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Review of Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

By Laura Perna

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

On the last day of 1995, newspapers ran the last installment of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, to the disappointment of fans worldwide, myself included. The strip’s creator, Bill Watterson, had resisted fame and a high public profile since he began drawing the popular strip, and as of its discontinuation, he withdrew even further into his private life. Thirteen years later, editor, music journalist, and Sunday strip enthusiast Nevin Martell embarked on the ambitious mission of writing Watterson’s biography. Leaving few stones unturned, he investigated the elusive cartoonist’s professional and personal life, and in 2009, he released Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and his Revolutionary Comic Strip.

The author organizes his book into more or less chronological chapters sprinkled with analyses of individual Calvin and Hobbes strips and personal anecdotes. He frames his tale like a suspense novel: will he ever get that Watterson interview? Some critics find this device loathsome, but Martell puts much more energy into telling Watterson’s (and his own) story than into creating drama to entice his readers forward. The first chapter focuses on Watterson’s family history and childhood to young adulthood. Martell is careful to note the artist’s earliest ventures into drawing and cartooning as a child, adolescent, and college student. Chapters two, four, and five guide the reader through the development of Watterson’s career. Martell describes his early strips that went unpublished, how bits of his early work evolved into Calvin and Hobbes, and his eventual success. Hints about the cartoonist’s disdain for fame and merchandising are more fully fleshed out in chapters six and seven, along with his retreat from public life. Martell alternates the retracing of Watterson’s career with considerations of his place within American cartooning culture: chapter three covers his influences, and chapter eight explores the impact he made on his peers and later cartoonists. In chapters nine and ten, Martell redirects the reader’s attention to the research process, detailing his trip to the cartoonist’s hometown and an unexpected family interview.

When I picked up this book, I admit I had high expectations. I predicted that it would either enthrall or thoroughly disappoint me, and it managed to do both. Martell’s enthusiasm for his subject is the source of his greatest strength as a researcher but also greatest weakness as a writer.

Martell makes clear in the prologue that his subject is not an easy man to track down, but he makes excellent use of the sources available to him. He culls existing interviews, essays, speeches, and book introductions for the cartoonist’s thoughts and convictions on a number of topics, from fame in the comic strip industry to Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. The author recreates a more comprehensive picture of Watterson’s professional development and personal life first and foremost by conducting his own interviews. He speaks to a vast range of people, including Watterson’s old friends and family members, his colleagues and representatives from his productive years in the comic strip industry, his cartoonist peers, and contemporary comics artists, most of whom identified Calvin and Hobbes as a major influence. Martell’s series of extensive interviews “offered a counterpoint to the artist’s public persona, or lack thereof” (182) without actually speaking to the artist himself.

Martell also fleshes out Watterson’s biography by contextualizing the newspaper syndicate world in which the artist was immersed by the early eighties. The first several pages of chapter two give a fairly detailed account of a new comic strip’s journey from artist to syndicate to newspaper. In chapter six, Martell resumes this discussion, focusing on the licensing and merchandising opportunities (or, burdens, if you’re Watterson) that come with a successful comic strip. This look into the inner-workings of the industry itself is essential to understanding Watterson’s story and is valuable for aspiring cartoonists who find themselves reading Looking for Calvin and Hobbes.

Sometimes, the lack of information about Watterson and his unwillingness to participate in this project forces Martell to get creative with the material he was able to collect. He often works well with the scraps he has found, for example, by his mentioning of paths not taken. He recounts how United Features Syndicate rejected Calvin and Hobbes in 1983 (51- 65). In relaying Watterson’s communication with United’s upper management in the early 80s, Martell gives more details about the daily operations of newspaper syndicates, and he elaborates on reactions to the strip within the business. Later on, he mentions a drawing of Calvin that Watterson sketched on the spot at an interview with Plains Dealer writer Richard Ellers. Rather than have his photograph taken, Watterson held his sketch in front of his face with only his eyes peeking over the top (93). While this little artifact has been lost over the years, the story surrounding its creation helps characterize the subject of the biography.

Despite his resourcefulness, Martell still seems insecure about the scarcity of information on Watterson. At several points in the book, the author supplements his research by including observations or impressions that drift off topic or disrupt the flow of the biography. Some of his analyses are intriguing, but they go nowhere. For example, in the middle of the chapter on Watterson’s influences, the author pauses to consider what artists may have held some sway over his artistic choices (75- 81). He discusses Calvin’s similarity to McCay’s Little Nemo, to James Thurber’s Walter Mitty, and to Merrie Melodies cartoon character Ralph Phillips. While some of his insights are food for thought and would certainly stand as valid paper topics in and of themselves, I got the distinct impression that Martell was trying to bulk up his chapter to cover for lack of substantial material. He even admits that “… there is no evidence that Watterson ever saw either cartoon or read Thurber” (79). Martell has plenty to report about Watterson’s affirmed influences, homages he makes to earlier strips, and non-comic sources of inspiration without these distracting inferences; my inner editor implored him to trust his material to stand on its own.

At times, Martell’s attempt to be thorough in describing his research process produces similar effects. In chapter nine, he recounts his trip to the Cartoon Research Library (since renamed) at Ohio State University, which houses Watterson’s archives. While taking a break from his research, he stumbles across an Andy Warhol exhibition at the University’s center for the arts. Martell shares with the reader his thoughts about Watterson in relation to Andy Warhol, specifically, regarding fame and pop culture reception (198). It’s a fascinating binary, but it deserves greater development than Martell can provide within the scope of his project. Again, the rumination on this observation distracts more than it strengthens.

