calvinandhobbes sleep

Hobbes’ Best Hunts, vol. 18

Bill Watterson pearls before swine stephan pastis

Thanks from Hobbes Deep

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I started this project three years ago when I was in a very low place. I’d stupidly messed up my affairs and had to move back in with my parents for a month. While I was there, I began absently combing through some old books and dug out my copy of The Days are Just Packed, covering Calvin & Hobbes strips from 1991-1992. I had been reading C&H for about as long as I could read, and of course I thought I knew these strips like the back of my hand. But it had been a long time since I had sat down to really read them, not since I was a kid. And with every turn of the page, I was more and more surprised.

I didn’t know.

I mean, I knew the Sunday strips were works of art. I knew all about Bill Watterson’s battles with newspaper editors over the Sunday comics page. In fact, The Days are Just Packed was the first of the collections to be published in a wider format to take advantage of the new unbreakable Sunday artwork. But what I didn’t know was how beautiful even the daily strips could be, and how much detail, feeling and narrative Watterson could express with just black ink in a single panel.

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So I decided I was going to start a new project. Of course, the internet loves C&H and there were already plenty of strips floating around on tumblr (and indeed the strip lives on via gocomics). But my idea was to share the strip the way I now saw it: as a work of art, one panel at a time, in no order and with little or no commentary. I wanted to make sure people took the time to appreciate the artistry that went into every inch. I turned off all comments, and in fact, for the first two years the blog was set up so you could only see a single panel per screen (you can now scroll through ten per screen, but they are still displayed one panel at a time). At first, I gave every panel a title, caption and tags but even then I felt I was only getting in the way of the art and now only the tags remain.

Over the last three years, working on this project has meant that I have read and re-read every C&H panel several times, usually on a Sunday afternoon when I wanted to avoid thinking about real work. I have posted over a thousand panels (including the photosets) and yet every time I dip back into the collection, I always find something new. I could probably keep on going for another year, but like my hero Bill Watterson, I decided I should stop before I exhaust the material. So it is with some sadness that I announce that in a week or so I will no longer be updating Hobbes Deep. The page will remain live as long as tumblr remains a thing, and I hope people will still explore the site through the various functions available: the archive, tags, the Most Popular page and the random button.

I realize that breaking the fourth wall and talking to you kind of goes against the philosophy of the project, but before I let it go, I feel the need to share what I’ve learned from all this. An obvious but important point is that I sincerely hope and heartily recommend you take the time to sit down and read, really read, a C&H book, no matter how familiar you think you are with it. There are laughs, there is wisdom, but overall, there is beauty and you will improve because of it.

Another lesson is that regardless of how familiar you are with the strip, you are doing yourself a disservice if you have not seen it on paper. Instead of being satisfied with the original, yellowing C&H books I have at my parents’ house, I am now a proud owner of the Complete Calvin and Hobbes box set (2005), as well as the Tenth Anniversary Book (1995), since both of these collect the strips as Watterson intended, in the appropriate wide format and on high-quality paper. Both also come with indispensable essays by Watterson on the strip, his characters and his career, which have helped me appreciate this work in different ways.

I also got to know the characters better. Calvin and Hobbes are both named after deep thinkers and it is no surprise that one of the most frequently used tags is ‘philosophy’. Along with the tags ‘life’ and ‘misanthropy’ you get to the closest to Calvin’s wry outlook on the world. On the other hand, a flip through ‘tigers' will reveal the life-force of the entire strip and the soul of this project. It is a testament to how much of himself Watterson put into both characters that it is impossible to decide whom the strip is 'about'. Later fan strips which depict Calvin as a grown-up and Hobbes as a stuffed toy he's outgrown are offensive to me, no matter how much they claim to be done out of love.

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What I have loved the most about this project is that it gave me an excuse to sit down with C&H as an adult. It’s not that there’s anything hidden from you as a child, since Watterson’s characters were somehow always able to speak to all ages. It is the wonder you feel at appreciating new dimensions of something you have known for years, like finding an old photo of your grandparents and realizing it was taken when they were your age.

If I have any regret about this project, it is only that I couldn’t always obtain high-quality scans of each panel. Knowing how much Watterson cared for his artwork and hated knock-offs, I have always been of two minds about the ethicality of this. I do wonder what Watterson would think if he ever came across it, and I worry that he would disapprove, if only because of the pixellated graininess of some of the panels. But when I flip through the Most Popular list and see what unexpected things people are sharing, I know my choices of panels have struck a chord. I’d like to believe that this project will continue to encourage access to a deeper level of C&H wisdom than the usual stuff you find online.

One last word for those who get back in touch with the paper strips: make sure to go for those collections with Watterson’s commentary. Although the big box set’s preface provides a better insight on the genesis of the strip and its legacy, the Tenth Anniversary Book is really the curated Calvin and Hobbes, with Watterson walking you through some of his favorite strips. It also includes extended (if sometimes bitter) essays on the struggles of ten years of cartooning, as well as running commentary on each of the characters. I was pleased to see that a lot of the strips I singled out as ‘Deep Strips' (cartoons so good I could not bear to break off a single panel) were mentioned. But occasionally finding out the meaning behind the strip could change the way I approached the entire work. This single comment on the strip from January 13, 1991 was the one that got me:

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Our cat Sprite was often a model for Hobbes, both in looks and personality. When she died, I drew this cartoon. We can always meet again in dreams.”

I can think of no better example, even more than the joyous final Sunday strip, to capture the bittersweet genius of Calvin and Hobbes, and to show how privileged we are that Bill Watterson invited us to live in that world with him.

Never stop exploring,

Hobbes Deep

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