Review by Micah Killjoy
The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, by Bill Watterson
Andrews McMeel, September 1995
208 pages, paperback, $21.99 CAD, ISBN: 9780836204384
All Ages, All Grades
Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult; Non-Fiction, Graphic Novel, Comedy/Humour
Putting myself in the head of a fictitious six-year-old and a tiger encourages me to be more alert and inquisitive than I would otherwise be. Sometimes I resent the pressure to exploit every waking moment for strip ideas, but at its best, the strip makes me examine events and live more thoughtfully. I love the solitude of this work and the opportunity to work with ideas that interest me. This is the greatest reward of cartooning for me.
Should Calvin and Hobbes endure as art 30 years later? Spoiler: yes, but it’s never simple.
In the classic strip Calvin and Hobbes, six-year-old Calvin barges through school and his home, bringing stuffed-tiger Hobbes along for the ride. Punctuating the chaos of their adventures are moments of philosophical wonder. Writer Bill Watterson overlays these moments with Calvin’s imagination and laces the punchlines with Calvin learning only the wrong lessons from his misadventures. Anyone tiring of the daily grind will recognize themselves in Calvin’s musings and his penchant for escapism. Indeed, reflections on daily living are what make The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book feel so familiar and true.
The Tenth Anniversary Book adds another layer to the comics, with Watterson collecting strips he found memorable and sharing a behind-the-scenes peek into his insights on plot, audience, and craft. He also gives a rundown on his artistic process and characters, and explains his side of the story of what became one of the more infamous showdowns between a creator and gatekeeper—Watterson versus the comic syndicate, Universal, which controlled his contracts and the distribution of his comics to newspapers. With these additions, the Tenth Anniversary Book became the first book I read of an artist writing on craft, and shaped my own approach to art and culture.
Watterson writes: “[T]he significance of any art lies in its ability to express truths—to reveal and help us understand our world… The best comics are funhouse mirrors that distort appearances only to help us recognize, and laugh at, our essential characteristics.” I would have read this as a child without fully grasping why any artists bother defining “art” and its supposed significance, but I still adored the strip and reread all my Calvin and Hobbes collections monthly. In a childhood where books were my most reliable friends, Calvin and Hobbes were the best of them, allowing me to absorb art with almost no pretensions. Without fully understanding Watterson’s reflections, I could still see something true mirrored in his art.
Much of Watterson’s commentary in the Tenth Anniversary Book is in his typical reflective mode—he muses on how his art style has changed, points out his favorite plots, and illuminates choices he made that now feel like missteps. The single resounding theme throughout, though, is that he appears to despise the syndicate. Perhaps “despise” is too strong a word—they got him readership and fans, after all—but he held them in healthy disrespect. His goal was to make art, their goal was to make money off his art. In many ways, Watterson lived the dream—that is, he got so big he was able to demand better working conditions even as he made the syndicate less money. (It’s estimated that by refusing to merchandise his characters he blocked somewhere between $300-400 million in profits.) The concept of art existing outside of capital payoffs wasn’t exactly new to me when I first read it—after all, it was the 90’s and “alt” everything was in—but Watterson’s ethical throwdown felt especially inspiring in the sea of repetitive yet prolific Garfields, Cathys, and Blondies.
And Watterson was correct—the Sunday comics took on a totally different feeling after the syndicate caved and allowed him the full half-page. A full third of the strip was no longer dedicated to “throwaway” jokes that might be cut by newspapers editors, and Watterson took the opportunity to turn the comic into a canvas. The imagination scenes became more evocative, with moody color palettes that bring Calvin’s world to life without visually overcrowding the panels.
It’s almost a pity, because it’s also impossible to fit the large Sundays into an Instagram post, or the one-off jokes into Webtoons’ aggressively serialized plot formats. It means that outside of running across a collection at the library or a dedicated social media page, there’s little means of casual exposure to Calvin and Hobbes as it originally appeared to many of us—a punctuation to the morning routine, read over breakfast before scrambling to class, an often-existential, often-silly eight lines of dialogue to follow one through the day.
I wonder how many Zoomers and Alphas will miss out on it because of this change in popular media forms. And with so much politically aware modern media, is Calvin and Hobbes even relevant? I return to the cultural litmus tests I often use when consuming older art today: Would I want a future generation to read and emulate this media? Would the conceit of Calvin’s Get Rid of Slimy girlS (G.R.O.S.S.) club hold up? What of the narrative that Calvin “likes” Susie, and teases her as a result? The jokes may have been cute in the 80s but feel clunky now.
Perhaps, in some ways, I’ve become one of the readers Watterson rolls his eyes at—that is, unable to take a joke. But I would also have to balance that with how much Watterson’s irreverence towards consumerism, his disdain for thoughtless art, and his existential awe shaped my own values in irreplicable ways. Ultimately, the answer is yes. I want the next generations to read this and reflect on the meaning and significance of his art in their existential journeys as well.