The Death of Calvin and Hobbes
In which commercialism is legacy
Artwork: Drew Cookson
In Santa Rosa, California, you’ll find a Peanuts museum with a thorough documentation of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz. The exhibits cover more than fifty years of his career and include obsessive tributes such as a recreation of his study or a collage of thousands of strips dedicated to Charlie Brown’s famous football fumble.
Maybe the meaning was about being humble. I don’t know. I don’t care about Peanuts. My big question coming out of the museum was: “Where the hell is the Calvin and Hobbes museum?”
Snoopy and Charlie Brown sailed the high tides of culture from 1950 to 2000. It’s a perfect arc of modernism, given that 2001 marks the year that US culture started to fragment and decay.
It all ended with Charlie Brown.
Wikipedia tells us that Peanuts ran in more than 2,600 newspapers with an estimated readership of 355 million around the world. Schulz earned more than $1 billion from TV and merchandising deals. His salary was estimated to be $30 to $40 million annually.
Sell out? No, no, buying in. Who could say no?
The museum is full of curiosities to evoke awe from the dwindling reserve of Peanuts fans. Mostly what I took away from the museum is that Charles Schulz, a World War II veteran with an incredibly inspirational story, also looked sharp as hell for his whole life.
C. Schulz, International Man of Peanuts
Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, a comic strip that formed the vocabulary and philosophy of millions of children, ran for 10 years, from 1985 to 1995. It was just shy of the same level of readership, running in 2,400 newspapers worldwide. In an auction in 2012, a Calvin and Hobbes original broke the record for comic strips by fetching $203,000.
I started reading Calvin and Hobbes when I was around eight, two years older than Calvin, who never made it past six. Watterson had just retired, but the books, the art, the endlessly imaginative and hilarious situations, hit me hard and never let go. I learned a lot words from Calvin and Hobbes. I also learned how to question the meaning of life, make arguments about art, and look at morality from different angles. More often that not, I learned these things as I rode downhill with Calvin and Hobbes in a wagon or a sled, or through the heroes of Calvin’s imaginary worlds, like Spaceman Spiff or Tracer Bullet.
Yet, without Bill Watterson’s approval, the beloved philosophies in these books stay locked away, hidden from a new generation of kids that have never even encountered newspaper comics. Or, in many cases, a book itself.
Watterson never misses a chance to dig at the evil boogeyman of “syndication,” which he purported to be the antithesis of art. Giving what is likely one of the finest college graduation speeches given in the nineties, a speech preserved on what must be one of the last functional websites of Angelfire, the nineties website builder darling, Watterson had this to say:
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you're really buying into someone else's system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called "opportunity" I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I'd need.
From ages 18-25, I used to admire Watterson’s unflinching stance, which I perceived as a brave battle against capitalism. Now, living in an era where art is commerce because scale of distribution is influence is success, I’ve begun to believe it’s short-sighted and almost selfish.
Watterson didn’t want a Calvin and Hobbes holiday special or shirts or toys or stuffed tigers. He didn’t want a Saturday morning cartoon character to imitate Calvin’s voice. He was the last of the newspaper comic generation who viewed newspaper comics as a form of art. He retired after ten years and went to paint landscapes in Utah.
But what does art become when the form goes extinct?
My biggest fear is that, because of Bill Watterson’s honorable obstinance, the treasure that is Calvin and Hobbes will become as obsolete as the crinkly, coffee-stained paper format in which it was dispersed.
Wandering the Charles Schulz museum, the loudest sound was the echo of footsteps, as if one is wandering a pyramid. The gift shop showed off dusty stuffed animals, Snoopy-themed silverware celebrating events that happened in the eighties yet hopefully retailing for more than two hundred dollars.
Still, kids ran around. There was a comic drawing room. Children grabbed at Snoopy dolls. Oh, and now there’s “The Snoopy Show” on Apple TV+. It’s on the second season. Snoopy is 72 and thriving by virtue not of new comics, but a show watched by new generations.
The medium is the message. With no market for the medium, there is no message.
Voices Beyond the Panel
Between 2004 and 2018, 1,800 newspapers went out of business.
Comics, the Saturday morning cartoons of the weekdays, have fewer and fewer places to reach kids. That’s not to say comic books are a dying form - the sale of graphic novels were up 65% in 2021. But that’s because new movies, new Disney rides, new action figures, and new merchandise have kept stoking the fires.
In the subreddit dedicated to Calvin and Hobbes - a community 650,000 fans strong - drawings and custom prints occasionally appear. They’re symbols of what could have been, along with the thousands of illegal Calvin and Hobbes products on Etsy.
Would an independent cartoon series by the creators of “Bojack Horseman” or “Rick and Morty” be too much to ask?
All those questions, all those lessons, all those beloved characters - from Spaceman Spiff to Tracer Bullet - are going to fade into the night.
Commercialization is not the enemy. Commercialization is the afterlife.
Watterson wanted to control the world he created. That approach worked with gatekeepers. Now, it limits longevity and makes the wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes inaccessible at a time when there are so many people out there searching for other worlds where they can, at least for just a moment, take a breath.
