You might look at the pictures on this page and think, ‘hey, what’s with the pictures? This looks like a comic. It doesn’t look like literature. No indeed, it doesn’t look like literature at all. So why have you gone and done a feature on it, you cretin?’ ‘Calm down’, I would doubtless reply, and attempt to prove that Calvin and Hobbes has enough character development, political and cultural commentary, philosophy, humour and cult popularity to give many literary achievements a run for their money. And the drawings are absolutely fantastic to boot.
Calvin (named after John Calvin, the 16th century Reformation theologian) and Hobbes (after the 17th century political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes) are two acutely well-realised characters birthed from the brilliant mind of Bill Watterson in the mid 80s. Set in an unspecified suburban area of North America, Calvin is an intelligent and imaginative boy who does badly at school due to his inward-looking, misanthropic attitude. To the lonely six year old, Hobbes is his walking, talking, fuzzy and philosophizing best friend. To everyone else, he’s just a stuffed tiger.
More than anything, Calvin’s sheer intensity of imagination is the dominant theme of the strips, and it quite quickly becomes obvious that Watterson has put absolutely no limits on what he can draw or what he can have the characters say. I have only included a few of the more conventional Calvin and Hobbes panels on this page, but Watterson often utilises his staggering artistic capacity to conjure entire worlds borne of Calvin’s imagination. Calvin often blames his alter-egos ‘Spaceman Spiff’ and ‘Stupendous Man’ for his behaviour, claiming that ‘mild-mannered Calvin’ would never do such things, as well as frequently dreaming about dinosaurs in class and lamenting his own boring human features (‘No retractable claws, no opposable toes, no prehensile tail, no compound eyes, no fangs, no wings. Sigh.’)
Calvin is surrounded by people who don’t understand him. His never-named mum and dad are deeply loving, but almost literally living in another world – four times taller than him and unlike Calvin, firmly rooted in reality. He hates virtually everyone else: his teenage babysitter Rosalyn, the grunting school bully Moe, his equally lonely neighbour Susie Derkins – only with Hobbes does he find solace, playing his own made-up game ‘Calvinball’ (where the only rule is that you can’t play it the same way twice) as well as sledging, building grotesque and macabre snowmen and pondering his existence in the world (Calvin: Me! Everyone exists in the world to please me! Hobbes: It’s nice to have that cleared up.) Calvin frequently goes for walks in a nearby wood, where he expresses countless thoughts to Hobbes, for example: ‘I don’t need to make friends. I’d settle for being ignored’. That, I think, is a perception on the condition of a lonely childhood no less profound than those found in dark children’s books such as A Dog So Small.
Hobbes serves as Calvin’s conscience, but it isn’t quite as black and white as that. Sure, Hobbes advises Calvin against taking his sled down an almost vertical hill, and suggests that in the interests of more Christmas ‘loot’ from Santa he shouldn’t throw any snowballs at Susie (‘I wanted to put a rock in the snowball, but I didn’t. That’s got to count for something, right?’) but most of the time he has just as little subtlety and foresight as Calvin, and therefore just as much fun as him. At one point he accidently pushes the car into a ditch so that they can use the garage as a den, and packs a single honey, maple syrup and chocolate sandwich for their 500 mile hike to the Yukon. Calvin has enough people in his life telling him not to do things – Hobbes is his manifestation of the perfect friend.
Seem to have managed to get this far in the article without mentioning the one immediately accessible thing about Calvin and Hobbes. It is really, really, really funny. And not in that ‘that was a clever joke, time to smirk appreciatively at it’ way – in an embarrassingly writhing and breathless sort of way. Full of truisms, observations, nostalgia and, also, loads and loads of jokes, Watterson’s masterpiece is the pinnacle of the late 80s satirical comic love-affair, which started with the incredibly influential Peanuts and Bloom County and faded out in the 90s after Watterson set the bar too high. Watterson proved that 3 panel-jokes aren’t shallow sound-bites, but are capable of concise, deep characterisation and incredibly likable personalities, as well as sharp lampooning of consumerism, poll-taking and public apathy among other things. And did I say there are loads of jokes? LOADS AND LOADS OF FUNNY JOKES.