by Bill Watterson
3 Volumes, 1451 total pages, Andrews McMeel Publishing
Review by Melissa Conway
Several years ago, one of my best friends in the entire world surprised me with a gift she knew I would love: The Complete Calvin and Hobbes collection. The three big hardbound books come in a nice slipcase and the whole shebang hefts in at about 22 pounds.
I already owned every C and H book in existence, but they were all very old and very ‘loved’ paperbacks, with bent and torn covers and missing pages. And most of them were buried somewhere under the clutter in my teenaged daughter’s bedroom.
I saw on Amazon that 400 customers, as of the date of this blog post, have reviewed this C and H collection. Aside from a few knuckleheads complaining about the cost and the quality of the binding (they apparently expected it to be 24-carat gold embossed), the consensus is that the collection is fantastic, wonderful, pure Watterson bullion.
I actually remember the day I first heard that Bill Watterson was retiring the strip. It’s indelibly stamped upon my usually poor memory. It was the mid-nineties, and I was devastated to learn that my favorite comic strip had just abruptly ended. Who was this monster, Bill Watterson, who had given us the marvelous world of Calvin, part hyperactive impulsiveness, part 40-year-old in a 6-year-old body, with a generous pinch of wild, vivid imagination, and Hobbes, the steadfast imaginary friend and oft-ignored voice of reason? Why was Watterson withdrawing from the comic strip universe—did he have an incurable disease?!
It took another decade for me to understand his motivation for quitting, and it only became clear to me after watching the sad decline of two of my favorite animated cartoons, The Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants. Each of them went through nearly the exact same metamorphosis. First the rough-hewn quality of the animation itself changed. Both Simpsons and Spongebob went from sketchy, quirky drawings with uneven outlines and home-made fills, to smooth, even, mass-produced textures (this can actually be seen in Watterson’s drawings, too, if you compare his earlier work with the later, but in Watterson’s case, it depicts his growth as an artist). Then the content changed, and not for the better. In order to keep their audiences entertained (or maybe they ran out of original ideas), the producers of Simpsons and Spongebob pushed the envelope—the shows got ruder—more and more outrageous with each episode. Simpsons was never intended for children, so its decline was sad, but shrug-offable. But suddenly Spongebob, who my young son adored, was no longer an innocent rube; he and his side-kick Patrick went from gross but lovable dopes to absolutely vile, violent, cross-dressing imbeciles.
Watterson saw the dismal future of his strip and quit while he was ahead. He also refused to allow runaway merchandizing to “violate the spirit of the strip.” (I wanted to get one of those C and H vinyl decal stickers for the back window of my truck—a cute one, not the one where Calvin is peeing on something—until I discovered they were unauthorized black-market products). For Watterson’s dedication to the purity of his vision, I can only thank him. Because he didn’t drag the strip on and on until he dragged it through the mud. He didn’t add a baby brother or allow Calvin to grow up or rehash old concepts until his readers grew bored. And he didn't push that envelope. Because he stayed true to it, Calvin and Hobbes is the best comic strip EVER. I can and do read it over and over again. The strip has been a huge influence on me from several standpoints, not the least of which was a subtle refinement of my own sense of humor.
My almost seven-year-old son has just now absconded with volume one and is on the floor reading it avidly. I have for some years now considered him to be the embodiment of Calvin, but he’s asking me (every two and a half minutes by shoving the huge book between me and my laptop) to clarify the big words and some of the less childish concepts for him. He’s laughing uproariously at the drawings, at the sassy things Calvin says, at the irony that he gets and even at the stuff he doesn’t understand. I believe I’ve just witnessed the birth of another Calvin and Hobbes fan.