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Final Fire

One midnight forty years ago I faced a pack of wild dogs howling down the cobbled street of a small Mexican pueblo. I knew the wild dogs of Mexico well. Individually they were scrawny, sulking curs -- collectively they were brutal and brave -- canine killers. And this pack had sensed a prey -- the terrified sixty-pound jaguar that had just leaped to my shoulders. Madre de Dios! The tiger and I were in trouble once again.

I had spent several years working on an archaeological survey crew exploring the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. We were quite a mix – a bitter Cuban, a La Jolla millionaire, an aging surfer, a Carolina professor, their families and me, the solitary Canadian. We’d roll into the isolated settlements along the coastal plain, park our jeeps, show our papers to the mayores and inquire about artifacts.  The villagers would show us the Pre-Columbian pot sherds and plates they’d ploughed up in their fields or stumbled on in caves. Occasionally a campesino would show up carrying a magnificent burial urn. These always bore a carefully sculpted effigy – of a god, a bird, or beast. Country people always named these urns for the creature they depicted.

In one tiny hamlet fronting an enormous brackish lagoon the news of our purpose had arrived a head of us. The locals were waiting with their string bags bulging with the handwork of history. We carefully inspected everything, identified the owners and made appointments to visit the region’s tombs and ruins that had given up the treasures.  When we’d finished interviewing everyone only a small boy and his baby sister remained. He approached me shyly and whispered , “My father has a tigre.”

Now, a Oaxacan jaguar effigy urn is among the most magnificent of all pre-Columbian artifacts – and among the scarcest. This was a pot I had to see. I arranged to visit the boy’s father, a butcher, the following day.

We made many site visits after the next day’s sunrise, driving deep into the thorn forest and hiking high into the hills. It was dusk when we finally returned to our camp outside the village. While my colleagues prepared supper I set off to find the butcher and his boy. Their shop fronted a cart-track that was the hamlet’s only street. I was led behind the building to a hardpan courtyard where the tiger pot was kept.  A little kitten on a rope cowered in a corner. It turned out to be the tiger.

As I crouched down to inspect that animal I realized it was no ordinary kitten. It had very heavy legs, large feet and enormous eyes set in a big square head. Much of its coat had fallen out but where it hadn’t I could see that it was spotted like a leopard. Its very long tail was ringed with stripes of gold and jet. It was potentially a spectacular little beast but clearly one that was very ill.

The butcher had recently shot its mother in the mountains. Her pelt had fetched a peso bonanza that encouraged him to return for her kits with the intention of raising them to adulthood for slaughter and sale as well. However, his shop meat was far too precious to share with small wild things so he’d fed them only water and stale tortillas.  One by one the little carnivores had died of malnutrition. I was looking at the sole survivor and it was truly a mangy little tragedy.

Sometimes we put our hearts before our heads and do dumb things. I began to negotiate for that little cat and so three mescals and twenty dollars later I was the owner of a baby wild cat. And a lot of trouble.

The lagoon had been the last stop of our field season. We were soon packed and on our way up the coastal sierra and on to distant Oaxaca where we’d have real beds after months of hammocks, and beer with real dinners instead of water and endless beans with rice. As I drove our Jeep through hours of mountain switchbacks toward the city the little tigre yowled in a crate at my feet.

In town we began a season of lab work on regular office hours. At day’s end I’d walk down to Oaxaca’s enormous market and negotiate for offal and leftovers to feed my little cat. He grew quickly. His eyes brightened and his coat began to grow in. Soon I had a magnificent animal with long strong legs, a sturdy square chest and a most handsome face. And his huge dark eyes got bigger and bigger. In no time he had grown to the size of a large dog and was ready for walks with a collar and chain. If we went down into the city centre the pedestrian traffic on the wide walkways of the Zócalo would part like the Red Sea. The locals found him absolutely terrifying. “Tigre,  jaguar, marguay, ocelot,” they’d whisper. I never did figure out which of a half dozen possible species he was.

