By Nevin Martell
In the opening pages of Looking for Calvin and Hobbes, Nevin Martell admits he initially told friends he was writing this book “with equal amounts of boastfulness and fear.” Fear because, as Martell notes, his friends’ enthusiasm was a cover for their inner trepidations. They were really saying, “If you screw this book up, you will be pissing on some of the fondest memories of my youth. Don’t *&@I# with my inner child.”
In reality, the stakes are much higher than that. Those of us who still regularly return to Calvin and Hobbes well into adulthood have more at risk here than our inner children. Watterson’s work has been a philosophical compass for us our whole lives. We are going to be on his side before the biographer’s.
This protective instinct does not work out in Martell’s favor. He recognizes the impossibility of the biography he envisioned much too late in the making of this book, and at too high a price. Each chapter is heavy with disappointment posing as adoration, and a distracting latent defensiveness that he is writing about Watterson without Watterson. The book’s worst sentence comes on the heels of the cartoonist’s brother’s refusal to be interviewed: “That Watterson is one wascally wabbit,” Martell jokes. Martell is an endearing writer, but he is not allowed to call Bill Watterson a wascally wabbit. Watterson is our hero—even if he resents us for it—and it feels deeply wrong to undercut him. We are also awkwardly implicated in the invasion of his privacy, and that’s uncomfortable. After all, we want for Watterson what he wants for himself, which is to be left alone.
Surprisingly, this is the first book ever written about the life of the cartoonist and the origins and influence of Calvin and Hobbes. It’s not a completely bungled attempt. Martell compensates for Watterson’s absence by compiling interviews with a diverse group of people, from Watterson’s peers, such as Outland creator Berkeley Breathed and For Better or For Worse creator Lynn Johnston, to his close friend Rick West and his mother Kathryn, to the novelist Jonathan Lethem and the comedian Patton Oswalt. The latter choice was particularly astute; Oswalt is almost as interesting a fan as he is a creator. A genuine enthusiast, he has both the observational and communicative skills to articulate the genius of others, and he provides the book with its most poignant insight: “[Watterson] reminded you that imagination was more powerful than despair […] that there’s always wonder out there.” Any future books about Bill Watterson should never lose sight of this sentiment.