Sunday, January 17, 2010
Best Dude: Bill Watterson
The popular consensus heralds Peanuts to be the greatest comic strip of all time. And it's easy to go there. Snoopy and Charlie Brown have been cultural icons in America for years. The lovable loser saying "good grief", the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Joe Cool, Lucy lifting the football at the last second, Pigpen, the true meaning of Christmas, etc etc. These things are all lovingly familiar to Americans of every age, and for good reasons. Peanuts was marvelous.
But as marvelous as I personally find Chuck Schulz's creations to be, there's another comic strip that holds a more sentimental place in my heart. And the older I am whenever I come back to it, the more exquisite it has become with age. Not every American will pick up on an allusion to Spaceman Spiff, the Transmogrifier (or other cardboard boxes), or Calvinball, but Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes is a masterpiece of American artistry.
Unfortunately, the image of Calvin most often seen outside of the strip format is a car decal of Calvin peeing on a Chevy logo or rival sports team. It can still be found in most rural and suburban areas on the same sorts of vehicles that promulgate metal testicles hanging off the back bumper and mud flaps with either Yosemite Sam saying "BACK OFF", profiles of naked women, or rebel flags. Calvin never peed on anything in the comic, and the image is totally unauthorized. But an even crueler joke of stealing Calvin's image came a few years after the "peeing Calvin" fiasco, in which a new decal of Calvin kneeling and praying in front of a cross emerged. Presumably, this righteous new decal was for Christians who used to display the decal of "peeing Calvin" on their truck before they got saved, but repented and replaced the old stolen image with a new stolen image.
This is the nonsense a guy like Watterson has to deal with though. He has purposefully withheld Calvin and Hobbes from going anywhere beyond the strip format. There are no stuffed animals, animated cartoons, shaved ice makers or MetLife contracts made with Watterson. He is one of those rarest of American artists, the sort who believes in integrity and artistic license. He doesn't want to see his art on a plastic cup or Wal-Mart t-shirt. He has principles.
Watterson was a postmodern artist in every aspect, but this fact was hidden by his daily appearances in major newspapers across the country. A subversive genius, Watterson discouraged the concepts of "high art" and "low art" by simply producing "art." By withholding his characters from merchandise, Watterson got one up on Andy Warhol. He keeps his art in its medium, he doesn't confuse it with commercialism.
In fan interviews for the 2005 release of the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson said, "Each product I considered seemed to violate the spirit of the strip, contradict its message, and take me away from the work I loved." So he never sold out. If I ever met Watterson I'd high five him and smile.
There's no way a guy like Watterson would agree to an interview, whether it was a little blog like this or a major publication like Newsweek or Time. So I can only say these things with a sort of personal respect for the man's art. All I have to work with are his actions. He doesn't sign autographs, he values privacy, and his work mirrors his values. "I had very few big ideas of where my work was going until it got there, but looking back, I think the strip generally shows my values on these subjects." he said. I'm incredibly grateful for the privilege to have interacted with his values at such a young age. I think they molded me in a way. All the way into adulthood (and beyond), Calvin and Hobbes is something I continually go back to for bits of wisdom and solace.
So why do I think Watterson is the "best dude"? It's not just his honesty, and it's not just his style. If his product wasn't funny, well-drawn, and smart, then I wouldn't care about Bill Watterson at all. But the fact is, Watterson produced a decade of intelligent, fun and creative stories that can be enjoyed by either a six year old or a sixty year old. He brought a universality into the funny pages that hadn't been seen before. "Cathy" is great for midle-aged women, "Marmaduke" is fine for dog owners, "The Family Circus" is perfect for families. But Calvin and Hobbes' demographic is "humans." Anybody can get this:
There's no doubt in my mind that reading Calvin and Hobbes as an eight year old effected my philosophical development. On the surface, I saw an imaginative boy, not unlike myself, who went on adventures, played outside, watched too much TV, ate sugary cereal and pretended to be a dinosaur. I could easily relate to the character and make those initial connections. But eventually Calvin would say something like, "Sometimes I think the surest sign that life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." I mean, that's really funny AND possibly true. There were so many moments like that. I laugh, and then think. Laugh, then think. Laugh, then think. Watterson's comic strip set me up to be a Coen brothers fan, a cynic and an aspiring writer who takes comedy writing courses at Second City.
So it was wonderfully entertaining when I was a kid, but there were plenty of strips that I definitely didn't understand. When I come back to Calvin and Hobbes today, not only do I laugh at the same old strips for new reasons, the strips that I couldn't even comprehend before have now become astutely hilarious.
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics didn't come into my life until I was 18 or 19. It's been six or seven years and I still haven't moved beyond digestion into a stage in which I'm capable of making jokes about vice and virtue while also linking them to cultural practices. The above strip is an example of Watterson's genius. He had to have known that kids wouldn't understand a single frame, but still he planted a seed. Only 15 years later would I come back to my favorite childhood comic to learn things I didn't even know were there in the first place.
But it wasn't all sowing. I vividly remember learning a few things from reading Calvin and Hobbes. One particular strip featured Calvin in winter gear, standing outside in the grass. He was yelling up at the sky, demanding snow. He never actually said "God," but it was clear who he was talking to. When snow didn't come by the fourth frame, Calvin shouted, "do you want me to become an atheist?" Now, I had never heard or seen this word before. Atheist. But it was the punchline. It was his threat to God at the end of the tirade. I knew about God and I believed in him, and apparently Calvin did too since he was yelling up at him. But what was an atheist? I walked right up to my mom and said, "Mom, what's an ah-theest?"
"I think it's like that... ah-theest?"
"Maybe. What's that?"
"...Where did you hear that from?" This played out like a little kid asking his mom what a dirty word meant. My Christian mother certainly wasn't happy about my eight year old soul discovering what an atheist was. But I also learned the word "predestined" from Calvin and Hobbes, so it eventually evened out.
But to think, from Calvin and Hobbes I learned my first theology lessons. I didn't catch the ironic humor in the strip the first time around, but I did think it was funny that Calvin demanded snow from God. (I had felt that way before myself.)
Bill Watterson is one of the best dudes because his comic was probably the pre-introduction to philosophy for a lot of children. As they say, "get 'em while their young." Getting kids hooked on things early in life is a sly way to brainwash humans. The hope is to plant the seeds early, and water regularly until and throughout adulthood. It's clear for anyone who's seen Supersize Me or Jesus Camp. The young mind is impressionable, and hungry for an impression.
But Calvin and Hobbes wasn't devious in the same way as Christian military camps and fast food chains are. The subversive magic of Calvin and Hobbes was that it instilled in children who thought they hated school a desire for deeper knowledge. And in the meantime, adults could enjoy the strip just as much as the impressionable children. All Watterson required of his readers was a little bit of imagination. If we could just imagine the possibilities of exploration, we could broaden our lives.
Watterson's art was not for the snobbish. Nor was it for braindead, happy-meal crazed brats who just liked reading comics about a kid who was disrespectful to his parents. No, Calvin and Hobbes was the sort of satire we may never see the likes of again. It was for the common man (and child), and it didn't require any specific level of education. Bill Watterson created worlds and characters that repel commercialism and herd mentalities. His comics embraced individualism, creativity and the spirit of adventure. And if you never noticed before, my personal writing style is modeled after Calvin's: