SO LONG, KID

AN OBITUARY FOR A BOY, HIS TIGER AND OUR INNOCENCE

By Frank Ahrens, Washington Post Staff Writer

Printed in the Washington Post - November 19, 1995; Page F1

The final panels of "Calvin and Hobbes" are probably not yet drawn, cartoonists being what they are. They noodle. They doodle. They dawdle. Deadlines are squeezed until they squeal. We do know when it will be published. The final "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon will appear on the final day of 1995. In a terse letter to his syndicate a week ago, cartoonist Bill Watterson wrote: "My interests have shifted, and I believe I've done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels." As of Jan. 1, Calvin, the sardonic 6-year-old, and his best friend, Hobbes, the stuffed tiger whom he imagines to be real, will disappear from 2,400 newspapers.

There is pain at the heart of every bit of goodness. Each loving relationship, each succulent meal, each wonderful evening is blunted by the knowledge that it will not last.

From the moment I saw my first Calvin and Hobbes and was captivated by its blinding brilliance, I knew of course that it would someday end. But worse, I knew precisely how it would end. I knew what would happen in that final strip, and why it would happen, and what it would mean. And why it is bad.

Like Calvin and Hobbes, other great comic strips have died at or near their creative pinnacle. But more often they leave too late, long after having become impoverished self-parodies driven not by an artist's vision or energy but by the sometimes insidious economics of success. Successful comic strips are unimaginably profitable. Killing them is an act of financial recklessness. It is more sensible to deal with one's creative exhaustion by hiring gag writers, backup artists, inkers, calligraphers. A lot of the strips do it.

Bill Watterson never did. For nine years he has drawn every frame and written every word himself. He's never cared all that much about money. He has always rejected commercial exploitation of his strip, to the point of forfeiting, at a conservative estimate, $10 million a year. That is because he has stubbornly refused to license his characters, which is why there are no "Calvin and Hobbes" greeting cards, no "Calvin and Hobbes" refrigerator magnets, and most astonishing of all, no Hobbes stuffed tigers. Never before has a cartoon character been so ripe -- so right -- for mercantile rip-off. The artist's intractable "no" has left the mass marketers sputtering with exasperation and unnourished greed.

Watterson is notoriously cranky, famously reclusive, ludicrously difficult. You will not hear his voice in this article because he refuses to be interviewed for publication, ever. You will not see his photograph on these pages because he will not permit his photograph to be taken. We know cartoonishly little about him: He is 37, and looks, it is said, sort of like Calvin's father. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M. He has a wife, he has cats, and, depending on which unauthorized bio you believe, he has either three adopted children or no children at all.

In a 1987 article in the Los Angeles Times -- one of Watterson's few interviews, done reluctantly, at a time when his strip was young and he needed publicity -- he said this about Calvin: "I think what I'm trying to do is see the world through a child's eyes where all experience is new, looking at the world with everything being fresh and without prejudices. Then I gave Calvin the ability to articulate his thoughts."

His tone of voice sounds young, smart and optimistic.

But then it started to change.

At a 1990 cartoonists' symposium at Ohio University, Watterson turned on his colleagues: "Why are so many {comic strips} poorly drawn, why do so many of them offer only the simplest interchangeable gags and puns? Why are strips written by committee and drawn by assistants? . . . Why are some strips little more than advertisements for dolls and greeting cards?"

Just out last month is "The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book," a compilation of strips. It also includes position papers by Watterson -- most of which read like tense, defensive polemics -- on Comics in Transition, the need for sabbaticals, the ugly threat of Licensing, the extinction of artistic integrity.

"Cartoonists who think they can be taken seriously as artists while using the strip's protagonists to sell boxer shorts are deluding themselves," he writes.

There is no joy in any of these words.

Calvin: Isn't it strange that evolution would give us a sense of humor? It's weird that we have a physiological response to absurdity. We laugh at nonsense.

Hobbes, walking away: I suppose if we couldn't laugh at things that don't make sense, we couldn't react to a lot of life.

Calvin, now alone: I can't tell if that's funny or really scary.

The comics pages have long mirrored the psychic mood of America -- not so much what America was about, but how it chose to see itself. In the Depression era, Dagwood Bumstead was the prodigal scion of a wealthy family who chose to defy his father, marry for love and forsake his fortune. His story was an inspirational parable for threadbare times. In the giddy, fuddy 1950s, Dagwood evolved into the bumbling, well-meaning office worker who lived in suburbia, had an adoring, ditsy, stay-at-home wife and, when he hung around the water cooler at work, was tormented by a despotic boss. Dagwood was literally two-dimensional, and he accurately reflected the times.

