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Debunking Bill Watterson’s greatness

After reading Kiel Fleming’s high praise for Bill Wattersons’s Calvin and Hobbes as the best strip ever, Noah Berlatsky felt compelled to drop the praise-o-meter a few notches:

He writes:

Fair enough — but in fact this take on C & H actually does sum up my own attitude towards the strip. Not the part about it’s being the greatest thing ever, but the part about it’s being a series of fairly funny gags, and that’s about it. Great claims have been made for Calvin and Hobbes, but I don’t see much about it that distinguishes it qualitatively from something like, say, Foxtrot. Bill Watterson’s pretty funny, but most of his humor falls comfortably into competent sit-com territory — snappy one-liners playing off routine formula (my, bad boys sure are something, aren’t they?) He doesn’t have anything like the surreal goofiness of Gary Larson or Berkely Breathed, and he’s miles away from the quietly doddering genius of Schulz. Calvin’s imaginary life (the strip’s central hook) is cute, but fairly pedestrian. He imagines himself as a dinosaur, he imagines himself trapped by space aliens, he imagines making duplicates of himself — and then at the end of the strip we see the world as it really is, where the space alien is actually his teacher, or whatever. The whole thing is grindingly literal. Even the ambiguity — as in the moments where questions are raised about whether Hobbes is or is not real — seems plodding. Certainly there’s nothing as weird or as ontologically indeterminate as Snoopy’s fantasies. Most of Calvin and Hobbes really boils down to “kids say (or do) the darndest things.”

Agree or disagree?

Community Comments

#1 Joe Parker
@ 6:33 am

I guess that it’s subjective… I like Calvin & Hobbes. Now a lot of strips do the fantasy/reality juxtaposition, but I don’t remember anyone doing it particularly before Bill Watterson. I always found it very funny; stiil do. Of course, part of it may be because I had a son that could have been Calvin’s twin brother, so the strip hit close to home. Gary Larsen’s humor rarely connected with me, although I did read him for the occasional time it would and I liked Berkley Breathed somewhat, although his humor also didn’t always connect with me. As for Peanuts… that’s in a league all by itself and I don’t think anything else comes close.

#2 Norm Feuti
@ 6:45 am

The internet is filled with people who can (and do) criticize anything and everything. I’m beyond tired of those who have a constant need to illustrate how flawed we all are for liking something that they don’t.

This analysis is just another way for the author to say, “Sure,most people think Calvin & Hobbes was brilliant, but I’m smarter than most people and realize how trite and simplistic it really was.”

#3 Dave J.
@ 7:58 am

Hey, not every strip was brilliant, and not every device he used was wholly original, but this sounds like an assessment based on childhood memories and a cursory review of a handful of strips.

For one thing, even the more “pedestrian” and “sitcom”-like strips were distinguished by dead-on timing, sparkling vocabulary and stunning cartooning which “distinguishe[d] it qualitatively” head-and-shoulders above every other kid strip except perhaps Peanuts.

But what most people forget (even die-hard devotees) is that he routinely delved into sharp social and artistic commentary. Many of his Snowmen strips, the Bubble Gum Magazine strips, any strips where Calvin was eating sugared cereal and/or watching TV all had an obvious editorial bent that was critical of certain assumptions of the modern world.

I can appreciate someone preferring the surreal world of The Far Side or the manic chaos of Bloom County, but if you’re going to try and quantify why Calvin & Hobbes is empirically worse than those strips, you’ll need to have a better grasp of the material than what this commentator is obviously working with.

#4 Ed Power
@ 8:41 am

I will say this, I LOVE C&H. Love it. One of my favorite strips. I think it’s brilliant, and crisp, and subversive, and everything a great comic strip should be…


…I do like ‘Bloom County’ better and when I say that to my fellow comic-strip-fans I get looks like their about to hock a loogie at me.

If fact, I bet many of you reading this are thinking of hocking a loogie at me right now. Admit it.

#5 Dawn Douglass
@ 9:26 am


C and H was a brilliant strip. It’s my all-time favorite.

#6 Wiley Miller
@ 9:52 am

This is what happens whenever someone empirically pronounces any comic strip as “the best ever”. Simply stated, there is no such thing as “the best comic strip”. Cartooning is like any other art form, where its quality is in the eye of the beholder. It’s all very subjective.

