Exhibition preview: “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” highlights world’s greatest collection

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From the March 20, 2014 edition

It’s been almost three decades since Bill Watterson ran his first “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, yet that imaginative, precocious boy and his stuffed, live-wire tiger are still some of the most beloved characters of all-time. If you were a regular reader of “Calvin and Hobbes” during its syndication, you probably own — and read — at least one book collection, probably a handful, of the 18 published over the years.

“I think the work really is timeless,” said Jenny Robb, curator at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, which opens the “Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” exhibit on Saturday, March 22. “There are so many wonderful strips and the quality he maintained throughout [its] entire run is very impressive.”

During the comic strip’s 10-year run from 1985 to 1995, Watterson published more than 3,000 strips appearing in 2,400 newspapers worldwide at the height of its popularity. In 1986 and 1988, he won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben Award for “Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year.”

Robb, a longtime avid fan of “Calvin and Hobbes,” had her work cut out for her with the exhibit. Watterson donated the majority of his original illustrations for the comic strip — more than 3,000 pieces — to the Billy Ireland in 2005. Comprehensive hardly does the collection justice; one-of-a-kind is more appropriate.

“The hardest part of curating this exhibition was narrowing down what we could show,” Robb said.

While sharpening the focus for the exhibit was a daunting task, it did come with a special benefit. The normally private Watterson visited Columbus from his northeast Ohio home and spent a day at the Billy Ireland working with Robb.

“One of my favorite moments in putting together this show with Bill was looking at some of the strips and reading through them with him, both of us laughing. They’re funny to not only those of us that are reading them, but also the person [who] created them,” Robb said.

Watterson had some laughs, but also took this retrospective seriously.

“He’s definitely more critical of his own work than I think any of his fans, or anyone else. He’s most proud of the work that he did on the Sunday strips after his sabbatical, when he had more freedom with the layouts … from about 1992 to the end of the strip,” Robb said.

Watterson was happy to assist with the exhibit, but wanted to maintain a curatorial quality. Both Watterson and Robb wanted the exhibit to help fans revisit the strip while also showcasing its many aspects. “Calvin and Hobbes” was supremely funny for all ages, but there are also heartfelt moments and occasional pathos. It’s why the adventures of a boy and his tiger have such a strong legacy.

“It’s been a fair amount of time since [Watterson] stopped working on the strip, and I think he very much sees this exhibition as revisiting that work, and exploring it from a point in time when we’re much further away,” Robb said.

So what’s the best way to capture “Calvin and Hobbes” with the proper perspective? Robb said including original illustrations of the first three strips — remember Calvin capturing Hobbes with that tuna sandwich? — were crucial because it set up the premise so well. The final strip was also essential because it was “a beautiful way to end” the series; Calvin and Hobbes sledding off into the snow with Calvin exclaiming, “Let’s Go Exploring!” The comic strip may’ve concluded, but the adventures of Calvin and Hobbes would never end.

Besides the bookends for the strip, Watterson’s famous forays inside the mind of Calvin are included. There will be original strips of Calvin’s dinosaur fantasies as well as the voyages of Spaceman Spiff. These represent both Watterson’s great storytelling techniques and the ranges of his illustrative abilities.

“Exploring Calvin and Hobbes” will also feature original works from those who inspired Watterson. He chose strips by Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Walt Kelly (“Pogo”). “Those are ones you might expect … you can see the influence that those two creators may have had on him,” Robb said. “But there are some others people might not expect.”

The unexpected include Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County,” Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” and editorial cartoons by Jim Borgman and Pat Oliphant.

Outside of “Exploring Calvin & Hobbes” are two accompanying components that offer more in-depth looks at the comic strip as a whole and at Watterson personally. The documentary “Dear Mr. Watterson,” featuring many of Watterson’s contemporaries discussing his work, will screen at the Wexner Center Saturday.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of the exhibit for “Calvin and Hobbes” enthusiasts will appear online. When the exhibit opens, a brief email interview with Watterson — who rarely does interviews — reflecting on his work will be available on the Billy Ireland website.