Calvin and Hobbes is without a doubt the best comic strip ever written, and if anybody disagrees with me they can meet me in Weehawken tomorrow morning with pistols drawn. I don’t know of any other comic strip that can veer from the pure joy of a 6-year-old and his best friend to existential musings within the span of 4 frames. It’s also hilarious, which you would think would be a given for this medium, but so many strips out there have continued for decades without ever fulfilling their primary mission to elicit a chuckle from their audience.
You had one job, Family Circus
Calvin and Hobbes is pure brilliance, and while it makes me sad that we only had it for ten short years, I respect Bill Watterson’s decision to do something else with his life. The upside is we got ten years’ worth of consistently funny, thoughtful strips, as opposed to Watterson churning out something he would probably grow to resent. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s a comic strip that continues to crank out crap year after year until you want to stab yourself in the eyes with a rolled up newspaper.
In completely unrelated news, Family Circus has now been running for 57 years.
Reading through all three volumes of Calvin and Hobbes in order was fabulous in that it helped me see the nuances and growth of characters and plots as the strip matured. For the first few months, the strips were basically one-offs; there were some recurring themes, but nothing like a story told in a series. As the strip matured, Watterson began telling stories over the course of days, sometimes weeks. Calvin, always mischievous and full of imagination, becomes more philosophical over time. An early strip has Calvin playing with cars set to crash with an inflammable chemical truck and commenting with delight, “This out to be good.” Later strips have him duplicating himself with his Duplicator (a cardboard box that also serves as a Time Machine and a Transmogrifier, depending on the situation) and contemplating the meaning of self.
Calvin mischief 1985:
Calvin mischief 1990:
Calvin’s other interests include inventing games like Calvin Ball, sledding, pretending to be intergalactic traveler Spaceman Spiff, Getting Rid Of Slimy girlS, and building the best snowmen ever seen before or since.
Calvin is all id, all wants, needs, desires, like now. Hobbes balances him out by being the practical side, the ego, reining Calvin in and trying to bring some order to the chaos of their lives. In one of my favorite strips, Calvin complains that the connect the dots drawing turned out to be a total mess. He wants a beautiful picture and he wants it now, dammit! Hobbes interjects some much needed rationality into the conversation:
Hobbes has more personality than just that of the rational voice, though. He is also a bit of a ladies’ man! Susie Derkins loves Hobbes, and Hobbes eats up all that attention.
Hobbes, you are quite the carnivore Casanova! Together, Calvin and Hobbes are an unstoppable force. But there are some other interesting supporting characters in this comic strip. For example:
Calvin’s dad is a patent attorney who loves cycling, camping, and building character. What I really love about Calvin’s dad is the way he messes with his kid by feeding him false information. On various occasions Calvin’s dad has told his son that the world used to be in black and white, which is why you never see color photos from the old days; in the theory of relativity, time goes slower because you move backwards through time zones; and ice floats because it is trying to warm up by getting nearer to the sun. That is some awesome parenting! Unfortunately, Calvin doesn’t appreciate his dad all that much and is constantly conducting polls to let his dad know the depths of his unpopularity.
Calvin’s mom is probably the only person that Calvin listens to. We don’t know what kind of work she did before Calvin was born, only that it was very stressful and that’s why she decided to stay home with him (she was already used to high-stress situations). She’s obviously a loving mother, as evidenced by her concern when Calvin misplaces Hobbes, but she takes no crap either. She is definitely the enforcer of the household.
Ten years of “will they/won’t they,” and we never got any closure from these two! Susie is a perfect foil for Calvin; she’s an A-student and she’s polite to grown-ups, but she’s no pushover. She gives back to Calvin as much as she gets, whether it is in a snowball fight or on an exam. I believe Susie Derkins grew up to become Secretary of State and never married because she couldn’t find anyone good enough to match wits with her.
Moe is a one-note character. He’s a bully who physically and emotionally torments Calvin throughout the entire run of the series. Frankly, I never laughed at the strips featuring Moe. There was that one time when Calvin made a fool of Moe without getting punched for it, but that’s about as sweet as victory ever got. I suspect Moe eventually dropped out of high school and became a statistic of the opioid crisis.
Rosalyn the baby sitter
I’m not a huge fan of Rosalyn. I mean, yeah, she has to deal with Calvin’s antics, which included locking her out of the house at one point, but she’s not a saint. Whenever she comes over to babysit, she immediately gets on the phone to her boyfriend, and back in my day that was considered bad form. Remember, kids, this was in the time before cell phones, when babysitters had to use magical contraptions called land lines to talk to their boyfriends. In Rosalyn’s last appearance in 1995, however, she employs an entirely new approach to babysitting Calvin. She offers to let him play a game and stay up a half hour after his bedtime in return for his cooperation. This results in Rosalyn learning to play Calvin Ball and mastering it rather quickly. This Rosalyn kinda rocks.
We aren’t given much insight into Miss Wormwood’s personality. She comes off as a bland, uninspiring teacher who checked out years ago and is just counting the days to retirement. Calvin has been driving her to drink and smoke more by constantly questioning her authority and the meaningfulness of her work. It’s almost as if he’s taking all the bullying he gets from Moe and channels it back into a mission to torment Miss Wormwood. A blah teacher is one thing, but does she really deserve to be driven slowly insane? Then again, she looks a lot like my own first-grade teacher, and that lady was mean as hell. She used to shout at the kids who were slower learners. So maybe this Miss Wormwood is also a total pill and is coasting to retirement because she has the principal in her back pocket.
On January 11, 1988, Calvin’s mom tells him that Uncle Max (Calvin’s dad’s brother) is coming to visit. Max shows up on January 13, stays for 9 strips and is never spoken of again. Max exists for two reasons: first, to give Calvin a new person to torment (going through his luggage, putting a whoopee cushion on his seat); second, and more importantly, Max is the only person to ever show up and address the tiger in the room, saying “Hey isn’t it kind of weird that your kid plays with a stuffed animal all day and doesn’t seem to have any real friends?” Now I don’t find anything weird about this particularly (more on that below) but you would expect some adult to question the situation before now. Max is showing genuine concern for his nephew. Calvin’s mom tells him to mind his own business, then Max makes a tragic remark about all his friends being imaginary.
Look at the expression on Calvin’s mom’s face in this strip. It’s like she’s saying, “We were just talking about my kid, when did I become your therapist?” I sometimes wonder why we never heard from Max again. Did audiences react negatively to him, or did the family write him off when he went back to making videos for Hustler? We’ll never know.
So what’s the deal with Hobbes?
So is Hobbes a stuffed animal that Calvin imagines is alive, or is he like pre-1985 Snuffleupagus: real, but nobody but Big Bird can see him? If you think Hobbes is a stuffed toy, then you might be concerned about Calvin’s mental development like Uncle Max was. If you think Hobbes is real, well then you have an imaginative view of the world and I want to be your friend. Personally, I choose to believe a third option: that there are alternate realities for different people. Essentially, the Calvin and Hobbes world expresses parallel universes where Hobbes is real in one (Calvin’s world) and a stuffed tiger in another (everyone else’s). I dig alternate realities.
Well, thanks for sticking with me this long. I know in the age of social media, it takes a lot of concentration to get through something that’s more than 140 characters, so I really appreciate your time. With that, I’d like to leave you with my new favorite C&H strip: