Monday, December 26, 2005

A tiger trap baited with a tuna fish sandwich

Every Christmas, the people who love me (and there are more of those than one might suppose, given my antisocial nature) always display generosity far in excess of what I deserve (several choice limps of the proverbial coal). This Christmas was no exception.

By far the weightiest gift I received this year — as well as the most welcome, after the shrine to my Jeopardy! career KJ built for me and my towering ego — is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, a three-volume compilation of every panel in the ten-year history of Bill Watterson's legendary comic strip. I'm perhaps one-tenth of the way through the first volume, and I have yet to hit on a page where at least one of the strips didn't make me laugh out loud.

The packaging of this long-awaited archival set leaves quite a bit to be desired, however. By limiting the set to three hardcover volumes — encompassing a total of 3,160 individual comic strips — Andrews McMeel Publishing guaranteed that the books would be massive, unwieldy, and inordinately complicated to simply sit and page through. Since the whole set, including the storage slipcase, checks in at a lumbering 23 pounds (and, due to the rock-hard covers, feels like twice that), each of the three volumes weighs in excess of seven pounds — quite a load for one's lap.

Would it really have been that much more involved to spread the set into seven or eight books, and make each volume a size the reader could more easily handle? For that matter, would it have cost that much more to actually print the cover illustrations on the covers, rather than using paper paste-ons that don't appear destined to withstand the test of time and handling?

These quibbles aside, the content of the set is simply glorious. The notoriously reticent Watterson penned a fresh, informative, and remarkably self-effacing new introduction that perfectly places Calvin and Hobbes in their appropriate cultural and historical setting. And the strips themselves, of course, are sheer genius. Only Walt Kelly (Pogo) and Charles Schulz (Peanuts) stand as equals to Watterson (not surprisingly, they're his two greatest influences), and both Kelly and Schulz gave themselves a lot longer to get it right (and, at least in Schulz's case, somewhat overstay their welcome).

According to Amazon, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is already headed for a second printing, due out in April. Your local Costco, however, may still have a few copies of the first edition, at the bargain price of $85 (the MSRP is $150). If Santa didn't bring you your own set, it's well worth searching out.

Tell them Spaceman Spiff sent you.

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