For years I wanted “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau to win the Pulitzer Prize for commentary; he’s 20 times more interesting and engaged than any columnist I read. Similarly, I wanted Bill Watterson, of “Calvin and Hobbes” fame, to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
You think I’m joking. But if great literature tells timeless stories and evokes sincere, conflicting emotions in its readers, well then I’m sorry, Ms. Munro — you will have to step aside for the 6-year-old terror of Miss Wormwood’s first-grade classroom and his unstuffy tiger, Hobbes.
Are we experiencing a Calvin and Hobbes moment? I hope so. Next month, filmmaker and fan Joel Allen Schroeder will release his tribute movie, “Dear Mr. Watterson.” It’s charming, perhaps predictably so. Almost every significant cartoonist in the country salutes Watterson’s “ridiculous standard of excellence that hadn’t been seen since the ‘Pogo’ years,” according to “Bloom County” creator Berke Breathed.
Watterson, who has cultivated a reputation as a Pynchon-level recluse, does not appear in the movie.
Just as the movie prepares for release, Watterson’s long-ignored 1990 commencement speech at his alma mater, Kenyon College, has started to go viral on the Internet. The takeaway line: “To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.” And, for one of the very few times in recorded history, the 55-year-old Watterson has granted an interview, which the magazine Mental Floss plans to publish in its December issue.
The takeaway line: “Repetition is the death of magic.”
One of my three sons was born during the magical decade of 1985 to 1995, when “Calvin” appeared in the Globe and over 2,000 other newspapers. In part by watching Schroeder’s movie, in part by talking with my peers, I realize that Eric is one of tens of thousands of children who more or less took a pass on elementary school, retreated to their rooms and learned to read, reason, ideate, and enjoy life under Watterson’s tutelage.
Eric is a smart fellow. Maybe Bill Watterson should be running America’s grades one through five. He certainly couldn’t do a worse job than the people in charge now.
But I digress.
Bill Watterson delivered two great messages to the parents and children of the Reagan and Clinton eras. The first lesson was, at all costs, don’t surrender your imagination. (This is the theme of Jennifer Egan’s fascinating 2006 novel “The Keep.”) Watterson’s strips, all 3,000-plus of them, celebrate the powerfully imagined world of childhood, where a cardboard box functions as a time machine and the neighbors’ back yard becomes a craggy, unexplored planet. And where imaginary friends can be the best friends, as they so often are.
Watterson’s second message, which now seems vestigial, was: Let childhood be childhood. Calvin’s school had a bully, the notorious Moe. (“You’re gonna taste asphalt fifth period, Twinky. Just so ya know.”) Calvin sometimes expressed affection for his on-again, off-again love interest Suzie by throwing snowballs at her, often hard. (“Pow!”)
In our day, it is all too easy to imagine a hypothetical Brookline Parents Coalition Against Bullying and Child-on-Child Violence petitioning to close the strip down.
Watterson taught us all another lesson: Money isn’t everything. At various times, Steven Spielberg, Pixar, and plush toy giant Dakin begged Watterson’s to follow “Garfield” creator Jim Davis down the gilded road to franchising hell. (In Schroeder’s movie, one interviewee calls Garfield merchandise “a national blight.”) Watterson wanted no part of it. His cartoon syndicate thinks he may have left $400 million on the table. He couldn’t care less.
If I could say two words to Bill Watterson, they would not be “come back.” To have succeeded magnificently, on your own terms, and not lingered to watch the energy drain from your creation — what an accomplishment. I would say, “thank you.” I am sure he’s heard those words before, but they bear repeating.
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.