Monday, 19 December 2011

There's treasure everywhere

This New Year's Eve, as most people are toasting 2012 and wondering how they're going to get home once the drinks have dried up, I'll be raising a glass in remembrance of a precocious six year-old who breathed his last, sixteen years ago to the day. For many readers like me, Calvin's sudden disappearance from the comics pages represented the end of an era. As he and his loyal friend Hobbes sailed down a snowy hillside one last time, we knew we'd never see him again. Which made their upbeat call-to-action "Let's go exploring" that much more bittersweet.

Comic strips are a largely under-appreciated medium, not least by the papers that pay to syndicate them. And yet there are a handful of genuine artists out there, willing to pour their heart and soul into those little monochromatic panels. More importantly, there are millions of readers for whom those little strips are a momentary highlight in an otherwise forgettable day.

I first discovered the genius of Bill Watterson when I was sixteen, by which point Calvin & Hobbes had already been running for six years. The early rough edges of Watterson's illustrative style had been ironed out (in particular, he'd perfected the dinosaurs which regularly stomped their way across Calvin's overactive imagination) and the supporting characters had found their own distinctive voices. Calvin's alter-egos Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet and Stupendous Man had also made a number of appearances, meaning that I entered a world that was already fully formed.

On the surface, there was nothing particularly remarkable about another standard four-panel black and white strip. What drew me in was Watterson's unique drawing style and the expressiveness of the lead characters. But I soon discovered that there was also a depth to the writing that I'd never seen in any other cartoon. In one of the all-too-rare commentaries that Watterson added to a compilation of strips, he admitted that his first love was illustration, and he'd had to teach himself to write in order to give the characters something to do. But this typically self-deprecating perspective does a disservice to Watterson's incredibly perceptive voice.

Take the following exchange for instance, which takes place as Calvin attempts to justify his decision to draw a picture of a Tyrannosaurus Rex piloting an F16:

Calvin"The hard part for us avant-garde post-modern artists is deciding whether or not to embrace commercialism. Do we allow our work to be hyped and exploited by a market that's simply hungry for the next new thing? Do we participate in a system that turns high art into low art so it's better suited for mass consumption? Of course, when an artist goes commercial, he makes a mockery of his status as an outsider and free thinker. He buys into the crass and shallow values art should transcend. He trades the integrity of his art for riches and fame.... Oh, what the heck. I'll do it."
Hobbes: "That wasn't so hard."

Try finding that in Fred Basset or The Perishers. 

This dialogue also represents Watterson's somewhat idiosyncratic, and increasingly rare, world-view. As a former ad-man, Watterson had grown increasingly frustrated with the venal banality of marketing, but was equally turned-off by the pompous pretentiousness of the art world. By choosing to express himself in a comic strip, he found he could puncture both worlds with pin-sharp precision. 

As the strip grew in popularity, Watterson repeatedly rejected his syndicate's desire to merchandise the characters, arguing that commercialisation would diminish their magic and invalidate many of the opinions he espoused through their dialogue. Many have speculated about how many hundreds of millions of dollars Watterson turned his back on, by rejecting the countless offers to license cartoons, stuffed toys and t-shirts featuring his characters' likenesses.

Whereas Jim Davis was quite happy to turn Garfield over to the manufacturers of press-on windscreen dolls, Watterson was concerned that a cuddly Hobbes toy would force readers to decide once-and-for-all that the tiger was an inanimate object who only existed in his playmate's imagination. Likewise, he argued that an animated series would irrevocably tie each character's voice to a single performer. Instead, he preferred to let readers decide how they sounded in their own heads. Even now, all these years later, the only official merchandise available is the series of paperback collections, for which Watterson produced beautiful water-colour covers and introductory stories.

These annual compilations also give readers the chance to fully appreciate Watterson's artistry, since they reproduce his famed Sunday strips in all their full-colour glory. Having being tied to four static panels for the other six days of the week, a full page layout allowed him to really let 'er rip. Insisting on colouring every illustration himself (as his contemporaries farmed out the task to underlings), Watterson used the opportunity to play with form, function and style. Perhaps the most effective of these experiments was the hyper-real style he developed to depict Calvin and Susie's attempts at playing house, which usually devolved into an outtake from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Given the different lead times required for producing a regular weekday strip and a Sunday instalment, it's remarkable that Watterson also managed to occasionally incorporate the larger colour format into several of his long running stories.

To those unfamiliar with the magical world inhabited by this young boy and his stuffed tiger, all this talk of integrity might sound a little po-faced. In fact, Calvin &  Hobbes remains the single most hilarious strip ever published. Even as its author struggled with deep philosophical issues (the characters were named after 16th-century theologian John Calvin and 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes) he never forgot to make his strip laugh-out-loud funny. From Calvin's parents' bitingly sarcastic interplay, to his own love-hate relationship with nemesis/paramour Susie Derkins, the writing was sharp enough to make Frasier Crane feel like a dullard. But Watterson was equally adept at illiciting a laugh with the bare minimum of dialogue, such as the time Calvin daydreamed that he was flying through the clouds courtesy of a propellor-beanie hat. Or when he blew a gum-bubble so large that his entire head popped with it. 

Despite his innate grasp of sarcasm, Watterson wasn't immune to occasional bouts of sentimentality - at one point producing a genuinely touching series of strips depicting the death of an injured raccoon, that Calvin had attempted to nurse back to health. The final panel in the series offered no punchline or glib commentary, just the erudite observation: "What a stupid world." In its own way, this surprising change of tone was just as haunting as the much-lauded final scene of Blackadder Goes Forth. 

That's why those of us who've discovered the treasure that's everywhere in Watterson's world, appreciate it so much. He managed to be funny without being contrived. He was sometimes scathing, but never bitter. And he could embrace his sentimental side, without ever lapsing into mawkishness. It was a tricky balance that he managed to maintain for ten glorious years. His insight into both children and child-rearing seemed uncannily accurate, especially since he enjoyed an utterly unremarkable upbringing of his own, and had no parenting experience to call upon. But to anyone who recalls the fearlessness of infancy, the joy of snowman-building, or the trials of an unrelenting babysitter, his cartoons are like an express ticket to a magical communal childhood. 

When Watterson declared that he was hanging up his pen and retiring the strip, there was a genuine outpouring of grief as fans wondered how they'd cope without their adventure-seeking pals. And it seems that time has done nothing to diminish their appeal, as a recent pastiche called Calvin & Bacon (by webcomic artists Dan and Tom Heyerman) proved, when it went viral almost overnight. My own tribute to the incomparable twosome came in the naming of my two dogs. Somewhat appropriately, one of them has grown up to be impulsive, energetic and curious, whilst the other is rational, cautious and reserved. I'll leave you to guess which is which.

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