The prodigal Watterson

Here’s how some of the first few lines of my new book go:

“I grew up in Chagrin Falls, which is a small town, an outer suburb of Cleveland. It was originally a mill town in the 1800s, and a paper-bag factory was still going when I was growing up. They used to dump their dyes right in the river, so as a kid I remember seeing the river turn red and so on, if you can believe it.”

Then, a few paragraphs down:

“Our house was on a one-acre lot, at the outskirts of the village, with a big woods behind us. We didn’t own the woods, but it extended all the way to the river, and you couldn’t see an end to it. Our yard dropped continuously from the back door to the woods, so it was a truly fabulous sledding hill.”

And finally:

“Sometimes in the [comic] strip I tried to illustrate those big empty summer days spent messing around. It seems very anachronistic now that kids’ lives are organized to the minute.” 

Pop quiz: Who do these recollections belong to?

If you said “Calvin and Hobbes” creator Bill Watterson, you’re brilliant. That or you’ve recently purchased “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue,” just released this month.

It isn’t the same kind of book I purchased as a precocious tween, the collections of newspaper strips that told the story of an imaginative 6-year-old and his stuffed tiger. This one’s more of a melange, a hybrid of biography, art and nostalgia. It’s the privacy-valuing Mr. Watterson opening up in a way die hard fans didn’t think was possible without hypnosis or a truth serum.

The book begins with a thoughtful interview conducted by Jenny Robb of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum of Ohio State University, followed by additional chapters on the creative process. Mr. Watterson discusses his utility belt of tools and materials, the storytelling process, and the daily grind; other equally fascinating gears in the Grandfather Clock of Creativity.

This is, finally, the Wizard of Calvin deciding to pull back the curtain and reveal himself.

Dec. 31, 1995

“Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” is on my desk right now. It’s marked with a laminated comic strip, the final one, the famous one with that famous line that ends the strip’s 10-year run: “Let’s go exploring!”

I cut that strip out from my hometown paper, the Colorado Springs Gazette, when I was 12. It was New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 1995.

That was actually a sad day, not an ounce of hyperbole. I devoured the newspaper comics as a kid, and “Calvin and Hobbes” was first on the daily regimen. We had two full pages devoted to comics – wait for it – BACK THEN (ugh), and it was in the section’s top left corner, either above or below “Dilbert.” Turn two pages of the “Lifestyle” section and there it was, the next bit of Calvin’s story.

This was comparable to eating dessert before dinner, and I didn’t care. It was the only strip on those two pages I actually loved. Others I just liked. Others I read out of this strange sense of almost habitual obligation, never mind their dull characters or hasty art or flaccid jokes.

Then came Dec. 31, 1995, the day that felt like a funeral to a weird 12-year-old that talked to himself and made up stories in the splash of sunlit forest behind his house and wasn’t very interested in much else.

Old friends, new friends 

I continued to remember the comic strip fondly. It scarred me, really, became the one that got away.

I’d abandon newspaper comics entirely. Eventually, all comics for the most part. They became a back burner hobby, something I’d poke with a stick every once in awhile before hiding it and turning back to newer flashier things like track and cross country, school, girls.

I found a renewed vigor for the medium in college; mostly superheroes at first, then finite stories that burned along at a slower churn. Mr. Watterson and Calvin stayed on my mind, invisible tattoos that never really healed properly and always needed touching up. Some of the strips morphed into weird, minute-or-so church sermons.

I’d find friends affected by the characters in the same way. Our mutual fondness helped open the door. It was weird, discovering there are others who still have a majority of the strip dialogue memorized and can still find the same kind of warmth in the art and stories.

And I think we all, at times, wondered what Mr. Watterson was up to; how he was faring almost 20 years after he’d written the epilogue to something so timeless and beautiful that we never really got over it.

Welcome home

One of these friends tipped me off to “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes.” He told me last week, via a Washington Post story.

I bought it the next day, only just started reading it.

Why I waited is pretty clear. I think I’m wanting to make it last, really. It’s a 20-year reunion, after all, with characters who aren’t real but feel quite the opposite, whom I care for dearly. The book’s going to end, so I want to soak it in; every word, every angle.

There’s wisdom in there, just like before. The once quiet Mr. Watterson is now on record as having said things like this, a statement about the woods surrounding his childhood home – woods that sound kind of like a grander version of the ones I played in when I wasn’t reading “Calvin and Hobbes” – that seems to be more about discovery:

“To be honest, we didn’t tramp around the woods all that much. Because it was low and heading toward the river, it was somewhat marshy and brambly. You’d get stuck full of prickers or tangled in brush, with your feet starting to sink into muck. We’d venture in occasionally, but it’s not like I was Christopher Robin. But I loved having that much nature around us. It mitigated the suburban feel, which I imagine is why my parents chose the property. Having something a bit wild and mysterious and beautiful at the end of the yard was a memorable thing.” 

No, no, it’s fine. I’ve just got something in my eye.

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