Calvin and Hobbes – The Themes
Calvin and Hobbes is a syndicated daily comic strip that was written and illustrated by American cartoonist Bill Watterson, and syndicated from November 18, 1985, to December 31, 1995. It follows the humorous antics of Calvin, a precocious and adventurous six-year-old boy, and Hobbes, his sardonic stuffed tiger. The pair are named after John Calvin, a 16th-century French Reformation Theologian, and Thomas Hobbes, a 17th-century English political philosopher. At the height of its popularity, Calvin and Hobbes was featured in over 2,400 newspapers worldwide; as of January 2010, reruns of the strip still appear in more than 50 countries. Nearly 45 million copies of the 18 Calvin and Hobbes book have been sold.
Calvin and Hobbes is set in the contemporary United States in an unspecified suburban area. The strip depicts Calvin’s flights of fantasy and his friendship with Hobbes, and also examines Calvin’s relationships with family and classmates. Hobbes’ dual nature is a defining motif for the strip: to Calvin, Hobbes is a live anthropomorphic tiger; all the other characters see him as an inanimate stuffed toy. Though the series does not mention specific political figures or current events, it does explore broad issues like environmentalism, public education, and the flaws of opinion polls.
Watterson used the strip to poke fun at the art world, principally through Calvin’s unconventional creations of snowmen but also through other expressions of childhood art. When Miss Wormwood complains that he is wasting class time drawing impossible things (a Stegosaurus in a rocket ship, for example), Calvin proclaims himself “on the cutting edge of the avant-garde.” He begins exploring the medium of snow when a warm day melts his snowman. His next sculpture “speaks to the horror of our own mortality, inviting the viewer to contemplate the evanescence of life.” In further strips, Calvin’s creative instincts diversify to include sidewalk drawings (or, as he terms them, examples of “suburban post-modernism”).
Watterson also lampooned the academic world. In one example, Calvin writes a “revisionist autobiography,” recruiting Hobbes to take pictures of him doing stereotypical kid activities like playing sports in order to make him seem more well-adjusted. In another strip, he carefully crafts an “artists statement,” claiming that such essays convey more messages than artworks themselves ever do (Hobbes blandly notes, “You misspelled Weltanschauung”). He indulges in what Watterson calls “pop psychobabble” to justify his destructive rampages and shift blame to his parents, citing “toxic co-dependency.” In one instance, he pens a book report based on the theory that the purpose of academic writing is to “inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity,” titled The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes. Displaying his creation to Hobbes, he remarks, “Academia, here I come!” Watterson explains that he adapted this jargon (and similar examples from several other strips) from an actual book of art criticism.
Overall, Watterson’s satirical essays serve to attack both sides, criticizing both the commercial mainstream and the artists who are supposed to be “outside” it.
Calvin and Hobbes frequently ride downhill in a wagon, sled, or toboggan, depending on the season, as a device to add some physical comedy to the strip and because, according to Watterson, “it’s a lot more interesting … than talking heads.” While the ride is sometimes the focus of the strip, it also frequently serves as a counterpoint or visual metaphor while Calvin ponders the meaning of life, death, God, or a variety of other weighty subjects.
Calvin has had several adventures involving corrugated cardboard boxes, which he adapts for many different uses. In one strip, during which Calvin shows off his Transmogrifier, a device that transforms its user into any desired shape, Hobbes remarks, “It’s amazing what they do with corrugated cardboard these days.”
Calvinball is a game played by Calvin and Hobbes as a rebellion against organized team sports; according to Hobbes, “No sport is less organized than Calvinball!” Calvinball was first introduced to the readers at the end of a 1990 storyline involving Calvin reluctantly joining recess baseball. It quickly became a staple of the comic afterwards. The only consistent rule states that Calvinball may never be played with the same rules twice. Scoring is also arbitrary, with Hobbes at times reporting scores of “Q to 12” and “oogy to boogy.” The only recognizable sports Calvinball resembles are the ones it emulates (i.e., a cross between croquet, polo, badminton, capture the flag, and volleyball.)
Calvin often creates horrendous/dark humor scenes with his snowmen. He uses the snowman for social commentary, revenge, or pure enjoyment. Calvin’s snow art is often used as a commentary on art in general.
G.R.O.S.S., which stands for Get Rid Of Slimy girlS, is a club which consists only of two members: Calvin and Hobbes. They hold meetings to attempt to annoy Susie Derkins.
There are 18 Calvin and Hobbes books, published from 1987 to 2005. These include 11 collections, which form a complete archive of the newspaper strips, except for a single daily strip from November 28, 1985. (The collections do contain a strip for this date, but it is not the same strip that appeared in some newspapers. Treasuries usually combine the two preceding collections with bonus material and include color reprints of Sunday comics.) Watterson claims he named the books the “Essential, Authoritative, and Indispensable” because, as he says in The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, the books are “obviously none of these things”.