‘Calvin and Hobbes’: America’s Most Profound Comic Strip
In 1985, American newspaper readers met an appalling little boy. He taunted his mother (“Prepare for annihilation, pitiful Earth female”), tormented a classmate by telling her he had brought a “thermos full of phlegm” for lunch and kept a sign on his bedroom door that read “Enter and die.” Millions fell in love with him.
Running in hundreds of papers for the following decade, Bill Watterson ’s “Calvin and Hobbes” was not only the strangest American comic strip. It was also the funniest, the most touching and the most profound.
At its simplest level, the strip is about the friendship between a bright 6-year-old misfit (Calvin) and his pet tiger (Hobbes). Its “trick” is that Hobbes is a lifeless stuffed animal when others are present and a rollicking, witty companion when they are not. So the story can be understood on many levels. It is about the richness of the imagination, the subversiveness of creativity and the irreconcilability of private yearnings and worldly reality. Where Calvin sees a leaf-monster trying to swallow him, Calvin’s father sees his troublemaker son scattering the leaf-piles he has spent all afternoon raking.
The late political scientist James Q. Wilson described “Calvin and Hobbes” as “our only popular explication of the moral philosophy of Aristotle.” Wilson meant that the social order is founded on self-control and delayed gratification—and that Calvin is hopeless at these things. Calvin thinks that “life should be more like TV” and that he is “destined for greatness” whether he does his homework or not. His favorite sport is “Calvinball,” in which he is entitled to make up the rules as he goes along.
Day-in, day-out, Calvin keeps running into evidence that the world isn’t built to his (and our) specifications. All humor is, in one way or another, about our resistance to that evidence. Read more...
Source: The Wall Street Journal, Christopher Caldwell, March 6, 2015