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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 08/14/2008

The Riff: An Ode to "Calvin and Hobbes"

By Michael Cavna

Bill Watterson's tot and tiger remain irreplaceable.

"For all their seeming simplicity, the expressive possibilities of comics rival those of any other art form."
-- Bill Watterson (2001)

For a time as a teen, we spent countless hours studying the greats. We strived to write like America's greatest humorists and smack a ball like Argentina's best tennis players. Soon, though -- keenly aware of our limitations -- we focused all that energy into one goal:

Trying to decode the brilliance of Bill Watterson.

While Mom was studying art of the Italian Renaissance, we were soaking up the American comics -- particularly one of the greatest practitioners ever to pick up the crow quill pen. The man who dreamed up a boy and his tiger.

We recently wrote about some readers' preferred surrogates for "Calvin" -- including "Frazz" and "Big Nate." In response, a few readers also cited such strips as "Agnes," "Lio" and "Cul de Sac." We understand the desire to find a substitute, yet for us, the Boy & Tiger strip will always hold its own cherished, untouchable place. Others might come along who are good, perhaps great, but "Calvin" had certain ingenious traits that were utterly unique, utterly Watterson.

We are reminded of the famously reclusive Watterson because he has written the foreword for the upcoming "Cul de Sac" book. For many (perhaps most) cartoonists, that, of course, is like being knighted by the noble king. Richard Thompson, creator of the warm and witty "Cul de Sac," tells us that after receiving that foreword, everything else about the experience of this book, so far, has been anticlimatic. After Watterson's introduction, Thompson adds self-effacingly, "readers may find everything about my book anticlimactic."

Somedays, we still pine for Calvin, yet even if the strip returned, we think it couldn't match the artistic exhilaration of first experiencing it -- how it seemed endlessly inventive in how it toyed with reality. We were hooked. So much so that as a young cartoonist, when we heard that Watterson used Strathmore Bristol board, we switched to Strathmore Bristol board. An artist-friend told us Watterson used a Rapidograph pen for lettering, so we went out and bought the same brand. Anything to get closer to understanding how Watterson conjured such magic out of such relatively primitive tools.

We also appreciate that Watterson would acknowledge his ongoing trial and (gasp) error. He introduced an uncle character, who soon was never to be seen again. He had Calvin join a scout troop, then the cartoonist realized Calvin was not a "joiner," and Watterson never again went down that particular wooded path.

And mostly, everything about the strip seemed, and seems, absolutely ALIVE with imagination. The kind of wild imagination that so many of us lose once we have "career paths" and commutes, mortgages and Metro fares.

Speaking of: As I thumbed through a "Calvin" book collection yesterday morning while riding the Metro, next to me was a mother who looked glassy-eyed with fatigue. Next to her was a squirming girl about Calvin's age. The daughter was pretending her pointed fingers were a weapon, as she aimed her hand toward the window -- into the blackness of the tunnel -- and "fired." "Beh-joooo! BEH-joooo!" She made sounds to mimic some sort of lasergun.

Utterly lost in her imagination, she was the embodiment of Calvin as Spaceman Spiff. I smiled to myself, confident that the vivid imagination of childhood will inspire another superlative comic strip. It just won't quite be Calvin.

We invite your comments.

By Michael Cavna  | August 14, 2008; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  The Riffs  
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Really miss it, but hate dwelling on the past. Still own a bunch of the books and they are great to pull out.

But I'm also missing Liberty Meadows and Bloom County. All three have the ability to convey so much in such a small space.

Posted by: JkR | August 14, 2008 1:02 PM | Report abuse

For me, the epitome of Watterson's greatness was the Sunday strip when Calvin suddenly could see two sides of an issue, and his world was suddenly converted into a Picasso-esque painting. It was funny, visually enthralling, and opened up a window into a previously unappreciated art form. All in half a newspaper page. It was quite a ride.

Posted by: Ollabelle | August 14, 2008 1:12 PM | Report abuse

JkR, I miss Bloom County like mad; Liberty Meadows was a very close replacement. I wish that I'd found it as a teenager.

For many reasons, I miss Calvin and Hobbes. It had a huge spot in my daily routine; really, it was the only thing that I had in common with the kids that I walked to school with on that first day of middle school (middle school got better after that).

I am grateful for the C&H books, especially now with kids of my own. My son at 3 1/2 is a doppleganger for Calvin, especially the unruly hair. Last night he was riding his bike and dropped it, jumping out of the way as he was dismounting. My husband and I remarked at how it was so similar to Calvin's run-ins with his two-wheeler. No lie, after the kids were in bed we pulled out a few books to find some of those bike-specific strips.

ahhhh. (sigh)

Posted by: erin | August 14, 2008 1:44 PM | Report abuse

having bought a huge boxed compilation of Calvin and Hobbes strips I realized how much their commentary is needed today, and has been needed for the past 8 years.

I don't wonder about what they might say, only their choice of cut-to-the-chase words to express their feelings.

Very little has changed since these make-believe philosophers uttered "We have met the enemy and they is us."