Tigre lived in my apartment on a hundred feet of chain. He’d wander around the furniture, weaving in and out until he was finally jerked to a stop by the end of his tether. At this point a dog would have sat there and whimpered until its owner obligingly untangled the mess and the cycle could begin again. Tigre would simply turn around, retrace his steps and liberate the hundred feet. He was a very, very, intelligent animal.

He was also still a kitten. Sometimes I’d be walking through my living room and a yard-long furry arm would sweep out from beneath a chair and down me on the flagstone floor -- playful kitty. He also enjoyed leaping onto the kitchen counters so he could plow through the piles of dishes, cups and glasses until everything lay shattered on the floor. I bought replacements in bulk. But whenever I got so desperate that I was ready to release him in the mountains he’d crawl into bed with me, cozy up and begin a purr that came from that place way down where the daily earthquakes that shook the valley of Oaxaca were born. This was a pet with a woofer.

He was also a wild animal. He loved being outside and so when I was home I’d tie him to a tree in my courtyard so that he could explore the garden. Tigre eventually grew strong enough to sever his chain. He made a few breaks for the mountains and more than once was gone for several days. But he always returned. At night you’d hear him on the roof or calling from a tree.  He was proud – he never came when you called him home but he made sure that you could see him and reach the short length of chain that remained hooked to his collar.  I’d gently pull him down and he’d slip through the door ahead of me. In no time he’d join me in bed with his earthquake twenty-cycle-rumble. Once again we’d have forgiven each other.

However as Tigre got bigger life with him got harder. One day a visit to the market had yielded a whole heart from a bull. I carried it home, a heavy brown-paper-wrapped bundle the size of a volley ball. Upon entering the apartment I set it on the counter of the kitchen just outside my bedroom that had a bathroom at the back. I rushed in there to pee. When I tried to reenter the kitchen I was confronted by a jaguar, a lion and a sabre-toothed tiger. The Tigre had a kill and until it was consumed no creature was going to pass. A bull has a very large heart. The Tigre kept me prisoner in my bedroom for 24 hours. When he finally finished and fell asleep I slipped out and shortened his chain. We were finished. That midnight I led him up the cobbled road to San Filipe and freedom in the mountains. But then those wild dogs came and came and came.

As Tigre trembled on my shoulders I began pulling cut-stones from the road. When the wild dogs leapt at me I’d split their skulls to save us both. Yet even with their brains spilling from their crainial cups and eyeballs dangling those dogs kept coming, growling, leaping, tearing. However, finally their losses were greater than ours and Tigre and I were able to beat a bloodied retreat for home. Our time together was not yet over.

Some months later I returned permanently to Canada without the tiger. But cats remained central to my life. My partner loved them. At what was the nadir for me there were eighteen cats sharing our apartment. The place stank. It was insane but despite the undifferentiated kitten chaos I still managed to find some favourites. Max, a pearl gray long-hair, often kept me company. He was always dirty and disheveled but one day he begged to be admitted to my darkroom where he began to clean himself up for the very first time. As I worked a long shift making production prints Max sat under the yellow safelight washing and grooming for at least a dozen hours. Then he jumped down, nuzzled my legs and cried at the darkroom’s back door that gave out to a fire escape. He’d always been an indoor cat so I endured more than an hour of his insistence before opening the door. Max strutted out into the world in his fancy new suit. I never saw him again. I still miss him.

And the Tigre? Well, some months after that encounter with the dogs I met an American artist traveling Mexico on a Guggenheim. He’d done some drawings in Chiapas that I loved. He in turn loved the Tigre and often drew him. We finally affected a trade. I got a handful of pictures and Tigre retired to Florida, a location that I’m confident pleased him more than the icy streets of Toronto could have. When I look back I realize that the Tigretaught me an important life lesson – a wild animal is a wild animal is a wild animal.

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Let’s Go Exploring

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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