Reading: Artists in Dreamland | Essay | Chicago Reader

Reading: Artists in Dreamland 

Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes has a lot in common with the classic Little Nemo strips of the early 1900s. And despite the limits imposed on them, both have a lot in common with great American literature.

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In a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip last fall, Calvin and his pet tiger Hobbes are seen walking across a blank landscape. "Grandpa says the comics were a lot bigger years ago when the newspapers printed them bigger," says Calvin. "He says comics now are just a bunch of xeroxed talking heads because there's no space to tell a decent story or to show any action. He thinks people should write to their newspapers and complain."

"Your grandpa takes the funnies pretty seriously," says Hobbes.

"Yeah," says Calvin. "Mom's looking into nursing homes."

This strip does not appear in the new Calvin and Hobbes collection of strips from the last year, the one with the unfortunate title Something Under the Bed Is Drooling. It was brought to mind instead by a recent Nat Hentoff column in the Village Voice, in which he named Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes the best new strip to appear in a New York newspaper last year. New York is behind the times; Calvin and Hobbes first appeared in the Chicago Tribune in the autumn of 1985, and it was honored in this paper's Hot Type column as best new strip over two years ago.

Indeed, Something Under the Bed Is Drooling (1988) is already the second Calvin and Hobbes collection, and like its predecessor, Calvin and Hobbes (1987), it has marched promptly to the head of the paperback best-sellers list. Although C&H remains the new kid on the block, it is hardly fresh-faced. It's already so well established that, along with Berke Breathed's Bloom County, C&H must be considered one of the two best strips to be developed in this decade.

In looking at this single day's strip, however, Hentoff either forgets to mention or overlooks its main joke, which is visual. The four frames are almost exactly alike; they do seem to have been photocopied.

The shabby treatment of newspaper comics is nothing new. Yet in an age when the comic strip is shrinking to postage-stamp size, C&H is unusual in that it comes complete with a working knowledge of the cartoonist's craft, expressed in a distinctive visual style. Try to explain the premise of the strip, and words--in any combination--come out clumsy. "Well, a six-year-old boy has a stuffed tiger, and through his active imagination the tiger comes to life, and they hold conversations and experience adventures, but whenever an adult enters the same frame as the child and the tiger, the tiger goes back to being simply stuffed." This may be the strip in its bare essentials--and it may not--but it certainly does nothing to explain how easily the concept is grasped on first viewing. The stuffed tiger is stiff, its arms rounded and stumpy, without hands. Its eyes are charcoal dots, and it has the frowning mouth common to all stuffed animals--an upside-down Y. Compare this to the suddenly lifelike Hobbes in the next frame--the elongated body, the rough drawing around the chest and mouth that subtly expresses his furriness, the rapidly drawn stripes that accentuate the body's elasticity and liveliness, even in a standing pose. Given that Hobbes is the strip's dominating voice of reason, of compassion, and of friendship, and that he is also the best-drawn character, where the strip's heart lies should be readily apparent.

Yet while Hobbes rolls on his back in an open field or curls in front of a fireplace in poses so natural they suggest his very respiration, the other three members of the family are all sketchy and--at least in appearance--two-dimensional. They fit right into the comic strip's diminishing space--have even less visual impact than the characters in the intensely stylized and contrived-for-this-age Garfield. Watterson is a talented artist, but he knows his limitations--and the current limitations of his chosen craft--and in his human characters he plays safely the middle of the field: there is nothing visually complicated about them. Calvin has been compared, quite rightly, to Pac-Man. He does resemble the video character, only he has a small body and tousled hair. His parents, meanwhile, are drawn almost in caricature, updated versions of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell from Hank Ketcham's Dennis the Menace. The father seems meant only to suggest a father, with his glasses and balding head, while the mother is contemporary, working at her typewriter or standing at the stove in her usual outfit: sweater, jeans, and tennis shoes. It's in dialogue that these characters come to life, in conversation that they establish their personalities.