So if one feels the need to make such pronouncements on who or what they think is the best _____ (fill in the blank), then they should qualify it by simply saying, “my personal favorite of all time is…”. And such favorites are limited to what you’ve been exposed to on a regular basis. Today’s comics are much different than they were 40 or 50 years ago. Not better, not worse, just different.

I don’t think you’d find any disagreement with someone saying C&H was one of the all-time best. Just not THE best.

#7 josh s.
@ 9:58 am

I agree with Dave J. That summary of Calvin & Hobbes does sound like someone who has not read the strip for quite some time. Fact is, Bill Watterson took old formulas (monsters under the bed, film noir, Saturday morning action serials) and refashioned them to make his own cultural commentary. He took situations that were almost cliche and refitted them to his needs.

Comics can be a series of seemingly innocuous gags that are actually subversive jabs at humanity. Watterson did this, but he did it with the understanding that, no matter how silly people can act, we are still all in it together.

In Calvin & Hobbes, Watterson was able to talk about politics, morals, existential crises, bugs, bats, and dinosaurs, all through the eyes of one little boy. AND he was a seriously talented artist.

If this Noah Berlatsky fellow wanted to get my ire up this morning, well, mission accomplished.

#8 Billy B
@ 10:15 am

Perhaps not groundbreaking… but Calvin and Hobbes proved that pure quality and a tremendous sense of humor will always be in demand and rightfully so—should be appreciated.
As far as defining any piece of art as “the best”–it’s all comparing apples and oranges—what is for sure…
Bill Watterson should definitely be commended for his contribution to the comic page.

#9 Scott Metzger
@ 11:23 am

Any time something is put up on a pedestal, someone is going to knock it down or say something along the lines that it’s “overrated.” I disagree with Mr. Berlatsky’s takes on Calvin and Hobbes but that’s fine. It’s his opinion.

Coincidentally, I happened to read one of my Calvin and Hobbes collections yesterday–something I hadn’t done in a few years. I did notice that most of the gags didn’t make me laugh out loud. But every strip at least made me smile–and made me want to turn the page. Watterson’s storylines were always fun and the characters were interesting–and so damn cute.

Plus every seven or eight strips or so there would be a KILLER gag. That’s why I think it’s one of the best comic strips ever. You can’t really rank this stuff anyway. It’s all subjective.

#10 JeffM
@ 12:36 pm

Well, to each their own.

There only a few strips that have made me laugh out loud consistently and C&H is one of them. Only a few strips make me want to absorb the nuances of their art long after the punch line has been read and C&H is one of them.

I agree with what others have said, there is no way to rank strips (or anything creative for that matter).

#11 Mike S.
@ 12:36 pm

I’m going to utter a blasphemy here, but I always liked Calvin & Hobbes over Peanuts. Maybe it’s because, when I started reading comics, Schulz was a bit past his prime. I agree with Scott that, when I go back and read through C&H collections, nearly every strip brings a smile to my face. There’s a consistency that runs through the entire life of the strip. And Bill’s skill with the brush still amazes me. The energy in his lines is really like nothing I’d seen in comic strips. I could look at those little pictures for a long time just absorbing it all.

Bill Watterson is like those atheletes who rise above everyone else in their sport, ie. Jordan, Lemieux, Brady. He didn’t re-invent the comic strip, he just did it better than practically anyone else.

#12 Larry Levine
@ 1:26 pm

Calvin & Hobbes was a great strip, though not my personal favorite. I was more a Peanuts, Beetle Bailey & Bloom County fan, in part because I enjoy strips with large casts who play off one another (I think these three did it best). That said, C&H is a unique masterpiece and the test of time has confirmed it.

#13 Tom Racine
@ 2:21 pm

Why are so many of the arguments on line about the subjective nature of art and criticism? :)

For me, what set “Calvin” apart from all others was the art. Great writing and characters, but what that man could do with just a few flicks of a brush is truly amazing. Sometimes I’d look at his work and not even read the words. I’d be happy to be a tenth of the artist he is. I’m a sucker for a great artist in the comics pages.

For the record, my all time “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” trio are the standard “Bloom County,” “Far Side,” and “Calvin.” I really don’t put them in any order because they fulfill different comic needs in me…it’s much like the fact a list of my favorite films would include “The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939),” “Citizen Kane,” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” Sometimes, you’re just in a certain mood…I’ve never liked comparisons of art, movies, music…it’s dangerous territory. Picasso vs. Caravaggio? Depends on the mood. Heck, right now, my favorite artist is my two year old daughter, so what do I know? :)

#14 Rich Diesslin
@ 2:37 pm

Per Dawn, “Disagree. C and H was a brilliant strip. Itâ??s my all-time favorite.” Even the selection of the names has a deeper level to it. C&H is nothing short of brilliant in my opinion.

