Everyone misses Bill Watterson’s classic comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, and aside from a few new collections, a plethora of bootleg bumper stickers and a disturbingly hilarious Robot Chicken sketch, there hasn’t been much said about the strip since it ended.
Nevin Martell’s new book, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes seeks to rectify this. It’s the first in-depth look at the history of the strip and the notoriously reclusive Bill Watterson, drawing from extensive research and interviews to examine the strip and its impact. We recently got to talk with Martell about his book, and about what made Calvin and Hobbes so memorable. As a special bonus, we got permission to include a gallery of Calvin-themed pieces by various artists from the collection of David Paggi. Enjoy!
Newsarama: Nevin, tell us a little about the book.
Nevin Martell: Well, the book is a project I’ve been working on for the last two to three years. It started as a tribute to my love of Calvin and Hobbes and Bill Watterson, and it took off from there.
It was picked up by Continuum Press, which is a small, kind of academically-minded press that covers a lot of pop-cultural subjects. When I started, it was just going to be a straight biography of Watterson – trying to find him was always going to be a part of it, but I knew from the outset that was going to be a difficult, perhaps insurmountable task.
That didn’t mean I wouldn’t be able to write about his life in an informative, entertaining way. But as I worked on the book – it took about 15 months to write – it really turned into kind of a journey, both for myself and for the reader, as I went through Watterson’s life, both literally and metaphorically.
By the end, I realized it wasn’t a straightforward autobiography. It didn’t go from A-Z and keep the author out of it. It was a little bit more gonzo than that, and my own journey to find him, and the hopes and dreams and frustrations that raised became part of that.
It’s definitely a biography, in the sense that I examine the entirety of Watterson’s life – all the work that he did, from his first published work in high school and his local paper, all the way through the 10 years he spent working on Calvin and Hobbes.
David MackThe book also examines the influence of Calvin and Hobbes – not just on comic strips, but on film directors such as Brad Bird (Ratatouille), author Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude) and comedian Patton Oswalt.
And it’s a look at how Watterson pulled it all off – how, despite being such an anomaly, both in his abilities and his outlook, managed to become what I think to be one of the most eminent pop artists of the late 20th century. How did he pull that off without becoming a public figure? The book explores that.
I did more than 100 interviews with primary sources for the book, including the people I mentioned above, and cartoonists like Berke Breathed and Stephan Pastis, Lynn Johnston, Jim Davis…really too many to name. I think I interviewed about 50 cartoonists total, 110 interviews for the book overall, and a lot of primary source material no one’s seen before.
There’s interviews with Watterson did with small papers when he was an up-and-comer…artwork from high school that’s never been seen before…the book manages to take a look at a lot of things that hadn’t been covered up until this point, and speaks with a lot of people on the record about their lives with Bill Watterson.
Nrama: Of course, there’s the challenge of talking to Watterson himself…
Martell: Well, the proposed mystery of the book is whether I get to talk to him. I don’t speak with him directly; I do have a series of email interactions with him through his editor, Lee Salem. I don’t land the mythical Yeti (laughs), but nonetheless, by the end of the book, I’ve gotten to cover Watterson in a way no one has before.
The book culminates in an interview that I’ll leave your readers to discover for themselves, but suffice to say, it’s very eye-opening.
Nrama: I have to tell you, writing for Newsarama, I’ve gotten to talk to some terrific people, but Watterson…I’d pretty much retire from interviewing if I could get that one.
Martell: (laughs) I think a lot of people would say that. And over the course of doing the book, pretty much everyone I spoke to, especially those who were still in contact with him, said, “You know, I don’t think you’ll be able to get him, but if you do, you’ll be able to sit on that laurel for the rest of your life.”
That being said, I think the book that came out of trying to uncover his life wound up being a very interesting, exciting book. He’s in the book, through his quotes and other quotes, and his character comes through.
Farel DalrympleNrama: What were your email interactions with Watterson like?
