Bill Watterson, Memory & The Cessation Of Good Things

I am nine years old.

It is late autumn in southern Ohio. A chilling breeze weaves itself through the grass, rustling beds of leaves while the sun lingers behind dry clouds. In the mouth of a fireplace nestled between floor-to-ceiling bookshelves coals fight for life. A flame dances atop a block of pine swinging its orange hips back and forth along its surface. It is a calm Saturday in late November and I am sitting on a worn green couch with a blanket wrapped around my feet. A stack of Calvin & Hobbes comic books sits next to me; one of them is open on my lap.

I am nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.

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For the past nine months on this blog, I’ve been occupying myself with a series called “My Life According To Calvin” where I utilize various aspects of Bill Watterson’s world to illustrate different moments of my own life. This has been almost entirely for my own amusement; I read Calvin and Hobbes throughout my my youth and into adulthood. They were as influential to me as any collection of literature and it has been heartwarming if not entirely edifying to return to the archives of my childhood as a means of articulating my current state.

As some may know, the comic strip has a unique story. As an adult, it is the ending of Watterson’s creation that fascinates me the most. In November of 1995, at the height of the strip’s popularity, Bill Watterson announced his retirement from the comic world. On December 31st of that year, the final strip was published.

In the years since then Bill Watterson has not published or produced any other significant works. He is more than slightly reclusive and covets his privacy. Meanwhile fans across the globe bemoan the death of a comic strip they loved and cherished.

But as with everything else, Calvin & Hobbes was doomed to come to an end. All good things must, after all, and the mortality of a six-year-old and his stuffed tiger was never in question. Even if Watterson had dedicated his entire life to creating new strips, simple logic seems to dictate that his inevitable death would have brought with it the end of Calvin & Hobbes.

Or does it? calvin 1

It seems that, as with many forms of art, there is a substance to Calvin & Hobbes that exists beyond the parameters of its creator. This past summer, I was surprised and delighted to stumble upon a collection of these books in a Central American coffee shop. Numerous forums and blogs are dedicated to its memory, my own being one trite example. We see this across the spectrum of the arts: the Mona Lisa smiles upon millions of visitors a year, the Iliad is still read in high school classrooms and the pyramids of Egypt are climbed by sandaled feet from all across the globe. The boy and his tiger live on, despite the fact that time has surpassed its parametered existence. The cessation of a good thing, the end of something, doesn’t in fact appear to be its end.

calvin 2For once something has existed will it not always exist? The wind moves though we cannot see it, a word once spoken does not just disperse into the atmosphere and memories are haunting beyond the most potent of earthly powers.

In saying this I cannot avoid the fact that I am (still) nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.

Eternity is a frightening concept for any human being to wrap their head around. Perhaps this is because we are drenched in our own personal reminders of it. These reminders are memories and it is the memory of a human being that is its most beloved friend or, depending on the moment, hated enemy.

For the memory pieces together the good, bad, ugly and confusing; it is the anchor of a human amidst the turbulent sea of existence. The memory is an archive of the culmination of moments which, when interconnected and pieced together like a puzzle, bring all of us back not only to the beginning of our story but also to the beginning of the story. They bring us back to the garden and the fall.

For all of us, no matter how diverse our backgrounds, can find within ourselves beautiful traces of the transcendence, fluttering down like golden manna from the sky, falling into our palms and breathing into us the breath of God into Adam, the Hebrew ruah, the spirit moving across the water and shining its creative grace into being. These memories exist within each of us though some have been touched by despair and others remain sparsely alive, watered slowly and sporadically by hope. Others flourish under healthy doses of sunlight mixed with clouds.

Likewise, we can all reach within our memories and run our fingers along scattered ashes: heartbreak, pain, depression and despair, sin and depravity in all its cruelest and most articulate forms. They exists within each of us, as potent as the serpent whispering within our ear. And at their very root is a Polaroid of ourselves, burnt around the edges with our faces scratched out, arm extended, one hand snatching the apple from the tree.calvin 4

All these things we find within the memory. They are not gone; they always exist.

And what we encounter with the cessation of good things, what “goodbye”, sunsets, graduations and yes, even the early retirement of our favorite comic strip teaches us, is that time itself is a notion conquered by memory. For although the logic of language and human thought dictates that we communicate of things in the past as something that is “gone” or “lost”, there remains a nagging guilt, or perhaps bitter nostalgia, to remind us of the truth.

For I am (still) nine years old, sitting on the couch, reading Calvin & Hobbes.