Noah who? ;)

#15 Malc McGookin
@ 2:47 pm

Easy to “debunk” C&H in hindsight and decades after it revolutionized the comics industry. Being clever after the event is one thing, but this debunker ain’t even clever.

Watterson wasn’t the first to draw a kid strip, and Ford wasn’t the first to build a car, it’s how they did it that counts. C&H didn’t flag to the audience what was going on. Calvin sees a dinosaur, and the next panel he is standing in front of his teacher.
Calvin is talking to Hobbes, and in the next panel Hobbes is a stuffed toy in his arms.
Watterson trusted the audience to make the connection that Calvin imagines the teacher as the dinosaur and that Hobbes is alive only in a little boy’s imagination. He didn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, he played to it.
If you didn’t get C&H it was YOUR fault and your hard luck.

Comparing C&H to Foxtrot (with due respect to Amend) isn’t comparing apples with apples. Would this debunker be talking about Foxtrot now if it had ceased publication twenty years ago? Would anyone?

I rest my case.

#16 Norm Feuti
@ 3:06 pm

… itâ??s much like the fact a list of my favorite films would include … â??Big Trouble in Little China.â?

That was a great movie. Wow, I haven’t thought about it in years. I should rent it.

#17 Chris Hardiman
@ 3:22 pm

I also strongly disagree. “Calvin and Hobbes” is probably my all-time favorite strip. I have read every strip that Watterson turned out, and there was not one that I didn’t like. I can’t say that for a single other strip, I think. Now that’s saying something.

Saying that “Calvin” wasn’t great because it was a kid strip makes about as much sense as saying that “The Far Side” wasn’t great because it wasn’t the only single-panel comic ever created, or saying that “Bloom County” wasn’t great because it took a Democratic stance on politics and “Doonesbury” had done that first. It’s just ridiculous. All three of those strip deserve to be recognized for their greatness, and some guy trying to make the opposite case just because he wants to look like he’s superior or an cultured, intellectual Renaissance man or something is just a waste of our time.

#18 Dave Brousseau
@ 3:58 pm

I’d like to add that it’s a huge oversimplification to say that the framing device relating to Calvin’s imagination had been used before. Watterson’s approach always fascinated me because of the insight it showed into how Calvin’s mind worked. When Calvin’s mom washed the stuffed Hobbes, Calvin imagined Hobbes the tiger sitting up in the washing machine and telling how that felt. You have to be pretty far inside your character’s head to come up with something like that. Sure, Little Nemo dreamt up some crazy stuff, but in the end, we never learned much about the boy in the bed, except that he’d fallen out of it. Watterson took the imaginative world of the dreamer a step further than Little Nemo, Walter Mitty, or even Chuck Jones’ Ralph Philips ever had.

#19 Jeff Vella
@ 4:40 pm

Noah Berlatsky truely must have had a sad childhood, and has most likely forgotten what it was like to be a kid reading the Sunday funnies sprawled out on the living room floor.

After reading Berlatsky’s article of C&H, I then read Berlatsky’s profile. His profile reads as follows: “I write ill-tempered criticism for the Comics Journal and the Chicago Reader”.

WHAT? “ill-tempered”….? Isn’t that like saying “I hate everything and everyone that has anything to do with comics”…
And what about the word “criticism”…. It’s not like he’s saying, “I’ll write a review” or “I’ll give you my opinion”. NO…it’s just pain “hate-filled” criticism, and according to Wikipedia, Criticism can be a tool of antisocial behavior, such as a passive-aggressive attack.

I would NOT put much stock in what this guy says about “Calvin & Hobbes”. We all know a great comic strip when we read one.

#20 mark steinman
@ 4:44 pm

I realize that strong concept/writing is the backbone to any successful strip, but even when the gag wasn’t particularly inspired I always found myself lingering because of the art, especially the Sundays. Some of those were simply awesome.

#21 Jeff Hawley
@ 5:26 pm

I don’t care whether somebody online says something critical about it, I always liked Calvin & Hobbes very much and still do. Watterson’s creation was marvelous and he, and it, will always be in the list of the greats, without question. If I could magically transport myself to sit at the feet of just one cartoon master for five minutes, however, it’d be George Herriman.

