Calvin & Hobbes, by Bill Watterson (1985-1995).
Score: Are you kidding me? This is a must-read.
When I was a kid the local newspaper had Sunday supplements that my grandparents would give me to read, and Calvin & Hobbes was published there, so I’ve got fond memories of it from a young age. When I was a teenager I read most of the first year of strips because my English teacher would give them to me to read as a warmup at the beginning of lessons, and I’ve been meaning to read it but up to now I didn’t have the chance to sit down and read the whole of it in chronological order of publication.
I was most surprised of the contrast between what people tend to remember about it and what it really is when you read it all through. I’ve noticed people tend to stick with Watterson’s reflections mouthpieced through the characters, and this melancholic reminiscence of childhood and rebellion against growing up. But people, Calvin sure is bratty. I never see anyone saying how they want to slap him right in the face, and I did at times. And Watterson doesn’t hide the fact that he made Calvin to be bratty in the Tenth Anniversary book, it’s something that’s totally intentional. It was apparently controversial how politically incorrect the strip can be (including strips where Calvin’s parents miss how simple their life was before they had him), especially at the time when it came out, before it was normal for comedies to show families that were not the dictated, sugar-coated norm.
That being said, there are mostly two periods in the history of the strips, and the transition happens more or less at half. The first six years rely heavily on gags around the everyday life of Calvin: going to school, trolling Susie, procrastinating, torturing his parents, playing outside with Hobbes, imagining sci-fi scenarios to substitute plain old, boring real life. This section can get really repetitive, because once you’ve read two or three years of it, it’s the same set of about a dozen different kinds of strips, and you don’t laugh as much because the element of surprise is kind of gone. Obviously, this was intended to appear as a daily strip on a newspaper, so probably that’s the reason why it doesn’t stand being read on a sitting so well. The second period is the one I feel it’s most remembered for. It has the wagon philosophical strips, though people tend to forget that Calvin almost always gets the wrong conclusion out of his reflections. I really enjoyed the irreverent reflections on the nature of art, and the later snowmen strips. This period is more mature, subtle and ironic than the first, and more enjoyable. In fact, when I was around the fifth year I was thinking about quitting, but kept reading because I had memories of later strips I hadn’t got to yet. When I finished the Tenth Anniversary book, I felt sad, like saying goodbye to an old friend. Apparently, it was fairly uncommon back then that a comic strip dealt with themes of death, loss, happiness, life goals and identity. I especially enjoyed the series when Calvin is bullied for not playing baseball, then bullied for being bad at it, and finally for quitting (yes, I wasn’t a sporty child either, it went right in the feels). And if you didn’t get cloudy eyes while reading the little raccoon series, you’re dead inside.
I have to say that I really admire the effort Watterson made to gain his well-earned creative freedom, and how much he fought to keep creative control of his work. In hindsight, he made the best choice refusing to license Calvin & Hobbes, as their rants about junk TV culture and hypocrisy wouldn’t have any meaning if I had spent my childhood seeing them endorsing insurance companies. All in all, this is a must read, whether you are interested in comic books or just in recent history of pop culture.