The other day I mentioned the wondrous sport of Calvinball to a guy just a few years younger than I am and got a blank reaction. It was depressing and enlightening at the same time. My family and I are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes, the classic comic strip by Bill Watterson, but it’s coming up on twenty years since the strip went out of print.
That’s kind of sobering. I know I wanted to learn to read so I didn’t have to bug my older sister to read Calvin and Hobbes to me when the newspaper came each day. Calvin and Hobbes was a classic comic strip rivaled only by Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and, just like Peanuts, it offered a lot of cool things crammed into three or four black and white panels a day. So if you’ve never heard of Calvin and Hobbes, sit down and I’ll enlighten you! If you’re already a fan, join me in a bit of wistful reminiscing.
The main characters of Watterson’s comic strip are the eponymous Calvin and Hobbes. No, it’s not a comic strip about philosophers and theologians, although Watterson did sometimes ponder the deeper questions in an effort to bring a little class to the mostly practical or even flat and uninteresting “funny” pages. But the wild, hyperactive six year old Calvin and the sardonic, laid back stuffed tiger Hobbes were named for philosophers and theologians, and from the beginning hinted at something different about this little comic.
Many things about Calvin and Hobbes made it cool. Calvin was a wild child and a firebrand, constantly raging at any and every problem in the world around him, no matter how small or trivial. He would assault them with vigor and imagination, displaying a vocabulary light-years beyond most children the age of six, making one wonder how he could consistently get such bad grades in school. In addition to his clever verbal rants, Calvin also approached problems with a great deal of creativity and well applied tools, such as his sled, red wagon and cardboard boxes.
Watterson fearlessly delved into Calvin’s imaginary worlds, showing us Calvin’s many alter egos and the real life circumstances that inspired his flights of fancy with equal whimsy and enthusiasm. He might appear as a dinosaur, a space faring explorer or a hard-boiled detective, inserting the people he knows into whatever role is appropriate at the time (although the school teacher, Ms. Wormwood, was almost always a monstrous space alien.)
Hobbes, part time stuffed animal full time tiger, was an interesting example of this. Calvin finds Hobbes in a “tiger trap” he dug outside his house. Neither of his parents see Hobbes before Calvin drags him in over one shoulder. To most of the cast, Hobbes looks like an ordinary stuffed animal, but to Calvin he’s a living, thinking anthropomorphic tiger who frequently displays more good sense than Calvin does. In one of the clever moves that gave Calvin and Hobbes it’s defining flavor, we’re never really told exactly what Hobbes is. While only Calvin sees him as anything other than a stuffed animal, we frequently see Calvin in situations he couldn’t realistically have gotten into without the help of someone else. And that stuffed tiger is the only other one around…
Calvin lives in a world with varying levels of definition. For example, his parents are never named, and most people he knows have either fist names or last names, never both. Character who threatened that ambiguity, like Calvin’s Uncle Max, were quickly removed. Calvin, it seems, has the potential to be any hyperactive child we meet. Perhaps a warning to those of us who have gotten older and forgotten the days when scientific progress did, indeed, go “boink”.
But to me, the seminal moments in Calvin and Hobbes were always when the Time Fractal Wickets were taken out and they’d play Calvinball. There rules were simple – make it up as you go along and never use the same rule twice. It was a mad, slap-dash sprint through a dozen different sports with the ultimate goal of having fun and pushing your creativity. Just watching them playing it made your creative juices flow better.
Through the course of it’s ten years of publishing (interspersed with sabbaticals by the author), Calvin and Hobbes introduced us to all sorts of weird and wonderful things. The G.R.O.S.s. club, dedicated to the annoyance of Susie Derkins (the only major character with a first and last name!), dozens of different kinds of weird snowmen (some of which moved around on their own and propagated the species!), and the cardboard box Duplicators and Transmogrifiers. We went up and down hills, around rocks and trees and into bushes while being taken on kinetic meditations on politics, philosophy and human nature. And at the end, we watched our friends sail off into the snow, crisp and clean like a blank sheet of paper. I have no doubt their adventures there were and are just as great as the ones they shared with us.
Watterson was very critical of the relationship between comic artists, newspapers and syndicates, and he felt that as long as the medium remained constrained by their demands it wouldn’t grow and would most likely grow stagnant and die. Two years after the disappearance of Calvin and Hobbes, Pete Abrams started publishing Sluggy Freelance and Illiad joined in with User Friendly just a short time later. As two of the longest running webcomics in existence in many ways they mark the beginning of the end of syndicate/newspaper domination of comics. Fifteen years later, they continue to thrive. Many others have come and gone in that time and, while none have the whimsy or imagination of Calvin and Hobbes, maybe for Bill Watterson it’s enough to have a step in the right direction…