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Eight Stories for '05 #1 -- The Publication of The Complete Calvin and Hobbes
posted August 22, 2005
 

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What's interesting about what may become the all-time best-selling "Christmas Present to Myself" ever offered for sale is that there are really no major surprises expected in terms of content. I think the entirety of the strip's run, or a strip or two short of it, has remained in print since Bill Watterson closed the syndication doors on his hit feature in 1996. These are books that are generally attractively designed and well made, too. It may feel like Calvin and Hobbes< has been gone a really long time if you put down the newspaper strip page the same time it faded to black. But if you have continued reading strips with any sort of personal or professional passion in the last ten years the lack of a really broad-based, crowd-pleasing successor of similar stature gives Bill Watterson's strip the presence of a major star who left the party hours ago but has people still glancing at the door. In many ways, newspaper strip readers can feel Calvin and Hobbes more potently through its absence than we might have been aware of it the last few years the strip was still in papers.

imageIt's generally known what the book will look like. The three-volume slipcase edition was on display at both Book Expo America and in San Diego at Comic-Con International. It looks like a spiffier version of the basic package that was The Complete Far Side, as we all kind of suspected it would. So no surprises there, either.

Yet there's still a lot to anticipate with the fall's release. First, it should be interesting to see if it betters sales of The Complete Far Side, which had the virtues of going first and being the sort of strip that inspires a hardcore fan base of the kind that might be expected to buy definitive editions whenever they're done. Everyone suspects The Complete Calvin and Hobbes will sell like hotcakes to a starving army of hotcake aficionados, but we won't know for sure until it happens. Second, the marketing campaign should be a fun one to watch. As most know, Watterson disappeared as a presence well before his strip ended, refusing interview opportunities and declining to market his characters as pitchmen or on products. He'll have the opportunity to do some major appearances for a cartoonist, and although no one expects to see him discussing the ubiquitous Pissing Calvin stickers with Bob Costas on Larry King Live, even the slight, slight possibility is worth keeping one eye on the AMUniversal web site from now until Regis Philbin or whomever counts the year down for the count in Times Square. Watterson has agreed to answer questions from fans in a promotion arranged by Andrews McMeel, and even if that's the only thing that comes out of this, it's more than his readers had before. Watterson also contributed an essay to this new book; he's a good writer, and very opinionated. I look forward to hearing if what he has to say about comics some ten years removed is any different from the prickly relationship he had with comics while he was working in the field.

imageThere's also some hope that having Calvin and Hobbes back enjoying some sort of media attention will bring with it a focus on the state of the newspaper comics page. I'm not one of those who feel that all comic strips are terrible, but I do think there are a lot of bad strips out there and too many strips, period. Hopefully having a really good strip in front of them will embolden a few editors to make changes to their comics page not on the basis of satisfying market segments but in putting together the most vital collection of strips they can. Okay, maybe I won't bet any money on that, but if a few more newspaper editors were to take a chance on Mutts or the semi-struggling Franklin Fibbs, that would be a wonderful thing. And that's not just idle talk of changed attitudes -- a temporary Calvin and Hobbes package has been introduced back into 200 newspapers. Something needs to replace that package in many of its clients when the run ends in early January. Maybe seeing Watterson's work everyday will remind people that there's such a thing as a successful strip that doesn't hit a target market but that's just sort of good, and well-crafted, and genuinely funny.

Comics overall is in such a massive state of flux that publication efforts may be just as if not more important to a single calendar year than new work generated and appearing for the first time. When the market gets settled over the next decade, this may change, but for now it's the impact not the calendar date that rules. A big seasonal hit for Calvin and Hobbes could lead to a few more projects of this type in its wake, and provide energy for the latest cycle of newspaper strip reprints for years to come. Getting to read the killer snowmen segment one more time should be pretty great, too.