#22 Mike Cope
@ 8:24 pm

Have you ever seen Bill Watterson’s picture on a bubble gum card? How can you say someone is great who’s never had their picture on a bubblegum card?

#23 Dawn Douglass
@ 9:30 pm

That’s right, Mike, Watterson and Beethoven. :)

#24 Garey Mckee
@ 11:16 pm

One of the most interesting things about C & H was Calvin’s absolute need for his imaginary world. Watterson rarely came right out and wrote any psychological or adult observations of Calvin’s world beyond Calvin’s parents being stumped or bemused by his actions. The only instance I can think of is when Calvin’s uncle came to visit and commented on Calvin’s attachment to Hobbes.

The fact that this is such a powerful center of the strip and the fact that Watterson only explored it through Calvin’s eyes only speaks volumes on the actual voice of the strip and what it was saying. It’s quite impressive and not to be overlooked when assessing the strip.

#25 Alex Hallatt
@ 3:34 am

I love C and H and it is one of my favourites, but I can see Berlatsky’s point. There were occasional brilliantly written strips, but most of them were just good. The characters were comfortable to be with, but it was the drawing which took the strip onto another level, for me.

I think Cul de Sac is better than C and H because it has consistently excellent writing, great art and characters who are hyper-real. They leap off the page into a world in your head which expands the more you read the strip. I’m really looking forward to getting the first collection when it comes out. And now that I’ve written this, Richard better sign one for me…

#26 Gregory Fink
@ 7:57 am

I rate the impact of a cartoon on myself by two things. First one is can I find books reprinting the strip? Second thing is how many times have I re-read that book? A follow up question to myself would be how often do I laugh while re-reading the book?

Watterson’s work is widely republished and the run is available for all to see. i have all the original books but was, and even now, still very tempted by the bound hard cover set. How many times have i re-read my books? More times than I can count. I sit with the stack of them and start at the beginning and read all the way through over a few days. I like to soak up the entire world of a strip this way whenever possible. I have my favorites and still laugh when I read them.

For me a strip that I first read more than 20 years ago that can do this is a very good strip indeed. Is it the best one? Nope. A solid favorite but there are others that are better. Does this take away from my enjoyment of the C&H strip? Not in any way. I think the criticism is not entirely invalid by the way but I think his argument is not very strong overall.

Best everyone,

Greg Fink
Stinging Monkey

#27 Dave Krainacker
@ 11:47 am

“Have you ever seen Bill Wattersonâ??s picture on a bubble gum card? How can you say someone is great whoâ??s never had their picture on a bubblegum card?”
Didn’t TOPPS put out a set of “Great Cartoonists” trading cards in 1993? (I think my wife threw my set away. I’m sure it would be worth thousands today.)
Just to put in my two cents about C and H. I thought the first several years were pure brilliance. The strip worked best when Calvin acted like a six year old. As time went by, Calvin often seemed like a jaded middle age person. Perhaps Mr. Watterson was venting through Calvin.
Anyway, happy Beethovens’ birthday on December 16th.

#28 Dawn Douglass
@ 12:22 pm

Dave, you reminded me of that old joke where Beethoven is in his grave erasing sheet music. Because of the sound of the scratches, somebody finally digs down and opens the casket. And Beethoven yells: GO AWAY! I’M DECOMPOSING!!

LOL Oh, I love a good pun, Lord help me.

#29 Rich Diesslin
@ 2:52 pm

Gregory … if you go that nuts of a strip you just like, then I don’t even want to know what you do with your favorite strip! ;)

Assessing this thread, Adam and Jamie officially declare the myth busted. Watterson is a genius and Berlatsky is, indeed, not.

BTW – Jeff, while critics are usually “critical,” criticism is also a term used for valid forms of inquiry (as in textual criticism, narrative criticism, historical criticism, etc.). In Berlastsky’s case I would guess he can’t distinguish the difference, or perhaps as an “ill-tempered critic” he can, but chooses not to. It seems as though he views cartooning as a very low art form and underrates its significance.

#30 Jeff Vella
@ 4:52 pm

Rich, you forgot “constructive criticism”, which is probably what Berlatsky should’ve used on his prifile instead of “ill-tempered criticism”. It’s just the phrase “ill-tempered” seems so negative, I just can’t imagine Berlatsky likes anything that’s remotely related to comics.

BTW – Rich, Calvin & Hobbes was and still is my favorite comic strip. It was the only comic strip that actually made me laugh out-loud. Wattersonâ??s Sunday comic strip was well beyound comic strip status. It was art.

