- The Mysteries by Bill Watterson and John Kascht is a captivating book with stunning artwork that is worth multiple perusals.
- The left pages feature simple, sage-like writing, while the right pages showcase Kascht’s intricate, handmade, three-dimensional artworks.
- The book explores the theme of mystery and embraces purposeful vagueness, allowing readers to project their own interpretations onto the artwork.
On December 31, 1995, having decided that he had done all he could within the medium, Bill Watterson brought his 10-year run of Calvin and Hobbes to a graceful conclusion. It’s a strip at once both incredibly optimistic, embodying the wide-eyed enthusiasm of its main character, Calvin, and a bittersweet coda for those who had dutifully thumbed right to the funny pages for years. The final strip is a masterful goodbye: the bottom half of the piece sets a square frame within a larger rectangular panel. In the square, Calvin looks at his best friend, Hobbes, saying, “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…” In the larger panel, off to the far right, Calvin and Hobbes are barreling full-tilt down a snowy hill. Calvin continues: “…Let’s go exploring!” As the two best friends sled off into the great unknown, the feeling that lingers, that had been a crucial staple of the strip for its entire lifespan, is one of embracing the conundrums and paradoxes of life.
Now, we have The Mysteries (Andrews McMeel Publishing). Watterson has returned with an all-new story and a formidable collaborator in the artist John Kascht – whose keenly crafted caricatures have graced the pages of nearly every major American magazine, from GQ to The New Yorker to Rolling Stone and beyond.
Through a combatative and alchemical collaboration detailed in a promotional video about making The Mysteries, Watterson and Kascht each had to move beyond their well-honed techniques and careers as devout soloists. This is the sort of book that could only come about as the result of two talented artists abandoning their trademark stylings for a frictive process that would bring about something startlingly unlike what either artist would produce on their own.
For most of its pages, The Mysteries keeps readers at a distance. Throughout the book, the left pages feature simple, unadorned text. The writing is terse, with nary a whiff of whimsy, adopting a sage-like tone of weighted simplicity. It’s a story that could be told around a fire or something that would be unearthed at an unknown interval.
The pages on the right are for the artwork. For many, The Mysteries‘ stunning imagery will be the primary draw and warrant multiple perusals. It’s astonishing. Watterson and Kascht developed a method that highlights Kascht’s handmade, three-dimensional pieces (crafted from various materials, including cardboard, clay, paint, and adhesives) and the fastidious craftsmanship of forced-perspective multimedia collages. As for Watterson’s part, the exact distribution of labor is unclear. However, there is nothing here that anyone would connect with the artist’s predilection for stubby fingers and loose lines that conveyed just the right amount of vitality in Calvin and Hobbes.
While the reading might be quick and almost endearingly simple in its premise, the artwork provides ample material for poring over. Each square appears like a half-remembered vision of childhood storybooks. (The works of Mark Buehner come to mind.) The shapes emerge from the charcoal darkness, characters who seem plucked from a claymation rendition of a medieval tale. The chiaroscuro compositions have complex staging and great dimensionality. Each carefully chosen blemish draws attention to the painstaking artistry that went into these oneiric images.
In a sense, The Mysteries is a continuation of Watterson’s work on Calvin and Hobbes. It’s a story about one of life’s essential qualities: mystery. To that end, the book’s execution embraces that idea wholesale. There are no named figures to cling to and no explanation for how the medieval world collides quite suddenly with modernity and frappuccinos. While the artwork remains simultaneously opaque and inviting, the message couldn’t be more explicit about the state of the world, where it’s headed, and how it might possibly ring out into a universe that is indifferent to our existence.
Regarding the “adult fable” idea, there is nothing a reasonable adult would not already have considered through their ponderings about their place in the grand scheme of things. The thing about purposeful vagueness is that it’s designed to have as much projection put upon it as possible. Some readers might see a transmission akin to Klaatu’s message to a death-driven Earth; others might see the politically agitated state of hypermodernity and its effects on our collective psyche. Whatever the individual prerogative, there is nothing particularly illuminating about the words despite their air of wisdom. The real reason to check out The Mysteries is that the artwork is breathtaking and can speak for itself.
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