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Likewise, the existence of memory brings within each of us the reminder of eternity, the future existence of all that is. For just as memory transports us back into the garden, so it allows us (if we allow ourselves) to stand upon an overturned box and peer across the fields of time, to look forward to the culmination of the story that began and ends in a new garden on the other side.

For the existence of a memory dictates the necessity of its purpose; if one believes in God then one believes in the omnipotence of the Being under who’s direct rule all things come together. But even if one is not compelled to put their faith in such a notion, they are struck by the inevitable conundrum of having to account for things with no purpose; evolution and chance cannot dictate the creation of a purposeless thing and logic provides no outside force which could, feasibly, supply it.

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The conundrum of memory, then, is that there must be a purpose. And what could be the purpose of archived remnants of objects, people, and events that no longer exist save for the foreshadowing of their renewal? What could be the point of a programmatic hope within the soul of each individual, save for the renewal and fulfillment of said hope?

I am increasingly convinced that what has drawn me to Watterson’s work all these years is not so much the quirky timelessness of his creation but the way it ended. The fading notes of a song are its most beautiful portion, for the silence that follows is a reminder of its existence and beckons to the reality that it can and will be played again. Any artist when thoroughly examined will be found with similar traces of eternity dusting their fingertips.

In Watterson’s voluntary and drastically intentional withdrawal from the public eye, however, every scrap of evidence was brought forward into the light. Fans demanded to know why a good thing had to come to an end. Why in a world where spouses abandoned each other, bullets ripped through children’s brains, car accidents took promising athletes, photographs fade and foundations crumble, why in this world did a boy and a tiger also cease to be? In Watterson’s accompanying silence (save for a couple of statements that were few and far between) the jury convened and concluded that, contrary to initial evidence, Watterson’s artwork hadn’t disappeared. For the story in which it played a small part, the story which had lodged itself into the memory of so many people, was part of a larger story, a grandeur story. Nothing had come to an end.

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And so I am confronted with the reality in my own life that I am still nine years old sitting on a couch reading Calvin & Hobbes. The pertinent reality of my existence is not dictated by the confinements of time. But rather, from outside of time there is/was/will be an Artist whose story I have been crafted into.

It is this story that compels me. It is this story that becomes my substance. It is this story that prompts me to find hope in the ballad of a boy and his tiger.

It is this story that teaches me, against first instinct, to take joy in the cessation of good things.

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What Bill Watterson Taught Me About Christmas (And Life In General)

So Buzzfeed already sorta beat me to this one but in case you happen to be cruising the internet today and in case you are so bored that you are actually on my blog a) seriously, I am so sorry, it’ll get better b) I thought I’d provide a little Yuletide cheer to lift you from the dismality you must inevitably be reeling in.

I’ve written and posted somewhat endlessly about the influence Bill Watterson’s comic strip had on my development as a child and so I wanted to take a moment today to share a couple lessons Watterson taught me about Christmas. Of course, most of these lessons extend through Christmas and onto life in general, but in the spirit of the season they all relate to this most blessed time of year. So here you have ’em:

1)A Utilitarian Approach to Morality Works Best

All the philosophy and systematic theology is just stating what Calvin figured out at age six:

 

Utilitarian Morality

2) The Best Gifts Are Neither Wrapped Nor Bought

Lucky for me, because gift wrapping is not my forte and I usually forget to buy gifts on time.

the best gifts aren't wrapped 3)Charity Is Not An Excuse For Incompetence

Always a good thing to remember when it comes to volunteer hours and mentored ministry requirements

Charity Is No Excsue For Inadequate Performance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4)Cynicism Can Be Helpful To My Faith

I’m becoming more Catholic by the day, aren’t I?

Cynicism Can Be Helpful To One's Faith Walk

 

5) Even The Best Sense Of Humor Still Requires Timing

A good lesson to learn for a man on the verge of marriage…

Even the Best Sense of Humor Still Requires Timing

6) When It Comes To The State of Things We All Share The Blame

Sometimes I get depressed with the state of the world. Sometimes I want to point the finger. Sometimes I have to turn around and point that finger right back at myself.

When It Comes to the state of things we're all in this together

And of course…

7) Grace Wins Out In The End

Even for the least worthy of us…

grace prevails

 

Just a few tidbits for you from Mr. Watterson. Remember, lest anyone think I’m more important/rich than I am and think these ideas are my own, they’re not- so there. I said it. Now you can’t sue me. I think that’s how this copyright stuff works.

