Saturday, August 11, 2012

Break it Down: Calvin & Hobbes

I recently read a little of Calvin & Hobbes for a little Tumblr project ( it was calling out another artist for tracing, fun stuff ), but after those shenanigans I kept reading Calvin & Hobbes because after nearly 20 years out of syndication it still holds up.


It's not like it's anything special. At least when you compare it to comic strips that came out before it's time. At it's core Calvin & Hobbes shares a lot of similarities with the Nancy formula of joke telling. To understand what I mean this link provides a lot of information in just a few pages. Your life might change after reading it.

Calvin & Hobbes also doesn't have a lot of characters. It's Calvin, Hobbes, Susie, Mom, Dad ( I didn't realize his Mom and Dad weren't given names until last week ) Ms. Wormwood, The Principle, That Bully, and that's about it.

Overall there's not much to it, but there's one thing that makes Calvin & Hobbes stand out from all the other comics of it's time and probably all time. The art. It's not that it was museum quality or that Bill Watterson was such a great artist. It was the fact he made the art part of the comic. Something a lot of comics, especially Web-comics, don't take advantage of.

Before I mentioned how most of Calvin & Hobbes humor took from the Nancy formula of jokes. Gag jokes, Visual Pun, Word Pun, Slapstick, Misunderstanding, Incongruity, and Inversion. However Calvin & Hobbes took those simple structures and had a lot of strips that did all that with the art. It also added Calvin's imagination to the mix which is why it was loved by many.

Most of the ones we remember are the Sunday strips. I remember back in the day Calvin & Hobbes took up half of a page, it was worth it to me. Seeing Dinosaurs or Spaceman Spiff just waiting to see what kind of mischief Calvin was up too. Other strips that Bill let his art take over were the Snowmen, Wagon/Sled rides, and any strip were Calvin's imagination was visualized to us the readers.

Instead of filling up each strip with words words words and Bust-Shots, Bill took advantage of his artistic skills and pushed them to the limit. The end result was a huge world that he created using very few characters and understanding the medium.

When I lurk on Tumblr, DA, or other Image sites I see hundreds if not thousands of artists who aren't doing enough. Sure some strips look pretty with Sai or Photoshop, but the majority of them out there aren't pushing themselves in the right areas. Those areas being the 5 panel shots, timing, positive/negative space ( or Bold Blacks as I call it ), and an overall understanding to get ones the point across.

I guess part of this has to do with a lack of knowledge. I'll be the first to agree, anyone can make a comic strip. It isn't that hard and there's always different strokes for different folks. Most people get popular enough that they don't care about improving and keep shoveling the same thing over and over. That's fine.

But what if they wanted more? What if they find their jokes are more miss than hit? What if their art is lacking or playing no role at all in the comic? How would they improve? It's easy. Look at what Bill Watterson did outside of his artwork.

  • He made full use of the 5 panel shots. 
  • He made use of the 3 angles.
  • He kept the writing concise.
  • He used Bold Blacks, Perspectives, or action lines to direct the reader.
  • In color he made use of positive and negative space.
  • Most of his panels were full figure shots.
  • He also used perspective to create moods. 
  • Most importantly every character in every panel had a dynamic pose or expression. Even when they were doing mundane things like Calvin's dad sitting down reading the newspaper he didn't look like he was made of wood.

The last one is probably what separated Calvin & Hobbes from most other comics. All the characters were always doing something. As I sit here sketching out characters of my own I find it boring when I draw them just standing around with their arms on their most of the comics out there right now. So I switched up to having them do stuff. Running, jumping, crawling, whatever. Then I found that exhausting.

As I looked at my work I realized why that was. I was doing all my sketches as full figures. This is the same guy who loathed drawing full figures just last year. I would sketch at most bust-shots of characters thinking to myself,  " Oh well when I add legs in the comic that will be easy ".

That's the trap I see so many artists falling into. They take things for granted so when they have to draw a character running or jumping it becomes the hardest thing they ever drew. In some cases they change it. Or when they take writing for granted and when they make a huge Graphic Novel it falls short because they lacked any knowledge in story structure. And that's why so many comics out there fail. The people behind them take too much for granted and think just making something is good enough.

Whether it's the art or writing it doesn't matter. When something is taken for granted it can throw the whole strip off. That's why Calvin & Hobbes was a success. Bill Watterson didn't take anything for granted. He pushed all his skills as far as he could and that passion resulted in one of the most popular strips of all time. That doesn't mean other strips with weaker art aren't as good.

Growing up I loved reading Peanuts. It was pretty much standard reading. Artistically it doesn't compare to Calvin & Hobbes, but the writing does. Peanuts also shares the same aspects that Nancy had which most comics of that time also had. In other words Schultz knew how to tell his jokes. He also used his art to sell the joke even if his style wasn't that great. Expressions and body language play a huge role.

Most of the comics I see in the newspaper follow these fundamentals, fundamentals that are lost on those aspiring to make their own comics. No ones stopping you, but for heavens sake one has to learn from comics to make comics.

What Calvin & Hobbes as taught me is there are 3 parts to making a good comic. Now realistically comics, just like all art, is subjective. Even some of the comics being syndicated today would make some people think " WTF, why is this in the newspaper? I can do better than that!!" -- an actual quote

Well those strips are in the paper because the creator or creators have average or above average skills in those 3 parts. They are the Art, the Writing, and the Structure. If there's one thing the internet has taught me is good writing will always save bad art, good art will never save bad writing. The glue that holds the writing and art together is the Structure. Which makes up the timing and all the other little tidbits such as the set-up, the conflict, and the resolution.

Out of the 3 the hardest part is the Writing. The 2nd hardest is getting the writing to form a structure. And the least hardest is the art to tie it altogether. Don't think the art is the easiest? Look at Dilbert. Even as crudely drawn as it is I always laugh my ass of to it.

And even if Calvin & Hobbes was taken down a notch in the art department it would still provide humor because the writing and structure were solid. But that's where Calvin & Hobbes had an edge. Bill knew how to write and put it together in a structure, but he used his art to push it even further. So much that he made strips like this with no words at all.

In the end we all can't have Calvin & Hobbes like comics of our own. It's just a reality, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. After reading it for a few days I found myself wanting to tap into that mojo Bill had. But it doesn't take mentoring, a class, or something found in a book. And it definitely doesn't mean COPY HIS STYLE which a lot of fail-artist think when they know something is wrong with what they're doing.

It takes passion and dedication. The price of admission being the time spent drawing away in my sketch book. The endless desire to push my skills to their limits. That includes making use of the 5 shots, 3 angles, perspectives, bold-blacks, dynamic poses, and joke structure in general.

Writing is one thing, drawing is another. To put those things together in a comic strip is something completely different. That's where a lot of comics fail, but Calvin & Hobbes didn't.

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