What to read after... Elmer 21/05/20
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
Publisher: Andrews McMeel
The comic-strip adventures of Calvin, a naughty boy with a philosophical bent, and his soft toy tiger companion Hobbes, delighted readers from 1985 to 1995. The huge achievement of the comic's creator Bill Watterson is celebrated here in this wonderful cloth-bound three-volume box set, which contains in chronological order every Calvin and Hobbes strip.
For those who have never experienced the sheer delight of Watterson's creation, here is a brief summary: Calvin is an active and imaginative little boy; his friend Hobbes appears as a stuffed tiger when other people are around, but when the two of them are alone he comes to life and is Calvin's friend and playmate. They live with Calvin's long-suffering parents, who have to cope with his turbulent behaviour.
The charm of the strip is multi-faceted. On the one hand, Calvin is a typical six-year-old with a vivid imagination: one minute he is fearless intergalactic traveller Spaceman Spiff, crash-landing on a hostile planet, the next he is a fearsome T-Rex stalking his victim through the Jurassic jungle. He is in thrall to consumerism, hates school, loves making gruesome snowmen, and plays Calvinball, an anarchic game of ever-changing rules.
Yet he is also given to philosophising about the big issues of life, ably supported or gently undermined by Hobbes's quietly caustic asides (the tiger's name is no coincidence). Here is an outlet for Watterson's deeply-held views about the craziness of the modern world; indeed, the artist himself has always shunned publicity.
The strip is also enhanced by its strong cast of supporting characters. Mrs Wormwood the teacher looms over Calvin when he not paying attention; the school bully (who calls Calvin Twinky) is always on hand to 'pound' him; Susie, the little girl from down the road, often gets her own back on her snowball-throwing nemesis.
Calvin's dad is a particularly funny creation: long-suffering, anti-media, and a proponent of fresh air, he also manages to get his revenge on his manic son by tying him up in mental knots with spurious bits of information (for example, he tells Calvin that old photographs are black and white because the world comprised only those colours in the past).
All these ingredients would, in the right hands, combine to make a perfectly good comic strip, but what always put Calvin and Hobbes ahead of the competition was the sheer artistry of Watterson's illustrations. In this regard, the chronological arrangement of the strips usefully shows Watterson's increasingly sophisticated technique, from his drawings of desert canyons and hideous inhabitants of alien planets, to the facial expressions of all his characters.
It is hard to deny that Watterson owes a debt to Charles Schulz, whose Peanuts strip also offered a sophisticated yet deceptively simple evocation of the inner lives of children. For Calvin and Hobbes, however, Watterson combined uncanny ability, more than a touch of surrealism and a huge dose of humour to distil the essence of late-twentieth-century childhood, thereby elevating his strip into a league of its own.