Monday, January 24, 2011


Those four panels are, in a word, brilliant.  I could spend many words analyzing the strip as well as dozens more like it.  First and foremost, is the joke itself.  The punchline itself is clever and subtle.  Hobbes delivers a simple, pun-based quip.  It's a cute form of ironic observation, juxtaposing "funny" and serious.  Lighthearted, but hardly remarkable, it is inferior to the secondary punchline, which is more sardonic.  Calvin's comment  communicates a sort of dark, sardonic downbeat.  Of course, it also embraces a funny juxtaposition.  While putting someone in a nursing home is hardly humorous in and of itself, the fact it's being done simply because of his opinions on comics is ridiculous.  Though funny because if its outlandish nature, there is a greater genius in the strip:  It is insane to take comics seriously.

Beyond that, the strip itself reeks of self-reference.  Calvin talks of how comics have become nothing more than a series of talking, photocopied heads while the strip itself represents that very formula (of course, a deeper analysis reveals that each panel is actually not photocopied but drawn fresh and made to simply look like the previous one.)

I'm going to stop now because, like I said, I can go on and on.  Also, by now, most of you are thoroughly annoyed that I'm not being funny and have almost certainly stopped reading.  Sorry.  I'm not going to be particularly funny.

I can still be terrifying, though.
This is a tribute.  Throughout my life, there have been many an author who I have a good deal of admiration for.  The beautiful poetry and drama of Shakespeare and Dante.  The astounding depth of Stephenson and Crichton's science fiction.  The dark, cynical worlds of Huxley and Orwell.  The brilliant realms of Tolkien and Lewis.  The stirring observations of life penned by Harper Lee and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Yet, among all these great names, and all the wonderful literature they have given us that has so enriched our lives, there is one man whose stories I return to time and time again.

That man is Bill Watterson, and he has given us the Indespensible, Essential and Authoratative Calvin & Hobbes.  Now I know many would scoff at the idea of listing a mere comic artist in the same breath as Shakespeare, Fitzgerald and Orwell.  The rhetorical question I raise, though, is what criteria must exist for someone to consider something great literature.

I offer this anecdote as a prelude to my consideration.  I know many intelligent people; people knowledgable in all manners of law, politics, business, science, education, and the like.  And among the vast majority of them when I raise the question, "Have you ever read Calvin & Hobbes?" the answer is an affirmative.  However, in many cases it is more than a simple "yes," rather, it is an answer intoned with a mild form of mockery, as if it was silly of me to even ask such an obvious question.  For many the tone is almost as if I had simply asked, "Have you ever read?"
Why is it that so many people that are so learned can take for granted this common experience?  "Of course I've read Calving & Hobbes, who hasn't?"  There are many possible answers, but few hold water.  The people who have enjoyed Watterson's masterpiece transcend generational boundaries and social groups.  They are young, old, black, white, rich and poor.  And among all those who appreciate literature and good writing, it is a forgone conclusion.

"Of course I've read Calvin & Hobbes."

Yet, people seem hesitent to consider a daily comic strip at the level of great novels.  I have no such reluctance.  Calvin & Hobbes gives us everything we could desire from great literature.  Watterson created micro-stories that did more than set up a joke and end it with a punchline.  They gave us a glimpse into the beauty and magic of childhood.  In an age where so much media rushes to portray children as mere simpletons there to look cute and deliver mispronounced words that are adorable, yet empty, Watterson created a brilliant child who reflects the wonders of his youth.  Calvin is intelligent, insightful, imaginative and even a little cynical, while at the same time he is reckless, lazy, cocky and destructive.  Although his words were never realistic, often times far beyond those that a non-prodigous child should possess, the themes and traits made him feel so much more real than the kid on a sitcom who stares adorably into the camera and produces some vapid catch-phrase.

However, beyond the wonderful insight into childhood that the strip always carried, there was much more to love.  Though the vast majority of his episodes told a joke, Watterson never felt confined to any sort of humorous formula.  He'd often interweave poetry and drama into the strips.  He was never afraid to tackle the terrible subjects of childhood; death, abuse, and crime, among others.  Yet, underneath it all, there was always love and hope.  Watterson could be funny, scathing, and sweet all in a four panel span.

Sometimes, it really only took one.

His works were every bit as multilayered and clever as the strip I opened with.  High technique, deeper meaning, contextual humor, parody, syllogism. Anything of worth you learned in your college creative writing classes (not that you probably learned much of worth) found its way into many of his strips.  And throughout it all was the one thing which holds Watterson back from being counted among the greats.  Had he told his jokes, his stories, in longer, continuous form and entirely in words, I have no doubt he'd be held as a great author.  Instead, he chose to tell them with pictures.


And what beautiful and wonderful pictures they were.  I dare say no comic out there has had anywhere near the brilliant and varied artwork that Calvin & Hobbes had.  Vast Jurrasic landscapes.  Vivid watercolored monsters.  Dark, noir shoot-outs.  Many worthy of framing and placing in an office or home.  And therein lies the bitter irony that seems to prevade our literary culture.

Take the stories, strip out the pictures, and fill them out with description and continuity and you have great literature.  Take the pictures, erase the words, and make them stand alone and you have great art.  Combine them together, all you have is a mere comic.  Commercialized, pop-culture trash.  It's a ridiculous sentiment.  To think that a man who is so skilled at writing, so skilled at art and has such remarkable wit and insight can be cast aside as a mere comic artist.  And Watterson is not alone.  There are many, many comic creators out there who have shaped fantastic art and stories, yet are not considered true authors.  Some weave their magic every day in newspapers.  Others release monthly manifestos in magazine form.  Some save up their creativity, unleashing it in complete stand-alone novels.  And now, many, many more, are proliferating the internet with their stories told with pictures.

The prejudice is slowly beginning to change.  Everyday, another "mere comic" gets wider and wider recognition.  When Charles Schultz died, America mourned and we all, collectively, realized what an incredible series of works he had bestowed on us.  Many finally counted him among the greats in American literature, a place I fully agree he holds.  Meanwhile, graphic novels like the Sin City series and Sandman are finally gaining respect and admiration as their movies spread their fame.

However, we've still a ways to go. One day, I think, people will look back on Bill Watterson's work and give it the respect it deserves.  The bias, the ignorance of the eltists that make up the literary culture in American will fade.  And then, it won't sound so ridiculous to make a list such as this:
Fitzgerald, Hemmingway, Orwell, Schultz, Watterson.

1 comment:

  1. Great point. Although, I almost stopped at: "I'm not going to be particularly funny," the piece develops well.
    PS. Who's Hemmingway?