May 15, 2014

Let's Go Exploring! 11 Things About Calvin and Hobbes

A while back, we spoke about comics that were huge when they came out, made a huge cultural impact, and  forgotten eventually, declining further more in recognition as their time in the sun passed, until all we were left with were the iconography or what they added to our lexicon. Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes is not one of those strips. Despite only running for 10 years and having been over for almost 20, it's still discovered today and is still popular, and all on the strength of its comics, because it was never licensed into ads, toys, and animated series, among other things.

I've been saving this column for a while. It was only a matter of time before I ran something about, in my opinion, the greatest daily comic strip of all time. (Objectively, what're the choices? Using 1950 as a cutoff point, because before then, comics got a full page for Sundays so I think that's a different conversation, it's between Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, isn't it? Pogo would be the clear number 3 in that discussion, but there are no other contenders, right?)

So anyway, here, allow me to mention 11 of my favorite types of Calvin and Hobbes strips. Why 11? Well... you'll see.

The 11 Best Types of Calvin and Hobbes Strips
by Duy

1. The advice from Dad

There's one strip early on where Calvin asks his dad about clouds, and his dad doesn't know the answer.

July 21, 1987

Reading the whole collection in order, it seems to have been a misstep (or maybe it explains what came after), because a staple of the strip eventually was his dad's crazy advice, which would just be completely made up, and always a joy to read. My favorite is this one, about black and white pictures.

Here's one about sunsets, for good measure.

July 30, 1989

2. The actual heartfelt ones

The "norm" of the strip is Calvin being carefree, reckless, and unapologetic. So any time it breaks this convention, it takes you by surprise and gets you right there a bit, in the organ that pumps your blood. Here's Calvin getting chewed out by his dad for wrecking his binoculars.

May 24, 1988

And of course, when it's a heartfelt one with Hobbes and it takes place in the autumn, that's even better. Prettier to look at. Just beautiful imagery.

3. The animals

I love when Watterson drew animals because a lot of the time it just felt like he went "Hey, I want to draw an animal!" and just drew the hell out of those animals until it was time for a punchline. The most common, of course, was the dinosaurs.

My favorite though is the one with the dead bird. (Okay, maybe I'm morbid.)

4. The snowmen

There probably isn't one type of strip in Calvin and Hobbes that made me laugh more consistently than the ones with the snowmen.

5. Tracer Bullet

I have absolutely no factual basis to back this up, but I'm going to assume that most people's favorite alter ego for Calvin was Spaceman Spiff. But my favorite one was the one that showed up least, Tracer Bullet, private eye.

Watterson could have been doing crime comics if he'd wanted.

6. The deep but obvious

Calvin and Hobbes is often praised for being "philosophical," but if you think about it, a lot of their discussions are fairly obvious. It's just nice to see and read, and if you were a kid, they could be eye-opening and revelatory.

March 23, 1986

And most of them involve a wagon or a sled.

Then there are the times Calvin will make a deep point and undermine it at the end.

October 16, 1990

7. Christmas

The Christmas ones, aside from the snowmen, are a nice microcosm of what Calvin and Hobbes is about. There's a lot of pondering and discussion, like this one where Calvin is wondering about Santa (and God).

December 21, 1987
And he tries to be good, but he just can't resist temptation.
December 21, 1990
And of course, Christmas hits, and things are great.

I love Christmas, myself. So these always get to me.

8. The ones with the box

If there's any one specific aspect of Calvin that a young me would have agreed with, it's this: the cardboard box is the greatest toy in the world. You can make it into anything. Calvin has made his a transmogrifier, a time machine, and a cloning machine.

March 24, 1987
January 8, 1990
September 2, 1987

Action figures and video games are great, but very little can compare to the imagination of a child.

9. The ones where Watterson draws differently

This is my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strip.

February 28, 1993

It's got not only one of my favorite themes (imagination), but, man, it's just beautiful.

Watterson was just a great artist. He could do any style. A lot of the time, as with the animals, it seemed he just wanted to draw a particular style and wrote a strip around that. Here are a few.

January 31, 1993

10. Susie Derkins

Have any two fictional people been so bad at hiding how much they actually like each other despite all effort? Susie and Calvin tease each other and hit each other with snowballs and water balloons, but they just can't stop trying to spend time with each other and hang out.

February 14, 1994

Every fan-made Calvin and Hobbes spinoff I've seen has set Calvin up with Susie, and why not? They clearly like each other.

January 16, 1987

11. The last one

This is the last strip that ran for Bill Watterson's 10-year masterpiece.

December 31, 1995

And it's a great way to go out. It says the world is full of possibility, and there's a lot left to do, a lot left to see. Watterson knew that, and so he left, to explore other options.

Which is why there are 11 things on this list and not 10, because I really wanted to tack that last one on. This month marks the fourth anniversary of The Comics Cube, but it also marks the end of my regularity as a writer for it, meaning I won't be doing columns on a weekly basis anymore.. I've recently taken on a new, more demanding job, and lately it hasn't left me enough time or energy to keep writing for the Cube the way I've been doing and still pursue all the other things I want to do, which is a considerable number of things, and I've always felt (and by always, I mean the last year) that Calvin and Hobbes would be the only comic to semi-go out on.

I'll still write columns; they just won't be weekly.  Ben and Travis and Matt will still be around. In the meantime, I made a tag for myself so you can check out my archives more easily. And of course, you can still find me on Facebook and Twitter.

People are always asking me for evergreen recommendations, and I usually get requests to just name what I think are the greatest comics of all time, but I never do them, because my tastes change all the time. Here now, though, gun to my head, if I were asked: the greatest comic ever is Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. And it would be my ultimate recommendation, for anyone who's never read it. (The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which my friend Aviva gave to me a few years ago as a gift, is beautiful, especially the Sundays. If you have the money, get it — you won't regret it.)

Let's go exploring!


sonsoftaurus said...

Fantastic strip and body of work indeed. I loved it ever since I encountered it during the initial run, and my seven year old son now gets at least as much enjoyment out of it.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your essays over the four years.

Anonymous said...

Excellent recap on C&H! #9 is also my most favorite of all my favorite Bill Watterson works -- the Sunday morning it ran, I immediately recognized that landscape. Professor Valley, along the Colorado River north of Moab (in Utah). A fabulous place always, but magically transformed by imagination and art (and my favorite form of Calvinism). I lived in Moab (K-6), and this strip is a great tribute to the magnificence of the Canyon Country. Many "Spiff" strips feature southwestern landscape features, but this is still the best of all. Thanks Duy & Mr. Watterson.

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