February 12, 2015
Exploring “Calvin and Hobbes”: An Exhibition Catalogue. By Bill Watterson. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.
Triple Shot, Double-Pump, No Whip Zits: A “Zits” Treasury. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $16.99.
A “Zits” Guide to Living with Your Teenager. By Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
Not many cartoonists get to be something of a living legend in their own time, and not many comic strips retain their popularity and intense fan base nearly 20 years after they have ceased to exist – and after a run of only 10 years. But Calvin and Hobbes and its creator, Bill Watterson, are scarcely typical. Watterson was famously opposed to licensing deals and the other media tie-ins on which so many cartoonists rely for their financial success, especially as newspapers fade; and he was known to be stand-offish and unwilling to allow much to be made of him and his strip for quite some time. But if he was in a self-constructed shell of some sort for a while, he has certainly come out of it in recent years: although he has no plans to do another strip (he leaves the possibility open in a very general way), and appears to be living quite happily and quite quietly in a post-Calvin and Hobbes world, he does now grant some interviews and help with well-meaning efforts to discuss and analyze the strip and put it on display. And it does get displayed. A handsome and very heavy three-volume hardcover set of all the strips has been published, and there have been all sorts of small and not-so-small exhibits and exhibitions about the strip and where it fits into the comics’ history. This is unusual, to say the least. A few comics get retrospective references and discussions regularly: George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. And sometimes an entire form of cartooning gets an in-depth study, as in the book A History of Underground Comics. But by and large, despite occasional pop-culture references to cultural icons such as Dick Tracy and the Katzenjammer Kids, comics do not get academic or general-public attention long after they disappear. Calvin and Hobbes, though, has inspired not one but two solo exhibitions at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. The first was in 2001, the second in 2014 – and it is the second that led directly to Exploring Calvin and Hobbes, which is the catalogue of the museum’s exhibition and also a chance to re-enjoy and re-evaluate the strip and its creator. The book is a collection of strips, yes, but it is much more than that. Curator Jenny E. Robb, who selected the strips for inclusion, also offers a very extended interview with Watterson, exploring his personal background, artistic influences, successes and failures, character designs, original school-newspaper work at Kenyon College in Ohio (where he followed recently graduated political cartoonist and future Zits artist Jim Borgman onto the paper’s pages), and much more. The interview is rambling, insightful and altogether pleasant, and it stands very well as the opening of a book/catalogue that reprints several strips from cartoonists who influenced Watterson (Pat Oliphant, Berke Breathed, Alex Raymond of Flash Gordon fame) and then offers a variety of Calvin and Hobbes strips from the pre-syndication days right through to the final day’s offering. Watterson shows the tools he used and explains their uses and the frustrations of using them. Strips are gathered so they focus on individual characters, including Calvin and Hobbes (named after a theologian and philosopher, respectively), Calvin’s parents, the strip’s minor characters, the seasons of the year, and more. The book is a wonderful introduction to Calvin and Hobbes, for those who are not familiar with it, and a great chance to remember and re-enjoy it, for those who are. Some of the ancillary items, such as Watterson’s photos and paintings, add considerably to an understanding of how the strip was created and show some of the ways in which it truly did excel. As an exhibition catalogue, Exploring Calvin and Hobbes makes a mighty fine comic-strip collection with a focus on one creation that really is as good as it has always been made out to be.
And what of Jim Borgman after his departure from Kenyon College? His political cartooning at the Cincinnati Enquirer has been going on for 35 years now, and he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. He also shows no sign of fading out or decreasing in inventiveness in Zits, where he takes the to-the-point writing of Jerry Scott and creates illustrative cartoons that combine skill in caricaturing with a marvelous sense of the utterly absurd. For example, in a collection called Triple Shot, Double-Pump, No Whip Zits, the front cover has the strip’s central character, Jeremy Duncan, in the reader’s face. No, really – his gigantic left sneaker practically comes out of the page, as a very wired Jeremy leaps toward the reader with arms akimbo and eyes open so wide that you can practically see through to the back of his head. Among the strips here is one showing Jeremy struggling to climb a wall made up of words taken from Wuthering Heights, which he is having trouble getting through; a Sunday sequence in which Jeremy’s friend Pierce eats strong wasabi and is shown in the last panel with his red-spiral-filled eyeballs actually hanging out of his eye sockets; another Sunday offering in which Jeremy’s dad, Walt, listens to a playlist Jeremy made for him and is shown drilling through his own head, with his head in a vise, and with his skull outside his head and begging for mercy; a daily strip in which not-wanting-to-work Jeremy creates a business card portraying himself as a sloth hanging beneath a tree branch and proclaiming that he has “no marketable skills”; and another in which Pierce, after dental-surgery anesthesia, floats upside-down, his head producing three smaller Pierces (like Russian nesting dolls), with the littlest one saying, “The grand master unicorn digital cloud fairy sends his greetings from afar!” There is plenty of this from Scott and Borgman throughout Triple Shot, Double-Pump, No Whip Zits and the many other collections of the strip – all of which show that Bill Watterson is not the only absolutely top-notch, first-rate, highest-quality cartoonist of recent times.
Scott and Borgman’s Zits sometimes shows up in a format that Calvin and Hobbes never did, and gift-givers and recipients alike can be happy it does, because that gives them the chance to give or receive a small gift book such as A “Zits” Guide to Living with Your Teenager. A short hardcover compilation of selected Zits strips, with a series of brief and thoroughly appropriate commentaries, this book offers a lot of life lessons in a little space. One strip in which Jeremy tells his mom, Connie, a very extended story about why he did not call home – his words in a very squashed, elongated balloon rather than the typical comic-strip speech balloon – gets the explanation, “The thinner the excuse, the fatter the reason for it.” Elsewhere, Jeremy sets his ring tone to the repeated word “nag,” Connie tells him she knows what he did, and the comment is, “Forget any dreams you ever had of being ‘the cool parent.’” And there are comments such as, “They’re not ignoring you. They don’t even see you.” And, “Hang in there. The mangled communication gets much, much worse.” And, “Stay sharp. They’re counting on your failing memory.” Each statement is suitably illustrated – or rather, each goes with a suitable illustration that Scott and Borgman already created. Some of their creations do not get, or need, any comments at all, such as several showing what a teenager’s comments usually mean – as in, when returning something to a parent, “I didn’t realize this was yours” usually means “I didn’t realize anything was not mine.” This little book may not make living with a teenager – or being a teenager – any easier. But it can certainly provide more perspective than parents would otherwise have – such as the perspective of Borgman’s cover art, which shows just how enormous Jeremy’s shoes and legs look to his much-put-upon parents.