Book Club / It Just Feels so Alive All the Time

Scientific Progress goes BoinkCalvin and Hobbes: Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”
By Bill Watterson


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

My favourite ever reply to when I told someone that I was into comics was them making a face like they just sucked a lemon and then said: “What – like Garfield?”Of course I know that that’s one of the secret fears at the back of pretty much every comic book fan’s head: what if they don’t take my medium seriously? (Goodness!) But seeing how it’s the start of a new year I thought we could try maybe leaning into it? And seeing how far we could get with a traditional Saturday comic type thing instead of the usual “graphic novel” format…

Altho please don’t think I’m trying to short change you guys with shoddy goods. Because come on – this is Calvin and Hobbes we’re talking about – which is pretty much the crème de la crème / gold standard / Tesco’s finest of the 4 panel world… Like: I think I might have said this before about other comics and then been proved wrong but: everyone loves Calvin and Hobbes – right?

So. Where’s best to begin?

magical world.jpg

The surface-level simplicty of the artwork? The way that Bill Watterson manages to capture some much feeling and expression in the smallest detail? You want an example? Well – ok: just check out the cover of the freaking book:

It makes my insides aches how freaking spot on each of those three characters is drawn – I can practically hear each of them : The Calvin coming out of the box like a celebrity strolling on to the set of a talk show “Oh – hi everybody!”. The Calvin greeting him with the out-stretched hands all like: “Cool! It worked!” and Hobbes in the background with those awkwardly bent arms conveying his complete disbelief and shock “What the hell – it worked?!” It’s like a masterclass in how to draw characters in order to convey emotions. I love it.

if you want – another possible place to begin is: “Calvin is toxic masculinity”

That’s jokey thought popped into my head when I first started rereading my copy Scientific Progress Goes “Boink.” I meant it as a throwaway kinda line – like a tongue-in-cheek comment on those of the Tumblr Left who it seems are unable to enjoy anything without labelling it “problematic.” But the irony struck me – that what I meant as a ludicrous and ridiculous comment actually had some truth to it… I mean: as much as I love Bill Watterson and Calvin and Hobbes (and you do too!) if you wanted to point out the influence of the patriarchy in constructing gender roles (and the plight of Susan “Susie” Derkins) well – it’s there for the taking…

Or maybe we could just talk Saturday Newspaper comic format in general? I mean – for a much maligned sub-medium (?) it such as managed to mint some classics…

From Peanuts (which is way more biting than you might expect – check out it’s very first strip from – good grief! – 1950):

peanuts
To more modern classics like the work of Alex Norris:

oh no
The constantly reliable xkcd:

xkcd
And (my favourite): The always-awesome Perry Bible Fellowship:

fun bot
So yeah – lots of options and lots of ways this could go. And that’s not even getting into Bill Watterson’s anti-commercialism stance (dude could have probably been the next Walt Disney if he wanted to – but I’m guessing we’ll never see a Calvin and Hobbes TV show). Or if you want – maybe we could all just share our favourite Calvin and Hobbes strip and talk about what it means to us or whatever…

But hey: what do you think?

Was going to write something to sing the praises of Calvin and Hobbes / Bill Watterson a little more but then realised that might get a little boring so instead thought I’d just add a little something about how reading a whole collection like this has an effect on my brain like I’ve just eaten a whole packet of pic n mix in one go…

Coz it’s funny right? Every single Calvin and Hobbes strip is basically a perfectly contained little world that manages set-up and punch-line spiced with pitch-perfect / spot on characterizations and (if you’re lucky) an exquisite little slice of philosophy too. But reading them all one after another is.. how do I say this? It kinda leaves me feeling slightly drained in a weird way? Even tho there are little arcs and stuff (in Scientific
Progress Goes ‘Boink’ there’s the whole thing with the duplicate Calvins which is it’s own slice of genius) but when you get to the end of the book – it’s like – you haven’t really read anything? There’s not that sense of completeness that you get reading a “proper” comic or a novel or whatever. Instead it’s kinda like: reading someone’s profile on Twitter you know? Joke after joke after one-liner after one-liner which just leaves me feeling well – empty and unfilled. No matter how good the one-liners are – it still leaves me wanting more…

Maybe that means stuff like this is better read in short bursts rather than sitting down and doing it properly…

(Is it too crude to say that maybe it works best as a “toilet book”?)

