From a certain perspective, 1995 was the year newspaper comic strips died.
Of course, that isn't true in a literal sense. If you go and pick up a newspaper right now, it will (probably) have a comics page, one that features some intriguing new voices right alongside stalwarts like Garfield and Blondie. And the internet has, in theory, provided the best platform for comic strips ever, even before you consider comics produced exclusively for the web. Hundreds of comic strips and their complete archives are available online, on sites like gocomics.com.
Yet it often feels like newspaper comics' best days are behind them. The slow, protracted agonies of print media have a lot to do with that, as do the wide variety of webcomics being published these days (which, it should be said, are much poorer at providing the average comics artist with a living wage than the newspaper syndicate system is).
But that feeling also stems from the belief that comic strips are trapped forever in the past, where the best, longest-lasting strips are ones that launched in the 1920s or '30s; strips like Hägar the Horrible, which debuted in 1973, are relative new kids on the block.
So the newspaper comic strip died in 1995, because that was when the last two strips that became legitimate pop culture sensations ended their runs, with their respective final strips bookending the year. Their creators followed very different paths to success, and the strips couldn't have been more different in both form and content. But they both rocketed to massive success that hasn't been replicated since. The strips were The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, and comics fans still miss them.
The oddball legacy of The Far Side
Of the two, The Far Side was the stranger beast. When it began in 1980, its single-panel format hadn't been in vogue in the comics pages since at least the 1960s, if not longer, and at the time, the longest-running comics of that type were gentle family humor panels like Dennis the Menace and The Family Circus. Both might have featured a single gag every day, but they also had recurring characters. Far Side didn't even have familiar faces to fall back on.
What it did have was a unique blend of sheer weirdness, scientific curiosity, and dark humor. Creator Gary Larson hadn't wanted to be a cartoonist all his life or anything like that. He simply seized upon drawing jokes as a way to get out of the music store job he hated. (By most accounts, his true passion was jazz guitar.) The Far Side was intended to be a better way to make a living, not the marketing behemoth it became. Larson's comics slowly spread from paper to paper; after publishing locally in his hometown of Seattle, Larson landed a syndication deal via the San Francisco Chronicle. The strip blew up.
A typical Far Side comic shifted the perspective through which the reader might view a common situation. Think, for instance, of the famous strip where a female chimpanzee finds a blonde hair on a male chimpanzee's shoulder and asks if he's been spending more time with that "Goodall tramp." (The strip proved popular with Jane Goodall herself, and later proceeds from it benefited her organization.) It was a familiar situation, the wife accusing the husband of cheating on her, but filtered through the perspective of animals.
Then, in another twist, you have to know a little something extra — namely, who Jane Goodall is — to experience the full effect of the joke. The Far Side was a comic strip for smartypants kids and the adults they grew up to be. If a comic strip's popularity were measured in terms of how many high school and college teachers have ever taped an individual strip to their office doors, The Far Side would be number one of all time.
In marked contrast to Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson, who was famously against the idea, Larson didn't seem to mind very much if his strip was licensed for assorted products. The Far Side page-a-day calendar was so popular that when it was discontinued in 2002 — seven years after the strip concluded — it was still the number one seller by far. Larson reissued it for a one-off 2007 edition, its sales meant to benefit Conservation International, a charity protecting endangered animals; his passion for the environment was one of the few themes unifying many Far Side comics. He also produced greeting cards (discontinued in 2009), T-shirts, and even a TV special.
Larson really only seems gregarious because Watterson was, for so long, so reclusive. But the thing the two men have most in common is their reluctance to talk to press or, really, anyone about their success.
When interviewed in connection with the 2007 calendar by USA Today, Larson refused to sit for or provide a current photo, which would have revealed what he looked like. And he stopped production of the strip simply because it was time. He feared becoming a hack. Exactly 15 years after it began, The Far Side ended, quietly, with a Wizard of Oz gag on January 1, 1995.
The end and everlasting life of Calvin & Hobbes
For as popular as The Far Side was and for as much sorrow as its passing elicited, it was topped by the end of Calvin and Hobbes 364 days later, on December 31, 1995. If The Far Side felt almost sui generis, Calvin and Hobbes felt as if it was simultaneously its own thing and engaged with decades of comics history. As Peanuts had defined the '60s and Doonesbury the '70s and early '80s, Calvin and Hobbes seemed to dominate the late '80s and early '90s. And then, after a couple of lengthy hiatuses, creator Watterson called it quits, to retire to a life of watercolor painting and avoiding interviews.
