First Review: Nevin Martell’s Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip

Let me begin this by saying that I grew up with Calvin and Hobbes. In late elementary school, a friend of mine was fascinated with the antics of the crazy childhood six year old genius and his lucid–though hungry–tiger friend. I actually didn’t start reading strips through the newspapers–at first–but actually bought Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Snow Goons book from my school’s affiliation with Scholastic Books … and I never looked back.

I loved that book because aside from the other philosophical, silly, wondrously illustrated, touching strips, there was a series of strips that depicted the boy Calvin creating a snowman and bringing it to life: with “dire” consequences. Throughout a series of strips, this snowman builds itself into a mutant “snowgoon” and proceeds to create more of its kind to terrorize Calvin and Hobbes. I think in a lot of ways, this is what others–like Nevin Martell attempted to do by searching for more biographical information on the strip’s creator: Bill Watterson.

Let me just say off the bat that originally I gave Martell’s book five stars out of five. I even disagreed with other reviewers about how he created nothing new in his book. Certainly the work suffered because Watterson declined to let himself be interviewed by Martell–as he had so many others before him–but that was not Martell’s fault. In fact, from his own account of the journey to know more about Watterson’s life, he tried everything but the kitchen-sink to get more information from Watterson himself without any success. I can even understand why Martell didn’t include any visual samples or copies of the strips in the body of his work because Watterson owns all the rights to his creations and–again–seemed less than inclined to even speak of Calvin and Hobbes never mind offer permission to let them be used in another work even in a scholarly fashion. Instead, Martell describes the strips in a written format and references them: something that I can emphasize with as a scholar as well when I referenced comics works in my own papers.

I was intrigued by the process of journey that Martell undertook to understand Watterson: talking to his peers, family members, friends, gleaning as much of Watterson’s own words from his other statements and his Calvin and Hobbes works as he could to make his points, actually going through Watterson’s cartoon archives, and even looking at the area of Chagrin Falls in which he grew up in: which was ironically deep in snow by the time that Martell came there … the same primordial snow from which many of Calvin’s most creative snowmen–and the Snowgoons–sprang from like cartoon spartoi soldiers created by sowing the dragon-teeth of ideas.

This creative conceit aside, I fortunately–or unfortunately depending on your perspective–cracked open a copy of The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book and realized something: much of what Martell says about Watterson’s innovations with regards to the comic strip form, medium, the message of his strip, and his own issues with newspaper publishing and intellectual property was already and very succinctly said by Watterson himself. I also suspect that Watterson has gone into considerable depth on the matter of Calvin and Hobbes in his interview in The Comics Journal and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. This fact in itself wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact Martell’s focus is on Watterson as a figure that he wants to write a book on. Instead, Watterson becomes something that he writes a book around: making points that Watterson had already made about the work he left behind a long time ago.

It didn’t have to be that way. Even though Watterson would probably have not given an interview on something he deemed a finished and long-discussed part of his past, Martell could have made this journey into something else entirely. For instance, he has an entire section on how Watterson’s work has affected not only comic strip publishing and the medium itself, but also how his peers perceived him and how he influenced future generations of comic strip and graphic novel writers as well as other artistic figures. It would have been even more interesting if Martell had looked at how Watterson affected popular culture with regards to all of the above subjects.

I was going to say that this could have been summarized into a paper instead of a book, but I actually liked seeing Martell talk about his own journey and dealings with attempting to find out more about Watterson and his creation. In fact, I disagree with one reviewer in that Martell’s book is not at the Undergrad level, but rather at Grad School level. I think that if he had just briefly looked at the elements he could glean from Watterson’s life (with his digressions on trying to contact Watterson) and then moved on to look at a broader perspective–he would have had a different but really interesting book. He could have actually been “finding” Calvin and Hobbes beyond its creator and into the public and artistic consciousness.

Instead, he wrote a book that makes the reader believe he is talking about Bill Watterson and instead talks about himself, other cartoonists, people and other digressions. I mean, I still to some extent respect what he tried to do by trying to piece together facts to say something about Watterson but still maintain the mystery and elusiveness around him–and in that it is unconventional–but I think this happened more from a lack of the facts beyond what already exist than anything else. Martell’s attempts to create a unique snowman from pre-existing material ends much in the same way Calvin’s own attempt does: in something that keeps building on itself and moves further away from its intended purpose though unlike Calvin’s snowgoons or the cartoonists after Watterson, this does not inspire anything more interesting.

At the same time, I still admire his attempt–especially in showing how Watterson’s work related to him … much like I also did in the beginning of this review–and I think there are things in this Frankensteinian thing that can be worked into something about the Spirit of Calvin and Hobbes in culture. So I will give this book a three out of five.

And thus ends my first critical review on this site: though I am sure it will not be the last.

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