Remarkable as it is for its vivid fantasy life, C&H is not the progeny of George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Walt Kelly's Pogo, as the misguided political cartoonist, Pat Oliphant, argues in the introduction to Drooling. C&H is in a direct line from Charles Schulz's Peanuts and Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury. The humor of C&H is--like the humor of these strips--primarily verbal, because that's almost all that cartoonists have available anymore.

Even so, Watterson is such a master of his craft that he gets some of his best laughs out of the skillful twists and turns he gives facial expressions--Calvin's uniquely devious grin, or the way he looks when he blows a bubble that explodes, covering his head in gum, and he wonders whether he's blown his face inside out. Yet Watterson is forced on some occasions to cut corners. His most persistent annoying trick is the sketchy rolling of the eyes: large globes appear suddenly in the middle of someone's face, seemingly drawn with a little ink and the artist's hangnail. Even here, however, Watterson shows a faith in the drawing--in its ability to tell the tale--that is not present in Peanuts or Doonesbury.

The strip's sharp wit, its consistent humor seven days a week, are what it shares with these great strips, what sells it to today's newspaper readers. "Do you think there's a God?" Hobbes asks. "Well somebody's out to get me," Calvin responds in one of the best of the strip's one-liners. "How do people make babies?" Calvin asks his father. "Most people just go to Sears, buy the kit, and follow the assembly instructions," he says. "I came from Sears!?" Calvin says, bug-eyed. "No, you were a blue-light-special at K mart. Almost as good, and a lot cheaper."

If its skillful humor makes C&H a popular strip, the week-long sequence of strips where Calvin transmogrifies into a tiger and his continuing adventures as Spaceman Spiff establish C&H as a potential classic, perhaps one of the greatest strips of all time. On Sundays, with color and added space at his command, Watterson brings C&H to its highest level. Here Spaceman Spiff is given full range to careen through space, only to crash in the final panel "at the feet of a sarcastic alien," his mother. Or, in one memorable Sunday episode included in Drooling, he finds himself "immune to the force of gravity." In frames that emphasize his unwilling ascension from the lower left corner to the upper right, he clutches first at the grass and then, on letting go, flies high into the sky. In a marvelous panel we see him from behind, looking down upon the ground a mile below, his path traced by a long trail of screaming As--"AAAAAAAAA"--that diminish in size with perspective.

The unfortunate thing about Drooling--besides the title and the introduction--is that these Sunday strips are not colored. Evidently Watterson will have to wait for the first oversize C&H collection, about two years down the road (the "Best of . . ." books usually come out after four or five years) before he receives that sort of treatment. Did the publishers think that the first book's success was a fluke, and a second in full color was too big a risk?

Anyone wishing to see the Sunday strips in their entirety before such a collection comes out, however, had best write the Tribune and tell them to quit cutting out frames. The perceptive reader will notice that in the book there's a common pattern to the Sunday strips: some panels are drawn to be "extra." They can be removed, if the features editor so desires, because they don't advance the day's story line. C&H, which in the book runs nine frames or more on a Sunday, including a title frame, runs only six frames in the average Sunday Tribune. The basic idea of the strip--its joke--remains, but at the cost of mutilation, the benefit being that more mutilated strips can fit in the Sunday comics section and thereby maximize circulation. It's a common practice in the field, a bow to the powers that be, but that doesn't mean those powers have to be exercised.

If C&H resembles any of the great strips of old, it is Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland. In this strip from the first decades of the century, a child's dream life flows, week after week, in a continuous story line from one Sunday to the next (there were few daily strips at the time). They were always interrupted in the last panel by a sudden vision of Nemo waking up with the sheets twisted around him or falling out of bed. Yet in an interview with Hot Type two years ago, Watterson said he was only vaguely familiar with Nemo. And small wonder.

Imagine how Richard Ellmann's James Joyce biography would read if Ulysses were decades out of print and could not even be found in used-book stores. Yet that was John Canemaker's problem in his recent Winsor McCay--His Life and Art: to present an exhaustive biography of a person who must at the same time be established as a great artist. Canemaker does an admirable jobmainly by letting McCay's art speak for itself.