Now please, get off the internet and definitely get off this blog. Go read the first chapters of Luke, drink hot chocolate, watch snow fall outside (or pretend its snowing if you live too far south). Snuggle up a loved one, pet or a pillow…whatever you do, wherever you are, I pray that you are able to enjoy Christmas with those nearest and dearest to you. If not, Calvin and Hobbes is as worthy a substitute as any.

Merry Christmas everyone!

merrry christmas

The Hobbesian God

I am a Christian because of Bill Watterson.

As a kid, there are few books my parents could’ve given me that would have brought more long-term benefit to my soul than Calvin and Hobbes. Yes, yes, yes they had me read the Bible and, of course, that was the best thing for me. But, to be frank, my Biblical explorations as a wee-lad consisted less of a deep spiritual connection and more of perusing the Song of Solomon for, shall we say, an illustrative phrase or two.

While I highly value the Biblical background in which I was raised, I also strayed from that in various fits of rebellion and self-exploration; though the Bible was consistent, I was the boat tossed in the waves of doubt and wanderings. Yet even in these times, Watterson’s writings remained a persistent part of my life, like a life jacket tucked under the seat in my wayward heart. In what I can only assume was an unintentional manner, Bill Watterson created a small safety net for me, a corner of the imagination which would ensure I’d never really stray from God and he did so in the character of Hobbes.

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Calvin and Hobbes is a comic strip syndicated from November of 1985 until December 31, 1995 crafted at the hand of Bill Watterson, an aspiring journalist from northeastern Ohio. The comic depicts the imagination, lessons, antics and musings of 6-year-old Calvin through interactions with the normal entourage of a child’s life: the despicable, cootie-ridden female Susie Derkins, his eternal struggles against his school teacher and heinously evil baby-sitter Roslyn, and his grandiose adventures in everything from time travel to attacks from deranged snowmen, all with the faithful companionship of his stuffed tiger Hobbes.

The series is full of philosophical allusions: it is strongly believed that Calvin is named after John Calvin, and Hobbes inherited his title from 17th century English thinker Thomas Hobbes. Even the teacher in the series, despised and demonized Miss Wormwood, is speculated to have received her name from C.S. Lewis’ character in the Screwtape Letters. With Bill Watterson’s decision to stop writing, however, came the fruition of his reclusive lifestyle and Watterson himself has never confirmed these notions.

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Throughout the strip’s tenure the character of Hobbes frequently plays the foil to many of Calvin’s antics. While he follows Calvin’s lead in just about every activity, whether it be a plot to water-balloon Susie or an attempt to avoid cleaning up his room, Hobbes is frequently found exposing Calvin’s particularly selfish notions, pointing out his illogical claims or simply antagonizing his ego.

checkers

The result is an ongoing struggle between the two which is constantly juxtaposed to Calvin’s struggle with everyone else. The difference in the two struggles is apparent; despite any differences between him and his tiger, it’s remarkably clear that Calvin can always count on Hobbes to be waiting for him after a long day at school or there in his bed each night. The relationship they have is one that Calvin cherishes even in the worst of moments.

hard to be mad

The funny thing about Hobbes is that he doesn’t decrease conflict in Calvin’s life, if anything, he actually prompts more of it. Whether he straight up opposes Calvin, or simply doesn’t join him in every whim of Calvin’s ego and will, Hobbes is perpetually finding ways to get under Calvin’s skin.

smock

But the logical “grown up” reader will look at most of Hobbes’ conflicts with the protagonist and realize that Hobbes (usually) represents a far more logical, mature and peaceful reconciliatory solution than any of Calvin’s egotistical ones.

silly way to live

The irony here is, of course, that to a real “grown up” Hobbes does not exist. And there is great significance in the discussion over the reality of Hobbes’ character. To Calvin’s parents, Hobbes is just another stuffed toy, admittedly one that to which their son is incredibly attached.

real hobbes

But Watterson repeatedly shatters the accusation that Hobbes is just a figment of Calvin’s imagination. In doing so, he reveals to us that the foolishness of adults in the comic strip, those who are “wise in the world”. There is nothing malicious in Watterson’s critique of grown-ups, if anything we are tempted to side with them. They are sympathetic, imperfect, lovable and entirely quirky characters.

becoming a father

But despite all their positive traits, they cannot see the obvious: that Hobbes is as real as they are. And at the end of the day readers are forced to accept that we cannot separate the character of Calvin from Hobbes, just like you could not separate Christ from the Christian, even though their identities are separate and their wills distinct and to the outside eye.

