“We can’t all be heroes, because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” –Will Rogers
In today’s world of The Hills and American Idol, it’s nigh impossible to find anything thought-provoking in popular culture. And so it is that Bill Watterson, the artist behind perhaps the best comic strip ever, Calvin and Hobbes, finds himself toward the top of my list of Literary Heroes. While he worked in a medium that some might claim is fundamentally un-literary (because the “funnies” tend to inhabit a world that has little to do with the stuffiness that most people probably associate with literature), I believe that he dealt with literature-esque themes in a more accessible and highly popular manner, while always fighting to stay true to his own vision.
The first thing that stands out as being particularly praiseworthy about Bill Watterson’s work is his manner of addressing serious social and philosophical issues. Watterson himself pointed out that, “Reading those turgid philosophers […] may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time.” And so he employed his own Swiss Army Knife of mental tools in many of his strips. While some might say that his strips were not specific enough to hold concrete arguments one way or the other on many of these issues, Watterson was carefully using non-specific references to allude to political events so as to avoid dating his works. Few reading Doonesbury would say that the strips from ten years ago hold as much value to a modern reader as they did at the time, if only because the issues of 1998 are so very different from the issues of 2008. (For some reason, Clinton’s political problems are seeming more and more petty when compared to today’s political problems.) Still, Watterson addresses these broad topics with wit and fervor, and while he does not present arguments, per sei, he does present food for thought in an incredibly smart way.
I also admire Watterson immensely for standing up for what he believed in–namely, the integrity of his comic strips as works of art. He despised the commerical and financial emphasis that newspapers put on comic strips, as well as the restrictions that emphasis inevitably put on artists. He also refused to sell out–there was never any Calvin and Hobbes merchandise sold in stores, unlike the many Garfield and Peanuts lunchboxes and pencil sets that were made available by the bucketload. It is this respect for art as art that puts Watterson apart from much of the rest of the media. Imagine how much money he could have made if he had allowed the sale of a stuffed tiger–every kid in America would want one, as well as most of the adults. But this also would have cheapened what Hobbes stood for, as well as what the strip stood for. Watterson, himself, perhaps put it best:
“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.”
It is this idealism that I respect the most, the idea that one can stand up for what one believes in, and succeed.
Finally, I admire Watterson for ending his strip when he did. While its popularity hadn’t diminished, he knew enough about himself–and the world in which he worked–to be able to acknowledge that the strip couldn’t get any better and would probably get worse, and the fight to save Calvin and Hobbes from the world wouldn’t get any easier and would probably get harder. The last strip of the series, so final yet optimistic, still brings tears to my eyes, in part because he didn’t let it go out with a whimper. He didn’t grind his strip onto the public for years and years until the funny had worn off and the interest died. Instead, he respected his work enough to let it end completely naturally, preserving its freshness for years to come. He is, I believe, an intellectual hero, and I salute him.