Little Nemo collections are long out of print, and in Chicago that means that, unless one stumbles across a copy in a used-book store, they are unavailable. (The Chicago Public Library copies are either lost or stolen--an all-too-common finding there. But would the library let Joyce go unreplaced? Or, let's say, even a Mark Rothko collection?) No matter the fine scholarship, then, the main credit due Canemaker's book is that it reproduces a number of Sunday Little Nemos in ravishing full color, and a number of others in black and white. Just on this small evidence, they establish Little Nemo as one of the greatest comic strips of all time.

Little Nemo first appeared in 1905, when comics were a budding art form; McCay used, and later retained, an awkward, scribbled printing style in his balloons--he never blocked the letters--that was innovative in its time but looks very dated now. It is the one antiquated aspect of the strip, for otherwise it has never been matched, not in draftsmanship, not in story line, and only rarely in characterization. McCay was allotted a space 16 inches wide and 22 and a half inches deep, and he filled it up with the most glorious buildings, the most innovative color, and the most wonderful and terrifying situations.

Each Sunday, Nemo appeared in a new and fantastic adventure set in some dreamland. When the strip first appeared, Nemo was sought as a playmate for a dream princess, but he could never quite make it to Slumberland, where the princess was, without waking. Sometimes, it is the strangeness of events that wakes Nemo; more often, he is frightened by some all-too-familiar aspect of childhood dreams. In the very first strip, for example, he rides through space on a horse that becomes increasingly difficult to handle, until it pitches him into darkness. He awakes in the final frame having fallen out of his bed.

Nemo eventually, after several months, reached the princess in Slumberland, and after that the strip soon established its patterns. Nemo and the princess are joined--and usually tormented--by Nemo's other dream pal, Flip, a green-faced, cigar-chomping character of pure ego, who romps through the strips in a top hat with a sign tucked in its band--"Wake Up." In one strip reproduced in the book, the three are being shown through Jack Frost's Palace, a beautiful mansion with columns, stairways, and arches of sculptured ice. Flip complains of the cold and says that, unless "you just turn on some heat here," he'll call the sun and "melt you all up."

his threat is made a number of times, and--in a strip that does not appear in the book but which I saw in a Nemo collection from a university library--Nemo returns to the ice land one Sunday to find, in the first frame, that it is gone, melted when Flip called the sun. Quite matter-of-fact. Quite plain. Quite hideous.

Little Nemo was capable of evoking all the tangled emotions of dreams. It aroused wonder and terror in the same frame. In one episode of several weeks' length, Nemo, Flip, and Impie (a jungle character who would likely today rouse cries of "prejudice" in some more touchy readers) amble through Befuddle Hall. In one wild week their bodies are variously elongated and shortened from frame to frame; then the next week they struggle through a giant hallway that seems to be forever spinning on its central axis--they walk on the stained-glass windows and arched ceilings of this magnificently rendered hall. Here and elsewhere, McCay uses his talent at rendering perspective as if--like Edward Hopper--he meant to reproduce some innate quality of nostalgia or yearning inherent in perspective drawings.

In the most heartbreaking episodes depicted in the book, Nemo has somehow obtained a magic scepter. Wandering through a place called Shanty Town, where poverty and disease run rampant, he performs various feats of near-messianic magic. These episodes ran several weeks, leading up to a strip that appeared on Easter Sunday 1908: the people of Shanty Town lead him to the home of an ailing girl. She lives in a tenement and is seen passed out on a pallet raised from the floor on soap boxes. With a touch of the scepter, the bed is transformed into a beautiful four-poster, and the girl awakes. In the penultimate frame, the house fades, leaving Nemo and the girl--now sitting up in an ornate bed complete with canopy--alone; they are raised on a platform of a few steps, surrounded by a field of Easter lilies as far as the eye can see. "Oh," the girl says. "Am I . . . eh . . . dreaming that I am here and well?" "I don't know whether you are dreaming or I am," Nemo says. "I hope I'm not." In the inevitable final frame, Nemo awakes in bed to the calls of: "Get up Nemo! And look for bunny eggs! Come on!"

