Sneha Mary Christall, II MA English
On December 31, 1995, newspapers published Bill Watterson’s last official Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Every following day would only feature reruns. Calvin’s decade- long exploits with his furry friend Hobbes had come to a close. Fans, the world over, knew that no comic could replace Watterson’s genius.
And yet, 20 years later, the comic strip still endures. Turn to the comic section in most newspapers, and you are sure to find Calvin debating the environment, the education system or how best to attack Susie with snowballs. He is a precocious six-year old boy, who speaks with all the maturity and eloquence of someone older, with a deeper understanding of life, and with the grace to accept that things aren’t quite right in the world. And to think that he initially appeared as a side character in one of Watterson’s early strips…
Despite the overwhelming response Calvin and Hobbes received, Watterson was certain he didn’t want to merchandise the comic strip. He faced pressure from his syndicate to merchandise the series and tour the country. And yet, the only officially licensed merchandise that has ever been created includes a few calendars and a teaching aid called “Teaching with Calvin & Hobbes”. Only eight libraries in the world hold a copy of this work and it is a collectible of high regard for ardent fans. To Watterson, merchandising the series would take away the integrity of the strip and undermine his worth as an artist. In fact, the writer himself is a recluse, rarely consenting to interviews or talk shows.
One of Watterson’s artistic influences was Charles Schulz, the creator of the American comic strip Peanuts. However, the two held opposing views regarding the merchandising of art. Schulz consented to merchandising his series and believed that Charlie Brown merchandise would remind fans of his rather morose, altogether average hero. Just last year, The Peanuts Movie was released in 3D. It even featured a dance-pop number by singer Meghan Trainor. It received generally positive reviews and most viewers felt a sense of nostalgia, having revisited their favourite characters in 3D.
Watterson himself had considered animating Calvin and Hobbes. He was impressed by animation’s ability to show “build-up and release”. In an interview with The Comics Journal, he says, “In a comic strip, you can suggest motion and time, but it’s very crude compared to what an animator can do. I have a real awe for good animation.” However, he expressed actual fear regarding the task of choosing a voice actor for Calvin. Though he came close to working with an animation team, he finally decided against it. In 2011, he commented on this decision, “Actually, I wasn’t against all merchandising when I started the strip, but each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved.” Take a closer look at the Peanuts merchandise, and you would realise a positively cheery Charlie Brown, not the anxious, frowning boy of the comic series. For obvious commercial reasons, the merchandisers have had to redefine his melancholic character. How else would Charlie Brown greeting cards sell?
Perhaps, Watterson’s firm disregard for merchandising and his respect for authenticity have ensured the series’ continued status as a classic. Calvin and Hobbes holds an old- world charm that hasn’t worn off on the millennial reader. It is befitting then, that the US Postal Service honoured the series with a set of postage stamps in 2010.
Throughout his career, Watterson has shown a tendency to hold art as the greater pursuit. He quit a job in advertising to create the series. Unlike his contemporaries, he quit writing Calvin and Hobbes when he felt he had achieved all he could within the constraints of the medium. With some sadness, he gave us one last strip: Calvin is sledding with Hobbes as he says, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy… Let’s go exploring!”
The series speaks of discontent as much as it does of brilliance and beauty within the everyday. And that is a message we all need to be reminded of.