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Thursday, 16 December 2010

Calvin & Hobbes

Writer and Artist: Bill Watterson
Publisher:  Sphere

What’s it about?
Mostly, it’s about six year old Calvin and his overactive imagination.  His best friend is a stuffed Tiger named Hobbes, with whom he invents numerous characters and stories, ranging from Spaceman Spiff, Captain Stupendous, tyrannosaurs (usually based on his mother), alien invasions (usually based on both parents), and far far more.

The perils of Calvin’s life can be summarised thus:
School, bathtime, Rosalyn the babysitter, school photos, camping trips, his long suffering neighbour neighbour Susie and his very attentive parents.

There are recurring themes of environmental destruction, opinion polls (based around getting a new father) and of course, the space/prehistoric/anti villainy adventures of Calvin and Hobbes.  Calvin is a terror to parent, but a funny, warm hearted terror.

Calvin & Hobbes follows in the tradition of rogue kids in comic strips, such as the UK’s Dennis the Menace, but also has an element of Peanuts and Garfield about it.  This may be due to the all ages aspect of it, or simply the strip format it’s presented in.  Either way, there’s a lot to be recognised within the book.

What’s good about it?
Presented mostly in a horizontal strip format, each strip is (more or less) a standalone gag.  There area  few pages in each volume where the strips link up and you would be best advised to read them in on go, but on the whole, the books are very easy to dip in out of whenever you’ve got a spare few minutes.  Equally, you could sit and read a volume back to back if you wanted.

There’s some surreal humour, a smattering of visual puns and some well presented observational comedy.  Calvin is sometimes wry, sometimes rude and often infuriating, at least, for any adults in the vicinity.

What’s bad about it?
I’m really clutching at straws here, because the only thing that I can really think of to criticise is that from a gender politics point of view, this book is very much of it’s time – the 1980s.  There’s nothing actually sexist about it, but Calvin does live very much in a nuclear family with Dad going out to work and Mum staying at home looking after the kids.  It’s not a diverse environment.

Given the environmental commentary within the book it is obvious that Watterson is politically aware and that he does put his politics and concerns into his writing.  If you are looking for a book to pass The Bechdel Test this isn’t it.  What it is, is funny, engaging and worth a read - not all books have to reflect and adhere to feminist theory.

What’s the art like?
Very cartoony – the characters don’t really resemble real people and are depicted with a few lines and symbols to suggest expressions and features.  For example, when someone is angry they have a little black cloud over their head and the line work for their movements and expressions becomes thicker and blacker.  There are speed lines to indicate running and big open mouths that take up most of a face to show excitement or glee.

I should add that when converting these art scans to a jpeg to post, they have become slightly stretched, they are not printed quite like this within the books, and if you should want to see what they really look like, head on over to Go Comics where you can read a strip daily for free.

Al this makes it very easy to read, understand and empathise with.  It’s a very direct, immediate form of cartooning without a lot of subtlety.  This is not a criticism, this style is an effective way of engaging the reader and focusing them on the story and actions contained within.
The lettering is simple but effective.  Calvin gets standard capitalised speech bubbles; the school bully’s speech is shown in childlike handwriting; the adults get text in bold to indicate annoyance.

Other information
You can pretty much pick up any book and be guaranteed that it will be good.  Information on the books can be found at  Calvin and Hobbes.co.uk.  If you want more help on which to choose try Amazon's Look Inside service for the following books:

Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons

Scientific Progress Goes "Boink"  This one is a favourite of mine!
Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat Another favourite of mine!

All are sold for around £10 and many have winter themed strips, if you want a Christmassy present for someone.  It's a Magical World is more snowy and wintry themed than most.

Alternatively, read them for free at Go Comics.

Thanks to James Sharpe for putting together the covers picture for me.  James is a UK based Writer and Director and can be found on the internet here.

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