The announcement last November that Bill Watterson would be retiring his comic strip Calvin and Hobbes at the end of the year should not have surprised anyone–at least, anyone who has read the recently released The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Like Gary Larsen’s Pre-History of The Far Side, this volume provides a retrospective collection selected by the author, with notes on the origin and evolution of his creation. Both cartoonists annotated the books themselves, explaining the writing process and the business of cartooning. Larsen, though, as happy with his medium–his retirement was a factor of creative burnout rather than frustration with the limitations of the comics page of today’s newspaper. That frustration with the four panel strip was the reason for Berke Breathed’s early retirement, and is quite likely the reason for Watterson’s as well. Watterson believes in the comic as a real art form–and in his hands it often was–but the dynamics of the business, both the physical limitations on the drawing and the way the economics is split between artist and newspaper with a syndicate go-between, restricted the full expression of his art.
The Tenth Anniversary Book is not a depressing collection, although it is quite serious in its examination of the ten years of the strip. Watterson reveled in his creation, and the work that he produced was always of the utmost quality. This collection has some of the most joyful moments of the past–Spaceman Spiff is there, as well as Stupendous Man, the Replicator, and the dreaded Babysitter. The amazing thing isn’t that Watterson is retiring, but that he could spend ten years producing such work as fresh and imaginative as his debut.
This collects some of the strips over the entire period of publication. Normally I don’t care for these things, preferring instead the “complete” collections that have all the strips from a given time period. But this one includes my favorite of all things: annotations. The notes are by Watterson himself, which shouldn’t come as a surprise given his tenacity of being the only person associated with the strip (a character trait which I admire). There’s a lot he reveals here: the fact that he attempted to sell an earlier strip to the syndicate which was turned down (the remnants of which we see as the Spaceman Spiff episodes); the thinking behind the characters, including why Uncle Max won’t be back, and why the baby-sitter is only around so much; his fight with the syndicate over marketing the strip and characters and the subsequent sabbaticals and what he achieved from both. Through it all, you get a picture of Bill Watterson as a series, fiercely independent artist working in a form that he feels deserves better treatment. As a longtime admirer of the comic strip–of the three strips that Waterson labels as influential to Calvin and Hobbes, I’ve collected books on two (Pogo and Krazy Kat) and I would love to have some of the earlier books on the third (Peanuts). [Editorial Comment: I can’t stand what Peanuts stands for today, but having read some of the early Charles Schultz work, I have seen why it is regarded as influential by other comic strip artists.] I have great sympathy for Watterson’s plight. I, too, would like to see a Sunday strip like the old Popeye or Little Nemo. Waterson feels that the changing dynamics of cartoonist, syndicate and newspaper may soon bring about another era of the comic strip–maybe not as golden as the Golden Age, but possible a bit of silver
While I am sad to see Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes retire, I have hope that we have not seen the last of either. The rise of the “graphic novel” and its acceptance in the United States (the form has always been popular in Europe [Tintin, Asterix] and Japan [manga too numerous to list]) offers Watterson the format that he deserves, where he can be enjoyed and appreciated as one of the most innovative sequential artists of the later 20th century.
[Finished 22 September 1995]