TIGER TIGER, BURNING BRIGHT
Imagine for a moment, if you will, that you were to look outside your window on a bright summer's day and peer into the garden next door. There's a woman tending to her flowerbeds, and further down is a little boy clambering into a cardboard box, a stuffed tiger already perched inside. The boy is talking to the tiger in an animated fashion. "How sweet", you muse. "He has an imaginary friend."
You take a sip of your coffee and wax nostalgic about your own childhood. The boy's mother stands up, brushes the dirt off her hands, and goes back indoors. Suddenly, you're jerked out of your reverie by an amazing sight. The stuffed tiger is gone, replaced by a six-foot tall jungle cat standing upright on two legs. The little boy seems unperturbed by this; in unison they snap on a pair of goggles and blast off into the stratosphere in their cardboard box, a trail of smoke and sparks left in their wake.
You feel the coffee mug fall from your fingers. Perhaps it's time to switch to decaf.
This is what it feels like to read a CALVIN & HOBBES strip for the first time. Of course, there aren't many people left who haven't read one already, but if you're in that minority then you're in for a treat. This week sees the publication of THE COMPLETE CALVIN & HOBBES, a deluxe three-volume set that collects together the entire magnum opus.
In 1985 the strip launched itself into popular culture with all the energy and colour of a hand grenade in a paint factory. It took the staid conventions of three-panels, talking heads and a clichéd punchline and smashed them into millions of tiny pieces, replacing them with witty banter, philosophical whimsy and kinetic visuals. It appealed to millions of people of all ages, and became an established feature of their daily lives for the next ten years. Many readers, myself included, still feel its absence like an ache in the heart.
ONE BOY AND HIS STUFFED TIGER
Written and illustrated by Bill Watterson, the strip is set in a contemporary suburb in the Midwest of the United States. Calvin is a hyperactive six-year old whose best friend is Hobbes, a stuffed tiger. The dual nature of Hobbes is the first thing to grab the reader's attention, and is a recurring motif of the strip; Calvin sees him as alive, whilst other characters see him as a stuffed animal. Is it magic that brings him to life only in the presence of his friend? Or was it simply that Calvin was a lonely kid with an over-zealous imagination?
'Many readers feel the strip's absence like an ache in the heart.' The broad themes of the strip dealt with Calvin's flights of fancy, his friendship with Hobbes, and their various misdemeanours and misadventures. On any given day, Calvin would imagine himself traversing the stars as Spaceman Spiff, or he might assume the form of a dinosaur and go rampaging through the playground. Other times he and Hobbes would play an obscure sport called 'Calvinball', or he would craft grotesque sculptures out of snow, or he would fight a losing battle with his tough-as-nails babysitter. It was nothing less than an adrenaline-fuelled phantasmagoria; the iterations were endless, and no genre or artistic style or comedic situation was left unexplored.
There was room also for Calvin's views on various political and cultural issues - he is unusually articulate for a six-year old - and his relationships with his parents, classmates and teachers. In particular his combative relationship with his parents was sometimes a source of controversy; one strip featured a sarcastic exchange between Calvin and his mum where the punchline concerns adoption; "Yeah right, how much did you pay for me?"
This caused no small measure of complaint and angry letters - and has since been altered in the complete edition to avoid causing further offence. It's unfortunate that the original has been tampered with, and somewhat unnecessary. The parents are constantly exasperated by their son's manic behaviour, and Calvin cannot help but rail against their authority, but the fact that they love each other is never in doubt.
ART VERSUS COMMERCE
As the popularity of the strip grew, so did Watterson's troubles with the 'establishment'. He fought two major battles over control of his creations, battles that caused a great strain and arguably shortened the lifespan of CALVIN & HOBBES.
The first was the issue of merchandise; Watterson was opposed to any merchandising on the grounds that the strip was an art form, not a platform for selling junk. This was unusual because a condition of getting a newspaper cartoon published and distributed in the United States is signing away the merchandising rights to a syndicate. Watterson didn't want his characters to adorn bedspreads and birthday cards, and his feelings on the injustice of the situation began to filter into his stories.
'The strip was nothing less than an adrenaline-fuelled phantasmagoria.' Eventually, Universal Press Syndicate complied with Watterson's request, even though they were under no legal obligation to do so, but only after a prolonged war of attrition between the two parties. To date, the only official merchandise are two calendars produced in 1988 and 1989, two items now highly sought by collectors and fans. The demand for merchandise did give rise to a black market in t-shirts and bumper stickers, most notably an image of Calvin urinating on various symbols and logos, but these bootlegs were bought and sold in complete disregard for either Watterson's own feelings or the quirky nature of CALVIN & HOBBES.
The second battle concerned the size and format of the Sunday strip. After returning from a sabbatical, Watterson proposed changing the format to a larger size, and asked that the strip be published completely unaltered according to his specifications. The syndicate agreed, but the newspapers that carried the strip didn't take too kindly to having terms dictated to them, especially if it meant losing page space to something as lowly as a cartoon. Some even dropped the strip entirely, but it was their loss. The new format was a revelation, allowing Watterson the freedom to experiment in ways not seen since George Herriman's KRAZY KAT the best part of a century earlier.
THE REALITY OF HOBBES
Over the years the strip continued to change and evolve, but underneath it all was the ambiguity about the reality of Hobbes. The suggestions of magic, or that Calvin imagines Hobbes as alive, are not satisfactory because of certain things that Calvin couldn't have done without physical assistance from his friend (e.g. being tied to a chair).
The question remained unanswered throughout the duration of the strip, a paradox that was entirely deliberate, as Watterson explains in the CALVIN & HOBBES TENTH ANNIVERSARY BOOK; "Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than dolls coming to life... Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way". The truth about Hobbes is whatever the reader chooses to believe; indeed, some folks have even interpreted it as an extended metaphor for schizophrenia (and as a thematic precursor to the movie FIGHT CLUB).
The interesting thing is that, imagined or not, Hobbes is very much a positive influence in Calvin's life, balancing out Calvin's impulsiveness with maturity and wisdom. Whether this rationality resides in Hobbes as a distinct personality, or it's a manifestation of Calvin's own conscience, is something that readers can ponder for themselves.
CARTOONING'S LAST GASP?
It's been nearly ten years since CALVIN & HOBBES ceased publication. In that time, cartoons in the conventional publishing media have sunk to an all time low. Charles Schulz died in 2000, but reruns of PEANUTS remain in permanent circulation. GARFIELD was dropped from the Los Angeles Times last year, to no-one's surprise, while here in Britain DOONESBURY was recently dropped from the new-look Guardian before being hastily reinstated. Meanwhile, the internet has become the preferred place for cartoonists to publish their work, and some of it is good enough to find a mass audience (Jason Little's BEE COMIX is highly recommended). The cartoon landscape has changed so irrevocably that the adventures of one boy and his stuffed tiger may be the last great newspaper strip we'll ever have.
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