A Narrator in Search of a Protagonist: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

Posted by on January 13th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes:  The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip; Nevin Martell; Continuum Books; $24.95, 243 pp., Hardcover; ISBN: 9780826429841

The best part of this book is its bibliography.

If Nevin Martell had edited an anthology of the many interviews with, articles about, and essays by, Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, it would have been a real boon to fans and scholars alike.

What we get instead is the book-length equivalent of a People Magazine article, with its tone of adoration and its chatty, not-as-witty-as-it-thinks, prose.  The main difference is that the star didn’t stop by for a photo shoot and interview.

The story becomes, then, in part, about this absence, about Watterson’s resistance to celebrity, and about Martell’s efforts to tell a story about him, without him.  To compensate, the biographer ends up talking far too much about himself, and his process, anxieties, and motivations.  His holy quest — tracking Watterson’s old friends, and editors, and teachers, and family, and early work, and old yearbooks — starts to feel like a creepy infatuation.

And of course Martell expects us to share his obsession.  He goes into the book assuming that we all see how wonderful and fascinating Bill Watterson is.  And this may be his most serious mistake.

Watterson, for one, does not think his life particularly relevant. Told of Martell’s efforts to reach him, he asked his former editor, Lee Salem:  “Why is he doing this?  Who cares?”

That’s a refreshing attitude in these narcissistic and celebrity-obsessed days.  Everyone else wants her own reality show (and seemingly gets it).  But Bill Watterson just wants to be left the hell alone.

Of course, Watterson is selling himself short.  He did create, write, and draw Calvin and Hobbes, which is widely (and rightly) considered one of the best newspaper comic strips in the history of the art form.  And then, he displayed rare principles and personal integrity by steadfastly refusing to exploit the strip with merchandise, advertising, or spin-offs.  And finally, he knew when it was time to stop doing Calvin and Hobbes, and he stopped doing it.

Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is at its strongest when it considers these decisions, but even then it misses Watterson’s fundamental point: it’s the strip that really deserves the attention.

Martell would have done better if he had taken his title more seriously.  There’s a lot in this book about looking for Bill Watterson, but little to suggest any searching investigation of the comic he created.  The closest it comes is with some superficial comparisons with Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat.

Instead of examining the strip, Martell concentrates on the creator — which means, in effect, obsessing over Watterson’s relative anonymity.  Such an approach could only be self-defeating, and it is.  The result is a lot of inflated praise, polite gossip, and meaningless trivia.

Maybe there are people who really care about Watterson’s college roommates, but I don’t.  What I care about is an imaginary little boy and his even more imaginary tiger.

(Isn’t that enough?)

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