Watterson’s World: Sunday Study Sunday

Nick Martens looks closely at Watterson’s later Sunday Strips—the “golden age” of Calvin and Hobbes.

I was just eight years old at the time, but I still remember being shocked that Calvin and Hobbes was ending. It shocked everyone who loved the strip. Watterson hadn’t lost his touch, and ten years was young for a popular newspaper daily. Why would a clearly passionate artist hang up his pen?

If you look closely you can see the signs. For most of the strip’s run, Watterson’s craft evolves visibly. His artwork becomes complex and evocative; his characters develop deep, nuanced personalities; and his humor sharpens into a subtle, satirical barb. But the Monday to Saturday strips in the final Calvin and Hobbes collection, It’s a Magical World, show stagnation and decline. Watterson reuses old punch lines, turns Calvin’s parents into trite curmudgeons (“Look at all this peanut butter! There must be three sizes of five brands of four consistencies! Who demands this much choice?”), and introduces new ideas that don’t pan out (remember the aliens who buy Earth from Calvin? Well I do, and I wish I didn’t). The strip doesn’t turn bad (the last Rosalyn story is excellent), but the dailies perceptibly lose their edge as the strip winds down.

Watterson surely felt a degree of burnout after a decade of producing daily art, but to play psychologist for a moment, I think something else turned him against the newspaper cartoon. On Sunday, February 2, 1992, Watterson returned from a nine-month sabbatical, and in that time Calvin and Hobbes had transformed. Formerly, like all cartoonists, Watterson was given a specific layout to which the panels of his Sunday strips had to conform. The layout was modular, allowing newspaper editors to rearrange panels, or even discard the top row, to fit all the comics on the page. But from ’92 on, Watterson’s syndicate sold Calvin and Hobbes as a solid, half-or-quarter-page block of content that could not be broken or reassembled. Watterson had total control over his panel design.

He then proceeded to produce his best work. The Sunday strips from ’92 to ’95 mark the golden age of Calvin and Hobbes, when Watterson pushed his genre as far as it would go. He filled huge panels with alien planets and dinosaurs to evoke a sense of wonder, blasted the page with tiny panels to capture a jubilant summer day, and cleared the panels of clutter and chaos so his characters could wax philosophical in a world without distractions.

Watterson’s own writing reveals a deep affection for the unbreakable Sunday format:

With the large Sundays, I felt that Calvin and Hobbes kicked into high gear. The large format not only encouraged new ways of presenting ideas, it forced me to push the drawings, to make Calvin’s world as bold and energetic as I could. I felt the strip finally looked the way it did in my head.

The artistic freedom Watterson gained in the Sunday strips must have made the other limitations of his medium all the more frustrating. Only one day a week represented his full range as an artist. This is only idle speculation, but I can imagine Watterson wanting to break the shackles of panels and deadlines once he saw that the lack of limitations enriched his work. After he quit Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson tells us, he took up painting and music.

But though he stopped the strip too soon, he still left behind a wealth of Sunday comics from that late period. The following strips were all produced after ’92 with the unrestricted layout, and I’d like to look closely at the specific techniques that make them so effective (apologies for the crummy scans).

May 14, 1995; click for a larger version

May 14, 1995

Here’s a straightforward example of how panel design can reflect the content of the strip. The black box with crooked panels, which Watterson says he got from Krazy Kat, draws a clear distinction between Calvin’s home and school life. The whitespace and borderless panels on top and bottom show the freedom and tranquility Calvin feels at home. But the black frame traps him at school, where the jagged, crowded panels underscore his chaotic and dreadful day. Watterson also stretches out the final panel and sets it against copious whitespace, so the eye to lingers on the melancholy resolution.