Martell: Basically, it was through Lee Salem and his friend Rich West, a comic historian himself. I have to say, he was always very polite, but very firm on his part. I wasn’t surprised – he hasn’t given an interview since 1989, and prior to this project, I wasn’t someone who had written about him or knew him personally.
He has his cards on the table. It’s sort of the J.D. Salinger policy – no press, not now, not ever. So it was a back-and-forth between me and Lee and Rich, and that’s how it worked.
Nrama: Did he express any approval or disapproval of this project?
Martell: I didn’t get either. I think there was a sense of confusion on his part, i.e. “Why would someone want to write a book about me?” I think he recognizes that Calvin and Hobbes was special, but he doesn’t understand the place he holds in the pantheon of great cartoonists.
I can’t speak for him, of course, but I think he feels that he doesn’t deserve a book about him. Plenty of people would disagree, of course, myself being at the forefront.
Nrama: Well, everyone seems like a simple person to themselves.
Martell: That’s true. But there are plenty of people who have enough of an ego that they would want a book written about themselves. I didn’t get the sense that he had that kind of ego.
Nrama: Speaking of J.D. Salinger, there was an article in the New York Times earlier this year about him turning 90, and the rumor that he’s got files and files of things he’s been working on that will be published after he passes away. There have been so many similar rumors about Watterson – my favorite being the animated Calvin and Hobbes movie…
Martell: That was one of the rumors I disproved over the course of the book. Everyone said that was total bollocks.
He had been approached by some of the biggest names in entertainment about making a film, but it never got past the development stages, and that development had only really happened on the side of the people who wanted to produce the project, and not Watterson himself.
In terms of his work, everything related to Calvin and Hobbes was deposited in a permanent collection at Ohio State University. He’s done a couple of pieces of work for the complete Calvin and Hobbes, but that’s it for cartooning. He’s done painting and woodcuts, but not cartoon-related art.
I hate to burst your bubble, because trust me, I had the same bubble floating over my head…!
Jeffrey BrownNrama: Well, there’s this almost messiah-like anticipation for more Calvin and Hobbes. There’s a series Vertigo is doing now called The Unwritten, about a guy who was the basis for a Harry Potter-type character, and then it turns out he might be this character, and there is all this excitement around him by fans desperate for more material with the character. It’s almost like that, only less…supernatural.
A few years ago, I wrote for a daily newspaper, and the editor was talking one day about how the syndicate was offering old Calvin and Hobbes strips for reprinting. She went on about how if Watterson came back with new strips, we could boost circulation by a thousand copies.
Martell: Oh, absolutely. In terms of his mythology, whether her likes it or not, he’s in a bit of a conundrum. He doesn’t want to embrace the mythology and have a persona, but I think he probably doesn’t like the idea that he’s turned into an iconoclastic, unknowable figure.
And because he’s so unknowable, people will make up all these ideas about who he might be, what’s really like, and that creates something for him that he might not want either. It’s interesting. I think it’s one of those “you can’t win, you can’t lose” situations for him.
Nrama: Getting to the heart of Calvin and Hobbes’ appeal – why do you think people can feel, for lack of a better term, entitled or possessive of something that’s fictional? Why do they have this desire to see it continue indefinitely, with constant new material, and sometimes try to revive it when the original creators aren’t willing or available?
Martell: The thing is, people will always love stories. A lot of people are always going to want to see their beloved characters interacting or playing or having adventures in some magical land. Look at Superman, or Peanuts, or Middle-Earth – the characters are so powerful that people will buy anything that features them, because they’re so beloved.
Some more discerning readers or viewers might be turned off by that, but others just enjoy going back to those places they remember, that made them happy before.
Nrama: Well, there’s the nostalgia factor as well.
Martell: You make a good point, in the sense that I think a lot of properties, and Calvin and Hobbes are among them, remind people of a certain time in their lives, and the good feelings associated with those times. And childhood is something that people, for the most part, only really appreciate when it’s gone.
