Last week we talked about Peanuts, the comic strip about Good Man Charlie Brown by good man Charles Schultz. Today, I’m going to change directions entirely and talk about my favorite comic strip from childhood, Calvin and Hobbs.
Written by Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbs ran from November 18th, 1985 to December 31, 1995. While a decade of work with one character on one project might not seem like a lot, let me put this in perspective for you. Garfield, who we’ll be discussing later in this series, has been running from June 19, 1978, until today. Foxtrot started on April 10th, 1988, and is still published on Sundays. So ten years is honestly quite a short career.
And in that short career, Watterson taught me a lot about being a creative. I owe him a great debt of thanks for that. Not only for the lessons but for many peaceful and joyous hours when I was a little person.
That being said, not everything I’m going to say is kind. But here are six things I learned from Calvin and Hobbs, and the writings of Bill Watterson.
Don’t write down to your audience
People have mentioned that I have a wide vocabulary. Not in a positive way, but that’s another story for another time. While some might assume I got this from reading difficult books early in life, the truth is that I learned lots of big words from Calvin and Hobbs. Because there are a lot of big words in there. Lots of big ideas, too.
And I got them. I learned how to look up words I didn’t understand, which is the number one way to increase your vocabulary. I learned that I could teach myself, in other words. Which is incredibly important for kids to learn.
See, here’s the crazy thing that happens when you assume most of your readers are at least as smart, if not smarter than you. You turn out to be right. And when you assume kids can learn things, they rise to the occasion.
Great art can exist within ‘pulp’ creations
As Calvin and Hobbs went on, the art style changed. Sometimes it was simple, a boy and his tiger bashing around the house and woods, flying through fields and landing, more often than not, in the lake. But the artwork, especially in Calvin’s fantasies, got better. It was deeper, more expressive. More like a painting than what you’d expect in a kid’s comic strip.
Watterson also started writing poetry. Some of it was for Calvin and Hobbs. Some of it was just good poetry.
As someone who writes genre fiction, it’s easy to feel looked down upon. Genre fiction, much like comic strips, is often not seen as real art until at least ninety years after the creator is dead.
But that’s frankly bullshit. Art is subjective, but it’s not tied to any specific medium. So if graffiti artists can create works of art, if a cartoon about a little boy with an overactive imagination can include some of the best paintings and expressions of visual art I’ve ever seen, then a genre fiction story can have literary merit. Don’t limit yourself, or your work.
Put what you love into your work
Bill Watterson likes to learn about weird stuff. If you read Calvin and Hobbs from the first strip to the last, which I have done multiple times, you’ll see Calvin’s knowledge and understanding of dinosaurs grow. That’s because Watterson’s understanding of dinosaurs grows. This is not the only thing that fascinated Watterson, and Calvin by extension. They both love detective noir, outer space, and nature. Calvin brings up politics and money from the perspective of a very bright six-year-old, which is a perspective I think a lot of adults fail to reach.
Write about what you love, and what you know. Write about the things that bother you. In my speculative fiction, I’ve written about witchcraft, depression, fearing that I’ll die alone. I’ve written about coal mining, bad landlords, and small-town living. My characters have dogs because I like dogs. Things that interest me work their way into my writing, whether I mean them to or not. So, why not lean into it? Why not have some fun with our art?
Don’t sweat details you don’t need
Throughout the whole run of Calvin and Hobbs, Calvin’s parents are never given names. We don’t know Susie’s parents, we never even see them. And of their entire class, we only ever know one other classmate’s name.
We don’t know these things because they are not important to Calvin or the way he experiences the world. He probably does know his parents’ names, but that’s not who they are to him. They are Mom and Dad. To Hobbs, they are Calvin’s Mom and Dad.
We do know that Calvin’s dad is a patent lawyer, though. It doesn’t come up a lot, but you can see how that might play into how Calvin sees his dad. Dad is a square who likes plain oatmeal and has a boring job as a patent lawyer. That’s all we need to know.
Sometimes we as writers put way too much detail into our work. Like, way more detail than we need.
Listen, if it doesn’t have any impact on the story, we don’t need to know every little detail about the world you’re writing. We don’t need to know about the character’s family members that don’t impact the story. Hell, I usually don’t even mention what eye color my characters have unless it has something to do with the plot. Will it help you enjoy Quiet Apocalypse anymore if you know she has brown eyes? No, it doesn’t matter at all. So I didn’t include it.
If you’re in the process of editing something right now, let me give you a bit of advice. Go through your draft with a red pen and see how many details you can remove without impacting the story or the pleasure of reading. I bet you take out quite a lot.
Protect what is yours
I’m sure you’ve noticed that there isn’t any Calvin and Hobbs merchandise. This isn’t because of a lack of demand. It’s because Watterson decided early on that he never wanted any toys, lunchboxes, cartoon spinoffs, or cereals tied to Calvin and Hobbs. There were lots of emotions regarding this decision. Lots of people stood to make a ton of money from merchandise. Lots of money from me, frankly. Do you know what I would spend on a Calvin and Hobbs lunchbox? Bill, if you are hurting for money you could still license that and make bank off silly nostalgic women like me. (Nostalgic being one of the words I first learned from a Calvin and Hobbs strip.)
But he never wanted that. He wanted Calving and Hobbs to be about just the comic. And I think that’s beautiful.
By the way, any of those awful decals you’ll see of Calvin peeing on various things are not licensed, and in fact, violate copyright law. So in addition to being tasteless and tacky, they’re also illegal.
It was a hell of a battle to keep Calvin from being plushy, or these days a squishmallow. But it was a battle that Watterson won. And despite my desire for a lunchbox with Calvin and Hobbs sitting in a tree on a fall day, I’m glad he won that fight. It sets a precedence for creatives like us, who might like our work to be about the work itself, and not have our characters slapped on anything that doesn’t move fast enough.
Leave when you know your project is done
I don’t feel that there’s enough Calvin and Hobbs. This is a world I could live in forever.
That being said, there are a lot of comics I thought I could say that, and eventually, it all gets a little dull.
Calvin and Hobbs ended while the characters were still fresh. When there was still passion in the story.
When there was still passion in Watterson for these characters.
There are a lot of reasons to end a story. Maybe it comes to its eventual conclusion. Maybe you as the creator lost your passion for it. Maybe the project didn’t take off with fans like you wanted it to. Maybe there are just lots of other things you want to spend your time working on.
Whatever it is, you as the creator get to decide when it’s time to walk away. When it’s time to bring your characters to their happy (or not) ever after.
So that’s it. Sorry this post was a little late, but it was also a little long. Now, I’d love to hear what you think. Have you read Calvin and Hobbs? Let us know in the comments.
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Calvin and Hobbes–best comic series EVER. And yes, lots of lessons.
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