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Artist Inspiration: Calvin & Hobbes

The trouble with doing a regular blog is that you have to come up with things to talk about, regularly. Not to mention finding subject matter that is somewhat interesting! So when I set out to start keeping a blog, I had given myself the nice casually-paced goal of one blog entry a month. Well, all I can say is time flies when you're pouring over what to talk about on your personal blog.

So after much deliberation, I decided I might talk about some of my influences and inspirations who helped shape me as an artist. Over the years there have been many. Some from my formative years when I first began drawing and trying to suss out a particular style, and others more recently discovered. As such, I won't be talking about all of my influences in this post because that would be way too long. Instead I figure it would be best to do recurring posts each focusing on either an artist who inspires me, a style of art, or any other source of inspiration I have encountered along this journey of mine. Plus doing it this way means I don't have to rack my brain so much trying to think of new things to talk about every month (just every other month lol).

Going back a bit, does anybody remember those Scholastic Book clubs they had in elementary? It's possible they still do them now, I'm not really sure - but back in the day, which for me was the 90s, we would get these Scholastic Books catalogues in class. You'd take the thing home flip through them and order any books that you were interested in, often at a reduced price in the name of encouraging reading at a young age. Well, one day I saw that they were offering one of the "Calvin & Hobbes" collections, "Revenge of the Babysat". At the time I wasn't too familiar with the comic strip, but a friend of mine was a fan and spoke very highly of it - and who doesn't like reading comic strips? So I brought it to mom, said "I want that book", we filled out the order form and I brought it back to school. A week later, I'm was the proud owner of a Calvin & Hobbes collection, I brought it home and gave it a read and before long I was hooked! Over time I would collect the whole Calvin & Hobbes library, and every day I would go home from school on my lunch break and read a few pages over grilled-cheese sandwiches and soup (or whatever mom had made for me that day! Thanks mom). I must have read those things a thousand times or more over the years.

For those unfamiliar, Calvin & Hobbes was a daily comic strip written by Bill Watterson which ran from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995 about a young boy named Calvin with an over-active imagination, and his best friend Hobbes - a toy stuffed Tiger - who Calvin imagines is alive. It was and still remains hugely popular and is considered by many to be "the last great newspaper comic".

Art-wise, the thing that struck me about Calvin & Hobbes was that the design and the overall aesthetic of the strip was very simple yet effective, there was a good amount of detail, but not so much that it became distracting. Take this weekend-spread for example where the two characters are having a conversation while sledding through the woods.

On first glance, you can see that Watterson is definitely giving attention to detail to the environment that Calvin and Hobbes are in - you can see the various textures in the trees, the bark, the pine needles, and the snow being kicked-up by the sled. On closer inspection, it's not as though he's trying to draw everything so hyper-realistic - the texture of the bark on the trees, for example, is achieved by what appears to be just several quick strokes of black ink. Same idea with the pine trees, they appear to be made using just rough shapes in black and in green. There's a certain "freeness" or "naturalness" for lack of better terms to Watterson's art style, almost as if the images just sort of "fell off" the pen and onto the page. So while there is a lot of detail happening in the environment, when you pull back, and look at the entire image composition as a whole, and the whole comic strip as a whole - it all works together. The almost free-form nature of his environmental elements work well with those same sort of dynamic-freeform elements present in the character design of Calvin and Hobbes themselves, so nothing really feels out of place.

And that's another thing that struck me about his art style, it felt like there is life to it. In a time when I was drawing figures very methodically and only knew how to draw one pose, and everyone I drew looked like action-figures standing at attention, it amazed me how Watterson could achieve a real sense of energy and movement even in a still image. Going back to the comic strip above, even though nothing is animated (obviously) you still get the sense that the two characters are whipping down a hill at high speeds, and it's all achieved with really simple details like the curvature of the sled, or the way that Hobbes is leaning opposite the direction of motion in the fifth panel. It's all very subtle stuff, but it's these details that make the difference between an image feeling like a static frozen moment and it feeling like has some life to it. Here's another example:

The way Hobbes is drawn in the third panel, it immediately reads as a tiger moving at incredible and ferocious velocity. Again, the details tell the story without the need for actual movement - the stretched out posture alludes to a transformation of potential energy into kinetic energy, not unlike when one goes from a crouched, ready position into a leaping pounce. Hobbes' placement high in the top third of the panel tells the reader that this is a high-energy, high-intensity attack as one might expect from a predatory cat. This is later affirmed in the final panel which shows you the aftermath of said attack.

