Calvin and Hobbes, by Belinkie
Whenever I imagine Bill Watterson – and I do, quite often – I think of him fishing. I don’t know why – that’s just an image that seems somehow fitting. Guy standing in a stream, big rubber pants dangling from suspenders, pole curved back over his shoulder, mid-cast, the line and hook spiraling into the sky. In other words, I imagine him as one of his drawings.
Sometimes I’m angry at him, for letting all that talent go to waste. By now, he could have started and finished a whole other strip, and if it was even half as good as Calvin and Hobbes, it would still be the best excuse to read the comics page. But mostly, I kind of admire his disappearing act. He’s like J.D. Salinger. But honestly, if I had the choice of having dinner with Salinger or Watterson, it would be an easy choice.
On July 4, 1988, Calvin and Hobbes started an 11-strip story about Calvin being inexplicably lifted skywards by a single balloon. At first it’s just an annoyance: Calvin has to contend with an angry flock of ducks, and dangles humiliatingly from his pants when he ties the string to his belt loop.
Then, in the fifth strip, the whole thing transitions from whimsical to terrifying. Calvin worries about getting sucked into a jet intake. Instead, the balloon pops and he plummets towards Earth, vainly trying to wake up. In the face of certain death, he muses about his life flashing before his eyes. But then he discovers his handy transmogrifier gun in his pocket. Just as he’s falling low enough to see the telephone wires, he transforms into a “light particle,” and races home to tell his parents why he’s late for dinner.
As usual, Watterson’s art is wonderful. As Calvin gets higher, the ground becomes this crazy diagonal patchwork. Each cloud has a shadow. Compare this to, let’s say, Garfield. But what I love about the story is how straightforward it is. When Gonzo floats away in The Muppet Movie, or Curious George floats away, they move largely horizontally without gaining a lot of altitude. Calvin pretty much goes straight up, until the balloon pops. No one on the ground is trying to rescue him.
I feel like in most cases, the image of someone getting carried away by balloon is supposed to be, well, uplifting. Exhilarating. You’re grabbing hold of something simple, colorful, and fun, and taking flight with it. But Calvin doesn’t seem empowered. He’s a little boy lost in a giant sky. Alone. Watterson makes the balloon into something menacing, which is impressive.