Calvin & Hobbes is my favourite comic strip of all time. I discovered it while in London, and I clearly remember the first time I ever laid eyes on Calvin. It was 1989 and I was covering Wimbledon.
I picked up an afternoon paper, back when those things existed, and got on a double-decker bus. Was flicking through the pages and found a one deck comic, in classic newspaper style. Calvin and his mum and dad were driving in a car, and Calvin was ranting, something along the lines of: ‘Why can’t we just go to a motel, stay there for a week, enjoy cable, heating, nice dinners? When we get back, we’ll just tell everybody we went camping. Nobody will ever know.’ His dad, scowling, looked at Calvin’s mother, who was clearly entertaining the idea as not so stupid. ‘Don’t you start,’ said the dad. Or something along those lines. It was a long, long time ago.
The next day, I made sure I got the same paper and the next instalment was another ‘Camping is Hell’ moment. But then there was a strip where the dad had a moment to himself and his love of the outdoors shone through and his confusion and disappointment that this alien who was his son so resolutely did not share that love. (Calvin, on a perfect camping morning: ‘Why isn’t there any TV up here? I hate this place.’)
And Hobbes, possibly my favourite fictional character of all time, one of the wisest and most playful and loyal characters ever, had barely made an appearance at this stage, four or five strips in.
Almost immediately, I travelled from London to America and found myself in a bookshop on Broadway. It was my first time in America, in New York, and I naturally gravitated, with wonder, to the comic strip anthology section of the bookshop. And there it was: an entire book of Calvin & Hobbes. I was thrilled just that it existed. It turns out that I got a copy of the first collection of newspaper strips, before Watterson would even emerge, well, fight his way out from the prison of newspaper demands that limited his work, and become a landmark artist, embarking on his later colourful, ambitious, beautiful Sunday strips.
It started with the first ever strip:
And yes, Calvin & Hobbes rocked from the start, with gentle philosophy and humanity and such wisdom from a six-year-old and his toy/pet tiger.
The reason for all this is that my sister (thanks, Amanda) recently sent me a link. David Foster Wallace gave a landmark commencement speech, ‘This is water‘, at Kenyon College in 2005. It’s gone crazy viral since, and is an amazing speech. It only runs for 22 minutes and it’s worth every second.
But it turns out that a former Kenyon student also gave such a speech 15 years before. In 1990, Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin & Hobbes, had given the commencement speech and, for a novelist or creative, his words resonate maybe even more than Foster Wallace’s plea to stay in touch with the world around us; not to take life for granted.
Here is the article, on Brain Pickings, discussing Watterson’s speech.
I found so much meaning within Watterson’s words. About remaining authentic, about how you judge your life’s ‘success’, about the creative struggle and about that old truism: it’s about the journey and not the destination. ‘The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive,’ he tells the students and that, again, is something I can only understand now, after a long and at times very difficult road to be where I currently stand, in my professional and personal life, as a person and father, and partner, and man. High falutin’ stuff, huh? And all off the back of a potentially deranged six-year-old in a stripey t-shirt, and his stuffed tiger.
Watterson fought a pitched battle against the contract that made him rich. When he realised that the cartoon syndicate wanted to make endless merchandise of Calvin & Hobbes, as the strip became huge, he fought them, threatened to quit, mentions in the speech that he spent as much time screaming at executives as drawing. He eventually, somehow, won that battle; determined that his boy and tiger would only ever exist within the frame of the world he created for them, where they could play and discuss philosophy and create a snowman house of horrors and have their adventures; not make money from tea-towels and greeting cards. Every T-shirt you see with Calvin & Hobbes is a knock-off so please don’t buy them. Respect the artist’s vision. But mostly I mentioned all this because he alludes to it in the article linked to above, without explaining the battle he was probably in the midst of at that time.
Mostly, his speech reminded me of one of the great truths of novel-writing. That you probably won’t make money out of it, that you will fight and kick and scratch to find the time and ideas and words, that you will battle self-belief and the demands of the real world versus the inner creativity within your head, and for no other likely result than the sheer joy of one day holding an original book of fiction, written by you, in your hands. That moment is all there is.
If your book becomes a Hollywood blockbuster and you end up living in a huge house, wearing bling and smoking Cuban cigars, well, good for you. That’s a bonus. But for me, when I get to hold that first copy of one of my books, it makes everything worthwhile. And I remember that Harry Potter was rejected by 17 publishers and that JK Rowling was an unemployed single mother when she braevely devoted herself to writing that first manuscript, rather than getting a job as a relief teacher and ensuring she had a roof over her head. I am so thrilled that she has been so rewarded, and that Watterson also became rich from Calvin, even without the novelty keyrings.
I was in New York again a few years ago and had the ghost of a chance to buy an original drawing, by Watterson, of Calvin and Hobbes dancing. I didn’t have the thousands of dollars required and regretfully let the half-chance go, and have regretted it ever since. But maybe I don’t need to ‘own’ the kid and the tiger. I carry them with me everywhere. I’m sure Watterson would be happy with that, wherever he is. I cried when I heard he had decided, voluntarily, to walk away, to say goodbye to his creation. I cried more when I read the absolutely perfect final cartoon.
It shouldn’t surprise me that his address to a bunch of graduates would be so full of heart and ethics and determination to follow creativity ahead of the many flawed definitions of success. I was also moved by his acknowledgement of the struggle to get published, to fight through the rejection letters. For any published novelists, or want-to-be novelists reading this, take heart in the fact that even the genius creators among us know that pain, know the fight and have the same daily struggle to create, to make something worthy, that we mere mortals do. In fact, it’s how you approach that battle that decides whether you are going to make it or not.
If you haven’t yet, I strongly recommend reading the article detailing his speech. Evernote it or bookmark it or, shit, go old skool and print it out. I know I’ll be returning to it regularly, just to remind myself of what matters. And then I’ll grab my metaphorical sled and my tiger buddy and go exploring.
(If you want to keep a regular eye on the cartoon strip, one fan posts a daily Calvin hit. Me? I bought the hardcover every-strip-ever-drawn collection and have it in my lounge room, regularly and lovingly thumbed through. Spaceman Spiff and Stupendous Man, I salute you.)
Great piece, Nicko. You’ve inspired me to buy the set too. By the way, Fishpond ships free to Australia … much less expensive than Amazon.