This is a magical strip capable of any of the effects--emotional, aesthetic, whatever--of great art. The most frustrating aspect of the Nemo strip was its short run: whereas other great strips ran for decades, Nemo lasted only from 1905 to 1914 (aside from a short and ill-fated comeback in the 20s), killed at the hands of William Randolph Hearst. He told McCay to quit wasting his time with comics and concentrate on serious work--such as illustrating the cranky editorials of Arthur Brisbane.

Canemaker's bio is marvelous at citing the sources for McCay's inspiration and talent. Yet Canemaker is not so well informed on McCay's bitter end. For the last 20 years of his life, McCay gave up comic strips for editorial cartoons; and while he was one of the grandfathers of animation, he was unable to follow through, to the extent of Walt Disney or any of the other animation geniuses of the 20s, because he was too busy working in Hearst's newspaper offices. One of the mysteries of the comic-strip world, and it's not cleared up in this book, is why Hearst fostered George Herriman's Krazy Kat for decades when it failed to sell anywhere but in Hearst papers, while he put McCay to work at the editorial page's drafting table, depriving the world of Little Nemo and who knows what works of animation McCay might have developed.

As Watterson says, Little Nemo had little influence on the development of Calvin and Hobbes. Yet the similarities between the strips are amazing, the differences telling--despite, or perhaps because of, the 70 years that separate them. Calvin and Nemo are both compulsive dreamers. Yet Calvin is hyperactive and adventurous, a child of television and Bugs Bunny (who's sometimes mentioned); his life is ruled by daydreams. Nemo is timid and often overawed; his nighttime dreams often become nightmares. Calvin exists as unbridled id, with Hobbes as well-balanced ego. Nemo is guilt-ridden and self-questioning, egged on by the egotistical Flip. Sometimes Nemo is envious of Flip's verve; sometimes he's critical of the other's temper and selfishness. Nemo's very timidity and passiveness, however--although they date the strip--are what make his adventures, his dreams and nightmares, so real and empathetic. Nemo is the frightened, dependent child we all were and--in our misguided moments--wish to be again.

Calvin, on the other hand--like most contemporary children--is almost too much to handle. My wife finds herself sometimes unwilling to read the strip because Calvin is such a nasty little boy; snips, snails, and puppy-dog tails don't even begin to hint at his tangled innards. Or perhaps his imagination and self-confidence are simply the signs of a typically American child.

His connection with Hobbes reminds me of a comparison James Dickey made in his introduction to a Tom Sawyer-Huckleberry Finn collection. Dickey suggests that Tom Sawyer was basically a small boy with a big ego. When he grows up, his size and ambitions will have evened out; Dickey predicts he will become nothing more than a small town merchant. Huck, however, with his empathy and almost involuntary compassion, would have gone on, Dickey thinks, to become a writer or poet. (Mark Twain himself, he speculates--or Dickey himself.)

Calvin obviously plays Tom to Hobbes's Huck, but with an essential qualification. Hobbes is Calvin's creation. His thoughts are, deep down, Calvin's, and while Watterson regularly takes some license with this fact, their essential identity remains Calvin's redemption, Hobbes the good soul beneath Calvin's rampant imagination. Eventually Calvin may grow up to be a writer or a poet, but maybe he'll take to drawing. And maybe he'll be so good that he'll demand a page all to himself in the Sunday funnies and fill it up with art as fine as any produced this century.

That, however, is in the fantasyland where comic-strip characters grow up. In our everyday reality of comic fantasy, here are Calvin and Hobbes at the beginning of what looks to be a long run. They are characters that will eventually stand alongside Charlie Brown and Snoopy and Ignatz Mouse and Pogo and Li'l Abner and Little Nemo. And eventually, perhaps, they'll all stand with Tom and Huck and Ishmael and Jay Gatsby and Rabbit Angstrom and Stanley Kowalski and Bugs Bunny and all the great characters of the American consciousness. Or perhaps, in this, I'm only dreaming.

Winsor McCay--His Life and Art by John Canemaker, Abbeville Press, $49.95.

Something Under the Bed Is Drooling by Bill Watterson, Andrews and McMeel, $6.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): comic strips/courtesy Winsor McCay--Abeeville Press, courtesy Bill Watterson--Andrews and McMeel.

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