The Church of Bill Watterson
The Mysteries finds humanity exactly where the Calvin and Hobbes impresario wants it: Cowering before certain annihilation.
The Mysteries, Bill Watterson and John Kascht, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 72 pages
Several months ago, I wrote in these pages a long biographical piece about Bill Watterson and why he quit Calvin and Hobbes. I had originally intended the essay to be a review, more or less, of The Mysteries, Watterson’s first original book since 1996. But owing to the withholding nature of his publisher and the grinding schedule of The American Conservative, days before my deadline I was left with a nonexistent book by a man famous for a singular disappearing act.
In panic, I ransacked my notes for something usable. I found that I had both too little and too much background research to handle the piece properly. So I followed the advice which Lytton Strachey gave to biographers in that unenviable position: I rowed out over my great ocean of material, and lowered down into it, here and there, a little bucket, hoping to bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen from those far depths to be examined with a careful curiosity. I found the catch satisfying, if incomplete.
In any case, the book did eventually arrive—last week. I’m glad I didn’t see it before I wrote the essay. Without the book, I, like most everyone else who has written about Watterson, was forced to reckon with his silence, to treat him as if he were a dead man who has passed into blank nothingness. And if The Mysteries is any guide, that’s exactly how Bill Watterson wants to be treated.
The book is short, less than 400 words long. It’s a social parable of the sort James Thurber often wrote after he went completely blind. The text is by Watterson, but most of the illustration work is by the caricaturist John Kascht. (Watterson contributed the backgrounds: forests, cityscapes, art galleries, and the like.) Kascht’s people, as anyone who has seen his work at the National Portrait Gallery already knows, are grotesque: clay-like medieval figures who appear to have been derived from the artist’s reading of A World Lit Only by Fire. When paired with Watterson’s painterly landscapes, the effect is that of a stop motion film.
The story—if it can be called that—is this: Sometime in the Middle Ages, a frightened and suspicious people built a walled city to protect themselves from the Mysteries, which lived in a dark forest. These were reputed to have “bizarre and terrifying powers” and they regularly visited unexplained calamities on the people. But, one day, the king sent his knights out to capture a Mystery, and, when at last a knight returned with one in tow, everyone was surprised by its ordinariness. “Once understood, its powers were not all that remarkable,” Watterson writes. “And over time, each new Mystery they discovered was even less impressive.”
This is a rather sardonic gloss on the Scientific Revolution, and as the story moves on, Watterson only intensifies his criticism of progress. It is a great subject of his. Ever since he was a child, Watterson has held a reverence for the natural world and a hatred for anything that threatens it. When he was growing up in suburban Cleveland, he lived in a house which backed up to an undeveloped forest, which he loved because it was “a bit wild and mysterious and beautiful.” These days, the forest has been paved over. “Looking at a cul-de-sac of McMansions doesn’t have the same impact on the imagination,” he admits, with more than a little bitterness.
Now he gets his revenge. As more Mysteries are discovered, soon the people’s fear and wonder give way to laughing and mockery. Sprawling cities are built in place of the old fortresses and everywhere there is a general feeling that human beings are at last masters of the natural world. But all the while, in a clever artistic choice, Kascht still dresses his people in their ragged peasant clothes, suggesting, perhaps, that even though many people today live in gleaming cities and surround themselves with luxury goods, we are no more dignified than our ancestors.
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The story ends when at last the natural world reasserts its power over the people. The sky turns strange colors; the ground quakes; and the animals flee to the far corners of the earth. Only when it is too late do the people begin to worry. And then, they too disappear. “Time moved on,” Watterson writes. “Centuries passed. Eons passed. The universe continued as usual. And the Mysteries lived happily ever after.”
These last five sentences take up the last four pages of the book. On each page there is a stark illustration of the moon and desert planets or the stars of a distant galaxy, bright lights shining for no one at all. This is the purest expression of Watterson’s work and beliefs. After Calvin and Hobbes, he abandoned comics for painting, mostly of the American Southwest. Here, finally, he found a landscape whose massive scale annihilated his own fears, desires, and longings by the simple fact of its overawing vastness.
“You’re reminded that we’re on a planet, that we’re just little specks, and Nature will kill you if you’re stupid,” Watterson once said of these desert scenes. “Somehow I find all that deeply comforting. That’s my church.”