Lincoln Pierce is the creator of Big Nate, which he has been drawing for
over 20 years. There are more than 2 million Big Nate books in print.
Charles Schulz, creator of the comic strip Peanuts, once said of becoming a cartoonist: “You need to be a good artist, not a great artist; and a good writer, not a great writer.” That’s a pretty fair definition of a dream job in my book, and perhaps even an apt description of the vast majority of ink-stained dreamers whose work has found its way into print during the past century or so. But talk about understatement. Schulz’s modest words scarcely hint at what can result when someone comes along whose mastery of the comic art form makes a mockery of the aforementioned good-not-great formula—someone like Schulz himself, or George Herriman, or Walt Kelly. Or Bill Watterson, creator of one of history’s most beloved comic strips—and, inarguably, a masterpiece—Calvin and Hobbes.
When Watterson’s creation first appeared in the funny pages—it hit the ground running, without any clunky “let’s-meet-the-characters” gags—it was a revelation. It deftly paid tribute to the great comics of the past while managing to be entirely fresh and wholly original. I was in my early twenties when the strip debuted, had been a student of newspaper comics since I was old enough to read . . . and I’d never met characters like Calvin or Hobbes. Calvin was in equal measure completely authentic and wildly improbable, a pint-sized dynamo whose vivid imagination was the strip’s mighty engine. His cosmic cowboy adventures as Spaceman Spiff and his time-bending trips to the Jurassic period were proof positive of Calvin’s powers of invention. But these flights of fancy paled alongside the kid’s greatest creation: Hobbes, the living, breathing embodiment of every child’s wish for the perfect playmate. Hobbes was exceedingly kind, fiercely loyal, and . . . oh yeah, he was a TIGER. (I’d like to pause here and applaud Mr. Watterson for Calvin’s choice of toys. What if Hobbes had been a G.I. Joe?)
Back in 1985, the comics pages were looking a bit stale. Many strips were little more than sequences of talking heads, an unfortunate by-product of newspapers’ fondness for saving space (and money) by shrinking them down to postage stamp size. And the Golden Age of Comics was long since over; there hadn’t been a breakout hit in years. Calvin and Hobbes blazed across this rather bleak comics landscape like a flaming meteor. From day one, it was the most compelling strip in any newspaper. Part of this was due to Watterson’s writing, which was pitch-perfect and razor sharp. Part of it was his draftsmanship, which immediately placed him on the Mount Rushmore of comic artists alongside greats like Winsor McCay and Milt Caniff. But for me, the truest explanation for the magic of Calvin and Hobbes is also the simplest: it is an absolute joy to read. Comics are supposed to be fun, after all, and there is no comic strip more rollicking, more exuberant, more flat-out FUN than Calvin and Hobbes. It’s happy reading. Watterson drew his final strip on December 31, 1995. I miss it, of course. But as a reader, I am comforted by the fact that Calvin’s last line—“Let’s go exploring!”—is an affirmation that the strip’s adventurous spirit remains forever intact. And as a cartoonist, I am inspired by Watterson’s decision to bring his creation full circle in his time and on his terms. He told all the stories he wanted to tell in precisely the way he wanted to tell them. In so doing, he left behind a treasure to be discovered and rediscovered, day after day, forever. Happy reading, indeed.
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