Posted by: david | August 14, 2008 1:45 PM | Report abuse

Starting each morning with Calvin & Hobbes helped each day to be a little bit better. There was always a perspective in Watterson's work that helped me to view the events of the day, ironically, with both a more dispassionate and a more passionate eye. It made it easier to endure the day's frustrations and enjoy the day's unexpected treats.

My all-time favorite Sunday strip was where Calvin's dad offered up one of his somewhat off-center explanations to one of Calvin's questions, this one about why old pictures were always black & white.

My favorite daily strip was just simple and funny, where Calvin was trying to adjust the temperature of his bath water... "Now it's too hot. Now it's too cold. Now it's too hot. Now it's too deep." Just as I was typing that I laughed out loud again.

I thought the strip would end with Calvin seeing Hobbes for the first time as the same inert plush toy that his parents (and everyone else) saw. I was absurdly delighted when it ended completely otherwise. "Let's go exploring!"

I guess Calvin and Hobbes reminded me each day that we're all just kids really and, all pretensions aside, we will never be anything more than just kids despite the all-too-adult world around us. When we can be reminded of that simple fact, everything is funnier and more forgivable, even our own shortcomings.

Calvin and Hobbes was joy.

Posted by: Woody Smith | August 14, 2008 1:53 PM | Report abuse

What is with "text_for_thursdays_second_post_1.html" in the url? Is that the best we come up with for a post's working title?

Posted by: yellojkt | August 14, 2008 2:11 PM | Report abuse

If the strip had ended with Calvin seeing a plush toy, I'd have been CRUSHED! I have to admit I read the strip for MONTHS before I realized Hobbes was a plush toy...

I also still miss The Far Side. None of the current look-a-likes even come close.

Posted by: Arlington Gay | August 14, 2008 2:14 PM | Report abuse

"Tigers will do ANYTHING for a tuna fish sandwich."

"We're kind of stupid that way."

What a great way to start a strip and introduce the three main characters in one quick day.

I dog-ear my favourite cartoons in my collections (except for my Addams collections -- they're sacred). After noticing I was turning down Every Dam Page in the first C&H book, I stopped even trying.

I suspect that Calvin lives and will grow up to be Watterson.

And I'm sure David realises that the "enemy" line is not from C&H but from that other trailblazing strip, Pogo.

Posted by: f2 | August 14, 2008 2:29 PM | Report abuse

"...that other trailblazing strip, Pogo."

Thank you! I knew that wasn't originally C&H.

Is there a body count for comic strip "deaths"? More in the past 10 years than the previous 10? Just curious.

Posted by: MSchafer | August 14, 2008 2:57 PM | Report abuse

Calvin and Hobbes is such a special comic strip. I could go on and on but I can't say anything that hasn't already been sung.

I think my favorite Sunday strip is the one where his desk suddenly turns into a huge dinosaur and he is riding it around as it destroys the school, and then "THWAP" the teacher slaps a ruler on the desk to snap him out of it. The last panel is just Calving flying on a Pteradon as he drifts off into his next day dream.

Posted by: Jesse | August 14, 2008 3:19 PM | Report abuse

So many good strips, but I think my favorite is when Calvin's dad walks out to find his car blocked in by dozens of migrating snowmen.

Posted by: Mark | August 14, 2008 3:47 PM | Report abuse

Calvin & Hobbs -- may all time favorite by a nose over Bloom County. I always wonder if their going away too soon made them even better (?)

On another note concerning the impact of comics, on a recent 7-hour drive to our annual golf outing, the guys were playing the "either/or" game and the biggest debate was over "Blondie or Aunt Fritzie?"

Posted by: rashibama | August 14, 2008 3:54 PM | Report abuse

"Blondie or Aunt Fritzie?"

Dude, Blondie is smokin hot and defies time and gravity.

Aunt Fritzie is, uh, NOT.

Posted by: JkR | August 14, 2008 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I remember being actually pretty scared by the Snow Goons. Oh, it was great.

Posted by: whosis | August 14, 2008 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Whats amazing is that Watterson struck out at least once before he created Calvin and Hobbes.

For me, this makes it rather obvious that the art transcended the artist. Calvin was Wattersons perfect muse that he could place in any situation, time, or place. And Hobbes was there as Calvins omnipresent friend, confidant, military advisor, enemy, and personal door greeter.

Two of the greatest characters of all time thrown into one strip? How can you miss?

We would all be lucky to be able to have such an open ended vehicle of expression. As it is, most of us can only share the ride with Mr. Watterson, but what fun while it lasted!

Posted by: Mattsoundworld | August 14, 2008 5:07 PM | Report abuse

My favorite is the one where Calvin is dreaming that he can fly and is joyfully swooping over the neighbors' heads. His mom wakes him up - he's late for school, it's raining and he's forgotten his lunch. "Tuesday don't get any worse than this."

I still have the very yellowed strip and often think that _______ doesn't get any worse than this!

