A Review of Exploring Calvin and Hobbes: An Exhibition Catalogue

A few days ago I got Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, and I thought I’d share some thoughts on it with you.

Exploring Calvin and Hobbes

First I should probably explain that this book is a companion piece to an exhibition at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library in Columbus, OH.  I’ve never been to the exhibit or the museum, but the book seems to do an admirable job of recreating the experience.  Of course it can’t quite capture what it’s like to see hand drawn artwork in person, but this is about as good as you are going to get without making the trip out there.

So what exactly is in the book?  First there is an intro from the curator of the exhibit which gives some nice insight into how this all came together.  That is followed by a lengthy, thought provoking interview with Bill Watterson where he candidly discusses his entire life, focusing on his career in cartooning.  For big Calvin and Hobbes fans this is huge, as he has remained virtually silent for the past 20 years since the strip ended.  Until last year when he made a surprise appearance in Pearls Before Swine and drew the poster for the comic documentary Stripped the man had virtually disappeared from all public life.  He didn’t even make an appearance in the 2013 documentary about Calvin and Hobbes, Dear Mr. Watterson.

This sudden disappearance after ending the comic strip during the height of its popularity in 1995, combined with Watterson’s extreme resistance to merchandise has left his fans clamoring for something more for nearly two decades.  So this interview is a pretty big deal.

Calvin and Hobbes had a huge impact on me as a child, and is probably the main reason why I ever tried making my own comics.  So I take what Bill Watterson has to say very much to heart.  And it is very revealing.  I could have read a full length book of just him being interviewed and found every part of it fascinating.

It is a good length and he hits on all the major points a fan would hope him to.  Next we get a collection of the comics that influenced Watterson.  These were all selected by Watterson and contain some brief thoughts from him on why they had an impact.  The bulk of these comics are photos of the original drawings, so there is a lot more detail than what you would get reading them in a newspaper.

After that is some of Watterson’s early work.  We get to see some of his political cartoons, a rejected animal comic strip he submitted to newspapers, and unpublished early Calvin and Hobbes strips that were used to get the publishing deal.  I had never seen any of these before and found them very interesting.  Particularly seeing how there were hints of what was to come even in some of his early stuff.  It was also really cool to see how the characters originally had different looks that he changed after he got the publishing deal.

Next  we get a couple pages about the tools that were used to make the comics.  This is brief, but interesting and gives a glimpse into the process used to create Watterson’s trademark style.  I know it made me want to pick up the same tools and do some old school ink on Bristol board drawing to see what I could come up with.

The remainder of the book is photos of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips.  These are all original drawings, so many of them have pencil marks, white out, various shades of black ink, and definable brush strokes.  So a lot more detail than what was printed in the newspaper and previous book collections.  If you enjoy original art and getting a better idea of the artist’s process, than you’ll love this.

The comics are grouped together in various thematic categories which include Characters, Seasons (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter), Devices, Storytelling, Social Commentary, The Meaning of Life, Colors and Sundays.  The beginning of each section has a paragraph or two describing that theme and how it was used in the comic.

If you already own all the book collections and are a big fan you will likely be familiar with all the comics included.  But the main appeal is seeing them in their original state.  Seeing them grouped together this way does allow you to look at them with a bit of a different perspective then you’ve probably read them in the past.

Then the book just kind of abruptly ends, with no sort of conclusion or closing thoughts.  It is a pretty quick read, but I think it will hold up well as something I’ll reread.  It is all presented very nicely with the clinical quality of a museum.

If you are a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes and want to learn more about the man who made it, this book is a must have.

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