When I was a kid I had an invisible friend.
It was an adult female Bengal Tiger.
I’ll wait while you laugh.
Okay – you back? Okay. Yes, I imagined I had a tiger by my side a lot of the time. I would reach down from the bed and pet her goodnight as she laid on the floor. I would picture her walking next to me outside. I would talk to her when no one was around. I never had an invisible friend that was a person. Not sure what that says about me . . . probably the same thing as what it says that my childhood friends wanted to play house and push baby dolls in their strollers, while I just begged them to play veterinarian with me and my hoard of stuffed animals.
Anyway, it’s no surprise that when I discovered the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson, it was love at first Sunday paper. I devoured each new strip as the papers came out, then asked for the book collections each birthday and Christmas. Calvin was funny and mischievous, but Hobbes was the real draw for me, for obvious reasons.
Anyone who was a fan of this beloved comic strip knows that Bill Watterson was a game changer for the comic realm. He did things differently. He bucked the system when it came to the format of Sunday strips and panels; pushed the envelope on color usage and white space; and dared to insert deep philosophical questions into the Sunday comics. But the biggest way that Bill Watterson distinguished himself is that he adamantly refused to turn the wildly successful Calvin and Hobbes into a merchandising machine. Whaaaa? In America? In the land of Disney characters embossed on every item imaginable? The place where parents rush to buy the greatest new toy for their kid? The market that loves retail merchandise based on cartoon characters, movies, and books? Bill stood to make millions. Imagine it. An eight-year-old girl in love with tigers, in love with Calvin and Hobbes, and then she has the chance to buy a Hobbes plush animal. I would have begged and pleaded with my parents, or worked many extra chores, just to be able to own a Hobbes animal. And I know many other kids would have too. And think of all the other items that would have sold with Calvin and Hobbes on them. But Bill stood strong in what he believed. And he believed in the comic, in staying true to the drawn characters, and not giving into merchandise ‘merica for money.
A great film recently came out that is a tribute to this real live comic strip hero. Dear Mr. Watterson is a journey into the story behind Calvin and Hobbes and also the story behind the creator. He is not featured in this film. He has never given interviews, there are only two photos of him to be found on the internet, and he did not crave fame and fortune.
So back to the eight-year-old girl who had an imaginary tiger and who now wants a Hobbes plush. The fact that these characters were not merchandised allowed that little girl – me – and children everywhere who read Calvin and Hobbes, to continue to imagine what Hobbes would look like if he was sitting in front of them. What he would feel like if he was in their arms. And what his voice would sound like. Had those things been manufactured for them, then the wonder would be gone. A talking Hobbes plush would have sold millions. But then I would have probably been disappointed at the way his voice sounded coming from the toy, as opposed to how I heard it in my head. And the creation of a plush would never quite look just like the Hobbes on paper, and it would never really seem like it was him. And at some point I think all the plastic, and vinyl and t-shirts just starts to erode a brand and character. It starts to cheapen and normalize it. So Bill gave children a gift. The gift of imagination. The gift to believe they did have a Hobbes. Maybe they used another stuffed animal they had, and pretended it came to life and spoke to them. And that’s a beautiful thing, that kind of creativity.
So thank you, Bill Watterson, for allowing Calvin and his stuffed tiger to live forever in the books I own, and in my mind.