Searching for Watterson 

There isn’t quite enough there, there.

The previous sentence operates on two different levels. On the one hand, it might refer to Calvin & Hobbes, cartoonist Bill Watterson’s beloved comic strip about an overly imaginative six-year old boy and his stuffed tiger, who may or may not be alive; the strip ran for a decade. On the other, it could refer to Nevin Martell’s Looking for Calvin & Hobbes, in which the author attempts to delineate the qualities that made his favorite funny-pages cartoon so fantastic, tell the story of its genesis, meteoric rise and disappearance, and lure its reclusive, media-shy creator into an interview.

Looking for Calvin & Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip
By Nevin Martell
Continuum Books
$15.95, 272 pages (paperback)

Blame it on Peanuts — Charles Schulz’s iconic, decades-long strip classic — and David Michaelis’s thorough, incisive biography Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. Michaelis’s exhaustive, at-times clinical, study set an impossibly high standard for dissecting the lives of cartoonists. Martell’s too much of a fan boy — he mails Watterson a long, earnest letter that ultimately gets him nowhere — to delve quite as deeply into his subject’s psyche. Nonetheless, Looking for Calvin & Hobbes is probably the closest thing we’ll get to a portrait of Watterson. Martell plumbs the handful of interviews the cartoonist has granted; conducts interviews with his contemporaries, friends, relatives, and others (including author Jonathan Lethem, Bone’s Jeff Smith, and Pixar producer/director Brad Bird); traces his life trajectory; examines his definite and likely influences (Egon Schiele, Walt Kelly’s Pogo); and does his damnedest to find links between Calvin’s youthful flights of fancy and the man whose work reminded Bloom County’s Berke Breathed daily that “my own success was built on a flimsy foundation of fraud and cultural timeliness.”

When Calvin & Hobbes debuted in November 1985 — with spot-on noir homages, deep philosophical disquisitions, endless bowls of Chocolate Covered Sugar Bombs, steep, manic toboggan and wagon rides, rifts with potential crush Susie Derkins, whole worlds dreamed up in cardboard boxes, and more reality-defying chicanery soon to come — Watterson’s professional career had already been through more ups and downs than a broken rollercoaster. After acclaimed strip stints in high school and at Kenyon College, the Chagrin Falls, Ohio-reared artist suffered demoralizing runs as a political cartoonist and toiled for a time as a “layout artist” for a Pennysaver-like publication; Calvin and his New Orleans enthusiast tiger would evolve incrementally from several early concept strips that failed to wow the publishing syndicates. In his youth, he was quiet, calm, and unassuming — a model son and good student who “bought the annual Peanuts collections and used them as a home-school course in cartooning” — the opposite of brash, impulsive Calvin, though both shared a love of the great outdoors. This reticent and retiring persona, interpreted by many as surliness or standoffishness, lent itself to the regimen of big-time cartooning. And unlike Garfield’s Jim Davis or Cathy’s Cathy Guisewite, he shunned the spotlight and the licensing opportunities that came with it.

Watterson would eventually use his power and influence to lash out at the syndicates, decrying their tendencies to prolong the natural lives of existing comic strips at the expense of fresh, new strips. He skipped professional awards ceremonies where he was honored and alienated many of his admiring peers. He drove hard bargains to secure a larger space for his colorful, vividly-rendered Sunday strips. He was also an unsparing perfectionist: “Sometimes getting it right meant trashing weeks’ and weeks’ worth of ideas that other cartoonists might have felt compelled to run in order to meet deadlines.” Yet this was a man who — until he retired in the mid-1990s to explore large-scale paintings he has yet to display in a gallery — replied personally to every letter he received, from adoring fans to up-and-coming doodlers.

When Martell descends into the nuts and bolts of Calvin & Hobbes — what made the strip work, what made it quintessential, what made it pop off of the comics page — Looking for Calvin & Hobbes really shines. Describing a particular strip, Martell writes: “In one panel in particular, Calvin and Hobbes are walking across a grassy meadow toward the forest on the far side. Watterson had to sketch only a few blades of grass and a lone tree to suggest the whole scene. Less artistically dexterous cartoonists would have to fill in every detail and blade of grass. With Watterson’s drawing, you can’t be complacent — you need to engage and imagine what is beyond the obvious. In this way, a casual walk across a meadow becomes an afternoon in the woods for the reader.” •


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