by Jochen Markhorst
V Mom says the pills must be working
Well I knew when I first laid eyes on her I could never be free One look at her and I knew right away She should always be with me Well the dream dried up a long time ago Don’t know where it is anymore True to life, true to me Was the girl from the red river shore
Calvin and Hobbes, the brilliant comic strip by Bill Waterson, is one of the best and most successful newspaper comics of the twentieth century. Graphically often small masterpieces (Waterson had to fight for a long time to be allowed to deviate from the standard, obligatory panel format), infectious humour – as often hilarious as it is sardonic and moving – great acting by all the characters both mimically and in terms of body language, and a wealth of highly quotable, intelligent one-liners (“A good artist’s statement says more than his art ever does”).
Calvin has his adventures with his great friend Hobbes, a stuffed tiger who is only in Calvin’s imagination a real tiger – well, a real anthropomorphic tiger, anyway. Bill Waterson does view this plot-driving feature in a more nuanced way, though:
“The so-called “gimmick” of my strip — the two versions of Hobbes — is sometimes misunderstood. I don’t think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin’s around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin’s imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that’s how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.”
… in which Waterson seems to get a bit caught up in his apparent, and understandable, desire to be the authority on Calvin and Hobbes; he argues rather cumbersomely that Calvin has his own version of reality, which is different from “everyone else’s” reality. Which, of course, is a rather laborious way of saying “vivid imagination”. Or, less innocently: “hallucinations”. Waterson has, after all, already opened Schrödinger’s box, and is past the point where he could claim that Hobbes can be simultaneously both alive and not-alive.
On 31 December 1995, ten years after the launch date, the very last Calvin and Hobbes appears, to the chagrin of millions of fans. It is an open ending. A melancholy, moody Sunday comic strip in colour, in which Calvin and Hobbes sled down the hill in the last panel, while Calvin exclaims: “Let’s go exploring!”
“I believe I’ve done what I can do within the constraints of daily deadlines and small panels,” Waterson writes in his farewell letter, and he never changes his mind.
The loss and the emptiness are still felt today and are countered by dozens of rip-offs, copies, unofficial continuations and loving fan-art. All build on the “gimmick” that Hobbes exists only in Calvin’s imagination. The best, and usually most respectful rip-offs try to provide the series with a “real”, closed ending. And the most successful of these is from an anonymous artist who uses a classic staging. Calvin is sitting at the kitchen table doing his homework. Hobbes is surprised. “You’re working on your report already? It’s not due til Tuesday!” “Yeah, I know,” says Calvin, without looking up, “Mom says the pills must be working.” It’s snowing, says Hobbes, “and I thought, maybe… we could…” Now Calvin looks up for a moment. “Sorry, what? I wasn’t listening. I really have to finish this.” In the last picture, Hobbes is a stuffed tiger and Calvin is at work. In contrast to the three colourful ones before it, the panel is entirely in shades of grey.
But most artistic fans choose the “years later” variant, in which an adult Calvin holds his old stuffed tiger, wistfully realising that the dream dried up a long time ago.
The third stanza of “Red River Shore” seems to give away where the songwriter wanted to go with his song. “Dream”, “True to me”… a narrator who, looking back, misses his imaginary lover, his hallucination perhaps. And it is fitting that the songwriter paves the way there with clichés, paraphrases and nods to old folksongs, those old songs full of legend, myth, bible and ghosts, as Dylan says in an interview – after all, he wants to express the melancholy of the man who longs for something he never had.
In previous stanzas we have heard echoes of “John Hardy” and “Buffalo Gals”, the old “Red River Shore” and “Bonnie Woods” and “Mary” and whatnot, and here in this third stanza the songwriter persists; slaloming along fragments of mainly country classics, it seems. Hank Williams’ “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw” and “Howlin’ at the Moon”, Charley Pride’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling”, Peggy Lee’s “My Heart Stood Still”, Marty Robbins… with a bit of cutting and pasting, the entire third verse, with its ingrained word combinations like “one look at you”, “I could never be free” and “I knew right away”, can be constructed from the country section in Dylan’s jukebox. With a short turn to Warren Zevon, whom Dylan admired: from the first time I laid eyes on her I knew that she’d be mine from “Jeannie Needs A Shooter”, another “New River Shore”-like song about a fatal crush on a girl whose trigger-happy father keeps the narrator violently away from his daughter…
The bard ignores a characterological problem along the way. The romantic, swooning I knew when I first laid eyes on her I could never be free is followed by the slightly threatening, stalkerish One look at her and I knew right away she should always be with me. In keeping with the tone and character of the narrator, of course it should have been: I should always be with her. But then, that doesn’t rhyme. And you want your songs to sound good.
The suggestion that the narrator is now beginning to realise that his memories of the Girl from the Red River Shore seem to be constructed memories, memories of a fantasised time with an imaginary pretty girl, is first suggested by the ambiguous the dream dried up a long time ago. The admission that he doesn’t even know where it is anymore reinforces that suggestion, and the wistful true to life, true to me seems to seal it. “True to me” is clear enough, and “true to life” is a remarkable choice of words. “True to life”, not “true to facts”, that is. Dylan himself uses the phrase several times in interviews as well as in his autobiography Chronicles, and always to express the power of folk music. To explain the magic of “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill”, for example, and less specific about folk music in general:
“It was so real, so more true to life than life itself. It was life magnified. Folk music was all I needed to exist.”
… which, coincidentally probably, is also very similar to the words with which Odysseus praises the song of the blind bard Demodocus: “Surely the Muse has taught you, Zeus’s daughter, or god Apollo himself. How true to life, all too true …” (in the translation by Fagles, 1996).
Odysseus cannot hold back his tears when he hears Demodocus singing about the past. Dylan’s narrator is not far off either.
To be continued. Next up: Red River Shore part 6: Misery is but the shadow of happiness
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang