I’ve been a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan since the comic strip began in 1985, so I was thrilled to find that they have finally bundled up every single strip that was ever published into one gigantic set of three canvas-bound books called “The Complete Calvin and Hobbes”. This weekend I picked it up, and as I was thumbing through the three, seriously hefty volumes, it got me thinking about this essay I wrote about the strip a few years ago.
“Calvin and Hobbes” is a comic strip about the imaginative world of a six year old boy named Calvin, and his stuffed tiger named Hobbes, who is not only very much alive within Calvin’s mind, but also his best friend. The strip was created by Bill Watterson, and first published on November 18, 1985. Almost immediately after its introduction, the strip became wildly popular, and it held that popularity until December 31, 1995, when the final “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon was sent to the printing press.
In 1995, “Calvin and Hobbes” could be found in over 2,300 publications worldwide, and there are more than 18 million published collections in print. This popularity resulted in an incredible following of people who identified with, and cared about the characters. For instance: one series which ran for only a week, involved a situation in which a big dog knocked Calvin down, and ran off with Hobbes. The strip’s readers were more upset by this than Watterson had expected, and they began to write letters asking that Hobbes be brought back safe. The intense interest shown by the strip’s readers shocked Watterson, and he began to realize how important his creation had become to people. He describes reading the comics as “a comforting little ritual to see our favorite characters for a few seconds over coffee in the morning. We care about them when they’re in trouble, and we count on them to look at life with a slightly amusing twist.” This would certainly appear to be the case considering the concern people expressed over the safety of Hobbes.
How was it that Watterson was able to spark such emotion within his readers? What makes “Calvin and Hobbes” so appealing to such a broad spectrum of people
These questions are not easy ones to answer; the mechanisms that make characters believable and likable are diverse and complex. However, by breaking “Calvin and Hobbes” down, and looking at some of the major aspects of the cartoon, we can begin to gain an insight into why the cartoon was able to find a place in so many reader’s hearts.
For this analysis of “Calvin and Hobbes,” we will look at the main characters of the strip, the ways they react to each other, the ways in which the reader reacts to them, and some of the most notable themes and topics of the cartoon. The cast consists of five major personalities, who interact with each other in ways that are usually humorous, but often very deep, and emotional. While conflict is nothing rare in the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” relationships between the characters are almost always positive. There may be a practical joke here and there, but it’s done in the same way we joke with our close friends or loved ones as a form of affection. This, I believe is a large part of the cartoon’s appeal. People have always been drawn conflict, and when readers see the positive way the strip deals with argument, it becomes harmlessly funny, and people find themselves drawn to it.
The artwork for weekday strips is a slightly sketchy style of drawing, done in black ink, while the Sunday strips employ larger frames, and are done in color. Watterson says that in the early stages of the strip, he used “a cartoony, flat look, in which Calvin’s fantasies looked more realistic than reality.” Later on, however, the artwork became more three-dimensional, which allowed the characters to be drawn from different perspectives. One thing that is particularly notable about the artwork, is how effectively the characters convey emotion. It’s easy to see in their expressions what they are thinking, and the text is written in a such a way that we get a good feel for what’s going on. Loud noises, screaming, and most any exclamations are written in big, bold letters and are often surrounded by a jagged dialog balloon. The calmer language, on the other hand is written in small, uniform letters, which usually appears in a smoothly rounded caption. The mouths are remarkably large, particularly on the children, which gives the reader a feel for how much effort the kids put into getting their points across, as well as helps to show some of the things that are important to them.
The strip’s star character, is of course, Calvin. Calvin is a bratty, six year old boy named after a prominent sixteenth century theologian who believed in pre destination. Calvin spends his days using his imagination to create new worlds and fantasies which lead him to adventure and fun. Since Calvin spends much of the time in the world of his own imagination, it usually doesn’t occur to him that the rules of the “real” world apply to him, and he often ends up getting himself into all kinds of trouble. While Calvin is indeed hyper active and difficult to deal with, he is very imaginative, and tends to ask questions about life’s larger issues, such as human nature or the meaning of life. Watterson says that through Calvin, he is able to explore the things he is thinking about in more depth, and remarks that while Calvin is nothing like him as a child, the character helps him stay in touch with his own immaturity, providing him with a way to “sort through his own life and understand it.” This intellectual curiosity is done in a humorous, but thought provoking way, and I believe it adds to the appeal of the strip, because it prompts people to ponder philosophical questions that might not otherwise come to mind.
