When I was a kid, I loved building tiny reading nooks. The landscape of my childhood was populated by a series of idiosyncratically constructed libraries: the corrugated cardboard bookshelves I installed in my dad’s old van, the bedside table and diminutive chair that I tucked into the corner of my closet.
I would spend hours organizing my books according to shifting hierarchical ranking systems that reflected my mood, and I loved the challenge of arranging them in relation not only to other books, but to the larger context of the events going on in my life. The perennial favorites were books that evolved with me, the titles that possessed the versatility to walk in tandem with me as I shifted from childhood to adolescence (and maybe to adulthood? I still mostly think of myself as very tall nine year old who just happens to like men and bourbon), unfurling seemingly endless layers of whatever it was that I most needed.
Nothing—book or otherwise—has consistently touched more points of my life than Bill Watterson’sCalvin and Hobbes. Simply put, Bill Watterson was my first hero. And book tangents aside, first heroes are what this post is about.
The Project Room is in the process of switching between Big Questions. We’ve spent the last year and a half basing our programming and written content around Why do we make things?, and as part of that line of inquiry, we asked contributors to respond to the Quest(ion) prompt What was the first thing you ever made?
In June we are moving to the next Big Question of How are we remembered?, and are changing the Quest(ion) accordingly. As you may have guessed, we are now asking Who was your first hero?
We spent a lot of time trying to come up with the right Quest(ion) prompt. It needed to be broad enough to be a universal experience, but specific enough to evoke a strong personal response. We threw a lot of ideas around and none of them quite worked: it felt a bit like trying to artificially impose a nickname rather than allowing circumstances to naturally give rise to it. But we knew that we finally got it right when Jess bounced Who was your first hero? off of me, and I instantly had an answer.
I became an artist because of Calvin and Hobbes. When I was back home visiting my family recently, I was digging through the attic and found an old childhood sketchbook. It’s from an era when I was apparently deep in my knights/dragons/princesses-in-need-of-saving phase, but it is also full of drawings of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips.
Bill Watterson’s comics were my first introduction to the liberating quality of my own mind, to the idea that imagination was limitless. I didn’t understand the nuances of Calvin and Hobbes when I first began reading it, but rather saw my own experiences and passions mirrored in Calvin’s curiosity, independence, and stubborn refusal to conform to external expectations. I also share Calvin’s deep love of dinosaurs.
I first saw in Calvin my own joy of play and forward motion, and as I got older and grew into the conflicted ambiguities of a less binary world view, Calvin and Hobbes was right there with me. Calvin’s experience of finding an injured raccoon and coming to terms with its death was one of my first introductions to mortality:
And watching the intimate conversation between Calvin’s parents after their house is robbed eased me into the terrifying and universal realization that our parents don’t know everything, that they are real people wrestling with their own sets of fears and fallibilities:
Later, as I began growing into the idea that I was an artist and tried to figure out what that meant, Calvin and Hobbes helped me navigate the pretensions and jargon endemic to fine art in order to find a way to my own voice:
Watterson’s veiled jabs at the structures of high art inculcated me with the still-held belief that sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself as an artist is to go play outside and poke things with sticks:
When I turned eighteen, I got my first tattoo:
Watterson’s little red wagon scenes are some of my favorite strips. They perfectly capture the exuberance of momentum, and offer a physical proxy to some of my most deeply held beliefs. Calvin’s wagon rides taught me that if you’re going to do something, you put the force of your full self behind it and see it through to the end. Hobbes had a habit of jumping off the wagon at the top of the hill, but Calvin was never daunted by uncertainty, and watching him emerge time and time again from ravines and bramble bushes reinforced my dedication to the notion that the hardscrabble journey through the forest is always worth the inevitable crashes. But perhaps most importantly, Watterson’s wagon scenes instilled in me the notion that just because something is heavy and complicated does not mean that it can’t also be really funny.
My parents of course hated the fact that I was getting a tattoo, and they asked me how I could possibly know that I’d still like Calvin and Hobbes thirty years from now. Unlike the lines of my tattoo, which have naturally thickened and blurred over the years, my response has not changed: If I ever reach a point in my life where these messages don’t resonate with me, I will know that I have taken a very, very wrong turn somewhere along the line.
Every time I think that I have wrung everything I can out of Watterson’s work, some new layer emerges and I am proven wonderfully wrong. I have recently begun a creative transition from painter to graphic novelist, and as such, I am revisiting Calvin and Hobbes from a technical perspective. Now I turn to the strip with a fine appreciation for the nuances of Watterson’s brushstrokes, and my palpitations of delight are for the fluidity of his panel design and his incredible ability to capture the trembling potential of an open landscape.
When I told friends that I was writing this piece about Calvin and Hobbes, they questioned if it was really accurate to say that my first hero was Bill Watterson: they thought my hero was actually Calvin. But Watterson obliquely taught me that there is no real division between an artist and the work that they create, and this understanding is something I turn to over and over again. There is something beautiful and brave in watching a mind struggle with itself, and I have profound admiration for the way in which Watterson used Calvin and Hobbes as a vehicle to dispel his own misanthropy and remind himself of his capacity for wonder.
Bill Watterson’s work reminds me of who I want to be both as an artist and as a human being, and he remains the rare exception to the general rule: he is a hero who, for me, has never fallen from grace. When Watterson stopped drawing Calvin and Hobbes in 1995, I unabashedly admit that I cried myself silly. But I ultimately hold tremendous respect for Watterson’s commitment to his own sense of artistic integrity and his decision to end the strip on his own terms. It was a perfect exit.
I keep the last strip of Calvin and Hobbes taped to the wall above my drawing table. It is my absolute favorite piece of art, and it speaks for itself:
Would you like to answer the Quest(ion) and tell us about your first hero? Email me and let’s talk.