The Joy and Darkness of Calvin and Hobbes

I was excited to learn that a documentary about the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes is in the works. My daughter got into the comic strip a while back and just recently my son has been asking me to read it to him. The rereading experience has been strange because the comics, which I first read when I was about ten years old, read so differently to me now.

Many cultural products for childen are intended to appeal, often on the sly, to adults, and it can sometimes feel dishonest, all this talking over kids' heads. I rememebr a New Yorker cartoon that showed two kids walking out of a movie theater, one saying to the other, "It was okay, but there were too many wisecracks for the grownups." I worried that Calvin and Hobbes might come off that way. A lot of the jokes seemed to be over my son's head.

But I've since come to think that the comic was written almost like an optical illusion, with two different shapes visible depending on how you choose to see it. Kids see more of the the antics, the joy, the frustration of being a kid, and grown ups see more of the cultural commentary and the struggle of Calvin's hilarious, exhausted parents. What I love is how Watterson manages to make Calvin so much more than just a wisecracking, trouble-making kid, but someone with equal parts joy and darkness. He captures something I've seen in my own children but rarely see in portrayals of children: that mixture of curiosity, wonder, defiance, narcissism, and outright nihilism.

Calvin and Hobbes Strip

But what makes the comic an enduring work of genius, of course, is the character of Hobbes the tiger, serving both as Calvin's conscience and a stand in for the wisdom of nature in opposition to human folly. And the genius is never knowing whether Hobbes is a part of Calvin or his own separate magical being. I wrote about Bill Watterson for The Writer's Almanac years ago, and I'll never forget Watterson's explanation for why he never licensed his creation for merchandise: "My strip is about private realities, the magic of imagination, and the specialness of certain friendships. [No one] would believe in the innocence of a little kid and his tiger if they cashed in on their popularity to sell overpriced knickknacks that nobody needs."