It’s surprising that until now, no one has attempted a book-length study of Bill Watterson’s Calvin And Hobbes. From 1985 to 1995, it was the most beloved and widely praised U.S. newspaper comic post-dating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, with Calvin And Hobbes book collections generating sales of more than 30 million copies. But Looking For Calvin And Hobbes: The Unconventional Story Of Bill Watterson And His Revolutionary Comic Strip—a first go at the canonical comic by Filter contributing editor Nevin Martell—is as clunky as Watterson’s work was graceful.
Martell frames his book as a not-very-suspenseful detective story, in which he attempts to bag the elusive Watterson, who has rarely spoken to reporters. He does some valuable digging into Watterson’s background, laying out the strip’s evolution, and checking in with friends on what Watterson has been up to since retiring Calvin. (Mostly oil painting, it seems.) But Martell is overly chatty and frequently lazy. Several pages after he details how Watterson took two nine-month sabbaticals from Calvin And Hobbes over the course of three years, it’s disingenuous to reveal that Watterson hasn’t worked on comics in five years, then call that “pretty stunning stuff.”
Martell doesn’t seem to have much faith in his own conclusions about the strip, which makes it hard for readers to. After pages on the parallels between Watterson’s and Walt Kelly’s Pogo (Watterson was a huge fan), Martell concludes a brief description of a 1987 Calvin about global warming, “Whether these eco-conscious strips were inspired by Kelly’s forays into similar territory, we may never know.”
Oddly, that kind of hedging alternates with a good amount of over-sharing. Martell’s endless tidbits on how he contacted and interviewed his sources grow tedious, and the book hits a low when he visits the cartoonist’s childhood home in Virginia: “Sadly, the inhabitants were either not home, unaware or uncaring, so I had to settle with regaling my wife with some choice factoids. Since Watterson has yet to be blogged about by Perez Hilton or shown on TMZ.com, this conversational gambit was greeted with a less than enthusiastic response and I quickly changed the topic.” Good idea.