The first Calvin and Hobbes strip appeared on November 18, 1985. I was two-years-old. The final, poetic strip appeared on December 31st, 1995. I was twelve.
When you’re considering the prominent years for the development of a sense of humor and worldview, the first ten years of one’s conscious life have to be pretty damn important.
There are likely hundreds of essays, websites and blogs out there to argue for Calvin and Hobbes‘ supremacy in the comic strip canon. And, with all due respect to Peanuts and Far Side (both undeniable works of genius), Bill Watterson’s masterful creation will likely forever sit on the top of the mountain.
But this isn’t a blog post to rehash that old argument. This is about how a single decade of comedic and poignant genius effected an adolescent boy growing up in a Midwest American town.
First off, let me say that I hate nostalgia. I am so sick of seeing posts about how the television/music/books of Whatever Generation were so great and so much better than what is being created now. I especially hate it from people of my generation whose obsession with their barely a decade-gone youth borders on retardation (in the most literal sense).
I’m not writing about this comic strip to argue that Calvin and Hobbes is better than any strip these days and that ‘kids these days’ just don’t get it. I don’t know what comic strips are even out there these days, and the reason for this is twofold: I rarely pick up a physical newspaper, and I’m not twelve.
Of course, as soon as I make that condescending assertion, I have to immediately contradict myself. Calvin and Hobbes was not a strip for twelve year olds. I laughed at the strip when I was twelve (and ten, and eight) because its most basic premise was something a child can relate to and see themselves in: A child with an overactive imagination exploring his world.
But the jokes, the true humor of the strip, were meant for adults. Or rather, they were meant for college-educated, well-read adults with a healthy vocabulary and an ability to make profound, philosophical leaps.
Considering that the two title characters were named after 16th- and 17th-century philosophers (respectively), it’s pretty clear that Watterson had more than puns in mind.
When I was a kid, I had no idea what this strip meant. That a six-year-old would even know the word ‘peripatetics’ is, of course, ridiculous, but that’s beside the point (though, still part of the humor). I didn’t know what the word meant. I didn’t know what the word meant until very very recently. But I laughed at this comic as a child because the pure absurdity of it was evident regardless of the meaning, and also because the relationship between Calvin and his pet-stuffed-best friend-tiger was so well established and real to me, Hobbes’ response told me everything I needed to know.
And now that I get the insult, the absurdity of Calvin being rankled by it is even funnier. Plus, I am quite the peripatetic these days, and I have to wonder, should I have a ready retort for just such a situation?
Another example of a strip that went over my head as a kid (and, I suspect, probably goes over a lot of people’s heads even as adults). I, thinking like Calvin, confused ‘progeny’ for the word he intended, ‘prodigy,’ and so the second panel, which in and of itself is a punchline, went by like any other panel. The fourth panel is the traditional joke payoff and it worked whether or not I recognized Calvin’s mistake, and it also worked because, once again, as a religious fan of the strip, I understood Calvin’s self-absorption and baseless belief in his own superiority (although, this also is a joke: Calvin at times shows a philosophical and literary understanding greater than most adults, yet he still manages to put his pants on backwards).
In four panels, Watterson managed to pack in two flat-out funny jokes. Marmaduke hasn’t even had one in its entire run.
The relationship between Calvin and his parents is so wonderfully antagonistic. Peanuts is another legendary comic strip told from the perspective of children, but adults rarely figure into that world. Here, Calvin is a constant drain on his parents, an ever-present reminder of their loss of youth, and in return, his parents have some of the most nonchalantly sarcastic replies ever uttered in popular culture.
His parents aren’t the buffoons that adults are normally portrayed as in television shows, nor are they they all-wise, sage advisers who only appear at the end to help the kid make the right decision. His (unnamed) parents are real people, and they have specific personalities that include weaknesses and very unique idiosyncrasies.
But no matter how much of a brat Calvin is, they still love him, and he still loves them.
If you are even slightly as much of a fan of Calvin and Hobbes as I am, you may be aware of the mighty struggle Bill Watterson fought with his publishers for control of his creation (eschewing almost all merchandising) and newspapers who were trying to find a way to condense Sunday comic strips while Watterson was attempting to expand his canvas.
