Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip

Review by KC Carlson

It’s hard to believe, but Bill Watterson’s remarkable Calvin and Hobbes has been missing from the funny pages of your local newspaper for almost 15 years now. The cartoon duo’s last public appearance was in 2005, with the release of the 26-pound The Complete Calvin and Hobbes — the heaviest book to ever hit the New York Times bestseller list. The last public appearance of the strip’s creator, Bill Watterson, is a little bit harder to pin down. After years of furious, mostly behind-the-scenes battles with his syndicate, product licensors, the occasional cartoonist peer, and ultimately with fame itself, the exhausted Watterson decided to take his ball — as well as his spikey-haired six-year-old and his stuffed tiger — and quietly go home. Calvin and Hobbes ended on December 31, 1995. And the world has been a little less magical since.

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes cover
Looking for Calvin and Hobbes
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In making this choice, Watterson has become one of the most talked-about recluses of the contemporary art world, this generation’s J.D. Salinger. And you know what, he has every right to do so.

In Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, a new book about Watterson by Nevin Martell, the author wastes no time in his stated premise. He’s out to track down the reclusive Watterson and get the ultimate interview. It sounds like he’s stalking some rare species of tiger (Hobbes?) for a bad cable reality show. The mock-cliffhanger ending of the introduction — “Will I get the ultimate interview?” — comes off as a crass writing trick to propel the reader through the book, as if it is some sort of mystery to be solved.

There’s no mystery. Watterson is obviously pretty much done with his public life — and if he isn’t, he’s calling the shots about when and where he’ll be appearing next, if at all. Any proposed “search” for him creeps into the realm of stalkerazzi. Additionally, Martell breaks the cardinal rule of all good “reporters”: he ends up being part of his own story. Parts of the narrative are devoted to his hopes and dreams of speaking with Watterson or what steps he takes to track him down.

But it’s not as if the book is totally without merit. If you can get past his “quest”, Martell has done some incredible research into Watterson’s early life and his entry into the admittedly frustrating world of syndicated comic strips, including his failed attempts at political cartooning. Plus, Martell has scored a remarkable number of interviews with the people who know Watterson best: family and friends, former co-workers and editors, and — most interesting of all — Watterson’s fellow comic strip artists, both peers and younger artists inspired by Watterson.

Not all of these testimonials are generous. Watterson rankled a lot of the old guard of comic strip professionals, perhaps deliberately, in his often blunt comments about why comic strips are dying. But Watterson had his champions as well, most notably Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County, Opus) and Lynn Johnston (For Better or for Worse), who may have provided the very personal reason for why Watterson ultimately decided to fold Calvin and Hobbes. Other notable commentators include Brad Bird, Dave Berry, Harvey Pekar, Patton Oswalt, Jeff Smith, and Jonathan Lethem. Many of these insights are just as compelling, or telling, about Watterson as what might be disclosed by the creator himself.

Also fascinating are the stories told by former “soldiers” from the comic strip syndicates. Watterson saved much of his contempt for the syndicates and their greed and lack of foresight, so he can’t have always been a pleasant person to work with, but most of the the former editors and executives (many now retired) who speak here are very candid about situations which most likely vexed Watterson. Former United Features Syndicate staffers Sarah Gillespie and Dave Hendlin tell some horrifying anecdotes about corporate focus groups and marketing directives which ultimately drove Watterson away from United to Universal Press Syndicate. At Universal, Lee Salem became Watterson’s editor (and ultimately the president of the syndicate), and he provides some essential background into Watterson’s working habits and relationship to the syndicate.

One other major shortcoming of the book is not Martell’s fault, although he inadvertently exacerbates the problem with his excellent descriptions of Watterson’s artwork. The problem? No artwork is included (or at least not in the galley that I’m reviewing from). I can sort of understand why there is no Calvin and Hobbes artwork here, and frankly, I’d be surprised if anyone reading this book doesn’t already have at least one collection of the strip on their bookshelf that they can quickly reference.

But Martell spends a substantial chunk of the book discussing Watterson’s early struggles to land a syndicated strip. He describes in detail the editorial cartoons, spot newspaper illustrations, yearbook and other high school drawings, and many other early examples of Watterson’s development as an artist. Why is none of this here? (Fortunately, five minutes on Google will get you to much of this early work, including Watterson’s occasional reviews, transcripts of his speeches, and other ephemera).