Posted by: Llong | August 14, 2008 5:31 PM | Report abuse

The best comic strip of ALL-TIME,
hands down. Only Dilbert,
the Far Side, Peanuts,and
Foxtrot even get in the same
ballpark with C & H, and they are
just at the entryway. Okay, maybe
Far Side is a little bit inside the

Much missed. But I just gave one
of the Calvin & Hobbes books to my
10 year old son, and he loves to read
it. I often hear him "cracking up" reading
it in his room.

Much love Bill...

Posted by: earthmuse | August 14, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

I relished the Sunday cartoons when Calvin and his "friend" Susie gradually morphed into adults in a relationship and argued. It was a perfect transition from the kids they were to the kind of adults they would be.

Posted by: janietiptoe | August 14, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

I miss Calvin and Susie's snowball fights and the very touching strip in which Calvin's dad put down his work and joined Calvin outside making a big snowman. The best book collection was "Yukon Ho!"...the sadness Calvin had when he left Hobbes in the woods showed his vulnerability, and we were all happy when Calvin's father found Hobbes that night in the woods. The comics just aren't like this anymore.

Posted by: Jon | August 14, 2008 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Love Hobbes. Loved Bloom County. Pastis is treading on hallowed ground. Pigs is very, very good. Conley (Get Fuzzy) is 1a to Pastis in my book. And no. I didn't blow either of them.

Posted by: Jerry the Genius | August 14, 2008 6:51 PM | Report abuse

If you miss the oldies: C&H, Bloom, Liberty,etc--check While there, check Acadamia Waltz--it's early Bloom!

Posted by: ABLEBAKER | August 14, 2008 7:48 PM | Report abuse

I've always wanted my very own transmogrifier. I'm safe.

Posted by: ease99 | August 14, 2008 9:05 PM | Report abuse

While I always loved Calvin and Hobbes, I have to be honest and say I've never quite understood the slavish critical attention it seems to bring up.

Yes, it was funny and refreshing. But like many others here, I found Bloom County to be just as funny and refreshing, if not more incisive at times (for example, Opus' fights with TV shopping ads and his anxiety closet; Oliver Wendell Jones turning white people black as commentary on apartheid; the whole Mary Kay escapade, the cast going "on strike"; or Milo's loss of innocence when he realized Betty Crocker was just a corporate figurehead).

And yes, I'm a Liberty Meadows fan, purely for the flight of fancy, and Frank Cho's art. I've even got the University(2) book to prove how much I love Liberty Meadows ;)

And if we want to talk about oddness and social commentary, you have to look no further than Gary Larson's "The Far Side" - while it's so commercialized now, you have to look back and re-read them appreciate how much he packed into one panel (still one of my all-time favorite strips ever - a doctor standing over a reclining centaur, grimly pronouncing "his leg is broken", while centaur family looks on in horror).

Not dissing C&H mind you - but there have been lots of iconic, fresh strips out there, equally deserving of critical praise. And remember - Berke Breathed won an Editorial Pulitzer for Bloom County. As lovely and winsome and fanciful as C&H is, Watterson's relevance and social commentary never quite got to that level.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 14, 2008 9:53 PM | Report abuse

Oh, meant to mention.

I'm a paleo-type-person. Who studied dinosaurs. Trust me, I do love C&H and Bill Watterson. Because anyone who devotes such time and care to his dinosaur drawings is ultra-cool with me!

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 14, 2008 9:58 PM | Report abuse

"Calvin and Hobbes" was often pretty good, but it was nowhere near the level of "Pogo" or "Krazy Kat". Let's all "Deck the Halls with Boston Charley". That's an order from Offisa Pup!

Posted by: Lex Pk | August 14, 2008 10:15 PM | Report abuse

Excellent column. When the C&H strip was ended, I felt as though a long held and cherished friend had left. I have since purchased all the compilations and get a daily C&H delivery from to keep the thin thread connecting me to my childhood alive.

IMHO, C&H are the premier existential philosophers of our time.

Posted by: Jim S. | August 15, 2008 9:58 AM | Report abuse

I am 65 years old. Calvin doesn'tjust bring back memories of my son's childhood, it brings back memories of my own childhood. Yes, I like Bloom County, and Get Fuzzy and the like, but it is Calvin and especially Hobbs. I had lots of stuffed animals, and I made my mother feed each one of them and then feed me. And she could NOT skip one. "No, no, no. Feed Flower."

Watterson got it just right! It was pure childhood.

Thank you os much.

Posted by: Bobbie Jean | August 15, 2008 7:43 PM | Report abuse

My two sons, 11 and 8, devour every single C&H collection they can get their grubby mitts on. They leave the books all over the house. And I pick them up and read them, and love them as much as I did when they were in the papers.

Only difference is that I identify much more closely with Dad now.

Posted by: proxl | August 18, 2008 2:02 PM | Report abuse

"Any monsters under my bed tonight?"


"If there *were* monsters under my bed, how big would they be?"

"Very small. Go to sleep"


Perfection. I'm so glad Watterson stopped when he was done and even more glad that he didn't cave to the commercial pressure to market Calvin.

But I miss that kid and his tiger fiercely.

Posted by: Bey | August 20, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

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