faces

I don’t believe Watterson intended for Hobbes to be a God figure. Such a statement has no concrete evidence, and has many holes in the theory at best. For me to claim Watterson’s intent, or base any theory on my perception of the strip, would subject Watterson’s work to my personal thoughts and whims (an act I’m against on principle). What I am proposing, however, is that Watterson did attempt to depict an undying, imperfect, fluctuating, exciting, hilarious, riveting, heartbreaking, and innocent relationship between a boy and his stuffed tiger, a being who was something much greater than a figment of Calvin’s imagination. fallen-in-a-tree-calvin--26-hobbes-318679_1024_768

This relationship is one that is attempted in various forms of literature. It’s found throughout history in stories and tales that each make an attempt to capture the love and loyalty that is only accessible through imagination and an apt child-like faith. The existence of this relationship between Hobbes and Calvin can be strongly supported from many different examples in the comic strip.

In depicting this, however, Watterson (albeit unintentionally) stepped out of the secular world and into the divine, thus finding that the veil separating them was never too thick to begin with. In creating the relationship between Calvin and Hobbes, calvin's anticsWatterson inevitably found himself illustrating aspects of companionship, adventure and loyalty that we all seek and yearn for, the type that we can only truly find in God.

Only a perfectly loyal God will be as faithful as Hobbes while only a perfectly just God will simultaneously antagonize our most selfish and egotistical desires. Only a perfectly humble God can enter into our world and only a perfectly beautiful God can meet us through the imaginative mind, which appears so ridiculous to everyone else. Only a perfectly loving God could possibly take the time to be with us during every major life event, to join us in our silly games (called careers), put up with our selfish antics (called aspirations) and to accompany us to the Yukon Ho and back.

yukon

Watterson did not intend to, but like a brave adventurer will one day wander from the plan he had devised and off the charts he carried with him, Watterson’s imagination took him down a road it was impossible for him not to follow. Artwork, in whatever form, cannot attempt to depict characteristics of the Divine without being absorbed into it.cover art

The early death of the comic strip begs the question: what would have happened when Calvin grew up? I shudder at the mere mention of it. A comic strip with a teenage or even adult Calvin, laughing at the childish days is despicable and painful to any loyal reader. Like much of the strip, there’s something deeply theological about that.

One of many knock-off comic strips, speculating the future of the relationship between Calvin and his stuffed Tiger.
One of many knock-off comic strips, speculating the future of the relationship between Calvin and his stuffed Tiger.

Because we are called to have the faith of a child. We are called to have a faith in which the world ends with our backyards, war is just a game men play and the deepest conundrums involve a girl down the street or a teacher armed with homework. We are not called to know everything but to humbly accept the alternative and admit that we don’t. We are not called to solve the world’s problems, but to revel in the mystery and adventure of the world around us, to stop playing the role of savior and start playing the role of a captivated youth. We are not called to be perfect, we are called to be children, children who imperfectly love our most loyal and perfect companion, despite the fact that His nature sometimes annoys our own flawed one and no one else thinks He exists.60723

The early disappearance of Calvin from the world of comic strips meant that Calvin will always be a child. He will always be a little punk of a six-year-old who hates school, finds the girl next door to be cootilicous, is the sworn enemy of his teacher and babysitter and, in his worst moments, gives his parents grey hair. But on the other side of the coin, his eternal childhood preserves with him the relationship he has with Hobbes; the relationship in which Calvin’s worst side is constantly antagonized, while every positive attribute is brought to light for the world to see and take delight. Watterson may not have intended it, but with the character of Hobbes he has given us a small, minuet, fuzzy-brained picture of our eternal relationship with Christ, as foolish to the world and antagonizing to our own egos as it often may be.

I resent that

Theology is important, but intellect is fleeting. My job, my hopes, my plans, they’re all aspects that are constantly diverted by One who knows much better than I. And yes, I want to change the world for the better; I want to see God’s kingdom come. But beyond all this, I just want to know God. Not comprehend, but know, know him like an old friend, a life-long companion. Bill Watterson is one of many artists whose work has made this a little more possible.

Calvin_and_Hobbes_in_Autumn_Tree

This is why I make a point, at least once a week, to put aside my theology, my Greek and yes, even my Bible, and dive into the world of Calvin and Hobbes. For me, it’s just another way of connecting with my Hobbes.

it's a magical world