I was going to say something similar – I think strips just aren’t meant to be read in a book format like this, and it doesn’t do them any favours. Stories need variation in tone to work, and strips seem very one-note when you read them all together. I loved the first third of the book but by the end I was just kinda burnt out. Like you said, a good toilet book.

Talking of formats, I found an interesting thing out: y’know the sunday strips, the big ones with colour? Well, they’re designed to be cut up and reassembled. The standard format:

sunday 2Can get fatter:

sunday 1Or thinner:

sunday 3

Depending on how a paper is laid out. You can even lop off the first two panels without effecting the story if you want to save space.

That struck me as pretty cool, but it got me thinking: what does that do to the design of the comic? Traditional composition rules go right out the window. Normally, you’d be careful to lead the eye from frame to frame, maybe having elements point to the next panel, etc, but you just can’t do that if you don’t know where the next panel is going to be! The flow of speech gets all weird, too, with the mental pause of a line break being in different places on each version. I wonder how much that put limitations on the writing and design?


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

Oh wow. That’s pretty wild.

I remember reading an interview with Bill Watterson (I think?) where he talked about the first two panels thing… Basically yeah – what Rat said: you can lop them off and it doesn’t change the story. And it’s one of those things that as soon as you know about it – it’s impossible to unsee. And then it’s made even more strange by the fact that Bill Watterson also puts in little jokes in those two panels too (see Rat’s examples above: “Considering I outrank you, I don’t think I should have to do that!”)

Basically yeah – once you get into all the ins-and-outs and mechanics of the whole thing – it’s even more impressive.

Altho I guess there was a point where the strip got so popular that it was given more leeway and Bill Watterson was able to do whatever he wanted – which resulted in what might just be my favourite four panels of all time (Kanye West voice: ALL TIME!!)…

tyrannosaurs in f-14s

Last night at the Barbican Comic Forum we were talking about which comics give us joy and well…

This is a comic that gives me a pure and absolute childlike joy. 🙂

I love the enthusiasm of the comic – it just feels so alive all the time. Also Hobbes is straight-up wrong in that one.

Our cat invented this game where she chases shadows. More specifically, she chases the holes in shadows. But only on the floor. So we sit in front of the lamp and angle the lamp just so and use our hands to make shadows with holes in them on the floor for her to chase.

The entire time we’re doing this, we sit there saying to each other, “This game is so stupid. Wow. This is the stupidest game.”

But she’s having fun, and her having fun is fun for us, even if the thing she’s having fun doing is objectively really stupid.

I guess what I’m saying is sometimes a thing can be awesome and also stupid. Or alternately, maybe it’s okay to enjoy stupid stuff.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

At the Barbican Comic Forum and talking about joy – most of the other people there were pretty stumped when the question was put to them… “I like comics but they don’t really give me…. joy.” / “Joy is way too much of a strong word.” / “Comics give me some emotions but I don’t think joy is one of them…” etc etc

This to me seemed like a bit of a damning indictment. I mean I know it’s mostly something we’re supposed to not talk about / run away from but “comic” also means “funny” you know? (True story: once had someone show up at the Barbican Comic Forum thinking it was a discussion group for comedians = LOL).

Basically – my point is: I don’t think Frankie goes far enough. It’s not just a thing can be awesome and also stupid. And it’s not just that it’s okay to enjoy stupid stuff. But beyond both of these lies the golden stuff: that a thing can be awesome because it is so stupid. Like: Tyrannosaurus in F-14s above already makes this point pretty well – but just to go further and use an example I used on Thursday night at the Barbican Comic Forum when I tried to inspire and put the light of joy into the eyes of my fellow comic-book-readers one of the my most favourite comic moments is this from the 2000AD’s ABC Warriors:

(Yes – it’s also dinosaur-themed I know)

golgotha

A rich guy on Mars riding an armour-plated dinosaur after a human being? That is one of the best things I’ve ever heard in my entire life and one of my top ten answers to the question of: “And why do you love comics exactly?”

There’s this pretty good Garth Ennis / Carlos Ezquerra series called Just a Pilgrim that came out in the early 2000s and there’s this pirate character that I’m not going to spoil and you kinda have to experience for yourself. But anyway: in the introduction Garth Ennis said this thing that always stuck with me: “All the best ideas start out as jokes.” And well yeah – I don’t think I could agree more. “There’s this kid who gets bitten by a spider and then he can walk on walls and shoot webs” / “White people stealing black people’s bodies so they can live inside them” / “A post apocalyptic world where the only thing left is a little robot picking up all the trash and putting it into piles” etc. I mean the only reason you think these things are not ridiculous is because culture has validating them and made them so. Eg. If someone told me 5 years ago that one of the most successful movies of 2018 was goddamn Aquaman then I would laughed in their stupid face. etc etc etc. But well if anything epitomises something being awesome because it’s stupid then it’s that – right? (I mean I don’t know because I haven’t seen it – but from everything I’ve heard it seems to be the case).

