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Who Killed Tom Thomson?

Who Killed Tom Thomson?

The Truth about the Murder of One of the 20th Century's Most Famous Artists
edition:Hardcover
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Let’s Go Exploring
Excerpt

I now know there wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy about my experience with the strip. For a certain kind of kid in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—reasonably intelligent, prone to daydreaming, alternately curious and skeptical about this adult world their parents only gave them occasional glimpses of—Calvin and Hobbes was a revelation. It was a strip about childhood, written in large part for children, that never condescended to them about it; even if the people in Calvin’s family didn’t appreciate or respect the finer points of his inner life, Watterson always did. And despite Calvin being a middle-class white kid living in middle America, his interests and concerns were more universal than that. Every kid who read the strip dreamed of having a best friend like Hobbes, and also saw a bit of themselves—maybe more than they’d like to admit—in Calvin himself. I was no different. Reading the strip felt like a secret message was being passed through the newspaper each morning, one that only I was able to decode. Perhaps the strip’s greatest virtue was being able to forge that same personal connection with so many readers at once, all around the world. The effect Calvin and Hobbes had on me was significant on a personal level, and yet completely ordinary.

At the same time, that ordinariness is exactly why the strip matters: not because it hit home for one kid, but because it did so to millions of them. And for an entire generation of artists, writers, and other creative types, Calvin and Hobbes isn’t just a reference point. It’s part of their origin stories. Watterson’s strip was one of the catalysts that gave them permission to follow their imaginations into whatever weird, tiger-infested corner they could uncover.

That isn’t to say that kids are perfect readers, of course. I certainly wasn’t. For instance, while religiously reading and re-reading those Calvin and Hobbesbook collections, I had no inkling that, behind the scenes, Watterson was having a series of tense standoffs with his publishing syndicate about creative control—or that those grievances had actually worked themselves out onto the page. At the tail end of the strip’s run, Watterson published The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, an annotated collection of his favourite stories from over the years. But it opens with a series of oddly prickly mini-essays about the perils of licensing, the restrictions of the newspaper format, and the decline of newspaper comics in general. I ran out to buy a copy, then flipped right past these sections, oblivious, in hot pursuit of the parts where Watterson talked about Calvinball. Only now, looking back, do I really see the creative churn going on in the background, which fuelled many of the strip’s greatest achievements, and which ultimately led to its demise.

Again, that response is likely typical among my age group. Even though Calvin and Hobbes has always been a strip about the collision of fantasy and reality, mind and body, and, yes, even art and business, it still worked if all you wanted out of it were those silly drawings of treehouses and alien planets. After all, it was only Calvin’s parents who were in favour of things like nutritious breakfasts and building character—and who in their right mind identified with Calvin’s parents? Reading the Tenth Anniversary Book now, however, I have to admit that choosing between these opposing forces isn’t as easy as it once was. (Calvin’s dad has his charms, doesn’t he?) Regardless of which camp you fall into, it’s obvious in hindsight that the strip was fuelled by these kinds of tension, both on and off the page. It turned out that Watterson’s work tended to improve whenever he was forced to work within restrictions: either the kind dictated by the newspaper format, or the constant pressures exerted by his publisher, who really hoped their star client could be convinced to give up a small amount of creative control in exchange for a line of plush Hobbes dolls and a bus full of cash. But Watterson could not be swayed. He had a vision, and he was going to stick to it, no matter the cost.

This is a book about imagination: its sources, its powers, and, ultimately, its limits. From the beginning, Calvin and Hobbes was built around the inner world of its six-year-old protagonist, and that spirit would define the strip for the next decade. Watterson expertly 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 one that is also tinged with a distant sense of sadness. Calvin’s imagination is the saving grace that makes his childhood bearable. But he has no human friends to speak of, and very little in the way of an adult role model. He is, deep down, a lonely kid. By using his mind as an endless internal playground, Calvin is able to keep that loneliness at bay, and insulate himself from the real world around him. This act of imaginative cocooning is what gave the strip its bittersweet edge, and also what made it such a potent source of nostalgia for readers, especially as time went on. Because we had to grow up, and Calvin didn’t. Each time we return to the strip changed, yet he will forever exist just below the horizon line of adulthood, unburdened by social norms but also completely unaware of all that he’s missing out on.