Calvin and Hobbes lets people go back to their childhood, and who wouldn’t want that – to go back to their childhood, knowing all the things we know as an adult? I think that’s what’s wonderful about Calvin and Hobbes – children can enjoy it, and it can make adults feel like children again.
Nrama: There’s that line from the Faces’ “Ooh La La:” “I wish I knew then what I knew now, when I was younger.” And then Calvin’s dad has a line in one strip: “Yeah, I know, you think you’re going to be six your whole life.” Boy, did I not get that line when I first read it…
Martell: That’s the great thing about Calvin and Hobbes – it really, without being obvious about it, operates on two levels. One is a level you can totally get when you’re a kid, and the other’s the level you can get when you reread it as an adult, and, like the Faces said, you know what you know now.
Jim RuggNrama: Rereading the strip, I found something almost dark about it – Calvin is much more intelligent than he might seem as a kid, and his parents and teacher always seem angry and sarcastic toward him, and trying to stifle his imagination. There were some strips that almost made me angry, the way his parents were treating him. It’s almost a strip about retreating into your imagination when you’re alone.
Martell: You can look at Calvin and Hobbes and say, “It’s really, really depressing. Here’s a kid who has no friends, one imaginary friend, his dad basically ignores him all the time, he gives his mother all this grief, he goes to school and gets bullied or has to do all these horrible things in gym class, he has this one neighbor who loathes him, and all he has is Hobbes and all these imaginary adventures.”
So you can say it’s depressing, or you can say, “The kid is making the greatest lemonade out of life’s lemons that anyone has ever seen.” He’s going on all these amazing adventures and going to places that the kids in class or his parents or teacher can’t even dream of, let alone participate in.
There’s a lot of darkness, and it’s not something I talk about in the book, but certainly something I thought about after I finished it. People ask Watterson, “Are you Calvin?” and they mean that literally, “Is Calvin who you were as a little kid?”
He always answers “No,” but if you go back and reread the strips, you realize that it’s what Watterson was going through in his adult life, realized through that character – from his battles with his syndicate, to his internal battles about the role of art in commerce. Calvin certainly worked out a lot of adult issues Watterson was going through, which is very interesting.
Nrama: Given Watterson’s physical resemblance to Calvin’s dad, I sometimes wondered if that character was who Watterson was afraid he’d be like as a grownup.
Martell: I’d be afraid of growing up to be Calvin’s dad. The man worked all the time, he knew nothing, and his idea of time well spent was eating some oatmeal and going for a long bike ride. As a six-year-old, if I had that around, I’d say, “Please don’t let that be me!”
Nrama: I remember when the 10th anniversary collection of Calvin and Hobbes came out, and I was startled by how candid Watterson was about many of the strips being, like you said, about his battles with the syndicate, his desire for time off, and his disenchantment with the comic strip page in general. And things seem to have gotten worse since he left.
There has been a movement toward online comic strips, some of which really employ the innovations of format Watterson fought for in his time. But it seems like the end of Calvin and Hobbes was one of the major death-knells for newspaper comics, and newspapers in general.
Martell: Absolutely. The exit of Calvin and Hobbes, combined with the exit of Berke Breathed – at that time – and the exit of the Far Side really, for me signaled the end of the last golden age of newspaper comics.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t great newspaper comics – I love Cul de Sac and Pearls Before Swine, and there are certainly other comics that are well-deserving of praise. But there aren’t the kind of strips there used to be, in terms of the public’s general interest in them.
I don’t mean just people who read comic strips, but the general public. People used to talk about things like Blondie, or even The Family Circus, and I just don’t feel like this new generation of kids have that connection with the funnies that there used to be.
And I feel the departure of three of the giants at that time really helped signal the end of this era for a number of reasons, though there were certainly other factors that played into that as well.
Philip BondNrama: Well, newspaper cartoons can really bring people together. Even at the 1950s hearings over violence in comics like Tales From the Crypt, the same people appalled by these comics were star-struck when newspaper creators like Milton Caniff testified. There’s this ability to transcend the audience of comic books, even if it’s just because people skim comic strips in the morning.