#31 Malc McGookin
@ 6:16 pm

I would take your litmus test a little further and say how many cartoonists (or how many features) would sell if they were published in book form?

In other words, how many features are in newspapers just because they’ve always been there, sustained through the umbilical cord of a regular slot in a newspaper, and how many would sell as compilations outside the “womb”?

The first time I saw Far Side, C&H, and Dilbert, they were in book form, and I bought those books right off the shelf. I had not seen them as newspaper features at that time.

So I repeat, How many of (imho) the old, unread and irrelevant strips in newspapers get published in book form? They’re like the old grandads in the syndicate football team who no-one tackles too hard. The real talents play in the big league and take their chances in the market place.

#32 Eric Burke
@ 9:00 pm

Have you ever seen Bill Wattersonâ??s picture on a bubble gum card? How can you say someone is great whoâ??s never had their picture on a bubblegum card?

Imagine a cartoonist like Watterson that wouldn’t allow any merchandising of his strip, to allow his mug to be put on a trading card? LOL

I think Calvin and Hobbes deserves to be mentioned right along with Peanuts, Popeye, Pogo, Krazy Kat and The Farside as best comic strip/panel ever.

To me, it’s really just splitting hairs among this group, and sentimentality can often sway opinion.

This Berlatsky fella is just trying to stir the pot so to speak, to get peeps to read his column. And this tactic always works. Lists of “Best _____ Ever” always get peeps debating, and this lists are purposely set up to be “controversial” I’d bet.

And I gots to tell you, I can’t remember the last time that I actually saw an issue of The Comics Journal in a store or news stand? I look but no see…

#33 Eric Burke
@ 9:02 pm

Have you ever seen Bill Wattersonâ??s picture on a bubble gum card? How can you say someone is great whoâ??s never had their picture on a bubblegum card?

Imagine a cartoonist like Watterson that wouldn’t allow any merchandising of his strip, to allow his mug to be put on a trading card? LOL

I think Calvin and Hobbes deserves to be mentioned right along with Peanuts, Popeye, Pogo, Krazy Kat and The Farside as best comic strip/panel ever.

To me, it’s really just splitting hairs among this group, and sentimentality can often sway opinion.

This Berlatsky fella is just trying to stir the pot so to speak, to get peeps to read his column. And this tactic always works. Lists of “Best _____ Ever” always get peeps debating, and this lists are purposely set up to be “controversial” I’d bet.

And I gots to tell you, I can’t remember the last time that I actually saw an issue of The Comics Journal in a store or news stand? I look but no see…

* reposted due to over italicsization…

#34 Mike Cope
@ 6:14 am

Ha-Ha … You caught that, Eric!

I think that one of the most important measures of Watterson’s greatness is the number of “younger” cartoonists who name him as one of their cartooning heroes. It’s one thing for a comic strip to be enjoyed by the general reader for a long or limited time … It’s another to inspire future generations of cartoonists to keep the artform alive.

Alan’s “Cartoonist’s Cartoonists” posts alone are a testament to this.

#35 Gerald Dudley
@ 11:55 pm

What I loved most about Calvin and Hobbes was that the world of Calvin’s imagination always seemed more real than the reality inhabited by everyone else.

Why couldn’t his parents just UNDERSTAND that he was stuck as an elephant that afternoon? Or that his duplicates were running all over the house?

I think that was Watterson’s gift, to take that essence of the world of one’s mind, and make it just as concrete, if not more so, than actual reality.

As to Berlatsky’s remarks, I totally disagree on almost all counts. His comments remind me of that one friend everyone has that can never just sit and enjoy the movie, so much so that you find a reason to not go out for drinks later. Berlatsky is entitled to his opinion, but I think presenting it as he did undermined his point by appearing condescending. Given that paragraph as a sample of his work, I’m not likely to read his column.

Regarding the tag ‘best ever,’ I think it’s true that to declare anything as such is guaranteed to raise someone’s ire – “How dare you? No, THIS is better!”

Fleming could certainly state that Calvin and Hobbes is HIS favorite strip ever, and no one would take offense. I usually read most ‘best ever’ lists with that in mind. The translation should usually be taken to mean ‘my/our favorites.’

#36 Gerald Dudley
@ 7:34 am

Only now do I realize I replied to a thread that is a year and a half old. This is what I get for being on the internet late at night before bed.

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