By the 1980s the once glorious newspaper comics section had become a wasteland, ravaged by shrinking space, editorial timidity and other ills. The real excitement in my medium had moved to the fertile margins of the alternative press. Bill Watterson, as uninterested in underground comics as I was in the mass media's bland concoctions, marched directly into the wasteland and made the comatose syndicated strip form kick up its heels and dance.
From 1985 until Watterson abandoned it at the height of its popularity 10 years later, Calvin and Hobbes echoed the classic strips the artist most admired. Stirring the richly conceived characters and efficient drawing of Peanuts with the visual virtuosity and linguistic playfulness of Pogo and Krazy Kat, he applied his intelligence and supple cartoon skills to come up with a creation beloved by the millions who still mourn its passing.
Now, a decade after his demise, six-year-old Calvin has a fitting monument - a lavishly produced three-volume boxed collection of all the strips, which weighs as much as a tombstone. Following in the wake of Gary Larson's The Complete Far Side, and with a 250,000-copy "limited edition" first printing, the publisher realistically predicts that this book will be "the heaviest and most expensive book ever to hit the New York Times best seller list." While not as exquisitely wrought as Walt and Skeezix, the recently launched reprinting of Frank King's epic run of Gasoline Alley, or as intimate and dignified as Fantagraphics' ongoing republication of all 50 years of Peanuts, this luxurious set is dressed for success and deserves an honored spot on the happily expanding shelves of strip reprints.
The Complete Calvin and Hobbes offers two intertwined narratives. One details the friendship between Calvin - the egotistical, feverishly imaginative, wised-up young tyke with the vocabulary of a Yale lit major - and his animal familiar, Hobbes. Hobbes is seen by Calvin's parents as a nondescript plush toy and by Calvin and the reader as a pouncing and amiable "real" tiger - Calvin's slightly-more-sensible better half. The crosscutting between private and shared reality gives the strip its vitality.
The autobiographical introduction by the notoriously reclusive Watterson kicks off another tale about the collision of private and shared realities: the story of an ornery artist's battle to explore his craft within the claustrophobic confines of a few inches of newsprint space. The beleaguered Watterson fights the strictures of brutal daily deadlines, skirmishes with editors to win more space for his often graceful Sunday pages, slugs it out with his syndicate to keep his creation from being reduced to a stuffed doll. The later strips begin to dwell obsessively on the horrors of our dumbed-down commodity culture, and there's something poignant about the artist's hopeless struggle to work within the confines of mass culture while simultaneously critiquing it. These books offer a testament to Watterson's dedication and to the medium's ability to keep reinventing itself against all odds.
Art Spiegelman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus and In the Shadow of No Towers.
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