Another full non-fiction book proposal (bonus: this one actually sold!)

Photo credit: Jen Knoch

When I posted my other proposals for non-fiction books last year, the biggest caveat was… well, they didn’t end up selling. Which is no small thing! It’s true, of course, that most of the factors that determine whether a book makes it (or not) are entirely outside the author’s control. But success does have something of an extra appeal, admittedly. So when I managed to actually sell a proposal to write a book about Calvin and Hobbes for ECW Press, I figured the least I could do was one day post that one here, too.

Now that the book is officially in stores as of May 1—and let me pause here to gratuitously link to it and also mention, while I’ve got you here, that Patton Oswalt said it “captures the joy and excitement at first discovering Calvin and Hobbes, and the wistful sadness that it is no more”—I think the time is right to share.

As in the past, what you’ll see below is the entirety of what I sent to ECW back in 2016. A couple of notes to keep in mind:

  • This proposal was written to order for the press’s Pop Classics series, which has its own unique guidelines and specifications. The good news is that ECW is always taking submissions for future entires in the series, and I had an absolute blast writing Let’s Go Exploring for them. So if you’re interested, I’d encourage you to drop them a line.
  • A word on timelines: My first submission, in May, included the What? and Why? sections, plus a resume, per the instructions. ECW responded a month later, saying they liked the topic, but felt I was doing too much summarizing of the strip and not enough arguing—in other words, the whole thing kinda lacked a thesis. So I retooled the proposal, this time building it around the concept of imagination, and resubmitted it *squints* three days later? That seems fast. But I could tell I had a shot, and I didn’t want to blow it. (Below is the second, more argument-y version of those sections.) A couple of weeks later they wrote back again, now asking for a writing sample: 1,000 words or so, from a chapter that wasn’t the introduction. At which point I got busy with another project, and didn’t respond for… three months. Not ideal. Eventually, on the day before Hallowe’en, I sent over 1,200 words on Calvinball (also reprinted in full below, and pretty much how it appears in the final book) underneath about fourteen apologies for taking so long. Then, on November 29, to my immense relief, the proposal was accepted, and I got to work.
  • Did I mention the book is now for sale in stores and online? If you found this post useful, consider buying a copy! It’s thirteen bucks. If you ever read Calvin and Hobbes as a kid, or as an adult, I think you’ll like it.

POP CLASSICS PROPOSAL—LET’S GO EXPLORING: CALVIN AND HOBBES

WHAT?

Overview

Let’s Go Exploring is a critical and cultural look at how the power of imagination — its possibilities, its opportunities, and ultimately its limitations — helped make Calvin and Hobbes the world’s last great comic strip.

From the beginning, the strip was built around the interplay between fantasy and reality. On November 18, 1985, readers of a few dozen American newspapers awoke to a charming four-panel story about a boy using a tuna sandwich to catch a tiger in a trap. To everyone else, the tiger was a cute but harmless stuffed animal; to Calvin, however, he was a larger-than-life best friend in the making. Critically, neither perspective was definitively “correct.” Hobbes’s reality would always depend on whose perspective you were looking from — and either way, the duo’s adventures were just getting started.

Calvin and Hobbes quickly became one of the most critically and commercially beloved comic strips of its generation. Readers fell in love not just with creator Bill Watterson’s exceptional line work, but also with the strip’s rich characterization and winning blend of high-minded philosophy and gross-out humour. One strip might feature Calvin looking to the sky, solemnly mulling the meaning of life; in the next, he’s wrestling a sentient bowl of oatmeal. Meanwhile, Hobbes — named after the 17th-century philosopher who had, as Watterson put it, “a dim view of human nature”— was as likely to serve as the rational check on Calvin’s harebrained schemes as he was the animal-brained id, ready to pounce on his best friend the moment he got home from school. Watterson wasn’t afraid to name-drop obscure French painters, or to write multi-day stories in which everyone is a dinosaur. And present in all of his work was a seemingly limitless sense of creativity. Watterson walked the line between reality and fantasy with uncommon agility, and he took even greater delight in smooshing the two worlds together, showing all the ways his six-year-old hero could use his imagination as a refuge from a real world that was too oppressive, literal-minded, and flat-out boring to be tolerated for any significant amount of time.