Whether or not you are privy to the (in my opinion) fascinating battle he fought for artistic freedom, all that you really need to know is that Watterson’s sheer talent and unwavering commitment to the medium as artform provided him the unique opportunity to create Sunday strips unlike anything else out there, with a free form and enough space to explore his (Calvin’s) imagination.
There is no way to reduce this strip for space. There are essentially no panels (certainly none you can cut off). Watterson had earned enough leverage to create the comic he wanted, and the publishers couldn’t do anything about it, no matter how much they wanted to save money. Watterson dedicated himself to artistic integrity, and he won. And so did we fans. If other comic strip writers have this freedom now, it’s because of him.
Some of the most amazing strips of Calvin and Hobbes were in this panel-resisting form.
That last strip illustrates another one of Watterson’s amazing skills: Storytelling without words.
There are very few comic strip writers who have the artistic talent and narrative chops to tell a story with nothing but pictures (and a funny one at that). Even the genius of Charlie Chaplin struggled in the transfer from silent films to talkies.
These ‘silent’ strips could be cerebral, beautiful or simply slapstick (or some combination of all three).
Technically this isn’t a ‘wordless’ strip, but it illustrates how much Watterson could do with such a simple, dialog-free idea.
On top of everything else, perhaps where the strip succeeded most was in its ability to convey a very topical, very distinct point of view on a number of subjects in such a way that I never once heard Watterson labeled as a ‘liberal’ or a ‘conservative’ or anything else (maybe I just wasn’t paying attention). His comics clearly conveyed particular beliefs (or questioned them), and he was fairly unapologetic in his criticism of many of society’s ills, but he never succumbed to preachiness.
As an anti-consumerist, anti-religion humanist, I can’t help but see the roots of my philosophical beliefs in these panels. Obviously my beliefs have a complex origin (which I’ve discussed elsewhere), but it’s hard to ignore that from an early age, while I was being fed Bible verses and Christian theology, I was also being raised on a steady diet of counterculturism (especially counter to the consumerist 80s).
Forget all the social commentary, the $5 words, the philosophical underpinnings. All that really matters is that Calvin and Hobbes is a strip about imagination and the boundless opportunities that gift affords. The second most important character of the strip is a figment of a child’s imagination. Calvin exists in a world of his own creation, and everything else around him is an intrusion on that world.
If you examine the strips literally (i.e. assuming that the events the parents and other characters acknowledge are ‘reality’), then contradictions and questions arise. Some of Calvin’s impossible imaginings almost have to have real world effects.
But this paradox is the joy of the strip. I don’t think it’s a matter of Watterson saying, “Don’t take it so seriously, it’s just a comic strip.” I think he’s saying, “Imagination is more powerful than we realize.”
If there is one aspect of the strip that strikes home more to a child than to an adult, it is that message. And what a wonderful message to instill in children. I don’t know where I would be if my sense of wonder and inexhaustible imagination hadn’t flourished as a child. I certainly wouldn’t be in the midst of this project. It takes a (perhaps dangerously) high level of imagination to envision a life outside the norms of society. Forget courage or ambition. Imagination is the true heart of 10 Cities / 10 Years.
And the truly magnificent realization is that, while in the comic it’s Calvin’s imagination run wild, in reality it is Watterson whose imagination is creating these worlds. Here is an adult who is plainly well-educated, literate and versed in philosophy, politics and science, yet his imagination hasn’t been dulled one bit.
That, dear readers, is the most astounding thing about a comic strip that already challenges every notion of what four black and white panels can accomplish.
Plus, it’s damn funny.
I can’t say precisely how reading Calvin and Hobbes shaped or guided my growth (and probably still does), but I have no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be the person I am without it. The humor and philosophy of the strip undeniably shaped aspects of my own humor and philosophy. When I was older, reading about Bill Watterson’s fight for artistic freedom and authenticity unquestionably fermented my own budding notions of artistic integrity.
Maybe it was that Calvin and Hobbes taught me to believe in my imagination no matter what.
Or maybe it just taught me to appreciate the surreal.
Either way, Calvin and Hobbes remains one of the most cherished works of art in my life. Not kid stuff or comic strip, but art. I know he’ll never read this, and I know a million other people have said the same thing, but
Thank you Bill Watterson.
*The strips used in this post are not meant to be the “best” or the most “definitive.” They are just some of the many amazing strips that I chose to use. Also, I do not own any of them and mean no infringement on Watterson’s work.