With Hobbes, we find ourselves with a somewhat strange situation. To everyone but Calvin, he is merely a stuffed tiger that Calvin drags with him everywhere he goes. To Calvin, on the other hand, Hobbes is not only alive and kicking, but his best friend as well. This leads to an interesting twist within the world of “Calvin and Hobbes,” as none of the other characters are able to grasp why Calvin is so attached to his toy tiger. Hobbes gets his name from the seventeenth philosopher Thomas Hobbes who had a particularly dim view of human nature. This is fitting since Hobbes often shows a quiet, witty, sarcastic attitude as he reacts to Calvin’s outrageous escapades. None the less, Hobbes is Calvin’s best friend, and we can tell by watching his patients, gentle body language, and by reading his thoughtful questions and remarks, that he has a genuine love for Calvin. Watterson says that he created Hobbes, including everything he looks for in a best friend.
Calvin’s parents are a good depiction of a couple trying to deal with a child like him. They often seem sarcastic, and at their wit’s end, but this is because we only really see them while they are reacting to Calvin. In the early strips, they were criticized for being unloving and cruel. I disagree with these accusations; In fact, by closely looking at their actions, Calvin’s parents appear to love him a great deal. His father shows a surprising amount of trust and tolerance, by doing such things as letting Calvin use the binoculars, or going along with his elaborate stories. We can even see his father’s love in the jokes he plays on Calvin, such as teasing him about not getting any Christmas presents. Calvin’s relationship with his father exemplifies of the harmless practical joking that people seem drawn to.
Calvin’s Mother shows her love in a different way. She displays a kind, motherly quality by doing such things as sticking up for Calvin when his father teases him, or bringing his lunch out to the sand box so Calvin won’t have to stop playing. I think readers are drawn to the funny, but positive way Calvin’s parents deal with him, and any reader who is a parent will probably find that they can relate to them on many levels.
Susie Derkins is a quiet, smart, earnest girl, about Calvin’s age. Calvin’s relationship with Susie is pretty much what would be expected from a six year old boy dealing with a girl, which leads to an interesting conflict. Watterson says that he suspects Calvin has a crush on her, but shows it by intentionally acting outrageous. Susie is a little “put off” by this outrageous behavior, which prompts Calvin to act even more outrageous. This relationship is fun for the reader because it gives off the same awkward feeling that most of us went through as a child when we had a crush on someone. Like the others, this relationship is positive, and it deals with the concept of love, which is important, and heart-warming to readers.
These characters all react to each other in ways that are easily identified with and funny, while at the same time, dealing with larger philosophical issues and themes. The goal of any news paper comic strip is to appeal to as many people as possible, so it is important to stay away from topics that may offend people. “Calvin and Hobbes” does this not by completely avoiding issues that people feel strongly about, but by mentioning them, and letting the readers find the answers for themselves. For instance, in one cartoon, Calvin is lying in bed, wondering why man was put on earth. Hobbes rolls over, gives a sarcastic smile and says “tiger food.” This cartoon deals with creation, which can be a hot topic, but instead of trying to answer the question for us, we are left to make our own decisions about it.
Many “Calvin and Hobbes” strips deal with issues of reality, and when taken with the sometimes complex language, it becomes clear that the cartoon is working on many different levels. A good example of this, is the subjectivity of Hobbes’ reality. When he is drawn from the perspective characters other than Calvin, he appears as a stuffed tiger. When drawn from Calvin’s perspective, however, he is animated and alive. Even then, however, it is not always this simple. As we can see in one strip were Hobbes is dizzy from having been washed and then put in the dryer, the issue of the tiger’s reality is sometimes blurred even for Calvin. Another example of this blurring of reality is a cartoon in which Calvin is imagining that he has traveled to another world and is being approached by an alien monster. As the monster nears, we see that it is holding a sandwich and a drink. When the monster finally gets to Calvin, we see that it is really his mother, bringing his lunch to him. This undefined reality allows us to relate to the strip on any level we chose, and I believe it is a major reason for the strip’s success.
Bill Watterson seems to have struck the right mix with “Calvin and Hobbes.” He’s created a world that is inhabited by believable, likable characters, who deal with a rich variety of issues in a convincing and humorous way. I think that inside all of us, we can see a little of each character, and this makes the strip fun and easy to identify with. As we read, we become involved in the lives and thoughts of the characters, and because of the sometimes complex topics covered, we are able to grow from the cartoon. In the final “Calvin and Hobbes” strip, the world is covered with snow, and Hobbes is carrying a toboggan. Calvin remarks “It’s a magical world Hobbes ol’ buddy? Lets go exploring!” The two friends then slide away from us on their toboggan. I hazard a guess that most “Calvin and Hobbes” fans felt a lump in their throat that day; I know I did. For me, however, it wasn’t a sad feeling. I was left with the feeling that Calvin and Hobbes were still active behind the scenes, and that the two friends have only started to explore. This feeling indicates to me that Watterson was able to do with his creation what many cartoonists spend their entire lives trying to accomplish. He was able to create an entire world in which “Calvin and Hobbes” could exist.
All images the property of Bill Watterson.
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