Calvin and Hobbes is not just a comic strip. It is a window into which we can see ourselves, doing the things we do every day. Bill Watterson is not just a comic writer, he is a philosopher with a pen. His strip characterizes a fresh perspective of the world, as well as being a story about a boy and his tiger. Calvin and Hobbes reveals truths of life from a genuine angle.
Bill Watterson was born in 1958 and grew up in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He read comics as a kid, and his favorites included Krazy Kat, Pogo, and Peanuts. In his college days at Kenyon, Watterson drew political cartoons, following in the footsteps of Jim Borgman, who was (and still is) a prominent political cartoonist. Watterson drew cartoons at Kenyon College every week for all four years of his enrollment.
Right after his graduation, Watterson was offered a job with the Cincinnati Post as their editorial cartoonist. The deal was, they could hire him or fire him after a trial of six months. During that time, Watterson was told to write about local issues in Cincinnati, which he wasn’t familiar with, and the editor only published what he thought was the absolute best of his cartoons. This meant that about four-fifths of his ideas were rejected. Things obviously weren’t working out, so he was fired after the six months was up.
Next he tried submitting several of his cartoon strip ideas to syndicates, but the only one that caught anyone’s attention was a strip in which Calvin and Hobbes were minor characters. United Features Syndicate wanted Watterson to develop the little boy and his tiger, and turn that into a cartoon. Although he was a little reluctant, and not sure whether they would be able to hold a strip by themselves, Watterson began drawing Calvin and Hobbes in 1985 (Christie).
Watterson named Calvin after the French theologian John Calvin, who was one of the most influential Protestant Reformers of the 16th century (Calvin, 754). Hobbes was named after Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher who challenged the existence of God (Hobbes, 959). Just from their names, an educated reader can tell that there will be some conflict between the two characters.
Immediately, Calvin and Hobbes was a hit. “After less than three years in syndication, Calvin and Hobbes was appearing in more than six hundred newspapers, and Something Under the Bed is Drooling: A Calvin and Hobbes Collection stayed on bestseller lists for almost a year.” (Contemporary)
Calvin is a six year old boy with a hyperactive personality and imagination. He loves dinosaurs and outer space, and his pet stuffed tiger, Hobbes, who are inseparable. Calvin is generally known as a “wild child,” but he has a soft side, too, even if he doesn’t realize it. Calvin is also somewhat of an artist, sculpting extravagant snowmen tableaus. He doesn’t have any friends in school, mainly because he doesn’t see things the way anyone else does. In school he just sits in class all day, waiting for the bell.
Hobbes is Calvin’s best friend, a stuffed tiger who only Calvin sees as a real, animate playmate. Hobbes tends to be the voice of reason for Calvin, but goes along on many of Calvin’s adventures anyway. Hobbes is also a source of conflict for Calvin, especially when Calvin gets home from school, and Hobbes is ready pounce on him at high speeds.
Together, Calvin and Hobbes often play outdoors in the woods, constantly discussing, testing, and learning about philosophy, human and animal nature, scientific theories, and friendship. Whenever Calvin gets in trouble, Hobbes is there to comfort him; and whenever Calvin is feeling calm, Hobbes is there to make him paranoid, often by pouncing or threatening with claws and teeth. The two are certainly friends, and if anything, the rough spots make them closer.
Calvin’s parents, known only as Calvin’s Mom and Dad, are never so far as regretful that they had a son, but they often come close to thinking that. His dad works in a patent office, and so he spends his days at work, but his mom stays at home, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and doing whatever else needs to be done at home. With Calvin at home, his mom's job can be twice as trying as his dad’s.
Susie Derkins is the closest thing Calvin has to a human friend. Although Calvin thinks of Susie as an enemy, and Susie thinks of Calvin as a jerk, they both have some deep romantic feelings for the other. Susie is also Calvin’s counterpart, thinking on the liberal end, but less radically, and striving to be a good pupil in school.
Several of the major themes in the comic, including Calvin’s wagon, sled, and snowmen are used as ways for Calvin to express himself, or ways for Watterson to express himself. Calvin often makes snowmen as pieces of art, usually making statements with them, especially bogus statements. Watterson uses Calvin’s wagon or sled (depends on the season) to give a visual to Calvin’s philosophical conversations with Hobbes. For example, as Calvin discusses decision-making and consequences, he makes a right turn in his wagon, which leads them off a cliff.
Calvin has a less metaphorical relationship with his bike, as the two are sworn enemies in Calvin’s imagination. Every chance the bike gets, it runs him over. Calvin is showing a classic childhood fear of a bicycle in these strips.
