Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: Looking for Calvin and Hobbes

This review is being cross-posted to GoodReads, which has the nice feature of allowing the reviewer to block the review if it contains spoilers.

Since Blogger doesn't have the same feature, I'm going to rely on the Jump Break that will hide the actual review behind a link that you'll need to click through if you're interested in reading further.

The spoiler, in this case, is whether author Nevin Martell secured the interview with Calvin and Hobbes creator, Bill Watterson.

Perhaps you don't care, but I did.  And, as a result, the remainder of the review can be found by clicking on through to the other side...

This was a book I wanted to like in so many ways...probably about as many ways as it disappointed me.

In LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES, Nevin Martell sets an almost impossible goal for himself: to get Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, to agree to an interview.  Martell states early on how unlikely his goal is: Watterson has given very few interviews in his career, actively shunning the fame that his comic strip brought to him.  In fact, Watterson has been quoted by family and friends as not understanding why anyone would be interested in him or what he's doing now.  As for his famous comic strip characters, Watterson apparently considers them to be a part of his past, a past he's not interested in revisiting.

It becomes apparent early on that Martell never gets the interview he so strongly desires.  However, he refuses to come out and say so until the end of his book--and by then I felt strung along for so too long in a somewhat dishonest way.

Instead of an interview, Martell attempts to give us a lengthy appreciation (almost an obituary) of the boy, the artist and the reclusive man behind Calvin and Hobbes.  There are a number of weak chapters (the chapter describing the humor behind Calvin and Hobbes was particularly painful--there's little less funny than discussing what makes something funny) that show Martell's devotion to researching and soliciting opinions from other cartoonists about his subject.  There are several biographical chapters on Watterson's life, drawn either from interviews or the few interviews Watterson has given, that detail his love for drawing, his developement of Calvin and Hobbes and the struggles with the syndicate (including pressures to market Calvin and Hobbes figures) that finally drove Watterson away from creating his comic strip.

The biggest problem with LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES is that without the Grail of an interview with Watterson, after Martell gives us Watterson's biography, there's very little left to write about.  Instead of stopping, Martell switches gears and turns the focus of his book from Watterson to himself or, rather,  his vague attempts to track Watterson down.  Martell visits the artist's hometown, hoping to better understand Watterson, and speaks with some of Watterson's old friends who will talk to him. 

The book ends, weeks before his manuscript is done, with Martell finally getting an interview... with Watterson's mother.  An interview he covers in less than four pages.  And really doesn't reveal anything new (other than Watterson found a racoon as a child that he tried to nurse back to health that died).

What added to the mounting disappointments in this book is the unforgivable lack of photographs and cartoons.  For all of Martell's talk about meeting cartoonists and seeing old newspaper/yearbook photographs of Watterson, and the Watterson archives (at the Ohio State University Cartoon Library and Museum) not a single image appears within the pages of LOOKING FOR CALVIN AND HOBBES.  (The barest of glimpses of Calvin's shoe and the very end of Hobbes' tail walking off the cover, in opposite directions, should have been a giveaway)  For a book about the illusive search for a man, the town that helped shape him and a cartoon, this is analogous to writing 240+ pages about a composer and the symphony he created.  Without actually hearing the music that inspired any of the writing or photos of the significant people, it becomes an intellectual exercise at best.  In this case, it is one that becomes overshadowed by the author's own quest to understand something he can, at best, only pretend to understand.

I was and continue to this day to be a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan.  Watterson's characters and imagination played an important part in my life (the day I realized I was An Adult was the day I realized I was identifying more with Calvin's father than with Calvin, for instance) and I still read the comic strip on an almost daily basis (thanks to a great Tumblr blog).  Martell must have known he was setting not only an impossibly risky bar for himself in hoping to secure an interview with someone who does not want to be interviewed, but also that the expectations for any book on Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes would be impossibly high. 

I know it's said that it's better to fail than to never try in the first place, but, sadly, I'm not so sure that holds up here.  While I'm not disappointed that I read this book, I do think I would have been better off reading some of Watterson's interviews that are posted online and reading my old Calvin and Hobbes collections. 

And that's my recommendation to any Calvin and Hobbes fan.

-- Tom