In the chaotic 1960s, no one was farther forward on the cutting edge than Charles Schulz. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy and the rest drew an entire generation of comic strip readers into a new, magical place: a world without adults. A world where wise children gingerly, painfully, fruitfully probed the core regions of success and failure, self-esteem and self-worth, love and hatred, God and man. Here were the first fully formed cartoon children -- not buffoonish mischief-makers like Dennis the Menace.

It was critical that parents were absent from Peanuts. Without them, the children could function in their own unfettered environment, free from the corruptive influence of grown-ups. Beaten down by life, grown-ups would have only stifled the innocent, guileless questions of children who were seeing and feeling the world for the first time. And achieving their own authentic wisdom. Watterson, who said he knew he wanted to be a cartoonist when he first read Peanuts, understood this.

But eventually, Schulz got tired, chained forever to his characters, like Marley's Ghost, but bereft of ideas. Snoopy began appearing in Met Life TV commercials. Life was bad. And it got worse.

In the 1970s and 1980s cartoons moved away from children altogether, both as subjects and as potential audience. The best strips were neurotic, cynical, bizarre, political -- cartoons for a Jaded Generation. They were for, by and about adults. Even Garry Trudeau took a hiatus to let post-adolescent Doonesbury and Zonker and the rest of his characters leave college and grow the hell up.

I was fearful that the intelligent, important children's cartoon had vanished, that aging cartoonists were content to keep feeding us little Billy, who riotously takes all day to fetch his dad a hammer in The Family Circus.

Then, in 1986, came Calvin and Hobbes.

Schulz was the first to understand that children have their own minds; Bill Watterson lived inside that mind. The central gimmick of Calvin and Hobbes was fresh and ingenious. When Hobbes appeared in the strip in the company of anyone but Calvin alone, it was as a small, stuffed tiger with short, blunted paws and button eyes. He was completely flaccid and even slumped a bit when propped up, underscoring his lifelessness.

But when alone with Calvin, Hobbes was a magnificent, six-foot-tall model of leonine grace and power. He ran, he pounced, he climbed, he sprawled, he snuggled. He was completely alive with the willful fantasy of a child who knows a stuffed animal cannot come to life, but doesn't care, and so it does.

Calvin's dad: Sports are good for you. You learn how to win graciously and accept defeat. It builds character.

Calvin: Every time I've built character I've regretted it! I don't want to learn teamwork. I don't want to learn about winning and losing. Heck, I don't even want to compete! What's wrong with just having fun by yourself, huh?!

Calvin's dad: When you're grown up, it's not allowed.

Calvin: All the more reason I should do it now.

Calvin is an only child. This is important. Children without siblings frequently have two choices for company: parents and nobody. When you're an only child, there's just the three of you. Because you have no peers, there is nothing compelling you to stay a child, other than your own biology. The playing field of the household is tilted toward adulthood, so you can do one of two things -- grow up faster or consciously remain a child for as long as possible.

Calvin embodies what we wanted most to be: adult thinkers in a child's world. It gives us a vicarious rush; isn't it fabulous to be just a little smarter than you ought to be in a situation? To feel a step ahead?

"If I knew then what I know now . . . "

The key to remaining a child is in fantasy. As we become adults, our vision narrows from panorama to tunnel. We lose the capacity for fantasy though we probably need it more. It is beaten out of us by things that are knowable. We simply don't have time for fantasy. We are told that it is unproductive, at the least, and unhealthy, at the worst. Too often, childhood fantasies become adult fixations and obsessions.

What is missing is the joy.

Calvin: This whole Santa Claus thing just doesn't make sense. Why all the secrecy? Why all the mystery? If the guy exists, why doesn't he ever show himself and prove it? And if he doesn't exist, what's the meaning of all this?

Hobbes: I dunno. Isn't this a religious holiday?

Calvin: Yeah, but actually, I've got the same questions about God.

Calvin was named for John Calvin, the 16th-century Protestant reformer. John Calvin was an ascetic. He believed the human condition was an abyss in which man had lost his way as well as a labyrinth from which he could not escape.

Watterson's Calvin is a provocative boy of action, a pure nihilist: He lives fully in the body of each moment.