September 24, 1995; click for a larger version

September 24, 1995

Watterson uses a similar black-box technique here, but to subtler effect. This box doesn’t separate its panels in time and space as it did in the last example. Instead, the action is meant to flow through the middle row; the tops and bottoms of the panels poke out from the box, unifying rather than dividing the strip. But the box’s real purpose here is to frame the verbal escalation between Calvin and Hobbes that turns their football game into Calvinball. The characters stop running in the first panel of the second row, and they remain stationary as the box ties their one-upmanship into a single coherent unit. The oscillating panels mirror the back-and-forth nature of their banter, and when the action moves into the third row, their game has moved beyond the ridiculous and into the Calvinball zone. Note also how Watterson uses a thick yellow frame on the last panel to set it apart in time.

March 13, 1994; click for a larger version

March 13, 1994

Watterson often puts his most poignant social commentary into strips that experiment with whitespace. Here, the muted colors and open panels lend the dialogue a relaxed, reflective pace. I admire Watterson’s restraint in using a spare aesthetic for this strip. He could have bluntly hammered home his environmental message by rendering a lavish, pastoral forest, as if lamenting the loss of unspeakable natural beauty. But these woods posses a more dignified beauty, and their pollution is no less tragic. Or perhaps Watterson’s minimalism suggests a different take on environmentalism: it’s not nature’s beauty that’s worth saving, but its serenity.

October 15, 1995; click for a larger version

October 15, 1995

November 19, 1995; click for a larger version

November 19, 1995

These two strips show a different side of whitespace. The top strip reads slowly, with the languid frustration of nocturnal restlessness, while the bottom strip is a frantic blitz. Both are laid out in the same simple fashion, but Watterson coats the first in a molasses of saturated color, dulling the reader’s pace. The panels are also oriented vertically, contrary to human vision, giving the whole strip a chopped, staccato rhythm.

On the second strip, Watterson mercilessly excludes non-essential colors and details. The eye quickly catches the action in each panel and darts to the next. The whitespace ensures that the strip feels light, and Watterson injects splashes of white into the more colorful panels (the picket fence in panel nine, the car window in fifteen) to ensure that none of them become too heavy. Finally, the horizontal panels let readers build momentum throughout the strip, until they hit the brick wall of the last panel. The whole production converges on Calvin’s Mom’s scream, which is probably Watterson’s best punch line.

December 6, 1992; click for a larger version

December 6, 1992

I always use this strip to defend Watterson as a sophisticated artist. So much needs to happen to tell this complex story without dialogue, but I’ll focus on just one aspect: the concealed punch line. The joke in this strip is in the first panel of the bottom row, where we learn that all of the events are just Calvin’s fantastical excuse. But that punch-line panel is right next to the large sixth panel, where Calvin screams inside the tube. If the reader glanced from panel six to the bottom row, the joke would be ruined.

So, Watterson draws the eye away from the bottom row with several subconscious tricks. The seventh panel, where Calvin sees the robot, is the only circular panel, and thus calls attention to itself. The circle overlaps not just the sixth panel, but the bottom row as well. Being “on top” makes it stand out from its neighbors. Watterson also puts the main character at the top of the sixth panel and at the left of the seventh. On our first pass, we are reading this strip to see what happens to Calvin, so we follow the clearest path that continues the story—straight across from six to seven. Watterson also dunks Calvin in a bright green tank, a color that catches the eye and offers further continuity between panels six and seven. Finally, the bottom of panel six, where readers could most easily steal a glance at the punch line, is filled with dark, dull colors, and it’s populated by identical copies of the same alien. Watterson gives the reader no reason to linger there on a first reading.

These tricks may seem unnecessary, since we are culturally inclined to look straight from panel six to seven, but they show the tremendous care that Watterson put into these later Sunday strips. When he got complete control over his panel layouts, he was free to explore the whole range of visual language allowed by comics. Writing and art do not just coexist in these strips; Watterson weaves them together into work that aspires to the highest potential of its medium. It makes me genuinely sad that Watterson only created at this level for three years, but we should feel lucky he ever got there at all.

See more from Watterson’s World.

Nick Martens is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. You can email him, if you like.