Until its retirement, at the height of its popularity, in 1995, Calvin and Hobbes won numerous awards and drew tens of millions of readers from all around the world — in large part because of its hero’s many escapist trapdoors. Spaceman Spiff. Tracer Bullet. Stupendous Man. The transmogrifier. Calvinball. These weren’t mere throwaway gags; rather, they were fully realized, self-contained strips-within-the-strip, each with its own vocabulary, tone, cast of characters, and even visual style. They also existed, like Hobbes himself, largely inside Calvin’s head. The reason Watterson’s strip remains a pop classic is because of the way it perfectly framed childhood as a tug of war between endless possibility and total lack of control. When Calvin is forced to interact with the people around him — his parents, his teacher, the girl next door — he comes off as aloof, scattered, gross. It’s only when he is on his own, trudging through the forest behind his house, stuffed tiger in tow, that Calvin can truly be himself. This makes for a comic strip that is thrilling, hilarious, and impossible to predict, and yet also tinged with a distant sense of future sadness. Calvin’s imagination is the saving grace that makes his childhood bearable. But he has no human friends to speak of, and nothing resembling an adult role model. He is, deep down, a lonely kid. So what happens, as many other artists and writers have tried to imagine over the past two decades, on the day he is forced to put Hobbes aside and join the real world, once and for all?

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Why the strip resonated then, and why it’s still with us now. Calvin and Hobbes as a pure feat of imagination, both within the strip and, thanks to its distinct lack of tie-ins and merchandising, beyond it. What does Hobbes’s fur feel like? How does Calvin sound when he laughs? There are no official cartoons or plush dolls to tell us. All readers have are the books, and their own imaginations.

2. Treasure Everywhere: How fantasy serves as a key element of the strip’s early years, underpinning Calvin’s relationship with Hobbes, and allowing the two of them to form a tag-team alliance against the so-called “real world.” With this dynamic in place, Watterson quickly found a world of imaginative possibilities at his fingertips. Before long, wagons transformed into spaceships, piles of leaves became carnivorous blob monsters, and cardboard boxes were ready to catapult you through time or transform you into argumentative earthworms — depending on what you wrote on the side. Calvin’s brain as a portal into the infinite, and a survey of all the delightful places that takes him.

3. Syndicate Blues: On the limits of imagination, particularly in the strip’s latter years. Stories of Calvin clashing with reality, and losing, parallel Watterson’s growing frustration with the demands of his publishing syndicate: for merchandising, for media appearances, for everything that wasn’t producing a daily comic strip. This leads not just to sabbaticals, but also new demands and frustrations that carry into the form and content of the comics themselves. Then, suddenly, the strip comes to an end, and Calvin and Hobbes ride their off on their sled into the great white unknown, never to return.

4. Leave Bill Watterson Alone: Moving beyond the world of the strip to think about its creator, and why Calvin and Hobbes fans remain so obsessed with tracking him down — despite repeated requests to be left in peace. Watterson’s signature work is defined by a boundless creativity, yet he has never produced another comic strip; instead, he’s said to have turned to landscape painting, and has resurfaced in the media only a handful of times since 1995. How much of our love of a work of art depends on a meaningful connection with its creator? And what does it mean when a champion of imagination suddenly hangs up his pen for good?

5. Imagine A Six-Year-Old Boy Peeing on The Ford Logo — Forever: On the strip’s legacies, both intentional and accidental. Watterson’s refusal to merchandise the strip in any way means that there has been official radio silence since December 31, 1995. As a result, the imagination that once fuelled Calvin’s world has been transferred to his readers — who have responded in kind, adapting their favourite comic strip for everything from reverent tributes (YA novels, web series, cameos in network TV shows) to more opportunistic commercial endeavours. Put it this way: As long as truck owners want to illicitly buy decals of a spiky-haired kid peeing on inferior product logos, Calvin and Hobbes will never truly die.

WHY?

Basic Information

Calvin and Hobbes was a daily comic strip, written and illustrated by Bill Watterson, that ran from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995. The strip revolved around the adventures of Calvin, a six-year-old boy with a boundless, almost uncontrollable imagination, and Hobbes, a stuffed tiger whose true nature only Calvin can see. Over the years the world of Calvin and Hobbes ballooned to include recurring stories about Calvin’s exhausted parents, a love/hate relationship with his neighbour Susie, existential wagon rides, madcap inventions forged from cardboard boxes, bullies, babysitters, the precise intersection between snowmen and modern art, and Calvinball, the sport whose only rule is that it can’t be played the same way twice. The strip was a runaway hit nearly from the beginning, and when Watterson decided to pull the plug its popularity was at an all-time high, appearing in more than 2,400 newspapers around the world.

