Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

The unconventional story of Bill Watterson and his revolutionary comic strip

 

by Nevin Martell

 

Continuum

 

Reader Appeal: Teens and Adults

 

Genre: Biography

 

On December 31, 1995, fans of cartoon strips worldwide went into mourning. Why? Because that was the last day that Calvin and Hobbes appeared in the comics’ pages of newspapers anywhere.

 

More than a decade later, this iconic comic strip about an imaginative six-year-old boy and his toy (or it that his pet?) tiger is still missed—so much so that in July 2010 the US Post Office issued a commemorative postage stamp featuring the mischievous Calvin and the equally roguish Hobbes.

 

The great mystery about this comic strip, however, is not that it was well-beloved or why it won awards or how it managed to stay in the culture of American life so many years after its end. The enigma has always been Bill Watterson—the cartoonist who created Calvin and Hobbes, ruled the funny pages for a decade, and then simply disappeared into a self-imposed media blackout and creative exile.

 

And that’s the story that Nevin Martell teases with great curiosity and personal passion throughout the pages of Looking for Calvin and Hobbes.

 

Martell begins this exploration into the life of Bill Watterson recounting his efforts to secure an interview with his press-shy subject, combining just enough earnest fanboy sentiment with his journalistic resolve to make you think (hope!) that, just possibly, he succeeded where dozens like him have failed. As you turn pages from then on, there is a constant anticipation that maybe Martell did indeed nab that elusive interview with his hero…but alas, like the rest of us, Bill Watterson left Mr. Martell out in the cold.

 

With Plan A (an interview with Bill Watterson himself) an impossibility, the author opted to go forward with his own Plan B.

 

“According to Plan B,” Martell relates, “—otherwise known as the Morbidly Realistic Plan—I was going to write the book as if Watterson were dead.”

 

The result is a biography of Bill Watterson that’s filled with interesting detail, behind-the-scenes wonder, and just enough enthusiasm to make it a pleasure to read. Although he wasn’t able to interview Watterson himself, Martell fills his pages with insights from interviews with dozens of others, such as Bill’s mother, former mentors, teachers, friends, fellow cartoonists, and more.

 

Martell spends a little time early in the book glossing over the cartoonist’s middle-class childhood, but really digs in delightfully when recounting Watterson’s college years. Apparently young Bill spent plenty of time drinking, complaining about classes, and even painting a replica of Michelangelo’s artwork from the Sistine Chapel on his dorm room ceiling! He also invested quite a bit of time and effort in a budding career as a political cartoonist—a role in which he apparently was only average at best.

 

Ah, but then comes the meat of the book—the beginnings of Calvin and Hobbes. It’s those tidbits of folklore and history that make this book worth its price. Looking back now and realizing that this timeless comic strip narrowly avoided becoming Calvin and Robotman is a treat. Discovering that Calvin and Hobbes was actually under contract with a syndicate and then canceled just before publication because a focus group in Connecticut didn’t get the central conceit of Hobbes’ “is he alive or isn’t he?” personality—those stories are why you read a book like Looking for Calvin and Hobbes!

 

Martell’s bio drags a bit once it gets into the more familiar—the worldwide success of Watterson’s strip, and the cartoonist’s increasingly antagonistic stance toward his popularity and toward cartooning as a whole. And the book seems to soft-pedal criticism of Bill Watterson’s acerbic personality…but still, it’s fun to peek behind curtain just a bit and relive the memories of Calvin and Hobbes during its heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 

As with any biography, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is written for those who are already fans of the central subject. Because of that, this book won’t have much appeal to those who aren’t already familiar with, and enamored by, the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons. But if members of your family still enjoy the timeless antics of a boy and his tiger, then Looking for Calvin and Hobbes will be a fun book to pass around to each other—and to talk about afterward.

 

PopFam RATING: B

 

Let’s Talk About It

 

If your family members are interested in this book, then encourage discussion about it afterward. You can use these questions to get started:

 

• What’s your impression of Bill Watterson after reading this book? How is that different from your impression of him before you read the book?

 

• What do you like best about Calvin and Hobbes? Why?

 

• Bill Watterson made an unforgettable impact on the world of cartooning. If you could do the same, what would you want your cartoon to be about?

 

--MN

 

Note: All book or comics-related graphics in this column are standard publicity/promotional shots and are owned by their respective publisher.

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