Sunday, August 07, 2011

Why we love Calvin and Hobbes!

Fourteen years ago, one fine Saturday morning I opened Times of India to find this cartoon strip for the first time. I had never laughed so hard at a cartoon before. It was crisp, it was witty and it was hands down funny! Its been fourteen years, and there has not been a single day since Calvin and Hobbes has not enriched my life. Today I have the entire collection in soft copy, all the books in paperback and I have the hard bound limited edition set! I sit and wonder, why is it that everyone loves CnH so much and the list is just endless!

You will laugh so much, you'll cry
Whatever the format, the setting, the language, the message, a cartoon fundamentally needs to be funny. Bill Watterson is undoubtedly the most talented cartoonist of all times. He always manages to bring in amazing humor into such short pieces of art, they will leave you rolling on the floor. The humor cuts across all ages, topics and formats.

Verbose or sparse!
Watterson in his '10th Anniversary Edition' talks about two strips that influenced him to write CnH, Peanuts by Charles Shultz and Pogo by Walt Kelly. You can clearly see the shades of both in CnH. The flat, spare and laconic drawings of Peanuts and the lush, bombastic, nonsensical commotion in Pogo. Every comic strip has its own style. Rarely can one find, a strip that can be either verbose or sparse, and be awesome either way!

It happened in your life? It's already there in CnH!
I had lost a good friend of mine in a tragedy. I opened that newspaper the next day and there was the 'Dead Racoon' series on CnH, which was almost talking to me. It was spooky. For every small incident in your life: important, insignificant, happy, sad, there is a Calvin strip for it. I have sat down to make so many presentations in my career and I always manage to find a CnH strip perfect for the point I am making on the slide. It, just goes to show the genius of Bill Watterson and his powers of observation. There is a Sherlock Holmes case, where at the end after getting the logic behind how the case was solved, Watson is amazed that both Holmes and he could see all the facts in front of them, yet only Watson failed to see them. And Holmes replies " People see dear Watson, I, observe".

The third frame
Usually the daily strip is a standard four frame cartoon. It sort of builds up the curiosity when you are reading frame by frame. I love those strips which have the 'moment of realization' third frame. There are no dialogues, just a silent Calvin or Hobbes, looking straight at your face. And you know, that the last frame is going to have a killer one liner. And once you are done reading and laughing your guts out, you are forced to look back at the expression in the third frame and end up laughing even more!

Masti ki Paathshaala
Those were the times, weren't they? With so much to see, learn and get fascinated by. No malice, no pressure, no complications. And it is this essence of school life which Watterson so beautifully captures in his strips. I bet, almost everyone who reads the stips, just wishes that they can get back to the times of the uniform, school bus, recesses, PT and times that were far simpler.
As a kid I always wondered, how a rectangular bus could turn around a curve. The storks delivering the baby formula has almost become legendary. For every question that a kid has, grown ups need to come up with an answer which may very well change that small world of the kid. I just love the Calvin and his Dad's question answer sessions. As Watterson puts it "It must be great temptation to misuse one's parental authority for private jokes."

The parent trap!
I am not a parent, and can't imagine how it's going to be having a 'pain in the ass' kid. I have seen my mother pull out her hair, all thanks to her 'wonderful' sons. When I first introduced her to CnH, she could so easily connect with Calvin's mom. And it just makes you wonder, how the hell did Bill Watterson manage to churn out such amazing parent-kid confrontation strips, when he doesn't have kids of his own!

Snow men!
There are lots of CnH stories, which personally don't thrill me, like the Transmornifier or the Rosalyn series. But what really kills me are the Snow men series. With a very basic framework of just conversations and building snow men, Watterson comes up with so many interesting strips, it amazing!

Who is your role model, really?
Whatever people say about being good and fair, they all know deep down, its fun to be bad, to be lazy, to play pranks, to lie and be a little mean. Calvin embodies everything that people would want to be, but can't, as they are bound by rationality, society and responsibility. This is just an outlet for all such people, to find out, just how different life would have been, only if they could live the way they really wanted to!

Tiger, tiger, burning bright
Frodo couldn't have reached Mt.Doom if not for Sam, Harry couldn't have brought down Voldemort without Ron and without Jerry, Tom would have just been a cat running around the house. Calvin, without Hobbes, wouldn't be just as much fun! Hobbes is the friend who one always wants, he is the innocent bystander, he is the mirror to the world around. And the stuffed tiger vs. imaginary friend, is just different versions of reality for Bill Watterson. As he quotes "The nature of Hobbes's reality doesn't interest me and each story goes out of the way to avoid resolving the issue. Calvin sees Hobbes one way and every one else another. I just show two versions of reality and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that's how life works".

Licensing and Merchandising
Bill Watterson believed that a comic stip, should survive only its merits. Printing it on a million products, producing hundreds of dolls and memorabilia, just cheapens the product and the public inevitably grows up to bored of it. Do you care for Mickey Mouse any more? Not really! With CnH, remaining in its pure form, it does manage to have a magic and aura still associate with it, which I personally find endearing. Watterson also hated the publishing syndicate dictating what a strip should talk about and got into constant tiffs with them. As he puts it "When a cartoonist is trying to talk honestly and seriously about life, then I believe he has a responsibility to think beyond satisfying every market's whims and desires. Cartoonists who think they can be taken seriously as artists while using the strip to sell boxer shorts are deluding themselves."

Alter Egos!
Well, what's great about Bruce Wayne turning into Batman. Can he turn into Superman as well or Captain Planet? And that is where the beauty of CnH lies, in its variety. Calvin can instantly turn into Spaceman Spiff or Stupendous man or my personal favorite, Tracer Bullet. It gives Watterson the license to transport Calvin into a totally different world of intrigue and adventures, that are so much fun to read.

Life is beautiful
Calvin and Hobbes, is funny, entertaining, witty and lot more. But most importantly, in its own non preachy way, it teaches us about life. It doesn't go around making whats right or whats wrong statements, but it forces us to think of who we are and what we have become in this fast paced world. The strong messages of friendship, environmental care, futility of war, ambitions, careers, relationships are all out there. Its left to us, if we are ready to learn it from a six year old kid and his stuffed tiger!

It is just fitting, that I end this post, with the last strip that Watterson ever wrote, which embodies the undying spirit of Calvin and Hobbes. Thanks, dear friends, for enriching our lives so much.