Watterson is well known for his reclusivity, which has only increased since the strip folded (he has only ever given a handful of interviews, and has never produced another comic), as well as for his refusal to merchandise his much-beloved creations. This means there have never been official Calvin and Hobbes toys, TV specials, or lunch boxes to drive marketing and sales — an act of artistic purity that experts estimate may have cost him hundreds of millions of dollars in missed income. Instead, his characters exist solely in the strips, 3,160 in all, of which Watterson wrote and drew every panel.

That isn’t to say the strip has faded from memory, however. On the contrary: the 18 book-length compilations of Calvin and Hobbes continue to sell, in total, more than a million copies every year. And the deluxe hardcover collected edition may be pricey, retailing at $150 USD, but it has itself seen sales in the mid-six figures. Weighing in at 23 lbs, it is the heaviest title to ever appear on the New York Times bestseller list.

Calvin and Hobbes has also been a primary influence on a whole new generation of pop culture. It has been referenced by contemporary TV shows like Community and Family Guy, inspired everything from YA novels to BBC documentaries, earned a commemorative stamp from the U.S. Postal Service, and spawned an intergenerational community of diehard fans whose loyalty has not flagged one iota in the twenty years it’s been out of the funny pages. An unofficial Twitter page has more than 350,000 followers; an unofficial Facebook page has upwards of one million likes to date. High-profile fans of the strip include novelist Jonathan Lethem, comedian Patton Oswalt, and Pixar mastermind Brad Bird. As Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, puts it: “I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like Calvin and Hobbes. And I can’t say that about any other strip.”

Target Audience

This book is targeted at the entire spectrum of fans of the strip, from the diehards who still post on Calvin and Hobbes message boards to those who mostly retain fond memories of reading it in the local newspaper each morning as kids. One of the unique things about the strip is its crossover appeal: parents and their children both read it with equal vigor, and the paperback collections were as likely to be found on your mom’s bedside table as they were your own. That intergenerational appeal continues today, as millennials who grew up on the strip pass their dog-eared books down to their own children, starting the cycle anew. The current sales figures (approximately one million copies are still sold around the world every year) affirm that this demographic is large, motivated, and extremely loyal.

Let’s Go Exploring has the added advantage of having little competition. Unlike many other beloved pieces of pop culture from that era, very little quality critical work has been done on Calvin and Hobbes to date (see “Why Now?” below). This means there is a huge potential market for a general-audience title that really digs into what made Watterson’s strip special, and why it continues to hold such a treasured place in readers’ minds — even among those who haven’t picked up their old collections in a decade or more. Diehard fans will buy it to expand their knowledge (and to maintain their status as Calvin and Hobbes completists); nostalgic children will buy it for their parents, and vice versa; and pretty much anyone who grew up in the ’80s and ’90s will be drawn to it in a bookstore on sight.

Why Now?

As mentioned above, thanks to Watterson’s refusal to do either interviews or merchandising, Calvin and Hobbes fans have been chronically starved for any supplemental material about their favourite comic strip for more than twenty years (bootleg decals of Calvin peeing on inferior car logos notwithstanding).

More recently, that interest has bubbled over into two books and a documentary. Jamey Heit’s Imagination and Meaning in Calvin and Hobbes (2012) is an academic text not intended for a general audience, and Nevin Martell’s Looking for Calvin and Hobbes (2009) is largely a quest narrative/attempted biography of the strip’s reclusive author. Neither is regarded particularly highly by fans of the strip. Meanwhile, Joel Allen Schroeder’s feature-length documentary, Dear Mr. Watterson (2013), alternates between its own quest narrative and a series of interviews with Watterson’s peers in the cartooning world.

What is still sorely missing from the publishing landscape, however, is the definitive book about why Calvin and Hobbes still matters to so many people — a thoughtful yet accessible critical analysis that doesn’t descend into the memoir of a superfan. Let’s Go Exploring is that book.

WRITING SAMPLE

Similar to the classroom — where a sense of rule-bound claustrophobia leads Calvin to imaginatively lash out, with elaborate fantasies that eventually spill over into the real world — is his relationship with sports. Here, Calvin finds himself once again in social situations governed by a series of dense, impenetrable rules that the other kids seem to grasp intuitively. Worse, sports are supposed to be fun. And because they’re often played during recess, what’s meant to be a break from school becomes, for him, a perverse extension of it. Calvin’s failure to grasp the entertainment value of a game like baseball is the subject of a memorable storyline, and sets the scene for the iconic anti-sport Watterson would offer up in response.

