Last week, Bill Watterson, the famously reclusive creator of Calvin and Hobbes, came out of retirement to draw a few panels for the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. Creator Stephan Pastis didn't reveal that Watterson had been contributing until after the little story arc was done and Watterson had again retired from the public stage.
The strips, based on a joke about Calvin and Hobbes and Pastis's self-deprecating references to his lack of artistic talent, revolve around a second-grader who "takes over" the strip to show Pastis up. Pastis often messes around with this sort of meta humor, so most readers just assumed Pastis himself drew a few panels in the style of Calvin and Hobbes. But there were a few hints that maybe, against all odds, Watterson had decided again to draw a comic strip panel for public consumption.
1. The Name
In the June 2nd Pearls Before Swine strip, the character Stephan Pastis (Pastis the writer sometimes draws himself as a sad-sack cartoonist type in his own strip) meets a second-grader with prodigious drawing talent who is somewhat scornful of Pastis's. In a blog post revealing that Watterson drew the strips, Pastis (the real-life person) revealed the reason for her name: " I named her "Libby," which I then shorted to "Lib." (Hint, hint: It’s almost "Bill" backwards.)"
2. The Font
The three panels, spread out over three days, that Watterson drew are accompanied by Watterson's dialogue lettering. That's pretty obvious; the lettering doesn't look quite like Pastis's, having thinner lines and larger spaces between the letters. But a fun tidbit is the connection made between Pastis's dangerous doofus characters, the crocodiles that live next door, and Calvin's nemesis, Moe the bully. Watterson always used lowercase letters for Moe's dialogue, indicating (to me, at least) a sort of grunting struggle to articulate words. Pastis uses the same technique: the crocodiles speak in lowercase, but all the other characters speak in uppercase. Having the crocodiles drawn by Watterson—with the exact same lettering used for Moe the bully—is a nice touch to connect the two strips.
3. The Curse Of Small Panels
Watterson famously rebelled against the shrinking of the comics page, refusing to work with newspapers unless they gave his comic strip the space it deserved. In the June 5th strip, "Libby" draws an elaborate "Martian robot attack" scene to show off "her" skills. In the last panel, Libby says, "I could do better if I had more space."
4. Calvin's Fantasies Come To "Pearls Before Swine"
Though Pearls Before Swine is not a strip particularly beholden to reality, the "Martian robot attack" scene drawn by Libby is distinctly Wattersonian. Calvin was prone to frequent daydreaming of extraterrestrial adventures, with a particular obsession with Mars—one storyline about a make-believe trip to the Red Planet ended up becoming the namesake for Watterson's fourth Calvin and Hobbes book, Weirdos from Another Planet. Plus! Is it just us, or do those little spaceships look a lot like the ship driven by Calvin's alter ego, Spaceman Spiff?
5. And Finally, Duh
The final strip featuring Libby is so obviously a reference to Calvin and Hobbes that the strip's punchline is about how obvious it is. Libby, in the middle of summer, is dressed in a full snowsuit and holding a toboggan, saying "there's a magical world out there to explore"—the final lines spoken by Calvin in the last Calvin and Hobbes strip. But some little tidbits in that scene are a little more subtle. Libby is wearing a blue beanie with a yellow pompom and a purple jacket, the same outfit worn by Calvin in the summer, as well as Calvin's white-toed, improbably round shoes. And when Libby's wild red hair is tucked under a cap, we can see that, well, she has the same face as Calvin: the same C-shaped nose, the same round face.
We don't begrudge Watterson his Bill-Murray-like trickster god stint back on the comics page; it was a pleasure to see his work again, and maybe this will turn some people on to Pastis's strip, which has been excellent for many years now. Retreat back to your bucolic Ohio life, Lib. Nice of you to stop by.