Childhood (and its messy similarity to adulthood) has always been one of the great themes of the comics page. Calvin and Hobbes took a page from Peanuts itself, spinning tales of a world where the little boy in the title seemed to be at once adult and child. Watterson could use him to muse, philosophically, on the nature of the universe, but he could also use him to talk about how childhood is often a time of painful alienation or utter boredom.
Calvin and Hobbes's masterstroke — and what most connected the strip to its comics page forebears — was the way it depicted Calvin's imaginary landscapes. His stuffed tiger, Hobbes, became his best friend. One of the reasons Watterson resisted licensing for so long was that someone would surely want to produce a stuffed Hobbes, and Watterson would never want to definitively answer the question of Hobbes's reality for his readers.
But Calvin and Hobbes also took readers deep into Calvin's adventures as the sci-fi hero Spaceman Spiff, or into soap opera–style strips when he would play more down-to-earth games of pretend with neighborhood girl Susie Derkins, or into single-comic gags involving, say, Tyrannosaurs in fighter planes.
The most remarkable thing about reading Calvin and Hobbes today is just how alien it feels to the world of 20 years hence. Calvin watches TV, sure, but he doesn't have the internet or a smartphone. And the differences go far beyond technology. His parents let him wander at length in the big woods behind his house, and most of his adventures were enjoyed with minimal adult involvement. Some of this is surely Watterson emulating Peanuts (which eschewed adults altogether, whereas Calvin's parents were two of the strip's most important characters), but just as much of it feels like a kind of childhood that is rapidly dissipating.
If The Far Side's greatest success was in the way its humor contained levels upon levels, then Calvin and Hobbes's greatest triumph was its emotional complexity. Strips could simply be funny, sure, but more often than not, they also captured some elemental loneliness or struggle with maturity. The "story" of Calvin and Hobbes is about how scary the world seems when you're 6 years old — but also how scary it seems when you're 36 years old. Calvin's longing for something else was just as resonant with the strip's elderly fans as it was its childhood fans. That's a balance that only Peanuts really matched in the history of massively popular comic strips.
It's also likely what led to Watterson's decision to hang things up after just a little over 10 years. The balance of tones would have eventually gone wrong (was, arguably, already going a little wrong, as some late strips drifted into a sourness that wasn't as successful). Watterson chose to send Calvin and Hobbes off into a wintry landscape, sledding into those wide open woods, rather than write a definitive "finale." Calvin and Hobbes are, theoretically, still out there, in some Midwestern winter, skidding through the snow, but because of the strip's elegiac quality, they recede a little further from our memory with every year.
The legacy of 1995
The most obvious legacy of both strips ending was that they gave comic strips a new method of bowing out from the funny pages.
Where before a strip would continue with a new artist and writer after the original creator stepped down, it's become much more common for popular ones to simply end when they end. Peanuts went into eternal rerun mode when Charles Schulz died shortly before his final strip was published in 2000, while both For Better or For Worse and Cathy had much more definitive endpoints in 2008 and 2010, respectively.
The legion of comic strip creators who emulate both works has also been substantial, particularly Calvin and Hobbes, which feels as if it has dozens of imitators and unofficial spinoff strips.
Most notable on today's comics pages are Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis, which features some of the same clever, smart-guy humor of Far Side (and actually boasted a few strips partially drawn by Watterson, who has slowly been making a return to semi-public life in recent years); and Lio by Mark Tatulli and the concluded Cul de Sac by Richard Thompson, which both capture some of the same emotional depth of Calvin and Hobbes. On the web, Randall Munroe's xkcd captures some of The Far Side's smartypants sense of humor, while Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowship has its dark absurdity.
Both Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side also live on as their original selves, thanks to printed collections of their entire runs. The Complete Far Side was both the heaviest and most expensive book to ever grace the New York Times bestseller list when it was released in 2003, until it was unseated in both regards by The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, released in 2005.
But it's hard to escape the feeling that when those two ended in 1995, they closed the curtain on one portion of the comic strip's development as an art form. There have been great strips since both closed up shop, but there haven't been great strips that also became national sensations.
The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes are two of the last beacons of the monoculture, when everybody pretty much watched and consumed the same things and had all the same reference points. These days, the world of comic strips is more diverse in both storytelling and form, but something's been lost all the same.