I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and have been reading comic strips my entire life. My two favorite strips of all time are “Peanuts” and “Calvin and Hobbes” (“Pearls Before Swine” is my favorite currently running strip and “FoxTrot” would be my fourth). For a brief span of about six years, I received one or two “Calvin and Hobbes” books a year. I, like many people, loved “Calvin and Hobbes”. It was the smartest strip to run in the comics. In some ways it changed the industry, for instance I don’t think Stephan Pastis could get away with some of the stuff he has in “Pearls Before Swine” if it hadn’t been because of “Calvin and Hobbes”. “Calvin and Hobbes” had a glorious ten-year run and then it disappeared off the funny papers forever. I can’t quite remember what I was doing when I learned that the strip was coming to an end, but I remember being disheartened. I was having a rough time at my first year in college and the strip was one of the things that helped keep me focused. I remember talking to my Mom about it and making the comment, “Well, at least “Peanuts” is still here.”
There are a lot of people that feel the same way about “Calvin and Hobbes” as I do. Nevin Martell is one of them. He went on a journey in an attempt to unravel the story about “Calvin and Hobbes” and shed some light on the strip’s creator, Bill Watterson. LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES is that story.
Through a series of interviews with family and friends of Watterson and some very detailed personal research, Martell pieces together a mini-biography of Watterson’s life and the ten-year run of “Calvin and Hobbes”. I learned some things about the strip that I never knew before, such as how it had evolved and how long it took Watterson to get the ingredients for the strip correct.
I enjoyed the book and felt it a worthwhile read.
However, it does have a few faults. The first is that the author was unable to actually get an interview with Watterson. Martell gets lots of interviews with other comic strip artists and creators, friends of Watterson, and even an interview with his mother. Yet, there's nothing actually from Watterson himself. I understand how difficult it would be to get an interview with Watterson. Watterson is one of the most private artists on the planet. He’s devoted to his art, but he has no desire for accolades and fame. Instead, he’s used his celebrity to build privacy. Still, if you’re going to write a biography about a person who is still alive, the critical part of the search is to get an interview with your subject. Martell realizes this and tries to incorporate it into the story of the book, but it’s still kind of a downer.
Martell also seems a little too-in-love with the subject he’s writing about. Author’s should be passionate about their projects, but you should try to avoid letting that come through too strongly when writing a book of this length. Since none of the strips themselves could be copied in the book, Martell spends a lot of time discussing various comic strips. That’s not a bad thing. However, he tends to gush when it’s not necessary. I admire the passion, but in places, it’s a little too much. For example, I found the part of the book when he describes the day he actually got to look at the original drawn strips a bit overzealous. It was more like reading about a religious epiphany than anything else.
Despite these faults, LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES is a worthwhile read. There are tidbits that even the most devout “Calvin and Hobbes” fan had probably never heard of before. There’s also a fairly lengthy section where Martell gives the impressions about Calvin and Hobbes from a large number of comic strip artists, including Stephan Pastis, Lynn Johnston, Berkeley Breathed, and Harvey Pekar.
Recommended for those who enjoy “Calvin and Hobbes”, anyone interested in what Bill Watterson has been doing the past fifteen years, and comic strip enthusiasts.