Bill Watterson and reality

Sunday, February 12th, 2012 Comics

Willam Boyd Watterson II, the J. D. Salinger of the strip cartoon, has blocked all merchandising of his characters and has apparently only been photographed once (the 1986 “file photo” above). Like Salinger and Pynchon and Kubrick (and Alan Moore), Watterson not only prefers that his work speak for itself, he insists on it; his only interview (conducted by email two years ago) shows him politely but firmly refusing to talk about his monumental magnum opus (and, really, solo opus—he’s done nothing since), “Calvin and Hobbes” (1985-1995).

Watterson tips his hand by naming his main characters after philosophers; you’re supposed to think about epistemology as you read about the six year old suburban boy whose stuffed tiger is his best friend (in fact, the two characters engage in straight-up philosophical debate more than once, discussing “ontology” as such before devolving into what’s clearly an author’s rant against commercialism and the limitations of the semiotic frameworks governing art criticism). Like Chuck Jones characters, Calvin and Hobbes (and his nameless parents) do direct “takes” to “the camera” (or “the audience”) when their commentary on art, cartoons, culture and morality gets especially self-aware.

But none of that would be interesting or noteworthy on its own; the strip would merely be clever (in the annoying “Bloom County” mode) were it not for the breadth and scope of Watterson’s vision and the breathtaking, stunning quality of his artwork. I’ve just finished reading The Complete Calvin & Hobbes and the collection leaves me absolutely floored by the sheer power of Watterson’s incredible craft, skill and discipline; not just his unbelievable penmanship and pictorial control, but his mastery of the idiom of the strip cartoon (whose history and nuance he seems obsessively aware of) gives “Calvin and Hobbes” a narrative power and visionary drive that never overruns the simple, unpretentious boundaries of the classic four-panel gag.

The obvious comparison is Schultz (and Watterson acknowledges this), but “Peanuts” lacks the sophistication and elegance of “Calvin and Hobbes”—there are 50 years’ worth of “Peanuts” strips (the “longest single story told by a single author in history,” according to the Schultz obits ten years ago), and it’s impossible to go through all that material without noticing how it peaks and sags, and how it repeats itself, and how the different frameworks don’t all function together, adding up to a discordant universe where the kids aren’t really kids but aren’t adults either and the fantasy elements (the Kite-Eating Tree, the Cheshire Cat) don’t mesh with the straight-up imaginary narratives (like Snoopy’s World War I adventures, which we sometimes get to see, but not in any coherent or consistent way). Also, Watterson can draw much better than Schultz.

That’s really the “trick” to “Calvin and Hobbes” (and it’s the hardest trick of all—the Beatles/Spielberg trick: pure skill). Watterson is easily the equal of Ernest Shepard and Daumier, but he can also exactly reproduce the tonalities of Arthur Rackham or (at the other end of the pictorial scale) the expressive linework of Jack Kirby or Klaus Janson. Charles Schultz can’t come close to this and doesn’t even try; the “Peanuts” camera is fixed in place like a school play proscenium, while Watterson’s frames swoop and glide and zoom and plummet like Hitchcock on mescaline. I can’t think of another visual artist (in any medium) who can change styles like changing a sweater, moving from a default rest-state of perfectly designed newpaper-strip archetypes (three fingers; open framing; Disney proportions; heat- and action-lines) into at least a dozen shimmering and shifting pictorial modes (even the “Spaceman Spiff” storylines change styles from one frame to the next, from Hugo Gernsback covers to Berni Wrightson nightmare-landscapes). And he draws dinosaurs better than Frank Miller, which is saying a lot.

All of this visual discipline works in support of the strip’s fundamental conceit, which is (of course) Calvin’s imagination. It’s unclear how much self-awareness the boy is supposed to have; sometimes, like the nameless Fight Club protagonist (spoiler warning) Calvin seems legitimately unaware of his own animus in Hobbes’ actions. The tiger physically changes from stuffed to real, panel to panel (unlike, for example, Snoopy’s “Sopwith Camel” doghouse), and the two contrasting character designs emphasize that we can’t be sure what we’re seeing, but Watterson doesn’t favor either version of “reality”—like L. Frank Baum or C. S. Lewis, the author leaves it up to the reader to decide where reality ends, which means that it ends wherever we want it to. This is made poignantly clear in the very last strip, where Calvin and Hobbes face a virgin snowscape where “everything familiar has disappeared” and “the world looks brand new” (It’s “like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!” Hobbes exults). As the boy and his tiger propel their ubiquitous sled away into the endless whiteness (like Tolkien’s protagonists vanishing “into the West” or Peter Pan sailing “straight on ’till morning”), we’re forced into the joyful realization that, whether the tiger is a stuffed toy or living, breathing (and philosophizing) flesh, it’s all reality; all just black lines and printer’s dots; all imagination. Bill Watterson had the discipline to stop himself after ten years, and what he created in that decade is Platonically perfect; an ageless, timeless double-world of ink and dreams.