have said they were influenced and inspired by Watterson's work. Watterson himself once said that he was influenced by "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz, whose classic strips still run in newspapers nationwide more than five years after his death.

Maybe the greatest legacy of "Calvin and Hobbes" will be that it reaches children, their parents and their grandparents, said Tom Thornton, vice president of Andrews McMeel.

"With 'Calvin and Hobbes,' there's something for everyone, something that a child will like. It touches parents and reminds them how their kids are. It reminds kids about the things their parents used to do," he said.

"I was on a plane a few days ago and I saw this boy, who could not have been more than 9 years old, reading a 'Calvin and Hobbes' book. Here's a kid that was born after Bill Watterson retired – Bill's been retired for 10 years – and he's reading 'Calvin and Hobbes.' To me, that says it all about 'Calvin and Hobbes'' legacy."

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