This particular storyline ran in the papers from April 16 to May 5, 1990, placing it squarely in the middle of the strip’s run. It opens optimistically, as Calvin runs outside at recess to discover a much-coveted free swing on the swing set. His good fortune, however, soon gives way to suspicion, since it isn’t just one swing that’s available, but all of them. What gives? A wandering-by Susie Derkins lets Calvin in on the awkward truth: the other boys at school — literally every single one of them — has signed up to play baseball. This is Calvin’s nightmare, for several reasons. First is the obvious social stigma, as his rejection of a traditionally male activity is now made glaringly public. Second, though, might be even worse: For the first time, Calvin has free reign of the playground, but he’s unable to enjoy any of it, thanks to the looming flak he knows he’s about to catch from the other boys. As it happens, the exclusive presence of girls isn’t exactly a relief to him, either. Calvin’s first response to Susie is to cover his mouth with his t-shirt and start yelling about how he hasn’t been vaccinated against cooties yet.

Despite his theatrics, the depth of Calvin’s social gaffe isn’t immediately clear to him. He spends the next strip quietly playing with Susie on the teeter-totter, talking about his predicament to a rare sympathetic ear. “I’d rather just run around,” he says. Whereas in organized sports, “Somebody’s always yelling at you, telling you where to be, what to do, and when to do it.” Calvin figures when he’s ready to do that, he’ll just join the army — because at least there you get paid. Too late: in the very next strip Calvin gets ambushed at his locker by Moe, the other boys’ ringleader. Word has gotten around the school about Calvin’s supposedly sissy behaviour. To avoid dragging out his (even more pronounced than usual) ostracization, Calvin slinks to the gym teacher’s office and begrudgingly signs up to play.

Except, of course, to him it isn’t really play at all. That night, Calvin complains to Hobbes about the rigidity of the way baseball is played at his school. “This will be with teams and assigned positions and an umpire!” he says. “It’s boring playing it the real way!” The implication here is that Calvin has his own custom version of baseball that he won’t share with his classmates — maybe because he’s been burned before, or maybe because he knows they can’t be convinced to try it. Hobbes then asks whether he even knows how to play the real way, and once again we see a clear divide between Calvin in his natural freewheeling state, and the socially acceptable poses he has to contort himself into whenever he’s forced to engage with other people. “See, that’s another problem!” Calvin replies. “Suppose they make me a halfback. Can I tackle the shortstop or not?”

From here, a series of events unfolds as a consequence of Calvin giving in to peer pressure, and each is somehow worse than the last. His dad offers to practice with him after dinner, and ends up drilling a ground ball into an unsuspecting Calvin’s nose. During his first game at school the next day, Calvin is so far out in left field that he doesn’t realize the teams have switched places, and ends up catching a fly ball, to his shock and delight — only to be told it was against his own batter. And when he finally pulls the plug on the whole experiment, he’s branded a quitter by teammates and coach alike. He just can’t win. There’s even a moment of direct imaginative conflict, as the fly ball Calvin catches also happens to interrupt one of his intergalactic Spaceman Spiff daydreams, which he’s indulging in while standing by himself, so far into the outfield that he has to squint to see home plate; true fun is thus spoiled by its socially mandated derivative. So not only does Calvin fail the macho gauntlet put in front of him at school, but he also trips on every possible hurdle along the way.

This whole storyline, which unfolds over the span of three weeks, is depressing. And not least of all because several other characters believe that Calvin’s misadventure, while cruel and unnatural for a kid of his disposition, is also necessary. His dad tries to give him his standard line about how sports, like everything else unpleasant in life, builds character, and Calvin bristles even harder than usual. “What’s wrong with just having fun by yourself, huh?!” he asks. Dad’s reply, while staring potently at the necktie he’s just taken off: “When you grow up, it’s not allowed.” (This is one of those moments where the character you identify with flips the second you yourself enter adulthood.) Later, at the bus stop, Calvin complains that girls never have to deal with this kind of aggro intimidation from their peers. Susie, again, is sympathetic — but she does point out that boys “aren’t expected to spend their lives 20 pounds underweight.” By then, however, Calvin isn’t listening anymore; he’s already thinking about all the beer commercials he will never act in as a non-athlete. Another missed opportunity.

Watterson would draw on the world of baseball at other times in the strip. Whenever he did, the same basic tensions were always present — but as long as it was just Calvin and Hobbes doing the playing, these were easily resolved. Left to its own devices, imagination would always win out over the rulebook. Even a sampling of their homespun games bears this idea out. One includes at least twenty-three different bases that each runner has to touch, which are scattered around the backyard and surrounding forest area (and that’s not counting the secret base). Another featured a team of ghost players, whose invisible antics inevitably lead to a bench-clearing brawl. In one of these games the baseball itself might become sentient and chase Calvin around his house, or up into a tree. And in the wintertime, the snowy conditions no impediment, either: just add a sled, and a stockpile snowballs, and you’ve got yourself a rousing game of “speed sled base snow ball,” whatever that is.