The cover of the book, with the just-allowable slivers of Calvin’s foot and Hobbes’ tail, screams “Unauthorized!” and therefore also plays into the tabloid-y feel of the project — which is very unfortunate. Because deep down, this really is a wonderful, warm, and informative book that manages to capture just the right amount of magic about the creator and his creation. It also accomplishes one other very important thing — anyone who reads it will be compelled to pull their Calvin and Hobbes collections off the shelves and spend a lovely, happy weekend re-reading them.

The whole thing about writing a book about an artist without any of his artwork in it reminds me of the well-traveled and impossible-to-attribute quote about rock music, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” That’s something I hope that Martell would appreciate, being a rock writer himself. (And BTW, I think Frank Zappa probably said it first. Or Martin Mull.) Looking for Calvin and Hobbes by Nevin Martell is a 256-page hardcover that will be available in October from Continuum. (A complimentary preview galley for this review was provided by the publisher.)

13 Responses to “Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip”

  1. Calvin Hobbes Says:

    Watterson’s editor’s name is Lee Salem. You may want to fix this.

  2. Johanna Says:

    Thank you. It’s been corrected. I think someone had Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace on the mind when putting this together. :)

  3. Dave Says:

    “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”

    I’ve always thought Elvis Costello said it first. Turns out I was 1/2 right. Googling the phrase yielded this article: http://www.pacifier.com/~ascott/they/tamildaa.htm

  4. Johanna Says:

    Dave, KC says:

    Yeah, I saw that article as well — and others — as I researched this for several hours. (This is why I don’t write more reviews!)

    This question has baffled me for years — and it just keeps getting worse and worse as more and more people use the phrase without attribution. Because it’s such a great one to steal!

    I’m pretty sure this predates the internet, as (I think) I’ve been hearing this quote for decades — at least since the early 1980’s and probably before. And I recall reading somewhere that Zappa said it. But then again, I also read somewhere that it was actually Mull. (This sticks in my head because I’m a fan of Mull’s work, and yet, it sounds like something Zappa might say.)

    Anyway, thinking about this (as well as killer pain from my morning trip to the dentist) drove me back to to the internets for more research… And I found this: http://ttutheory.blogspot.com/2007/02/writing-about-music.html Scroll down to the comment. The column itself doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re talking about, although it’s interesting.

    Gail Zappa is, of course, Frank’s widow. And if you click on her name there, it takes you directly to Zappa.com.

  5. Dave Says:

    It DOES sound like a Zappa-ism. And I actually own a copy of the Musician magazine with the Elvis Costello quote mentioned in the article, so it is accurate up to a point. Reading between the lines of the article, I wonder if the interviewer simply inserted – even though Elvis didn’t actually say it – it because it sounded cool and not out of character for EC.

  6. Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment » Everyone’s A Critic: A roundup of comic book reviews and thinkpieces Says:

    […] KC Carlson reviews Looking for Calvin and Hobbes by Nevin Martel, a book I was completely unaware of until […]

  7. Ciao Howdy Says:

    After reading Chapter 1 of the book, I have to disagree with this review’s take on it. I thought Martell wrote with so much love about the comic itself that it seemed inevitable he’d use the cliffhanger ending–and it propels you nicely in Chapter 2. I look forward to the rest of the material in October.

  8. Johanna Says:

    Now that KC’s done with it, I’ve started reading the book myself. After getting into the first chapter, I made a similar comment, that his criticism of the writer making himself part of the story seemed a little harsh. He told me to wait, because it got a lot worse later. So I’m curious to see what we both think after we read further.

  9. James Schee Says:

    I’d be curious to see this, as I loved Calvin & Hobbes. It was one of the very few comic strips my dad read and loved, and we could talk about.

    The author putting himself in is okay with me, sort of like how I want to see that documentary movie they made “Looking for John Hughes” if it ever is released. (given Hughes’s recent death)

  10. vid Says:

    I’ll definitely be on the lookout for this. C&H is probably my favorite comic strip ever.

  11. Susie Derkins no.7 Says:

    Oh for crying out loud.

    It’s neither Zappa nor Mull; it’s Steve Martin.

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