Another notable aspect of Calvin & Hobbes was its depiction of childhood imagination, which is great because firstly, many of us can relate to those times as kids when we would create entire worlds in our imaginations and explore those worlds on our own or with friends. Secondly, it allows Watterson to take his comic strip in any direction he likes - he's free to explore prehistoric times or outer space, have Calvin and Hobbes travel through time, or even create clones of themselves! It's all fair game given how active Calvin's imagination is. These are some of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes strips as Watterson does not hold back when showing just how active and grandiose Calvin's imagination can be - often favoring a more "realistic" or "mature" artistic style contrasting with the strips normally "light-hearted" simple aesthetic.

Often the punchline of these particular strips are that fantastical stories being told to you are actually a narrative that Calvin is super-imposing over some mundane everyday activity or interaction. For example, take this weekend spread that can be found in Something Under the Bed is Drooling. What initially looks like a retelling of any classic Creation Myth story is revealed in the last panel to be what Calvin is imagining as he is playing with Tinkertoys. Again, the design and composition of each panel is very dynamic, you get a sense of the grandiose gestures a god would make as he is pulling existence into reality, you can almost feel the mortal inhabitants of the realm being pulled helplessly into the abyss in the second last panel. And once again, it's all achieved as a result of Watterson having a solid knowledge of basic image composition principles: Creating tension between large and small figures, using leading lines to direct the viewers eyes a certain way, and so forth. In fact that might make an interesting blog post down the line - *note to self :)

Here's another one where Calvin assumes one of his regularly occurring alter-egos "Spaceman Spiff". These particular strips often involve Calvin exploring some strange alien landscape and interacting with some bizarre alien species - but once again, the fantastical gives way to reality and we see that in actuality Calvin is being a nuisance to childhood-rival, Susie Derkins. The bright vivid colors of the alien world, strange creature design, and those simple but effective details in the texture of the rock formation and the alien's skin help add a sense of grandness and depth without feeling out of place.

Another thing I admire about Calvin & Hobbes is the humor, which often feels just as natural and easy as the design aesthetic of the strip. Watterson has this really great ability to really use both the design and the dialogue (or in this case monologue) of the strip to really hit home a hilarious joke or a profound thought, or often some combination of the two.

This strip is from a "story arc" of Calvin & Hobbes where Calvin's parents take him on a camping trip. So we see Calvin looking out towards a gorgeous sunset overlooking a clear pristine lake in all of Mother Nature's glory! Of course, Calvin can't fully appreciate the view because he is missing all of the creature comforts at home which he has been "forcibly" separated from. Of course, what Calvin fails to realize that these sights are a true rarity in today's society and that those creature comforts are so ubiquitous that they really, when you really get down to it, aren't that special at all.

No setup, one panel, and one line of dialogue - yet everything works together to humorously and cleverly tell a story. Genius.

In addition to being quite clever and thoughtful, the humor is also cross-generational. Put another way, there is humor in these comics that the younger readers will identify with as well as humor that older readers can identify with. Take this strip for example:

As a younger lad, I obviously identified with Calvin and his griping at the obviously less than favorable turn of events on this camping trip. That said, having a few more years behind me now and having had a regimented routine and ever-increasing responsibilities over my adulthood, I can definitely relate to Calvin's dad and his desire to chase that sense of adventure and freedom (no matter how bad the weather gets) that seems to becomes more and more elusive with age. So it's interesting to return to these at a different stage in life and being able to appreciate them from a different perspective.

Of course I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Calvin & Hobbes in my opinion is one of the greatest, if not the greatest comic strip of all time. Regardless of what I think, I encourage you check it out for yourself, they are a great read full of humor, philosophical musings, adventure, and boundless imagination. Who knows, perhaps they will even inspire you as much as they have me!

And to Mr. Watterson, on the off chance these words ever cross your desk. Thank you!

The last ever Calvin & Hobbes strip ever published. As an artist this one really resonates with me and was the perfect send-off for this comic strip.

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