Thomas Hobbes was a 17th-century philosopher and ethicist who may best be known for this quote: "And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Watterson's Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, is the philosopher-adviser, the typically sane voice of reason questioning whether simply taping paper feathers to your arms will really enable you to fly. But Hobbes is not a parent -- he never tells Calvin he couldn't or shouldn't try to fly with the paper feathers taped to his arms. In fact, he gives Calvin the crucial toss off the cliff in a foolhardy attempt at flight. If Calvin is the Id, Hobbes is the Ego.

Calvin: Why do you suppose we're here?

Hobbes: Because we walked here.

Calvin: No, no . . . I mean here on Earth.

Hobbes: Because Earth can support life.

Calvin: No, I mean, why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?

Hobbes: Because we were born.

Calvin: Forget it.

Hobbes: I will. Thank you.

Much has been written about contemporary society's sensory overload, its ability to fracture and disenfranchise people from their families, their values, their selves. More and more, we feel naked against a world that goes only faster and harder, louder and emptier. We ache for a frame of reference. It is why we are not surprised to find ourselves, when nobody else is around, pulling out a worn copy of Dr. Seuss and reading it aloud, simply to find the lovely, warm place it takes us: "I do not like green eggs and ham/ I do not like them, Sam-I-Am." We are in our cocoon. We are safe.

Outside, everything is too fast, too hyper. Our reservoir of wonder has been tapped dry. People want to race snowmobiles, not build snowmen. We grow steroid tomatoes year-round, reveling in the convenience, diluting the perfection of a single, smallish tomato plucked right from the vine in late summer.

What's left? You can no longer even discover a fundamental force of nature. There are only four and they've all been found. Physicists are on the brink of coming up with a "Theory of Everything," meaning a final theory that, once installed, explains everything, and all the physicists can then go home.

Hope takes a beating as the years go by. We look about us and we see so few successes -- so few loving marriages, well-adjusted children, singularly happy people -- that we realize that success seems, at least, a highly improbable alignment of skill, forbearance, hard work, blind luck and Providence. We see how many opportunities life gives us to buckle at the knees. We wonder if life's default mode is failure. We become tired.

Calvin never, ever became tired. And he never lost hope because he never lost imagination.

Okay, the end.

There is no telling how Watterson will choose to end things on Dec. 31. There is no telling what his last panel will be, or even if he will acknowledge that it is the last. Perhaps the Dec. 31 strip will look just like the one the day before -- a stand-alone gag that, by its appearance only, implies another tomorrow. But on Jan. 1, another simply will not come. The comics on the page will rearrange, and a replacement will drop into the white space where Calvin and Hobbes would have been. Presumably, in many newspapers the replacement will be one of the most popular new strips in America -- the funny, vicious, crabbed "Dilbert," about corporate cynicism and backstabbing and the dehumanization of the American worker.

However Watterson chooses to end Calvin and Hobbes, there is really only one end. It will live in my brain forever, if not on the newspaper page.

Dec. 31 is a Sunday, so Calvin and Hobbes will go out in color and in large panels. As it should. The artwork will be typically vivid, with elastic colors, fabulous contrasts in scale, angles that look as though they were photographed by a cinematographer, a command of light and shadow worthy of Degas, frames twitching with speed and frenzy.

Because the strip is seasonal, it will be snowing. The first two panels of the Sunday cartoon are generally a self-contained joke that sets the tone for the rest of the strip. Perhaps in the first frame, Calvin will be hurtling pell-mell down some ridiculously steep snowy bank on a sled, with Hobbes sitting behind, holding on for dear life and questioning the wisdom of the descent. They will be airborne.

In the second frame, they will be buried in the snow, face first, only their legs and bottoms sticking up. Hobbes will make a sarcastic comment about Calvin's lack of foresight, and Calvin will obliquely threaten violence to Hobbes.

Then, they will be building a snowman together. Side by side, they will push a small snowball into a big one and it will be the base of the snowman. Calvin will wipe his brow. Hobbes will remind Calvin that tigers are tropical. There will be a conversation and it will be something about grown-ups.

Calvin will say he hears something; maybe it's a monster.

"What's that?" he'll ask Hobbes.

"It's just your imagination," Hobbes will reply.

Then Calvin will turn away for a moment, to fashion the snowman's head. He will need help lifting it onto the torso, so he will call for his best friend, Hobbes. But Hobbes will not respond.

Calvin will turn around.

Hobbes will be there. But he will be small and stuffed and have short, blunted paws and button eyes. He will be slumped forward in the snow, flaccid, lifeless.

Calvin will blink. "Huh."

And then he will simply shuffle away, off the page, leaving behind his stuffed tiger, and the unfinished snowman, and his wonderful, wonderful childhood.



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