THE FUNNY PAGES: Calvin and Hobbes

It's normal as one grows older to look wistfully at elements of the past. Like

virtually everyone else my age, when I was young I cherished those black

and white panel comic strips found daily and larger four-color strips

printed Sundays in the many newspapers that flourished across America.

Almost from the beginning of the 20th Century, these strips amused and

captured the imaginations of tens of millions of readers. Strips like Dick

Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Blondie, Nancy, Prince Valiant, Steve Canyon, Flash

Gordon and dozens of others became iconic in American culture. When

newspapers went on strike in 1945 in New York, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia

famously read the comic pages over the radio so kids wouldn't miss a day.

Gasoline Alley, also below, was hugely popular for decades, though people might

puzzle about that today.

In my house, we subscribed to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Neither paper published comics. So, on Sunday, after church, my mom would

drive us to my grandmother's house. I would immediately grab the large

Sunday color funnies from the normal newspapers my grandparents had

delivered! I would spread them out on the floor or dining room table and

read most of them (I skipped Mary Worth, Rex Parker M.D., Brenda Starr, Reporter,

and other melodramas). I loved B.C., Blondie, Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, Hi and Lois,

and a dozen others.

My first job was as a newspaper delivery boy. I delivered Newsday, the Long Island

tabloid, and read the comics every day. I still read a number of strips in The

Newark Star-Ledger every day, but I'm afraid these strips are vestiges of a time

gone by. There aren't many newspapers delivered to houses anymore. Those that

print comic strips have dramatically reduced them in size. Many of the premier

writers and artists and inkers have retired or died. I'm guessing very few of my

students are even familiar with the funny pages. What a loss!

Of all the comic strips ever printed, the greatest in my mind is Calvin and Hobbes,

written and drawn by Bill Watterson from 1985 to 1995. The premise was simple.

The strip recorded the adventures of an imaginative but rebellious six-year-old, Calvin,

who infuriates his parents, peers, teacher, and baby-sitter while in the company of

his pet tiger Hobbes. When any human is around, Hobbes is just a plush toy tiger,

but when the two are alone, Calvin's imagination produces a full-blown tiger with

an acerbic wit and a dim view of humanity. At its peak, the strip appeared in more

than 2400 newspapers daily.

Calvin and Hobbes soon took on iconic status, though Watterson eschewed

marketing the characters the way Charles Schultz, say, did with his Peanuts

characters. Bill was from the world of advertising and didn't want to cheapen his

artistic creations. There are no Calvin and Hobbes TV Specials either. My favorite

strips were those involving exchanges between Calvin and his long-suffering "Dad".

His "Mom" was sharp too.

The names of the title characters are obviously the names of two famous

philosophers, and there was a strong philosophical bent to many of the strips,

as there was in two famous strips that preceded Watterson's, Pogo and

Peanuts. Thus they could be enjoyed by children and adults both, a nifty trick.

There were many motifs that ran through the strip, sparked by Calvin's vivid

imagination. He travelled through the cosmos as a spaceman and ventured

back in time to the Paleolithic Era. One of my favorites was Calvin's creation

of grotesque and macabre snowmen tableaux. When my son, a Calvin fan,

was a grade schooler, he created a vicious snow creature with a bloody knife

in 3-D as part of the children's winter locker decorating contest. I got a call from

the school (I was an administrator at the time) suggesting maybe I should encourage

my son to fashion something more benign before the second-graders arrived the

next morning.

Here is the link to a wonderful tribute video:

You can read the complete ten-year run of Calvin and Hobbes on the Go Comics site. For that matter,

you can read all the other great strips as well. Here's the link:

Devote the time. You will return many times for the rest of your life.