|By Susan Emerson Nutter
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For a 10-year time span, 1985 to 1995, comic enthusiasts eagerly opened their daily papers to see the ever entertaining antics of a tow-head boy named Calvin, and his stuffed tiger – brought-to-life via a young boy’s vivid imagination – called Hobbes.
The exhibit Exploring Calvin and Hobbes honors this insightful, engaging comic strip that had incredible fan appeal and, in fact, still has a fan base most cartoonists can only dream of acquiring. Original Calvin and Hobbes dailies and Sundays as well as specialty pieces by Ohioan Bill Watterson from his collection of more than 3,000 originals housed at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum (BICLM) make up this exhibit. The exhibit is located in the BICLM in Sullivant Hall on the campus of the Ohio State University and runs through Aug. 3.
This is only the second exhibition devoted to Calvin and Hobbes, which appeared in 2,400 newspapers worldwide at the height of its popularity. Watterson won the National Cartoonists Society’s prestigious Reuben Award for “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year” in both 1986 and 1988.
Watterson’s mastery of the comic strip art form is explored and detailed in this exhibit by examining the engaging characters, thoughtful writing and creative layouts Watterson created for Calvin and Hobbes. BICLM curator Jenny E. Robb organized this exhibit, which includes the various stages of Watterson’s artistry and also presents original art by cartoonists who influenced Watterson, chosen by the artist from the BICLM’s collection. These artists – those cited by Watterson as having a major impact on his own development as an artist – include Charles Schulz (Peanuts), George Herriman (Krazy Kat), Jim Borgman (Zits), Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County), Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury), Walt Kelly (Pogo) and Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon).
Watterson speaks about Schulz saying, “Peanuts made me want to be a cartoonist and it largely defined my idea of what a comic strip should be: funny, beautifully drawn, expressive, and intelligent,” Watterson has said about Schulz. “In the 1960s, as I was growing up, the annual Peanuts collections were one giant cartooning class for me.”
“Perhaps the biggest influence that Charles Schulz had on me was that, back in the days when most every successful comic strip was produced to varying extents with assistants, Schulz wrote and drew every strip entirely himself. This standard of craftsmanship and writing integrity made a huge impression on me. You could tell the strip was one man’s personal vision and not a committee production – it was a weird strip, and the weirdness was what made it great.”
Calvin and Hobbes is Watterson’s childhood experiences played out in a comic strip format. This venue coupled with the viewpoint, thoughts, struggles and values of his older self, brought Watterson both a huge following as well as deep respect from his peers. Information in the exhibit states, “He [Watterson] wrote and drew every strip, so it is a deeply personal story.”
Not familiar with the cartoon world of Calvin and his stuffed toy? A press release from the BICLM fills in the blanks: “Six-year-old Calvin, named after the 16th century theologian John Calvin, has a vivid imagination; an aversion to homework, chores, and girls; and a penchant for discussing the meaning of life. Hobbes, named for the 17th century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, appears to most of the strips’ characters as a stuffed animal, but from Calvin’s perspective, he is a living, breathing – sometimes even dangerous – tiger. He’s also a best friend, a playmate, a co-conspirator, and occasionally the voice of reason. The strip follows the two as they navigate the bumpy ride of life, surrounded by a supporting cast that includes Calvin’s parents, his neighbor Susie, his babysitter Rosalyn, the school bully Moe, and his teacher, Mrs. Wormwood.”
While attending college at Kenyon, Watterson contributed cartoons to the college newspaper, the Kenyon Collegian. After graduating, he briefly did editorial cartoons for the Cincinnati Post and created cartoons for Sun Newspapers, a chain of weekly suburban newspapers in Cleveland, Ohio.
Curator’s rare interview
In preparation for this exhibit, Robb was fortunate to secure a talk with the press-shy Watterson in which they discussed the state of cartoon art and the exhibit at the BICLM. Years after Calvin and Hobbes had ceased publication, Watterson said he realized he wanted this body of work in a “protective, permanent environment.” He had been introduced to the BICLM years ago by a friend and was impressed with the museum’s vision. The fact that the BICLM is located in his home state of Ohio sealed the deal for him.
Watterson also appreciates how the scholarly approach and professionalism of the BICLM gives cartoon art clout. He acknowledges that because the museum exists, cartoon art that might otherwise be lost has a home where others can view and learn from the history of this art form.
Being able to view original cartoon art in a museum setting is not unlike viewing any other kind of art in a museum. Such an experience can make a huge impact. Many think of cartoon art as being the size it appears in the newspaper, Watterson said, but the original drawings are often large. He points out originals of the Steve Canyon daily strip are gigantic. Having original cartoon art available for study in such an accessible setting affords the public this experience.
Robb asked Watterson how it felt to revisit Calvin and Hobbes in this museum setting 30 years after it was launched. “Oh, it’s fairly weird,” Watterson replied. “There’s a sort of jet lag when you time-travel to your own past.”
Watterson also reminisced on the actual creating process of putting together a Calvin and Hobbes strip, telling Robb he would first write the words to the strip and then create the art to go with the dialogue. “It was the writing that gave me fits,” he admits.
The future of the comic strip, especially taking the decline of newspaper readership into consideration, was also discussed. Robb wondered if the average person will be inclined to invest in establishing a “relationship” with a comic strip character the way people had with Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson agreed the likelihood of that happening was slim especially since the online environment offers so much content from which to choose.
Gone are the days when people would scramble to open up the paper to the comics page to see what their favorite character, like Charlie Brown or Dick Tracy, was up to that day. And while that might seem defeating, on the flip side, the digital era offers opportunities to cartoon artists that were not available when Calvin and Hobbes graced newspapers.
“Anyone can publish now, and there are no restrictions of taste, approach, or subject matter. The gatekeepers are gone, so the prospect for new and different voices is exciting,” Watterson explained to Robb. “Or at least it will be if anyone reads them. And it will be even more exciting if anyone pays for them. It’s hard to charge admission without a gate.”