And well yeah – I kinda wish that this was something that comics in general was more on board with. Someone at the Barbican Comic Forum said that comics Thor is currently without his hammer and has cancer or something? While movies Thor is hanging out with Jeff Goldblum and saying the Hulk is “a friend from work.”

Either that – or it’s another autobiography about someone struggling with something grim (sigh).

Basically we need less “this is so stupid” and more Tyrannosaurus in F-14s.

You know I’m right.

I blame the 80s (generally a safe bet) making comics all grimdark and gritty, taking all the wrong cues from Watchmen. Maybe it’s also because comics are desperate to be A Proper Artform and Be Taken Seriously, and god knows you can’t have sillyness in Real Art!

r mutt

I think comics got stuck for a long time in their teens, where ‘maturity’ means sex, swearing lots, and always taking yourself so god damn seriously. Terrified of looking childish, and constantly aware of being judged. But I think there’s starting to be more things that let go of that and just embrace big dumb fun: Battlepug, Axe Cop, etc.

battlepug

Though why do they always involve violence as a central theme? Can someone recommend me a joyful/silly comic without violence as the premise?

Joel said:

There’s not that sense of completeness that you get reading a “proper” comic or a novel or whatever. Instead it’s kinda like: reading someone’s profile on Twitter you know? Joke after joke after one-liner after one-liner which just leaves me feeling well – empty and unfilled. No matter how good the one-liners are – it still leaves me wanting more…

Maybe that means stuff like this is better read in short bursts rather than sitting down and doing it properly…

Rat said:

I was going to say something similar – I think strips just aren’t meant to be read in a book format like this, and it doesn’t do them any favours. Stories need variation in tone to work, and strips seem very one-note when you read them all together. I loved the first third of the book but by the end I was just kinda burnt out.

I agree with both of you about the concentration. I read the whole book in one sitting and at some point it becomes a blur.

I got to thinking, maybe comic strips are to comic books as poems are to novels? The focus of a given strip is much tighter, maybe just a single idea or joke, and it’s expressed succinctly, within a strict form. (As Rat explained, talking about strip layout.) And like reading a book of poetry, maybe comic strips are most enjoyable when you focus on a single sonnet, to labour the metaphor, rather than binge reading the collected works?

Not inferior or superior, just different forms.

But now I kind of wish a Calvin & Hobbes graphic novel with the space to develop a long form story was a thing that existed. How great would that be?


AMANDA
Barbican Comic Forum

One of my best friends, who grew up reading Calvin & Hobbes, used to do this thing where he’d ask if I read Calvin & Hobbes when I was a kid. I’d say no, then he’d excitedly go on to relay some Calvin & Hobbes strip that was partly relevant to whatever it was we were doing/encountering in that moment. He talked about the comic in such a sentimental, loving way that I felt sad to have missed out on it in my own childhood.

As a kid I read comics solely in the newspaper. The one my parents subscribed to had almost an entire broadsheet page of comic strips, but no Calvin & Hobbes. As an adult I moved in with someone who owned a bunch of Calvin & Hobbes collections. They’ve been on a shelf for 10 years. I finally read through one a couple weeks ago.

And I get it: I can see why this comic strip—why these characters, really—is/are so loved. But for me, only reading it for the first time as an adult, I don’t think it could have the same magic as if I’d’ve encountered it as a kid. Don’t get me wrong! I enjoyed it, certainly, but I feel like without nostalgia behind it, my experience was missing something.

