College-Era Comics from Bill Watterson

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Image credit: 
C.H. PETE COPELAND/The Plain Dealer/Landov

Note: This post originally appeared in October 2007.

Bill Watterson (pictured above in 1986) went to my college. Not with me, mind you; I graduated from Kenyon College, a cozy liberal arts enclave in Ohio, in 2001—Watterson, famous for creating the world's best comic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, preceded me by nearly twenty years. We've matriculated minor presidents (Rutherford B. Hayes), legendary poets (Robert Lowell), great scientists (Carl Djerassi, who developed the first oral contraceptive pill) and even some famous flossers (John Green). But perhaps no alumnus is as vaunted, especially by my generation, who grew up on Hobbes, as cartoonist Bill Watterson.

The oldest private college in Ohio, Kenyon isn't a place where change comes fast. So my college experience shared a lot of DNA with Watterson's: many of the same teachers and traditions from 1980 remained in 2000, and I instantly recognize our alma mater in the cartoons Watterson drew for the yearbook and the school newspaper, The Collegian, when he was a student. Lucky for Watterson fans everywhere, a contemporary of his scanned and posted some of these rare early works, which can be found here.

Allow me to contextualize a few of them.

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caples.jpgNine stories tall, Kenyon's Caples residence hall is the highest, and quite possibly the ugliest, building in rural Knox County, Ohio. It's an architectural anomaly in the Soviet-bloc style amidst a campus filled with graceful 19th-century buildings, and its warrens of tiny, freezing rooms are arranged around depressing, windowless common areas (known somewhat aspirationally as "suites"). February at Kenyon can indeed be depressing, especially if you've been sentenced by the Housing Office to spend it in Caples -- as the subject of this comic has. (By the way, fans of Hobbes will recognize this guy as an early version of Calvin's dad, who we can be fairly certain was meant to resemble Watterson himself.)

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Surrounded by miles of rolling cornfields and rural hamlets, coming to Kenyon could be a shock for students from big cities. ("What do people do?" "Where do you buy light bulbs and socks?" "Will hillbillies kill us?") They either transferred before the first semester was over, or became, as my friends and I did, converts to the countryside. As charming as our campus was, the lure of an idyllic bike ride down to the Kokosing river was a siren song that often overwhelmed the responsibilities of classwork -- especially on perfect Spring days like the one pictured above.

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I feel this one; ten months after graduation, I was working as a mortgage loan processor in a positively Orwellian corporate center in Beaverton, Oregon. Not exactly what I had in mind for my future as I was writing my English literature thesis (Faith and the Postmodern Awakening, if you must know). Kenyon tries to be sensitive to the plight of their many liberal arts grads (English is by far the most popular major), offering seminars with titles like "What can you do with an art history major?" (The answer? Teach art history!)

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The joke's not a gut-buster, but anyone who's been to Kenyon can name the landmark the ashamed student is about to pass though: the "Gates of Hell." A set of stone pillars which bisect the campus between its north and south halves, the Gates have a freaky lore and legacy all their own. From this month's Alumni Bulletin:

It is said that writer Anthony Burgess, who spoke on campus during the late seventies, later appeared on the Phil Donahue Show and told a national audience that Kenyon College was home to the Gates of Hell and the most intense evil energy that he had ever experienced. Hearing about this, the College requested a videotape of the show, but when it arrived there was no mention of evil at Kenyon, or of any hellish gates. Some cite this "excision" as eerily suggestive in itself. Others scoff, raising the obvious question of whether Burgess ever said any such thing at all. There are other tales. According to one, it was a psychic who identified Gambier as home to the Gates of Hell. Another insists that the evil portal is actually the old gated entrance to the Bishop's House, in the densely wooded lower reaches of Brooklyn Street. Whatever the case, superstitions have grown up around the gates. Some say that you shouldn't walk between the gates when the bells in the Church of the Holy Spirit are chiming midnight, or you might be transported to Hell itself.

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Now go read our interview with Watterson, which appears in the December 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine!

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October 26, 2007 - 6:05am
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