The Art of LARP
Every day after school, I went to my friend’s house. We raced to the barn in his backyard, grabbed sticks, and thrashed the air. We decapitated goblins, kobolds, dragons, ogres, trolls, harpies, wizards. We often came home covered in ticks, nettle welts, and gouges from hay bales.
Unbeknownst to us, we were in the act of live action role-playing: LARPing.
The world produced by the imagination becomes greater with shared vision. That’s what my friends and I discovered as we ran across fields, agreeing on the reality in front of us.
The public lexicon of LARPing, a slow creep as D&D expanded from books and board games to video games, became viral in 2005. This is the year an iconic video showed kids throwing sticks at each other, shouting “Lightning bolt!”
LARPing has become an elevated form of world-building. Disney agrees. That’s why the company made a big bet on the Disney Star Wars cruise where everyone is expected to stay in character all the time. Remember, this is from the company that calls employees “Imagineers.”
In 2017, Bob Chapek, then the head of Disney’s theme parks and resorts, took the stage at the D23 Expo, in Anaheim, where Imagineers preview upcoming attractions, and confirmed rumors of a luxury “Star Wars” resort that would offer guests a “multi-day adventure.” “One of the things I’m most excited about is that every window in this place has a view into space,” he said. In other words, there would be no windows.
I hadn’t considered amusement parks as a valid LARPing experience, but when I went to Disneyland for the first time last summer, a breathless excitement overcame me as soon as I saw a “Star Wars” gift shop, where I examined a phone case of Han Solo entrapped in carbonite, found the price, and put it back.
I think it was 50 dollars. Would I have paid 50 dollars for a Spaceman Spiff phone case?
Yes, without hesitation.
I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by wonder as soon as I wandered into Galaxy’s Edge, the zone of Disneyland where a part of the Star Wars universe has been faithfully recreated. Drinking “alien” drinks in the cantina of Mos Eisley with a throbbing robot DJ spinning music popular a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?
Yes, without hesitation.
Contrary to Watterson’s long-held belief, the immersion only connects fans closer to the experience, a world in which they get to experience themselves differently.
Cecilia Dolk, a Swedish LARP designer, tells The New Yorker that a LARPER’s lifestyle is about seeing life from a different angle - not by discussing those angles but by inhabiting them.
Nordic LARPers chase the same highs as rock climbers, she suggested. “We are emotional junkies,” she said. “Most of us larp because we can feel it and smell it with our bodies.”
The art is the experience. With the Star Wars cruise, tourists are seeking to see the familiar from a new perspective, agreeing to suspend disbelief and, better yet, agree that this moment of life is all taking place in the same universe:
We took a turbolift to the Crown of Corellia Dining Room, a vast hall flanked by a stage and a lunch buffet. Half a dozen Lukes, Obi-Wans, and Han Solos sat beneath iridescent light fixtures. At the buffet, a Luke attired in a white karate gi grabbed a plate of salmon as other passengers poured cups of blue milk, a delicacy on Tatooine. There were also people in Earth clothes. “I got this space food,” a man in a black T-shirt at a banquette said to himself. “I’m about to space-eat. Just like a space fool.”
A LARP world has limits and rules, as opposed to the relentless and grinding unknowable logic of our own world. Fantasy, in a sense, has become more stable than our reality. That’s why, for example, by 2018 there were more than 10 million people visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the US and more than 14 million visiting the same park in Japan.
Or as Dolk says:
“The world is so huge now, it feels endless… When you go into a fantasy universe, it’s smaller, you can focus.”
The reason that there’s such high demand for new worlds, and why we wonder what House we belong to in Harry Potter: we know the values and the feelings we’ll take away from our chosen fantasy world. We find comfort in those easy laws and inevitable outcomes.
That’s how I felt as I grew up with Calvin and Hobbes. I reread every single strip, from start to finish, every few years. At one point, I could remember every punchline from every strip. The words of Watterson were my Shakespeare. But without the scale and power of commercialization, the work won’t last more than a few generations. Watterson’s final lesson, perhaps, is that all good things end and there’s a time to move on.
Fighting the syndication of his comic strip, Watterson preserved the dignity of the strip at the cost of its legacy. Without a TV show on Disney in the nineties that led to a Calvin and Hobbes ride in Disneyland to share with the family and a proud tradition of Calvinball in colleges, and stuffed tigers named Hobbes for kids and a side-scrolling adventure for Super Nintendo… Watterson’s single statement stands alone.
Or maybe in a society that only promises the limitless, the things we treasure most are, no matter how much we deny them, always limited. Watterson’s is a small, beautiful, contained world with a definite end, not a sprawling and infinite universe. Calvin and Hobbes isn’t omnipresent. It’s an object to seek.
Either way, we at least need more documentaries than the one Kickstarter project where the producer found Watterson’s location, got in touch and told him about his appreciation for the life-changing lessons of Watterson’s work, and Watterson still refused to meet with him or appear on camera.
Apple+? Netflix? Disney+?