The key, in all of these off-the-cuff games, is imagination — but a particular form of it, and within certain parameters: Not throwing the rules completely out the window, but rather adopting a constantly evolving rulebook where pretty much anything is up for grabs. Any successful game, after all, requires enough formal structure to remain coherent, and not just collapse into anarchy. And it’s precisely that sense of controlled chaos that gives the Calvin and Hobbes story at hand, where we see Calvin’s imaginative potential stifled in a particularly painful and humiliating way, its silver lining.

Enter: Calvinball.

The three-week storyline from 1990 concludes, fittingly, on a Saturday morning, when the dual obligations of school and, now, the damned-if-he-does-damned-if-he-doesn’t baseball team have faded away with the rest of the week. Disillusioned, Calvin wanders outside while Hobbes asks him what he wants to do. “Anything but play an organized sport,” he replies. Hobbes scratches his head, then asks: “Want to play Calvinball?” “YEAH!” The final panel cuts to our first glimpse of this unfamiliar game. We’re in medias res, and the scene is intentionally convoluted. Hobbes is carrying a polka-dot flag tied to a stick, and fleeing from Calvin, who’s in hot pursuit and aiming a soccer ball at his head. Both are dodging a series of numbered signs and croquet wickets set up haphazardly throughout the yard; both are also wearing dark bandanas over their eyes with holes cut out to see through. Most important, however, is that Calvin is announcing a rule change on the fly, wherein the unlucky player now has to hop around on one foot. Calvinball, with its relentless imagination and its implied sense of chaos, would come to be one of the strip’s defining ideas, but its first appearance is clearly meant to be a throwaway joke, as Hobbes’s final line makes clear: “No sport is less organized that Calvinball!”

Why did Calvinball capture the attention of so many readers? Watterson would bring it back several times over the next five years, and it was a fan favourite every time. But even in its first incarnation, he grasped its appeal immediately. Later, in the Tenth Anniversary Book, Watterson would put it like this: “People have asked how to play Calvinball. It’s pretty simple: You make up the rules as you go.” (Here’s Calvin, addressing the reader directly: “The only permanent rule is that you can’t play it the same way twice!”) To read a Calvinball strip is to feel as though you’re in the eye of a hurricane that’s about to engulf you. The game promises to deliver on that feeling of adventure promised by organized sports, only multiplied exponentially, and without any of that pesky organized part. Calvinball is also, crucially, a mongrel sport, grabbing rules, ideas, and bits of equipment from whatever other games may be lying around. This is a key source of its ramshackle charm, and one that has misled many a reader into believing that they, too, could play a quick round or two once they fish a couple of rakes and badminton rackets out of the garage.

Alas, it’s an illusion. In fact, Calvinball works so well on the page precisely because it is impossible to play. Watterson is savvy enough to only show us a couple of moments in a given Calvinball game, when every element is caught in an exhilarating state of flux, when all of its momentum could spin off thrillingly into a new direction at a moment’s notice, and when ordering a transgressing player to sing something called “The Very Sorry Song,” complete with over-the-top backup vocals, feels like the best idea you and your friends will ever have. As an idea, Calvinball feels like a work of hare-brained genius. But unfrozen from time, it’s a mess. It isn’t a coincidence that while many popular fictional games have actually crossed over and become real sports, Calvinball has only ever spawned a couple of half-baked proposals in online message boards, each of which quickly fizzled out. Even Quidditch, a game originally conceived to be played by spell-casting wizards in mid-air, has had better luck as a competitive sport than Calvinball, now boasting its own World Cup and teams in more than 26 countries around the world. Despite a nearly non-existent barrier to entry — it could be easily played by any kid, at any time — this will never happen to Calvinball. That’s because it is the platonic ideal of a sport, rather than a sport itself. It is an idea that is simply too fun in the abstract to survive when translated to the messy physical world. And even if it did catch on, what would happen once the anti-sport was infiltrated and, finally, taken over by the same kinds of jocks from the baseball storyline? The mind reels. No, Calvinball is forever insulated, and its purity forever protected, by its sheer impossibility — like an Escher staircase that can never be built, and thus never tarnished by strangers’ muddy footprints.

It’s what Calvin would’ve wanted.

* * * * *

Michael Hingston is an author and publisher based in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His new book is Let’s Go Exploring (ECW Press), a critical and cultural look at the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Follow him on Twitter: @mhingston.