Jan 25, 2021
Calvin and Hobbes (1985-1995)
It probably goes without saying that the most influential comic strip of our time is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. While certainly not the first strip to appear in daily newspapers, Schulz made Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the rest of the gang an indelible part of pop culture. One reason for this was that Schulz put a great deal of himself into the strip. He projected all his emotions, triumphs, and failures into those characters, which is why so many people identify with them in one way or another. Hence, it was hauntingly appropriate that Schulz’s passing in 2000 coincided with the publication of his final Peanuts strip, which announced his retirement.
In addition to merchandising, the great success of the strip translated memorably onto TV (which included enough Christmas specials to rival Disney) and even feature films. The most recent of these was last year’s delightful The Peanuts Movie, which did better justice to its predecessors than either Jurassic World or The Force Awakens.
Naturally, Peanuts has inspired other strips. Of these, the only one which truly had the same impact on pop culture was Jim Davis’s Garfield. Like Peanuts, that strip had merchandise and was adapted for both the big and small screens. Also, who hasn’t, at some point, heard a cat described as being like Garfield?
But another Peanuts-inspired strip which proved quite interesting was Calvin and Hobbes, created by Bill Watterson.
That strip, which first appeared in newspapers in November 1985, focused on a young boy named Calvin. But unlike Charlie Brown, Calvin basically delights in not seeking the approval of other children, all the while causing mischief and with quite the active imagination to boot. The strip begins with him “catching” a stuffed tiger in the woods near his home. He names this tiger Hobbes, and soon they’re constantly embarking on adventures together, even though, to anyone else, it’s simply Calvin playing with a stuffed animal.
Calvin’s imagination doesn’t stop with Hobbes, either. He often imagines himself as such figures as superhero Stupendous Man, private eye Tracer Bullet, and space explorer Spaceman Spiff. Other imaginary excursions which end up causing real mishaps include Calvin and Hobbes using a cardboard box as a time machine in one series (which they use to go back to the time of dinosaurs) and as a “transmogifier” in another series (which Calvin uses to turn himself into various animals, including a tiger).
One could describe Calvin as being as bratty as Lucy, but with Snoopy’s imagination. Hobbes, likewise, could be described as being as thoughtful as Linus, but with a bit of a mischievous streak himself.
Calvin was named for 16th Century theologian John Calvin, while Hobbes was named after 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes. This somewhat explains the characteristics of the strip’s title characters. Like his 16th Century namesake, Calvin believes he’s destined for greatness, and even views some people as beneath him. Hobbes, likewise, is a rational figure, and is willing to give consideration to others (and, unlike Calvin, doesn’t mind the opposite sex).
Indeed, many of the laughs the strips generate come from Calvin impulsively doing something he thinks is cool, despite Hobbes urging caution. For instance, there’s one series of strips in which Calvin attempts to write a report for school on bats. As he doesn’t want to go to the trouble of doing actual research, Calvin simply states that bats are bugs (despite Hobbes questioning this), and with some fancy wording and a drawing of a bat that’s simply the Batman logo with fangs, just puts his report in a clear, plastic binder, thinking he’s guaranteed an A. Calvin is then shocked that his paper got an F and promptly buries it to avoid telling his parents.
Speaking of Calvin’s parents, they’re known in this strip simply as “Mom” and “Dad”. Neither they nor Calvin are ever given a surname. Nonetheless, this fits the format of the strip fine, as Calvin never has any need to identify the two as anything other than his parents.
One could argue that Calvin gets his penchant for outrageous lies from his dad. This is because there are several strips in which Calvin’s dad lies about certain things. For instance, one strip has Dad explaining that the sun is not really big, even though Calvin read that it was. There’s also his Dad sometimes questioning if Calvin is truly his child, which is not surprisingly another aspect of the strip that drew anger from some.
The only other relative of Calvin’s we ever see is his Uncle Max. He had one brief series of strips, but Watterson then dropped him, believing that future appearances wouldn’t work given how Calvin’s parents could never be addressed by their actual names.
One character who has a surname, however, is Calvin’s neighbor/classmate Susie Derkins. These two have a love-hate relationship, to say the least. Unlike Snoopy, Calvin is anything but romantic. As is not uncommon for children his age, Calvin becomes sickened at the thought of even being near members of the opposite sex. Susie basically represents Calvin’s aversion to girls, so much so that Calvin creates a club (with only himself and Hobbes as members) called G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS).
One girl that Calvin dares not cross, though, is Rosalyn, his frequent babysitter. She wastes no time in laying down the law with Calvin, and even takes advantage of his parents’ desperation to spend time away from him by frequently asking for more money. But this doesn’t stop Calvin from at least attempting to undermine her rule. In one series, he locks himself and Hobbes in the bathroom with her school papers, which he threatens to flush down the toilet if she doesn’t get him pizza and a video player. In another clash, Calvin succeeds in locking Rosalyn out of the house so he and Hobbes can simply gorge on Oreos while watching TV shows they aren’t supposed to.
But the magic of the strip is that Calvin is capable of generating sympathy as well. Despite his parents’ near-constant frustration, there are a couple of strips of Calvin spending some pleasant time with them. There are also his encounters with school bully Moe, once described by Calvin as a six-year-old who shaves. This shows that Calvin is going through that period of life that we all go through: where you get picked on and pick on others.
Showing both the good and bad of children in this manner ended up causing controversy in some circles. Examples of this included Calvin’s dismissal of girls as well as his view of school and bodily functions. In one of the Calvin and Hobbes collections, Watterson claims that the strip was even banned in some areas. He also wondered if he would be noted for being the first to use the word “booger” in a comic strip.
However, I can’t forget the bond the title characters share. They argue and even physically brawl on occasion (naturally, nobody believes Calvin when he states that Hobbes roughs him up) but the devotion they have to each other is never in doubt. This is evident in the fact that Calvin would rather spend time playing “Calvinball” (a game in which the rules are made up as you go along) with Hobbes rather than baseball with his classmates.
Watterson, who rarely gave interviews, concluded Calvin and Hobbes with a strip published on New Year’s Eve 1995. That strip simply has our two heroes going off in a sled following a nice snow-fall, which Hobbes compares to having a new sheet of paper to draw on. Believing he carried the strip as far as he could, Watterson has since retired to private life.
Another difference between this strip and Peanuts is that there was neither any merchandise nor TV/movie specials that came out of it. The only product related to this strip I ever recall seeing are car decals of Calvin urinating (with his back to us, of course).
Given the context of what the strip presented, though, perhaps this was for the best. I don’t know if I’d want a six-year-old to watch something involving a boy boasting about how disgusting his lunch is and constantly hating girls. Another plus to this was that it allowed the audience to create the characters’ voices in their own heads, just as we could do with Snoopy (You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Snoopy: The Musical aside).
The strip’s influence continued in 2011 with the debut of the fan-made web comic Hobbes and Bacon from cartoonists Dan and Tom Heyerman. In that series, Calvin is an adult now married to (yep!) Susie, with whom they have a daughter, who’s now playing with Hobbes. That child is named for philosopher Francis Bacon.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate this review to Chuck, otherwise known as SFDebris. Just last month, he announced that he would stop taking review requests for his site at the end of September due to health issues. SFDebris began his illustrious web series with insightful and hilariously scathing reviews of Star Trek: Voyager. Since then, he’s looked at installments of other series (Trek and otherwise) as well as several movies and even some comics and video games. His work has always been inspiring to me. Sir, I wish you a complete recovery and look forward to the work you put out in the future.