Martell: I think, as a whole, culture is becoming more fragmented. We’re not watching the same Big Three networks, or listening to the same radios stations. Now, people are only downloading the songs they like – there are very few common experiences among anything.
Nrama: You can tailor things to your own tastes – it’s not like Big Brother, where everyone has to like the same thing. But it’s also harder for something to break through to that mass audience it needs to sustain itself.
Martell: Absolutely. And that’s too bad, because there’s a lot of mediums, from cartoons to music, that are suffering as a result. It means the people who are passionate about it must work that much harder to promote what they love…and that those who aren’t passionate are going ot miss out on a lot.
Nrama: But there have been a lot of archives and reprinting of classic newspaper strips in the last decade, both well-known strips and rare gems, along with the great early years of strips like Dennis the Menace. There’s a greater appreciation for this medium than ever before, but there is a reluctance to latch onto something new.
Martell: Well, there is a problem in what you describe, in that those collections are usually pretty expensive. It’s hard to say, “Do I want to spend $150 on the complete Calvin and Hobbes if I might not like Calvin and Hobbes?” It’s a similar case with that large-format Little Nemo book. It’s like trying to get into the Grateful Dead by buying their complete boxed set.
Nrama: I guess there’s no magic bullet solution to this, beyond, “If you like this, tell people about it.”
Martell: Exactly. There’s nothing bigger than word-of-mouth – just look at Twitter, which has turned word-of-mouth into an application.
Nrama: What’s the biggest thing you learned from working on this book?
Martell: Good question. I guess, first of all, I learned that the journey is never what you expect it to be, and that even though you think you know where you’re going, you don’t always wind up there, and that’s not always a bad thing.
And I think I learned that the power of the memory of childhood is probably the strongest pull you can exert on anybody. Throughout the process, I talked with many people who are in touch with their inner children – and are sometimes paid well for it – and I found if you can tap into that, you’re probably going to have a happier life, and some real inner peace. Not to wax all metaphysical. (laughs)
Nrama: What’s next for you? I see you have a book on Legos…
Martell: I’ve done a book called Standing Small: A Celebration of 35 years of the Lego mini-figure, and I’m casting some new ideas around. Nothing that looks like it’s going to consume my life for the next two years, though. (laughs)
Nrama: Do you ever see creating something yourself at some point?
Martell: I have an idea for a children’s book I’m exploring, and I’m working on a novel – I was previously working on something I thought was the Great American Novel, until I finished it. (laughs) I love working in nonfiction, and I plan to continue with that, but I want to produce something fictional as well.
Nrama: Maybe that’s the greatest lesson of Calvin and Hobbes – that no matter what you’re surrounded with in life, you can still use your imagination to create something new.
Martell: You’re right. Calvin and Hobbes is a constant reminder of the power of imagination, and the joy that you can get from exercising that imagination.
Nrama: And on a Calvin-esque note: What’s the strangest thing you ever pretended a box was?
Martell: Ah! Good question. The strangest thing I made out of a box was…I remember my sister and I turning a large set of appliance boxes into a long series of tunnels we pretended out were the icy tunnels of the planet Hoth. And I recently helped my niece make a dollhouse of a cardboard box. That was a nice way to spend a morning.
Nrama: And your favorite of Calvin’s identities…
Martell: Oh man, that’s like picking children. I’d say as a kid, I loved Spaceman Spiff the best. I loved SF and fantasy, and Watterson’s arts were amazing. Going back, I love all them – Tracer Bullet’s really funny, I love that parody of the detective character, and the dialogue is so good.
Nrama: I always liked anything with a transmogrofier. You can’t beat a transmogrofier.
Martell: My favorite was the one where he turns into a little tiger.
Nrama: Anything we haven’t discussed yet?
Martell: Nope! Just I hope people check out my book.
Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is in bookstores now.
Zack Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.