According to Wikipedia, the source of all wisdom, the comic strip "Mary Worth" has been cluttering up newspaper pages for the better part of seven decades. That is astonishing to me because I don’t know anybody who has ever read it. Yet there it is, stubbornly surviving the cultural maelstrom of the past 70 years. You can even read it online!
(Trust me. I checked. I’m pretty sure, however, that I was the first one to do so.)
It’s amazing, in the digital age, that the comics page still survives. It’s more amazing how little it’s changed. So many of the strips were around when I was a kid, and they look exactly the same as they did back then. I wonder who’s reading them, because I’m not. What’s more, neither are my kids.
Most cultural observers would blame the Internet for the lack of interest in comics since the young folk these days have their eyeballs glued to computer screens instead of newsprint. But that’s too simple. My kids would read the comics if there were something for them to read.
I know that for a fact, because they can’t get enough of "Calvin and Hobbes."
And "Calvin and Hobbes" hasn’t been in print since 1995. My children have never seen it in a newspaper. There are no "Calvin and Hobbes" Christmas specials or DVDs to perpetuate the characters in popular culture for those who missed them the first time around. Bill Watterson, the strip’s author, refused to allow any licensing of "Calvin and Hobbes" in any other media. Yet my kids, all of whom were born after the last original strip was published, have embraced it wholeheartedly.
Yes, you can read old strips online, but the way my kids discovered this masterpiece was thumbing through the dog-eared collections that I’ve had since before I was married. They’ve read “Weirdos from Another Planet!” and “Something Under the Bed Is Drooling” and “Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons.” They read them with no prompting from me. With titles like that, they knew they were in for a good time.
There has been much that’s been written as to why “Calvin and Hobbes” endures, and many observers tend to look deeper than they probably should. After all, the characters are named after 16th and 17th century philosophers, and many of the strips explore weighty themes that younger readers likely overlook.
Yeah, that’s great. None of that would matter if the strip weren’t as funny and fun to look at as it is. You would think that simple formula — write it funny and draw it well — would have spawned a host of imitators who could pick up where Watterson left off.
But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Something simple that works is almost impossible to duplicate.
Every kid who reads the strip identifies with Calvin. That’s true of obsolete kids like me too, although, as I’ve gotten older, I find myself identifying more and more with Calvin’s parents.
So how do you create a character like that? If you were to ask a writer to come up with a character with universal appeal, you’d most likely get some kind of bland, cookie-cutter nebbish with no sharp edges to offend everyone.
But Calvin is all sharp edges — he’s capable of kindness, but he’s also at turns nasty, silly, ridiculous, vindictive and everything else we remember from our own childhoods. And, remember, he’s funny.
I don’t have the formula for how to replicate the genius that is Calvin and Hobbes. I’m just grateful that it exists, and my kids are grateful too.
And none of them will ever, ever read "Mary Worth."
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Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.