Bill Watterson, creator of the beloved comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, is notoriously private. Since he retired in 1995, he has given so few interviews that his latest one, for Mental Floss in 2013, shocked even that magazine’s editor in chief. Few writers mention Watterson’s name without the adjective “reclusive” immediately prior. When he collaborated with Stephan Pastis for a week of Pearls Before Swine, Pastis dubbed him the “Bigfoot of cartooning.” On top of all that, Watterson hates merchandizing: he’s considered licensing his creation, but says he couldn’t find a product that didn’t “violate the spirit of the strip” or “contradict its message.”
So when I realized that a mash-up artist who blends Calvin & Hobbes with the sci-fi classic Dune had gotten explicit permission to reimagine the Calvin & Hobbes legacy, I knew I had to learn more.
The creator, a graduate student in the UK, goes merely by Joe—presumably keeping his cartooning side-hobby separate from his academic career. His first began his project in early 2012, sharing strips with his friends for fun before starting up a Tumblr account, Calvin & Muad’Dib, later in the year.
Here at Barnes and Noble, we’re fans of Dune—we ran an entire series on it for its 50th anniversary last year—and even though Dune and Calvin & Hobbes are clearly different, they share several traits. They’re both deeply philosophical, concerned with issues of humanity, nature, and life. And they both have an distinct, unmistakable style: Dune is solemn and unflinching, while Calvin & Hobbes undercuts its nihilism and loneliness with a suburban setting, a six-year-old’s imagination, and frequent punchlines.
When a grandiloquent phrase from Dune is paired with Watterson’s whimsical art, there is no punchline. The result feels almost like an anti-joke, a la the similarly tweaked comic Garfield Minus Garfield; the text rarely fails to breathe new life into the art. The connection between the two might be hilariously literal, as when Calvin says that “when the box opens, I return to this presence like a stranger in a primitive land” while flying in an actual cardboard box over a prehistoric jungle; It might be a sharp contrast, as when Calvin claims to have “achieved everything” while staring at a model plane he has just destroyed; or the connection may simply be poignant.
“I’ve read all the content published under both works of art, but like any fan of a great discontinued series, I crave more,” Joe explained to me. “I continually search for ways to continue enjoying them and one result of that searching was the creation of my Calvin & Muad’Dib comics—or Calvin & Dune as it’s more often called. I can tell you that my enjoyment of the Dune series has never been higher: hours and hours of flipping through the Dune books looking for suitable quotes allows me to experience Frank Herbert’s universe in a novel way. Similarly, having a reason to look back through the Calvin & Hobbes strips gives me a good chuckle or two at Calvin’s antics as I look for good panels to use for my chosen quote.”
Joe’s method of blending the creations reveals how seriously he takes a project some might shrug off as an exercise in copying and pasting. First, he finds an enjoyable quote from one of Frank Herbert’s six Dune books. He then turns to Calvin & Hobbes. For many comics, he combines panels from multiple strips. The result is an often sober morality play, as enacted with characteristic Watterson goofiness.
Calvin & Muad’Dib picked up international attention after a shout-out from io9 in September of 2014, and this attention led to an immediate DMC takedown. But unlike most bloggers, Joe lawyered up.
“I did this because it was clear that I wasn’t profiting in any way from Calvin and Hobbes,” Joe says. “There were no advertisements on my blog, nor did I sell or intend to sell any merchandise or even ask for donations. I felt I had a solid ground to defend myself, and I also happen to believe that most DMCA takedowns are inherently unjust due to the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ nature of DMCA.”
Joe entered into talks with the lawyers of Calvin & Hobbes’ publisher. Though he never spoke directly to Watterson, he did succeed in his goal: Calvin & Muad’Dib went back up six months later, in February of 2014.
“We worked out a licensing deal where I could continue to make comics in the way I intended, and the Calvin & Hobbes lawyers could be ensured that abuse of Bill Watterson’s original works would not occur,” Joe says of the discussion. Every comic on his site now comes with a reminder that the mash-up is legit: “Calvin and Hobbes: © and ™ Bill Watterson, used with permission.”
Joe also shed some light on the differences between the two series: “I would actually say there’s few connections or similarities between them due to their different approaches. The philosophy in Calvin & Hobbes is a lot more down-to-earth compared to Dune, and deals more with relatable issues, such as cultural commentaries of commercialization, personal happiness, and priorities in life. Dune focuses a lot more on the big picture stuff like society, cultural movements, and religion. So although they are quite different I believe they can be complimentary, which is a point I try to tease out in my comics. The biggest similarity I’ve found between the two works is that both Watterson and Herbert share a similar message they try to communicate: live life to its full potential.”
Updates can be slow now that low-hanging fruit like “fear is the mind-killer” is all used up, but fans of sci-fi and webcomics shouldn’t kill their own minds about Calvin & Muad’Dib’s future: Joe plans to continue indefinitely, cultivating his tiny corner of internet weirdness to its full potential.