And like others here, I found it challenging to read through so many strips in a sitting. That’s not the fault of Watterson/Calvin & Hobbes—I’m pretty sure the same fatigue would afflict other comic strips read in bulk (at least as far as newspaper ones go; I don’t really read webcomics, so maybe they’re different when binge-read?) Partly it’s the lack of ‘completeness’, but largely it’s because the pacing of the punchlines becomes so repetitive:

<story arc>

   <Monday>

       <panel 1>Set-up for joke

       <panel 2>Build-up

       <panel 3>Build-up

       <panel 4>Punchline

    </Monday>

    <Tuesday>

       <panel 1>Set-up for joke

       <panel 2>Build-up

       <panel 3>Build-up

       <panel 4>Punchline

    </Tuesday>

    <Wednesday>

       <panel 1>Set-up for joke

       <panel 2>Build-up

       <panel 3>Build-up

       <panel 4>Punchline

    </Wednesday>

    <!–etc etc and so on like this for a week–>

</story arc>

But then Rat comes along and blows my mind with the revelation that the Sunday strips can be chopped and changed, and it makes me appreciate them on an entirely different level. So much of comics outside of the newspaper strips relies on controlled, deliberate layouts and page turns that for creators to allow this much flexibility in their strips (or indeed, to outright give it away to editors) seems almost blasphemous. It’s a fascinating use of a medium. Can creators of narratives in other formats (tv, film, novels…) give such leeway to unknown people without risking them affecting the story? Video games are an obvious one, but I’m not convinced about the others.

(On the subject of video games and flexibility in comics, I’m reminded of a video game series called Framed. The concept is that you rearrange panels of a comic book to progress through the game. I’ve been meaning to play it for ages, but given that I let a bunch of Calvin & Hobbes collections sit unread on a shelf for 10 years I’m not confident I’ll get around to it anytime soon.)

Okay, one more thing. I recetly came across a French strip called Imbattable (Unbeatable), about a superhero whose power is that he can break the fourth wall (or rather, break out of panels). Unlike Calvin & Hobbes, the panel layout is by necessity completely inflexible, but the way it uses the short/serialised format is just wonderful, and I think some of you folks will appreciate it. Here are a couple examples that someone’s decently translated into English.

imbattable

At last week’s Barbican comic forum I was one of those people Joel mentioned who struggled to think of a comic that brings me joy. Is it too late to say that my answer is Imbattable?


NEIL

Amanda – LOVED the Imbattable strips. Thank you for sharing!


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

 

I can’t stop thinking about this from Rat:

“Though why do they always involve violence as a central theme? Can someone recommend me a joyful/silly comic without violence as the premise?”

Like – this is obvious in the extreme: but (holy wow) pretty much every comic out there has somekind of violence. Or you know: maybe it’s just the comics I’m drawn to? Realise that if I read more Guardian-approved autobiographies then my shelves wouldn’t be quite so full of murder and mayhem: but yeah – it’s a strange realisation to be like: oh yeah – most of my graphic novel entertainment is based around depictions of human beings hurting each other (and I wonder why our culture is so messed up? hmmm).

Of course it’s also funny that the only exceptions that spring to mind / ones that answer Rat’s original question are…. well… newspaper strips. If you want a joyful/silly comic without violence then well yeah – Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts and etc.

Altho: as Frankie put it so well – they’re less novels and more poems (I love this metaphor).

Just read those imbattable comics, those are genius! Thanks, Amanda!

Also really enjoyed the Imbattable comics. Thanks, Amanda!

I’ve also been thinking about what Amanda said about nostalgia.

I don’t know that I enjoy the strips more now because of nostalgia, but when I saw the cover in the list, I said to myself, ‘Oh, I remember that book!”

I remembered how my sister had the exact same book when I was a kid. I remembered she got it for Christmas one year and I remembered laying on the round rag rug on the floor of her room reading it.

Speaking of nostalgia, this book has one of my all time favourite comic strips:

black and white

I don’t know if it was a conscious intention to teach us a lesson; my dad was a terrible prankster, and it was probably just for his own entertainment. But I think his made-up answers taught us, even as little kids, to be skeptical of information that doesn’t seem right, and to be skeptical of people who have answer for everything. Even, and maybe especially, people in authority, or who claim to be authorities. Parents included. In our era of fake news, where opinion is treated as fact and celebrities peddle juice cleanses on Twitter and pooh-pooh vaccines based on “lived experience” on talk shows, I’m glad I learned that lesson early and it stuck.

As I’ve gotten older, I also feel a lot like Hobbes in the last panel.

Joel said: I can’t stop thinking about this from Rat:

“Though why do they always involve violence as a central theme? Can someone recommend me a joyful/silly comic without violence as the premise?”

Me too.

I was just listening to a podcast where they’re talking about the Roman coliseum and the spectacles of violence that took place there. And there’s another podcast, Hardcore History, which has an episode called “Painfotainment” about pain (violent torture and execution) as entertainment though history.

