Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Book review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

Martell, Nevin. Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. New York: Continuum, 2009.  $24.95.

ISBN-10: 082642984X, ISBN-13: 978-0826429841


Nevin Martell has written a curious book, although one would probably best consider it a biography. Bill Watterson so consistently shunned the media that one is put in mind of the Shakespeare biography industry in which a few facts are churned in an attempt to generate a larger picture of a life. Readers of a certain age may end up recalling Leonard Nimoy's syndicated television show, In Search Of, in which apparently mythical beasts such as the Loch Ness Monster or the yeti were diligently pursued for an hour. A better analogy might be In Search of Lost Time, as, like Proust, Martell seeks both Watterson's youth, and by extension, his own.


To his credit, while lacking Watterson's cooperation, Martell avoided writing a book that just looks at his favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips. The book covers Watterson's school life and his earlier attempts at comic strips and editorial cartooning. Martell goes into some detail looking at the influences that Watterson claimed – Charles Schulz, Walt Kelly and George Herriman, relying largely on Watterson's writings in published collections. He covers the main characters, storylines and tropes of Calvin and Hobbes, as well as the history of the strip and Watterson's relationships with the media and his syndicate. Both of these relationships were prickly, as were his relationships with other cartoonists as he rarely participated in social activities nor accepted the awards they voted him.


Martell demonstrates how Watterson's eventual pursuit of a Platonic image of a comic strip, in which licensing and commercialism never played a factor, led to his quitting the field. This unrealistic view is gainsaid by the actual history of comics which were merchandised as often as possible from their 19th century beginnings in both the US and the Great Britain. Universal Press Syndicate and Andrews McMeel representatives are circumspect in their quotes, but one is clearly left with their negative opinion about the staggering amount of money Watterson "left on the table" by refusing to merchandise his strip.


Since Watterson would not talk to Martell, the author tried to talk to his family and eventually did speak with the cartoonist's mother. He also met with Watterson's friends such as comics historian Rich West and others from Watterson's childhood. Martell also talked to many other cartoonists about Watterson's influence, whether or not they actually know him, and the book takes on a somewhat scattered voice. Martell ends the book with his trip to Chagrin Falls, OH where he speaks with his mother.


In the end, one is left uncertain as to how to consider Watterson. He was at the top of his career, a career the book amply shows how hard he had tried to achieve, and he left it. As a result, he avoided the downturn in quality that many strips have at periods in their lifespans. The reader is then left with the question of whether this is actually a good idea – the comic strip survives as a decade-long achievement – but what is then left unachieved is of course unknown and unknowable. In spite of Watterson's refusal to speak for himself, Martell has written an engaging and informative book while avoiding most of the traps that catch fan writers. The book includes a bibliography and an index. (This reviewer is thanked in the acknowledgements for helping with research).


Michael Rhode

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