Not all of Martell’s accounts of his research process are so disjointed. He is intent on keeping his reader closely informed about his own journey and methods, and sometimes this works well. Chapter eight, for example, begins with an explanation of how he developed material in the subsequent pages. “… I was really looking forward to… talking to all the cartoonists that Watterson had influenced… I started by compiling a list of longtime cartoonists whose work I knew” (167). He tells, throughout the course of the book, not only who talked to him and what they said, but he also mentions who declined interviews and why. Transparency regarding research methodology is important in a historical study; when readers see the mechanisms that have produced a work, they can make more informed decisions about that work.

In regards to the content of Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, Martell has done his homework and for the most part succeeds as much as one could with such an unwilling subject. I certainly know much more about Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes than I did when I picked up the book. Martell’s style and tone are not so consistent. He is informal and conversational and reveals details about himself as they come up in the course of his research. Sometimes this is effective; for example, near the end of the book, Martell relays a nightmare: “… Watterson is on the phone and I don’t have any notes or questions prepared. Nonetheless, I don’t want to blow my sole opportunity, so I pull myself together and start the interview… Then, as suddenly as he called, he ends the conversation… my gaze travels down to my digital recorder and my heart stops- I realize I didn’t record any of this. My scream of disbelief wakes me up” (191- 192). This peek into Martell’s internal landscape reveals the state of mind of the book’s author, and in turn, informs how the book was crafted. In addition, such anecdotes offer details of the experience of researching a difficult topic. Again, for a historical inquiry like this book, a reader can benefit from information about the author and insight into the writing process. Not to mention it’s pretty entertaining.

Unfortunately, Martell’s informality also contributes to the weakest aspects of his work: he seems compelled to include details that are completely irrelevant to his greater goal of writing a biography about Watterson. He frequently makes asides about himself, his wife, and his family, which are likely meant to be amusing and endearing but instead are distracting. For example, he describes Calvin’s “unquenchable thirst for comics books and gory B-movies of questionable moral fiber” (106), including a list of the character’s favorite films. In a parenthetical aside, Martell offers a list of his own favorite cheesy but enticingly titled horror flicks. The mention of this commonality would be appropriate in another format – a blog, a conversation, a book about cheesy but enticingly titled horror flicks – but here, it’s distracting. I, for one, wasn’t reading this book to learn about Martell.

The author also seems to think that pop culture references will strengthen his book’s appeal, but comparing Watterson or Calvin to any recognizable figure that came to mind only makes his prose more disjointed. For example, Martell begins his chapter on Watterson’s influences with the following preamble: “Without Shakespeare there wouldn’t have been 10 Things I Hate About You. Without The Godfather there would be no Sopranos. And without the Beatles there would be no Oasis, Tears for Fears would never have written “Sowing the Seeds of Love” and I wouldn’t own all those dodgy Paul McCartney solo albums. No matter how singular someone’s genius is, that person inevitably stands on the shoulders of giants” (67). What do any of these things have to do with Watterson, his strip, or Martell’s research process? Why not start with the last sentence quoted here, and get to the point?

In a later chapter where he considers the characters of the strip themselves, Martell muses “… Calvin and Hobbes are as inseparable as they are distinct, like the id and the super-ego, yin and yang, Abbott and Costello. One without the other is like peanut butter without jelly, C-3PO without R2D2 or Jagger without Richards” (109). Martell’s insight about Calvin and Hobbes’ character dynamic is dead on, but enough with the pop culture references!

At times, Martell indulges a little too much in his own nostalgia when he discusses Calvin and Hobbes itself, for example, when he draws a connection between Watterson’s songs and poems and the poetry Walt Kelly penned for his strip Pogo. After recounting a few lines from the opening poem in Yukon Ho!, he has this to say: “Their [Calvin’s and Hobbes’s] swaggering declaration of independence imagines a world where they wouldn’t have to eat Mom’s bad cooking or put up with ‘monstrous, crabby teachers.’ Just the kind of world that seems like paradise to a kid” (74). He calls attention to a similarity between the two artists, but instead of offering further analysis or moving on, he quickly drifts into his own mushy reminiscences. Once more, Martell’s attempts at invoking warm, fuzzy feelings only left me impatient.

Part of the problem with the author’s overly personal, informal banter is that he implies early on that he isn’t going to do it, at least to my mind. In the prologue, Martell reproduces a letter he wrote to Watterson, requesting an interview. In it, he specifies, “The book is intended to be a serious study of Calvin and Hobbes… I promise I will forgo the kind of fanboy blathering that litters the blogosphere, though it won’t be without warmth and humor” (9). I believe him when he suggests that he doesn’t see his jokes and anecdotes as frivolous, but as an effort to make his book approachable and likable. The source of my frustration with Martell seems to be a difference of opinion in what counts as ‘serious,’ and what equals ‘blathering.’

As sloppy as Martell’s writing can be, he makes clear that he agonized over every word. He ached to get Watterson’s story right, not only for the sake of accurately reporting history, but also for the scores of Calvin and Hobbes fans who would gravitate toward his book. More than once, he mentions his insecurity about disappointing or even angering his audience. In the prologue, he writes about his earliest conversations with friends about the project. “What they were really saying was, ‘If you screw this book up, you will be pissing on some of the fondest memories of my youth. Don’t *&@I#? with my inner child…'” (5). Midway through the book, he returns to this anxiety, fretting, “I am bound to leave something out – probably leaving you, my reader, disgusted or perhaps even shaking your fist at these pages” (105). If only he had left out more of his personal trivia and pop culture plugs, his fears about his book might have been unfounded.

Certainly some readers will have a higher tolerance for Martell’s quirks, while others may not even finish the book because of his informality. Despite its shortcomings, Looking for Calvin and Hobbes is worth reading for Martell’s exhaustive research and insights. His work will be valuable to comics historians, aspiring cartoonists, and all those fans across the globe who still miss the blond kid and his tiger.

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