One of the interesting questions Dan Carlin asked in the Hardcore History show was how we feel about real violence versus simulated violence: would we, for instance, attend public torture or executions, or watch them on TV, given the opportunity — and how might people in other eras have felt about our fake violence?

Recently I read an old sci-fi novel called Quozl, and in it, there’s this alien race, the Quozl, who have highly ritualized social interactions based on their historical martial arts, and they surround themselves with graphic and gory murals depicting battles and violent death, but in the society itself, real violence is anathema. It’s unthinkable, in their moral code, to inflict violence or kill another being and even inflicting accidental harm is deeply shameful socially and traumatic for the person who does so.

I don’t know where I’m going with that.

Except I maybe don’t agree with Joel that simulated violence in entertainment is a symptom (or a cause) of a messed up culture. Right now we’re living in what’s probably the least violent era in human history.* Maybe we have to put our violence somewhere. Maybe entertainment with simulated violence is a symptom of a healthy culture because it means we don’t find an outlet or entertainment in real violence.

I really hope we can put a pin in that topic and pick it up again because it turns out I have a lot of thoughts about this.

* (There’s a strong argument with supporting historical data for this anyway.)


AMIR
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum

It’s late. I’m late. But fuck it – I wanna talk about Bill, Calvin and Hobbes.

I always wax nostalgic about this series – 90 percent of my time reading it was before I was allowed to drink, even if it’s still smarter than 90 percent of what I read now.

Before it, I was an 11 year old Garfield junkie. I’d scour libraries and car boot sales for my next fix. Then I wandered into a library one day, and seeing they were out of my craving, deciding to test out methadone:

indispensable

Turns out methadone is way better than Garfield. I haven’t done Lasagna since.

There are possibly 2 billion reasons why C&H is possibly the perfect comic. That rare one, as mentioned above, actually has the power to bring us pure joy. There’s not much in art, media or culture that can actually achieve that. There are thrills, exhiliration, catharsis, tragic satisfaction, the expansion of political satisfaction or just plain laughter. But joy? You won’t it in the great classics of any medium, be they Persepolis, Bicycle Thieves, the Mona Lisa, or Smash Bros Melee at 3am.

Joy though. Calvin and Hobbes managed it. How?

In part. It’s the art style. It’s deceptively simple. Quick brush strokes, simple figures. But peer closer, look past those thick safety pin eyes and lightbulb skulls. The texture in the leaves, the perfectly rounded jagged edges on Hobbes fur. It’s a masterclass in technique. Someone once told me the best artists simply make it look easy. Waterstone is a case study in that adage. He himself once summed up how he took such a natural mastery and turned it into an art style inimitable because it’s sheer technical prowess – if you want to break the rules, you have to know what they are first. And it’s because of thoughts like that, that we get comics like this:

perspective

Then we get to the outright genius of the writing. It’s The Simpsons of daily comics. It’s The SImpsons of most things outside The Simpsons including the Springfieldeans themselves. It rockets from absurdist slapstick, to a 30 year old rant on the use of political polling that still stands true, to DINOSAURS IN F-14s – there’s a tonal versatility to the series, that can be poignant as it can be knee slappingly absurd that only The Simpsons or Futurama ever truly managed. And then the hit rate of the jokes – I mean, it’s like 30 Rock x The Simpsons x Fawlty Towers. It’s so clever, so on it, so perfectly timed. For proof, this is the first thing I saw on a Duckduckgo image search:

gross 1

And tonally? It’s so joyously precocious. I think that’s why 11 year old me loves it as much as the grown up whose googled “can I has pension?”. It has no qualms about being relentlessly, brilliantly, happily smarter than everyone in the room – because like most genuinely clever people, it has no inclination to talk down, to condescend or show off. All it wants to do is make you smile by finding incredible, creative new ways of doing it.

And it gave us Calvin Ball – a game with no rules that we obsessed over and that JK Rowling definetely looked at and went “yeah I can invent a franchise out of Quidditch”. As he spent a decade battling it out with profit driven newspaper vendors and licensors out to make t-shirts and mugs, he still wrote about how much fun you could have playing a game without rules or a goal. And in a way, it feels like it sums up how Bill approached his work and why something so funny, became something so cherished and so beautiful.

I might not turn up to work tomorrow, feign illness on the lack of hot chocolate and dog eared Calvin and Hobbes collections.

Guys, lets go exploring.

PS – Amanda, Imbattable actually gave me joy. IT’S AMAZING. Best thing I’ve seen in a while – how do I get more?

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