Updated: Mar 31
Newspaper comics. Normally these comics contain bright animated characters involved in a comedic scenario filled with wacky slapstick or wisecracking jokes. However, you can't always judge a book by its cover. There are comics that appear to have a lighthearted childlike on the surface when in fact what they offer is much deeper. A comic I feel is a perfect example of this is arguably one of the most important and influential to come out of newspaper comic strips: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. The comic features a mischievous 6 year old Calvin and his stuffed tiger/imaginary friend Hobbes. The stories typically involve imaginatory games, wild misadventures, troubles at home or school, quarrels with Calvin’s classmate Susie Derkins, confrontations with the school bully Moe, or, sometimes, one of these stories leads to the comic sharing deep experiences, often relatable perspectives for both younger and older readers and social commentary.
All of these events are portrayed from a very childlike perspective, yet these scenarios are often very relatable, and lots of readers can connect to them. Bill Watterson’s work portrays a unique perspective not portrayed by most other comics I’ve seen and I feel like anyone can find a Calvin and Hobbes strip that relates to an experience they’ve gone through before. His work feels as if he’s offering readers a fresh perspective and encouraging us to look at what we do in a whole new way.
To begin, let's take a look at the main character, Calvin: He’s an imaginative, mischievous child. As such an experience that’s portrayed is a child’s imagination. Throughout the comic we see Calvin imagining the wildest stories out of what seem to be simple activities. This is shown in the Spaceman Spiff stories where Calvin is imagining himself as a spaceman on a dangerous landing when going down the slide, or that he’s being held hostage by aliens to reveal secret information when he’s just going to the principal’s office for causing trouble in class.
This element of his stories does a great job of relating to audiences of all ages showing older audiences scenes of childlike innocence and imagination that they might have experienced as children, and giving younger audiences humorous and fantasy filled stories they can enjoy as well.
One more example of an experience given through a child's perspective that can also relate to older audiences is feelings of fear or being intimidated. In the comic Calvin is bullied by Moe, a much taller boy in his first grade class. Calvin sees Moe as a much more intimidating figure than he actually is. In one strip, he even goes as far as to think that Moe could potentially kill or hospitalize him.
However, there are some strips where he manages to outsmart the bully through advanced vocabulary. It's evident that Bill Watterson portrayed a fear that most people face when dealing with more intimidating people, thinking that other people are scarier than they really are.
More of these cartoons also feature the portrayal of childlike fears and dislikes in a more fantastical manner. There’s comics where Calvin fears the monsters in his closet or under his bed only to scare them off himself.
Another example is where Calvin can be seen fighting off new foods he refuses to eat showing a sense of dislike and unfamiliarity many experienced as children.
Another unique perspective provided in the comic is a love-hate relationship between Calvin and his classmate Susie Derkins. Watterson had once described it by saying "...it's taken me a while to get a bead on Susie's relationship with Calvin. I suspect Calvin has a mild crush on her that he expresses by trying to annoy her, but Susie is a bit unnerved and put off by Calvin's weirdness. This encourages Calvin to be even weirder, so it's a good dynamic".
The comics also feature some unique social commentary one wouldn’t expect from a comic where the main characters are a child and his imaginary friend. Watterson expresses issues such as war, economy, and other social commentary as even including some clever ways of putting in his own opinions about the comics he made. Some famous examples include a comic strip where Calvin discusses commercialism with Hobbes.
This is an important example as Watterson was known for his beliefs on marketing and licensing especially when it came to his strict rule that he would never want to see Calvin and Hobbes licensed for anything besides publishing although many companies reached out. He had once said “I think to license Calvin and Hobbes would ruin the most precious qualities of my strip and, once that happens, you can’t buy those qualities back.”
Another example of this includes a story where Calvin and Hobbes in an imaginary game of “War” simply ending with Calvin and Hobbes both shooting each other with their toy guns at the same time only to end with the remark that it’s “kind of a stupid game”.
While it may seem like a childish remark from Calvin there’s much deeper meaning to be interpreted from this as it appears this strip discusses how pointless and unnecessary the violence and hatefulness of war is.
Lastly another interesting theme Watterson addresses through his creation is themes of existentialism and philosophical questions. An interesting fact about this comic is that these characters are actually named after theologian John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Watterson understood that the newspapers even then competed with other forms of media such as television and radio so when presented with this opportunity to reach his readers' minds every morning through his work, he managed to do so. There are several strips addressing questions about life and our universe.
As I had previously mentioned, the comics deliver all sorts of messages, emotions, and ideas to the reader in such a beautiful and simplistic manner and offering a seemingly childlike perspective to different topics. One thing I truly admire about the comic was how the creator chose to end it with grace. He ended the comic on his own terms and really took control of his creation in doing so. While there are some comics that still continue for a seemingly endless amount of time and still do to this day, Calvin and Hobbes had a finite run and its last strip in 1995 delivered a beautiful message of new possibilities to explore. It begins with Calvin and Hobbes going outside on what seems to be new years morning after it had been snowing and going exploring on a sled. It managed to go out with the same sense of imagination and exploration it started with.