As a child, I spent many hours in the summer, after school, before bed, or pretty much any time, rifling through my many well-loved, ratty and frayed Calvin and Hobbes books. The rambunctious yet contemplative Calvin obviously resonated with me, as I pored over the books nonstop for years. I could tell that something about them was greater and more timeless than the hundreds of mediocre comics in the world (Garfield, for instance? Just awful), but it wasn’t until I received the complete Calvin and Hobbes collection a few years ago from my parents (thanks Mom and Dad), that I realized what an amazing piece of art Calvin and Hobbes was and what a positive influence it can be on children.
Bill Watterson is a great American artist who captured something about childhood that not many people, let alone adults, understand, and all kids should read Calvin and Hobbes for its hilarity, beautiful artwork and moral resonance.
First of all, the strip is incredibly well written. Where most comics use each panel to set up the punch-line, in Calvin and Hobbes, the entire strip is a punch-line. The dialogue is witty consistently, and the art and expressions of the characters are always perfect. This, along with Calvin’s many fantasy worlds (Spaceman Spiff, Stupendous Man, Tracer Bullet), is probably what appealed to me as a child.
Stories woven into the strip were always hilarious (the series where Calvin gets a haircut was always a favorite of mine, as were the Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS club—G.R.O.S.S.). Many other aspects of the strip, however, were too subtle or not in my perception at the time, but I can tell still shaped the way I think. These other influences of Calvin and Hobbes are what I think are the most useful parts of the strip.
Looking back, Calvin and Hobbes is in many ways critique of modern media and society through a child’s eyes. It uses the innocence of childhood to make observations about the way we all live and the ways which institutions force us to conform and adhere to the values of society. Calvin is broken and sad by the end of a school day. He is completely out of sync with the world and creates surreal games like Calvinball (no rules, they are made up as the game is played) and surreal environments to live fully through his imagination. He tries in most situations, school for instance, to break into independence, to escape.
No target is spared in Calvin and Hobbes, with the education system, the mass media, politicians, art and consumerism, all mocked perfectly, through the lens of the unwilling and bratty Calvin. He doesn’t want to go to school, study for math, take baths, and why would he? Who wouldn’t rather play outside at age six?
Simultaneously, Calvin has a great wisdom for a six-year-old, with trenchant insights on all aspects of life. Repeated strips deal with Calvin stumbling upon garbage in the woods, or seeing a chopped down forest, or some sort of environmental degredation. A large portion of strips feature Calvin simply talking with Hobbes on a stroll through the woods. Philosophical musings between Calvin and Hobbes also occur on a regular basis, with some heady and heavy material being discussed.
However, Watterson was too savvy an artist to make these strips too preachy, missing out on the point of comic, which is to make you laugh. He artfully combined the philosophical musings with the physical comedy of barreling down a hill in a creaky wagon. These strips inevitably end with the pair marooned in a tree or soaked in a pond following an epic crash—perhaps representing death and the march of time? The wonder of the stars and the universe is also visited frequently.
One particular favorite of mine involves Calvin’s teacher. Mrs. Wormwood accuses Calvin of wasting time by drawing stegosauruses in rocket ships. Calvin proclaims himself to be an artist on the “cutting edge of the avant-garde,” being oppressed by society, being objected to.
Hobbes asked him what exactly Mrs. Wormwood objected to, and Calvin replies, “Mostly my drawing them during math class.”
The humor meets with important themes in a way that is easily digestible and not at all distracting like some strips. And besides, the strip also carries an element of truth—didn’t you like to draw and color as a child? When’s the last time you really did something creative lately? Where did that urge to create go?
The anti-consumerist and pro-individual themes of Calvin and Hobbes were fully realized by Bill Watterson, who definitely walked the walk. Attempts to merchandise the comic strips were met by Watterson with fierce resistance. He did not want to create a toy selling machine or a media empire, only a comic strip. He felt that the comics stood on their own. Wouldn’t it cheapen the strip to see a Hobbes stuffed window cling anyway? Popular comics often are carried on by anonymous writers associated with the syndicate that ran it (Beetle Bailey, Blondie … obviously been going for fifty years), and Watterson managed to make this not happen. Watterson also ended the strip near its high point, avoiding it becoming a caractiture of itself or too played-out (Blondie and Beetle Bailey). What resulted was a true piece of art that manages to be brain food and high entertainment for not only children, who should be exposed to it, but adults as well, who might need to be reminded of what it represents.