First, we’ll look at the role of imagination in the strip itself, charting the origins of Calvin and Hobbes from minor characters in a totally different comic to the stars of one of the most beloved strips of its generation. Over the course of two chapters we’ll consider the strip’s meteoric rise, as well as its sudden, painful end. From there, we’ll look at the way C&H fans have tried to use their own imaginations to fill the void the strip left behind—especially since Watterson himself has kept largely out of the public eye. Finally, we’ll look at the strip’s legacies, both accidental and intentional. Watterson’s staunch refusal to merchandize the strip means that there have been no tie-in products to keep the strip alive in mainstream culture. And yet it lives on anyway: through the books, through a wide swath of tributes, imitations, and cameos in other creators’ work, and through one bizarre, and bizarrely popular, bootleg industry.

Now grab a scarf, and hop on this sled. We’ve got some exploring to do.

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Birds Art Life
Excerpt

One winter, not so long ago, I met a musician who loved birds. This musician, who was then in his mid-thirties, had found he could not always cope with the pressures and disappoint­ments of being an artist in a big city. He liked banging away on his piano like Fats Waller but performing and promoting himself made him feel anxious and de­pressed. Very occasionally his depression served him well and allowed him to write lonesome songs of love but most of the time it just ate at him. When he fell in love with birds and began to photograph them, his anxieties dissipated. The sound of birdsong reminded him to look outwards at the world.
 
That was the winter that started early. It snowed end­lessly. I remember a radio host saying: “Global warming? Ha!” It was also the winter I found myself with a broken part. I didn’t know what it was that was broken, only that whatever widget had previously kept me on plan, running fluidly along, no longer worked as it should. I watched those around me who were still successfully carrying on, organizing meals and careers and children. I wanted to be reminded. I had lost the beat.
 
My father had recently suffered two strokes. Twice—when the leaves were still on the trees—he had fallen and been unable to get up. The second fall had been particularly frightening, accompanied by a dangerously high fever brought on by sepsis, and I wasn’t sure he would live. The MRI showed microbleeds, stemming from tiny ruptured blood vessels in my father’s brain.
The same MRI also revealed an unruptured cerebral aneurysm. An “incidental finding,” according to the neurologist, who explained, to our concerned faces, his decision to withhold surgery because of my father’s age.
 
During those autumn months, when my father’s situation was most uncertain, I felt at a loss for words. I did not speak about the beeping of monitors in generic hospital rooms and the rhythmic rattle of orderlies pushing soiled linen basins through the corridors. I did not deliver my thoughts on the cruelty of bed shortages (two days on a gurney in a corridor, a thin blanket to cover his hairless calves and pale feet), the smell of hospital food courts and the strange appeal of waiting room couches—slick vinyl, celery green, and deceptively soft. I did not speak of the relief of coming home late at night to a silent house and filling a tub with water, slipping under the bubbles and closing my eyes, the quiet soapy comfort of being cleaned instead of cleaning, of being a woman condi­tioned to soothe others, now soothed. I did not speak about the sense of incipient loss. I did not know how to think about illness that moved slowly and erratically but that could fell a person in an instant.

I experienced this wordlessness in my life but also on the page. In the moments I found to write, I often fell asleep. The act of wrangling words into sentences into paragraphs into stories made me weary. It seemed an overly complicated, dubious effort. My work now came with a recognition that my father, the person who had instilled in me a love of language, who had led me to the writing life, was losing words rapidly.
 
Even though the worst of the crisis passed quickly, I was afraid to go off duty. I feared that if I looked away, I would not be prepared for the loss to come and it would flatten me. I had inherited from my father (a former war reporter/professional pessimist) the belief that an expectancy of the worst could provide in its own way a ring of protection. We followed the creed of preventive anxiety.
 
It is possible too that I was experiencing something known as anticipatory grief, the mourning that occurs before a certain loss. Anticipatory. Expectatory. Trepi­datory. This grief had a dampness. It did not drench or drown me but it hung in the air like a pallid cloud, thinning but never entirely vanishing. It followed me wherever I went and gradually I grew used to looking at the world through it.
 
I had always assumed grief was experienced purely as a sadness. My received images of grief came from art school and included portraits of keening women, mourners with heads bowed, hands to faces, weeping by candlelight. But anticipatory grief, I was surprised to learn, demanded a different image, a more alert posture. My job was to remain standing or sitting, monitoring all directions continually. Like the women who, according to legend, once paced the railed rooftop platforms of nineteenth-century North American coastal houses, watching the sea for incom­ing ships, hence earning those lookouts the name widow’s walk. I was on the lookout, scouring the horizon from every angle, for doom.

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