Christensen: Get out while you’re on top

By Caitlyn Christensen

I wasn’t one for comic books when I was a kid, but I loved to stay home… I wasn’t one for comic books when I was a kid, but I loved to stay home “sick” and read “Calvin & Hobbes.”

Many of the metaphysical dialogues were over my head, but I loved the simpler plotlines that featured spiky-haired Calvin and his sarcastic stuffed tiger mouthing off to teachers, dumping buckets of water on his mother and pelting neighborhood children with “slushballs.”

Now that I’m older, the comics are even better.

They combine my 8-year-old nostalgia with my present-day sensitivity to philosophical, theological, big-life questions — all that contained in a short-lived newspaper comic strip.

Director Joel Allen Schroeder will make a documentary thanking Bill Watterson, the creator of “Calvin & Hobbes.”

The film, titled “Dear Mr. Watterson,” is funded by donations that cover the filmmakers’ air tickets, rental cars, meals and motel stays.

So far, the donations have amounted to more than $21,000, exceeding the project’s $12,000 goal. The excitement for the film is palpable — the project has already garnered a blurb in The New Yorker and one in USA Today.

Apart from the comic’s lush illustrations, which often spill out of the cartoon panels, and clever balance of sophisticated and unsophisticated humor, I think the reason “Calvin & Hobbes” is so beloved today is that Watterson worked so hard to make sure his characters kept their dignity.

The son of a patent lawyer, Watterson battled licensing issues for years, refusing to allow the kid and his tiger getting stamped onto coffee cups and T-shirts.

The cartoonist never went on tours or book signings, preferring to sneak autographed copies of “Calvin & Hobbes” into bookstores around the Cleveland, Ohio, area.

Watterson abruptly ended the strip in 1995, issuing a letter to the editor stating that he felt the cartoon had run its course. Apart from a brief tongue-in-cheek autobiography, we haven’t heard much from him since.

When he put the strip away, he meant it.

The demand for the strip was still high in 1995 — and is even high today — but Watterson wanted to end it before his work grew stale. If he had kept hammering away for another decade, he feared his characters would lose their veracity — fans would get bored and move on.

By ending his strip on a high note, his characters have effectively transitioned into peaceful immortality.

Writers and entertainers would be wise to take a chapter out of Watterson’s book. With countless sequels and remakes, filmmakers don’t know how to let a good thing die these days.

If Watterson wrote “Friends,” he would have let the series conclude itself gracefully, rather than following it into the purgatorial wasteland of its spinoff, “Joey.”

Similarly, the “Sex and the City” films refuse to allow its glamorous 30-something characters to mature and settle into their stable, dignified 40s. The “Pirates of the Caribbean” quadrequel promises to beat the last ounce of life out of a long-dead horse.

Watterson would wag his finger at tribute concerts dragging older artists out of retirement to cavort about on stage.

A few months ago, I caught a glimpse of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. Paul Simon looked more like Mel Brooks, and Aretha Franklin seemed to have some trouble hitting her notes.

I don’t want to remember those artists like that.

When I hear Bob Dylan wheezing into a microphone these days, I lose faith altogether. If even Dylan doesn’t know when to quit, who does?

The trailer for Schroeder’s documentary offers no promise that Watterson will appear in the film at all. Rather, personal anecdotes and memories aim to reveal the integrity of the strip and the man behind it.

That angle might be the best that Schroeder had to work with, but it’s an effective concept.

“Calvin & Hobbes” means more today because Watterson’s elusive retirement gave it time to resonate. The real story of the strip isn’t its creator but the way it has matured with its original audience.

By saying less, Watterson allowed us to see more.

In Watterson’s last panel, Calvin and Hobbes toboggan off together into a clean white oblivion while Calvin cries, “Let’s go exploring!”

It’s a trumpet call to move on with life, to stay in the present, to let things fade and others grow, to see what else is out there — to let things go in time’s natural progression.

E-mail Caitlyn at [email protected]