By Bill Watterson and John Kascht
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Bill Watterson is best known for his work on the comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes," which ran in newspapers from 1985 through 1995. Similarly well known for being a recluse, he has kept a low profile since he ended the strip, despite briefly drawing Stephan Pastis's "Pearls Before Swine" and being the subject of the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson. Several years ago, Watterson came up with the concept for The Mysteries and realized he needed to collaborate to bring his idea to fruition. He found illustrator John Kascht and after several years, this book is the result.
Readers who are expecting a continuation of "Calvin and Hobbes" will be disappointed in The Mysteries, however the book is the flip side of the coin to Watterson's cartoon about a boy and his stuffed tiger. While "Calvin and Hobbes" explored the unknowns that surrounded a child who allowed his imagination to go wild, The Mysteries explores the unknowns that surround adults. One of the big differences is that Calvin's unknowns are exciting, rife with potential opportunities in a world where dinosaurs could still exist, transmogrification is possible, and a stuffed animal could come to life, while the closed world of the adults means that the Mysteries that inhabit the world beyond their villages are threatening "others" who need to be understood and tamed.
Through short passages of text and evocative drawings, Watterson and Katsch capture the superstition and fear engendered by the unknown. The decision to use greyscale for their illustrations amplifies the distinction between the known and unknown that causes the underlying tension in The Mysteries and Kascht's artwork provides a sense of isolation in his placement of individual figures, often alone, but even when shown as part of a group. As the society, for aside from the king there are few individual, identifiable characters, comes to terms with turning the mysterious unknowns into knowable entities, other mysteries infiltrate their consciousness, providing new superstitions and fears to be dealt with in a continuing cycle.
In many ways, the theme of The Mysteries is not particularly deep or hidden. The book gains its strength when seen in conjunction with the optimistic view of the unknown that Watterson embraced throughout the decade of Calvin and Hobbes. Interestingly, the reversal of that viewpoint as presented in The Mysteries does not come across as cynical, but rather as cautionary. Humanity in The Mysteries doesn't give in to their superstitions and fears, even as they remain with them. Instead, they seek to understand the world beyond their own circle of light. The unknown may be scary, but it is there to be understood, perhaps even tamed, as a method of moving the human race forward.
In both "Calvin and Hobbes" and The Mysteries, the unknown is a means of encouraging change. In the one case it unleashes the imagination to come up with ways to understand and process the unknown. In the latter case, the unknown offers a puzzle to be solves, understood, and overcome, leading to the next stage of evolution based on fact rather than supposition.
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