On The Timeless Appeal Of 'Calvin & Hobbes'

Nov 16, 2013
Originally published on November 16, 2013 4:39 pm

Bill Watterson brought an end to Calvin & Hobbes in 1995, after just 10 years of writing and drawing the comic strip. But to his many devoted fans, that shockheaded boy and his tiger are as important today as they were when they first appeared in daily papers all around the country.

Filmmaker Joel Allen Schroeder collected the stories of Calvin & Hobbes' fans and dug into the strip's mystique for his new documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson, which premiered in theaters and on demand Friday. He talked with NPR's Don Gonyea about the comic strip, its elusive creator and the lasting appeal of stories about a boy and his tiger pal.


Interview Highlights

On the strip's recurring themes

When you opened up especially the Sunday paper, it was almost like you didn't know what sort of genre you might be seeing. Was it going to be [one of Calvin's alter-egos] Spaceman Spiff, Interplanetary Explorer? Was it going to be Calvin and Hobbes time-traveling to whatever era Calvin was most interested in checking out at the time? Watterson would try all sorts of different things. I mean, Calvin's world is just so huge, and whatever he wanted to explore, Watterson was able to come up with a great story and great visuals to match it.

On the philosophical themes Watterson dove into

So many of those strips were great philosophical discussions between Calvin and Hobbes. And the great thing about that type of strip is that, as a child I think you love some of the physical humor going on there, but then as an adult you can catch on to more of the discussion. ... And that's one of the reasons why it's just so timeless and it still appeals to people. ...

A lot of people will talk about the raccoon story, where Calvin finds a dying raccoon and takes him home and puts him in a shoe box. In the end the poor raccoon doesn't make it. ... You see Calvin just so attached to the raccoon, and [he] sort of begs it not to break his heart. And you're reading that strip and following along, and you're sort of hoping the same thing.

On Watterson's refusal to license Calvin & Hobbes images

I think it goes to his respect for the medium. I think he had a sense that that sort of licensing would diminish the significance, the meaning of his characters. That suddenly if Hobbes was a plush doll, does that answer that mystery of "Is Hobbes real? Is he a toy?" ... What Calvin says in the strip, does that have as much meaning if he's on a Happy Meal? I think now one of the reasons why fans still hold Calvin & Hobbes in such high esteem is that it hasn't been watered down. We see Calvin and Hobbes in the books, and that's where they belong.

On the final Calvin & Hobbes strip

I think it sums up Watterson's legacy so perfectly. It's a fresh layer of snow, and Calvin and Hobbes are out with the toboggan, and Calvin looks to Hobbes and says, "It's a magical world, old buddy ... let's go exploring." And those last words are just, I think, a challenge to all of us to make sure that we have that curiosity. And [they are] words, I think, words to live by.

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Transcript

DON GONYEA, HOST:

Remember "Calvin and Hobbes"? How could you forget?

JOEL SCHROEDER: Calvin is a 6-year-old who some might call a bit of a troublemaker. But he's also extremely intelligent with an endless imagination, and an incredible lesson for life. Hobbes is his ballast, his voice of reason, his co-conspirator and loyal companion. There's Mom and Dad, Suzy, Rosalind, Moe, Mrs. Wormwood and a few other characters, but nobody else sees and understands Hobbes the way Calvin does. And it seems the reverse is probably true as well.

GONYEA: Bill Watterson wrote and drew the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes" for just 10 years. He penned his final strip in 1995. But to his many devoted fans, the boy and his tiger are as important today as they were back when they appeared in daily papers all around the country. Filmmaker Joel Schroeder digs into the enduring appeal of the comic strip in his new documentary, "Dear Mr. Watterson." I asked him to take us inside the world Watterson created.

SCHROEDER: When you opened up - especially the Sunday paper, it was almost like you didn't know what sort of genre you might be seeing. What it going to be Spaceman Spiff, Interplanetary Explorer? Was it going to be Calvin and Hobbes time-traveling to whatever era Calvin was most interested in checking out at the time? Watterson would try all sorts of different things. I mean, Calvin's world is just so huge and whatever he wanted to explore, Watterson was able to come up with a great story - and great visuals to match it.

GONYEA: Well, let me ask about one kind of specific, recurring theme if you opened a strip on any given Sunday. And there's Calvin and his toboggan and Hobbes. What did that signal to you?

SCHROEDER: So many of those strips were great, philosophical discussions between Calvin and Hobbes. And the great thing about that type of strip is that as a child, I think you love some of the physical humor going on there; but then as an adult, you can catch on to more of the discussion of what Calvin and Hobbes are talking about. And that's one of the reasons why it's just so timeless and it still appeals to people.

GONYEA: You mention the philosophical themes that Watterson might dive into. He dealt with matters of life and death.

SCHROEDER: Yeah. I mean, a lot of people will talk about the raccoon story, where Calvin finds a dying raccoon and, you know, takes him home and puts him in a shoebox. In the end, the poor raccoon doesn't make it. And it's heartbreaking when you see Calvin just so attached to the raccoon, and sort of begs it not to break his heart. And you're reading that strip and following along, and you're sort of hoping the same thing.

GONYEA: One stand that Bill Watterson took that kind of divided the comic creator community, he refused to license images of Calvin and Hobbes. They were never on lunch pails; no stuffed tigers named Hobbes. This was a very purist and adamant position he took. Why?

SCHROEDER: I think he had a sense that that sort of licensing would diminish the significance, the meaning of his characters; that suddenly, if Hobbes was a plush doll, does that answer that mystery of, is Hobbes real? Is he a toy? If Calvin is endorsing products, does what Calvin says in the strip - does that have as much meaning if he's on a Happy Meal? I think now, one of the reasons why fans still hold "Calvin and Hobbes" in such high esteem is that it hasn't been watered down.

GONYEA: I want you to talk about Watterson's final "Calvin and Hobbes" strip.

SCHROEDER: I think it sums up Watterson's legacy so perfectly. It's a fresh layer of snow, and Calvin and Hobbes are out with the toboggan; and Calvin looks to Hobbes and says: It's a magical world, old buddy. Let's go exploring. And those last words are just, I think, a challenge to all of us to make sure that we have that curiosity. And its words, I think words to live by.

GONYEA: Joel Schroeder, thanks so much for joining us.

SCHROEDER: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GONYEA: Joel's film, "Dear Mr. Watterson," premiered in theaters and on demand yesterday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.