If you asked me who is the greatest artistic genius my home state of Ohio has ever produced, I’d say Bill Watterson without hesitation. The creator of Calvin & Hobbes ranks close to Wodehouse in my mind for his sheer mastery of his medium. But really, Watterson was an expert practitioner of two forms, both the language and the art. He married his wit and his complex philosophical musings with gorgeous images, especially in the Sunday comics, which allowed him to show off his abilities in full color.
I loved Calvin and Hobbes as a kid, not least because Watterson captured beautifully the Ohio landscapes I would wander, much as Calvin does. It made the strip feel relatable to me. What’s really amazing is how I remember enjoying it when I was about nine years old, but upon revisiting it as an adult, I started to understand it differently; jokes that just seemed funny for their big words and philosophical abstractions now make sense to me on a deeper level.
For ten years, Watterson ruled the comics world, leveraging his creative talent to convince the papers to give him more colors and more control over the layout of his strip, until at last he could create the grand adventures he imagined for the boy and his tiger.
And then, in 1995, he stopped. He sent Calvin and Hobbes off into a vast empty white space to fill with their considerable imaginative power. The world he created lives on, of course, on the internet, where new generations of fans still enjoy the vibrant, hilarious, poignant wonder of that magical decade-long run.
But Watterson himself largely disappeared from the public eye. With good reason have other cartoonists compared him to Bigfoot; as he seldom gives interviews and only very rarely produces any art for public consumption. Indeed, he had in a sense passed into the realm of legend.
And now, in this, the year 2023, up he shows! It is as if one of the dinosaurs Calvin so vividly imagined has materialized in the park, trotted up to us, and said, “Well, I’m back! What’d I miss?”
Watterson returns from his 28 years of self-imposed exile with a peculiar volume; a “fable for grown-ups” called The Mysteries, co-illustrated with John Kascht. The book is short, only about 400 words in all, and illustrated with haunting black-and-white images. The story is this: the people of a kingdom are plagued by forces known only as “Mysteries”. The King sends his knights out to capture one of these “Mysteries.” When a lone knight returns with a Mystery in tow, the people study it and come away unimpressed.
One by one, “the Mysteries” become not so mysterious, and the people gradually believe themselves to have mastered the world, and bent it to their will. Indeed, they revel in their dominion over The Mysteries.
I won’t tell you how it ends up. But then, do I even need to? Yes, this is a classic Hubris Will Be Your Downfall story, and in the few words within, it tells a suitably cautionary tale.
The real showstopper here is the artwork, which is striking and memorable. If the goal was to create a story where each sentence is associated with a memorable image, so that it sticks in the reader’s mind, well, mission accomplished.
But what about the moral of the story? It is a fable, after all, and fables are supposed to teach some lesson. What lesson does this teach? That, as people have gradually lost the superstitious fear of the dark that medieval peasants possessed, they have become arrogant and vain, believing themselves somehow apart from nature? Have they, in attempting to use scientific rationalism to explain wild nature, stripped it of its beauty and romance, and set the stage for the world to be devoured by machines? (“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…” I hold with those who favor gray goo.)
Well, I mean, obviously that’s my interpretation. But it’s not like it’s a novel idea. The sense of looming techno-apocalypse is plain to see on every street. In the memorable words of H.P. Lovecraft:
A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a daemoniac alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.
That was in 1920. It’s no secret! Why, everybody knows!
The question is, what do we do about it? Here, Watterson’s story grows rather vague; almost fatalistic or nihilistic. Which is a really odd thing for a fable.
Then again, maybe not. In a way, it’s the same as one of the most famous sayings in history. A pearl of wisdom that has been quoted many times many ways, but perhaps one of the best versions is from Abraham Lincoln:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!
In the words of the Stoics, Memento mori. In the words of the Church, “Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” In the words of Clint Eastwood, “We all have it comin’, kid.” I could go on, but you get the picture.
But again, this awareness of mortality implies a question: what, then, do we do with our lives? Which is of course the question. Watterson doesn’t give us the answer in this text, but since this is perhaps the most fundamental question of all of human existence, asking for it to be answered in a short picture book is perhaps unreasonable.
And yet… in a way, Watterson did give us the answer. Not in this book, but in the body of his work. Famously, Watterson fought to preserve his control over Calvin & Hobbes, and refused to sign away licensing rights, likely forfeiting millions of dollars by doing so. That is why we don’t have Calvin & Hobbes 2, or Calvin & Hobbes: The Animated Series, or The Gritty Origin Story of Miss Wormwood: A Calvin & Hobbes Prequel. (It would star Emma Stone and be available for streaming on Disney+.)
Watterson insisted on integrity. He wanted to make something great that was his, and share it with the world, and not have it diluted through commercialism or commodification. He just wanted to create art he cared about, and do it well. And he did. There’s a lesson in that.
And thus we see that the meaning of The Mysteries is in the careful work that Watterson and Kascht poured into it. Could they have made something not unlike it in a few minutes with an AI image generator? Sure, but the goal was to see what they could do by challenging themselves, pushing themselves (and each other) to find new ways of realizing their vision.
Like all the great artists, Watterson’s work is his philosophy, and his philosophy is his work. Is The Mysteries, on its own, a work of great art? Well, maybe. Some may complain that it is a rather slight piece, after nearly three decades of waiting for Watterson’s next act. Then again, isn’t the most famous painting in the world a small portrait of an ordinary-looking woman in muted colors? Like the fella once said, “There’s treasure everywhere!”