Calvin’s human enemies take on familiar forms. Moe, the school yard bully picks on Calvin outside and in gym. Moe seems to be the only one who is actually hostile toward Calvin without provocation. He is portrayed as a slow-moving, dimwitted neanderthal, because that is how Calvin sees him. Every child has been bullied, and Calvin is no exception.
In the classroom, Calvin never pays attention, and his grades show it. He can’t stand his teacher, Miss Wormwood, and she tries her hardest to hide the fact that she can’t stand him.
Calvin also vehemently objects to going to his doctor. Fearing needles, amputations, or malpractice of some sort, Calvin does everything he can to the affect of seriously upsetting his physician.
In one story line, Calvin and his parents go to a wedding and have to spend the night in a hotel. Calvin forgets to bring Hobbes along, and gets mad at his parents for not turning around to get him. Calvin also gets worried about Hobbes as the trip progresses. When the family gets home, they discover that the house had been broken into and some of their things were taken. Hobbes ends up being safe, but Calvin’s parents don’t feel safe that night. Calvin is so relieved that Hobbes is okay that he is perfectly happy, until he realizes that the TV was stolen (Revenge, 69-71). This is an excellent example of how Watterson is able to put the characters in different situations, and have them react to their surroundings as if they were real. It also shows a truth of human nature in that we take things for granted, and when they aren’t there anymore, that’s when we realize what we had.
Several of the stories revolve around Calvin and his baby-sitter, Rosalyn. In one particular episode, Calvin steals the notes that Rosalyn is studying and pretends to flush them down the toilet after locking himself and Hobbes in the bathroom. The whole cartoon is very real, and you can connect with Calvin, and even Rosalyn, a minor character. Eventually, Calvin comes out of the bathroom and Rosalyn catches him. He gets in enormous trouble with his parents, and Rosalyn asks for more money than usual (Revenge, 35-38).
Unfortunately, due to Calvin’s behavior, many, if not all, of the other characters rarely come off in their best light. We only ever see their reactions to Calvin, and, well, they’re scarcely good ones.
Another cartoon depicts Calvin walking outside with an umbrella. As it begins to rain, Calvin unfolds the umbrella, sets it on the ground, and plays in the little pool of water (Indispensable, 63). This is a classic, if slightly exaggerated, example of child behavior. He doesn’t care about getting wet, he likes getting wet. Children stomp in puddles all the time, but Watterson drew Calvin taking it to another level, because it should be funny as a comic strip, and Calvin is a very eccentric child anyway.
However, Calvin doesn’t always act this childish, even if he’s doing childish things. One comic shows Calvin and Hobbes in the woods, near a small creek. Hobbes asks what calvin is doing, and Calvin says that he is looking for frogs. Hobbes asks, “How come?” and Calvin answers, “I must obey the inscrutable exhortations of my soul.” (Tenth, 196) Calvin’s large vocabulary is due mainly in part to Watterson’s favor of using cumbersome words to “articulate stupid ideas.” (Tenth, 196) Other examples of this include Calvin’s book report, which is excessively written, “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives In Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes,” and Calvin’s acceptance of modern day psychology, “My family is dysfunctional and my parents won’t empower me! Consequently, I’m not self-actualized! My behavior is addictive functioning in a disease process of toxic codependency! I need holistic healing and wellness before I accept any responsibility for my actions!” (Tenth, 184) In these examples, however, Watterson is expressing his distaste of “politically correct, New Age, academic jargon and art speak” and “pop psychobabble.” Either way, Calvin has a rare ability to express exactly what’s on his mind.
So exactly what does all this mean? Well, simply, this is just an illustration of how real Bill Watterson has made Calvin and Hobbes. Using this cartoon, we can picture ourselves in some of the exact same spots and see how ridiculous one point of view may turn out to be.
We also realize that many of the things we may have done and been embarrassed of as children, others have done as well (I’m not alone on this, am I?). Calvin reminds us that we can all be children at times, with self-centered thinking, crazy ideas, and common foibles.
Calvin and Hobbes may just be a cartoon, but Watterson tells a story that we all know. The loner child, with a great imagination and a million ideas a minute, talking to his best friend who know one else can see may not be as far from the truth of our own childhood as we might think at first. This work of art can really tell what is to be human, but it is occasionally written between the lines.
Christie, Andrew. “Interview with Bill Watterson.” Honk Magazine. Rpt. online. Internet.
Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2003. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center . Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2003. http://www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC
Goetz, Philip W. Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol 2. Calvin, John. Chicago, 1990. p 754.
Goetz, Philip W. Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol 5. Hobbes, Thomas. Chicago, 1990. pp 959-60.
Watterson, Bill. The Revenge of the Baby-Sat. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1991.
Watterson, Bill. The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1992.
Watterson, Bill. The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1995.