Over the past few days, people have been forwarding me the link to this Huffington Post article, which features a painting by Craig Mahoney of a grown up Calvin clutching a long-forgotten Hobbes doll that he has rediscovered in a storage box. The blog post is entitled “Grown-Up Calvin And Hobbes: Craig Mahoney’s Painting Will Bring A Tear To Your Eye.”
It didn’t bring a tear to my eye. It didn’t even bring a smile to my face. Instead, it just left me feeling disappointed and a little angry.
I’m sure Craig Mahoney is a nice guy. And I want to believe that his heart is in the right place with this painting. The exhibit this painting is a part of is entitled “Portraits of Awesomeness: The Art of a Fanboy,” so chances are that this is simply meant to be a touching tribute to something that meant a lot to him. But I still think this particular “tribute” is off the mark.
For one thing, the painting strikes me as the basest of sentimental gimmickry. There is a Family Guy “reference for the sake of reference” vibe to the painting that has become all too prevalent in society today. “Hey, remember this thing?” shouldn’t count as a worthwhile contribution to society, even if it is the business model of most Seltzberg parodies, TeeFury shirts and Buzzfeed posts. (I’m pretty sure the Internet will implode the day Buzzfeed debuts their “10 TeeFury shirts based on the Scary Movie franchise” list.)
I’m sure some of you would argue that showing a grown up Calvin in the painting somehow qualified the whole thing as a clever homage instead of simply a reference for the sake of reference. And maybe I would be willing to buy that if it was actually clever. Or if the entire idea behind the piece didn’t seem horribly misguided and wrong.
I don’t want to see a grown up Calvin finding a discarded Hobbes inside some box left in his attic next to his Christmas lights, clothes he meant to give to Goodwill but never did and yellowed issues of Playboy from the 1980s. Calvin isn’t supposed to grow up. I don’t want to see him rediscovering his imaginative childhood because I don’t want him to have ever lost it in the first place.
The beauty of cartoons and comic strips is that the characters never age. We don’t have to see Calvin grow up like some weird childhood TV star who becomes awkward and gangly before our eyes. He’s always a kid and Hobbes is always the companion on his magical adventures. That’s what we want.
No one wants to see a painting of a totally bald, pudgy 40-year-old Charlie Brown tearing up while looking at an old, weathered photo of his long-dead dog Snoopy. So why should a grown up Calvin looking at a cobweb-covered Hobbes that has been sitting in a box for a decade or two while Calvin smoked pot and felt up girls in his grungy, childhood-free room be acceptable?
Of course, “Calvin” in the photo isn’t really Calvin. He’s meant to be a surrogate for the viewer. We are the ones who have grown up and left our childhood behind. And maybe if the image had been of Craig Mahoney discovering a weathered Calvin and Hobbes strip collection, then a second panel where a younger Mahoney and Hobbes read the collection together, it would have felt more, um, homagy. But the current version just feels like he’s doing something that he shouldn’t with a character that doesn’t belong to him.
And I think that’s what bothers me the most. Bill Watterson could have made millions of dollars licensing Hobbes dolls and selling them to kids. He could have continued his strip on in perpetuity – farming it out to other writers or artists while collecting fat royalty checks. He could have authorized Calvin and Hobbes movies or Saturday morning cartoons. In short – he could have gone the Garfield route.
He wouldn’t have been wrong for doing that. These are his characters. He is free to do whatever he wants with them. But what Watterson chose was to end his strip while it was on top and to never whore out his characters with lucrative licensing deals. He’s living quietly off the grid somewhere now content with the way he left things.
I just wish we could all respect his wishes for his intellectual property. But instead, unlicensed bumper stickers featuring a knock off Calvin peeing on things pop up all over the place and unlicensed Hobbes dolls litter Etsy. And, regardless of his intent, this painting by Mahoney just feels like another case of someone else cashing in on Watterson’s hard work.
And it just leaves me feeling icky inside.
But if the work touches you or convinces you to go back and reread some old Calvin and Hobbes strips, feel free to simply shake your head at this column and to go about your day.
All I’m really asking, for the love of God, is that you just stop forwarding the link to me.
Joel Murphy is the creator of HoboTrashcan, which is probably why he has his own column. He loves pugs, hates Jimmy Fallon and has an irrational fear of robots. Follow Joel on Twitter @FreeMisterClark or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.