Humanity is fascinated by enigmas.
We marvel at what might have happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste, ponder the origins of crop circles, and debate at length how evolution gave us such natural curiosities as the platypus.
But all those things, wondrous though they may be, pale into insignificance when we come across a person who refuses to march to the same drumbeat as everyone else.
I’m not talking about someone who might wear their hair a little differently, or refuse to eat meat, or insists on only wearing Hawai’ian shirts wherever they go.
No, I am talking about people who wholeheartedly reject the accepted dogma of the day, and refusing any and all entreaties, follow their “bliss” as it’s termed, forging their own course without any care for the scorn or recriminations which might come their way.
Such a person is Bill Waterson, creator of what is rightly regarded as one of the greatest comic strips of all time, Calvin and Hobbes, which first appeared on 18 November, 1985 in 35 newspapers across the USA and ran until New Year’s Eve 1995 when it was suddenly retired.
During that all too short decade, in which Watterson created 3150 utterly original comic strips which he painstakingly drew and coloured in by hand, the world became enthralled by the adventures of Calvin, a precocious six year old who showed a predilection for sledding down impossibly steep snow covered slopes, philosophising on the meaning of life and making life challenging for everyone around him, and Hobbes, his toy plush tiger, who appeared that way to everyone but Calvin.
In Calvin’s eyes, he was the real deal, a living, breathing tiger, who was his best friend, co-conspirator and adventurer, with a love of tuna and a way with the sort of wisdom that Calvin would roundly reject, even if it was in his best interests.
They were delightful companions, running amok in a wondrous world built on imagination, joie de vivre and a willingness to try anything once, all of which reminded the readers of the comic strip what it was like to be unfettered by the cares, woes and responsibilities of adulthood.
And yet despite the fact that Calvin and Hobbes was one of the most successful comic strips of all time, running in approximately 2400 newspapers worldwide when it finished its run, Bill Watterson staunchly refused all but a handful of interviews, steadfastly rejected any and all offers to merchandise his beloved creation, and chose a quiet life in the midwest of USA over the fame and fortune that was surely his for the asking.
All of which left a lot of people, including author Nevin Martell, scratching their heads, wondering why anyone would pass up the chance to grab the brass ring and materially benefit from doing what they love.
So despite the fact that Watterson had essentially done a J. D. Salinger and retreated to an anonymous life in the suburbs, encircled by a protective ring of loyal family and friends, Martell set out to find out who the real Bill Waterson was and is, and what made him a one-of-a-kind guy who refused to play by the usual materialistic, celebrity-driven rules of the modern age.
What emerges over 242 vividly written pages, during which Martell criss crossed the country talking to Watterson’s old college friends, cartooning colleagues and in an unexpected, last minute moment the comic strip creator’s own mother, is a retiring man who despite his prodigious artistic talent and ability to fold humanity’s greatest philosophical musings into four exquisitely rendered panels, was at heart a believer in the purity of his art, happy enough with simply having had the chance to express it.
Not for him the usual trappings of success, which he saw a burden more than a blessing; he was content to have drawn Calvin and Hobbes and then retreat back from whence he came.
But Looking For Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip is far more than a fascinating picture of a man who rejected the norms of the day with, as far as we can tell, no regrets.
It is also an interesting, endlessly absorbing tale of Nevin Martell’s longing to “break the code” of the Watterson enigma and finding out that “all these new bits and pieces I’d learned about Watterson were fragments to a story that had never been told.”
He relates his exhaustive detective hunt to get to the bottom of the Watterson enigma with the sort of warmly enthusiastic, instantly relatable ardour that any true fan would recognise, in the process giving us just as much insight into the fandom surrounding the iconic comic strip as the man who created it.
Looking For Calvin and Hobbes is packed full of fascinating tidbits of information, presented as an adventure hunt of sorts, the very kind of quixotic journey that Calvin and Hobbes themselves would have not hesitated a second to embark on.
While some might find Martell’s “failure” to meet the Watterson himself disappointing, I found the recounting of his grand quest wholly engrossing, one of those rare books that in daring to pursue a passionate dream to fulfil one mission, ends up fulfilling quite another, and emerges all the richer for it.
Given the odds of any of us ever meeting Bill Watterson in person, reading Looking For Calvin and Hobbes is the next best option, as true a reading of Bill Watterson and his legendary comic strip as we are ever likely to get, short of Watterson himself coming forth from the enigma into which he has happily retreated, to the endless fascination of everyone concerned.