Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses! Sometimes we’ll look back at an essential part of the last twenty-five years of geek history. Today: A comic strip about a boy and his tiger.
I don’t think we love Calvin and Hobbes enough, and I’m trying to figure out whether I’m crazy for thinking that or if everyone else is crazy for not realizing that. I do know that saying “Calvin and Hobbes is underrated” is the equivalent of arguing that Meryl Streep deserves more Oscars, or that Breaking Bad didn’t get enough respect. Bill Watterson published the comic strip from 1985 through 1995, and during that time it became so popular that he was allowed to colonize half a page of every Sunday newspaper in the nation — a move that initially smacked of hubris but produced some of the greatest artwork in the history of the newspaper comic strip.
Of course, Watterson also came in at the end: The idea of the Newspaper Comic Strip as a popular form is a remnant of an earlier era. It’s possible that even at its peak popularity, Calvin and Hobbes was experienced less on the cartoon page and more in a series of lavishly adorned book-sized collections. This, at least, is how I remember the strip entering my life: In quickly tattered copies of Yukon Ho! and Weirdos From Another Planet! and Scientific Progress Goes “Boink” and Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons, one of the best titles in the history of naming things.
I was thinking about Calvin and Hobbes this week for two reasons. First, because it’s Polar Vortex month in New York City. I grew up in California, so my only real experience of Serious Winter came from Calvin and Hobbes. (I can vividly remember feeling disappointed the first time I tried to build a snowman and realized it was surprisingly hard to build a snowman bowling alley.) Second, because I recorded a podcast Wednesday about Rick and Morty and Adventure Time, two very different animated shows on a roughly equivalent wavelength. Both shows star a lead duo with roughly equivalent personalities: A dangerously fearless explorer and a more careful straight man. Both shows freely explore the far-flung reaches of imagination, in worlds that can veer between deep science-fiction and cheesy fantasy.
Both shows feel a little like Calvin and Hobbes (and, I should note, have plenty of other influences they wear proudly on their sleeve). In fact, a lot of things feel a little like Calvin and Hobbes. But the comic strip form has changed since 1995. You could argue that it has expanded in several different directions — that the internet has given artists the ability to go far beyond the limits of the four-panel daily strip. But as with so many other media, the evolution of the comic strip has also meant a decentralization of the audience. The craziest thing about Calvin and Hobbes is that it was artistic, philosophical, filled with prickly characters, and shot through with the very personal belief system of its utterly unique creator — and this was hugely popular.
And yet, you sometimes get the sense that Calvin and Hobbes‘ cultural footprint is shrinking. I realize that this is purely anecdotal, but I also think it’s true. There’s a sizable part of the internet that runs on nostalgia laser-focused on the late ’80s and early ’90s — Disney princesses, TGIF, the idea that Full House was watchable, the idea that Jared Leto ever wasn’t annoying — but Calvin and Hobbes seems to occupy a weird nether region, neither popular enough nor stupid enough to lend itself to our modern meme-generation culture. Last year somebody did a “gritty reboot” of Calvin and Hobbes, and I find the vast majority of gritty reboots of non-gritty things to be absolutely hilarious. This one just lay there.
Part of the problem, I think, is that Calvin and Hobbes was ahead of its time. Watterson’s key creative idea to turn the strip into a running portrait of Calvin’s imagination meant that some of the strip’s best moments already were hilariously gritty reboots, fan fiction, the basic outline of Calvin’s life constantly being reappropriated by its own creator. Spaceman Spiff, Tracer Bullet, Stupendous Man: any one of Calvin’s alternate personalities could have been comic strips unto themselves.
But by the same token, the strip doesn’t lend itself to ready simplification. As the strip went on, Watterson often focused much of his attention on the gorgeous Sunday strips, but for me, the real bread and butter of Calvin and Hobbes were the dialogue-heavy weekday strips. The characters talked a lot, often about the things that interested Watterson. There’s a great run of strips from late February 1990 where Calvin decides that he’s not making snowmen, he’s making snow art. Here’s a sampling of words that appear in those strips: Transience, Evanescence, Abstraction, “Corporeal Likeness,” Representationalism, Oeuvre, Monochromatic. The whole thing feels like a jab at self-important artists, a possible self-critique of Watterson’s own ambitions, and an inquisition into just what the hell “art” is supposed to be.
This is all heavy stuff that probably went over all of our heads when we were young; rereading the scripts now, the density of ideas is remarkable. This is also the comic strip that frequently spent Sundays with the characters just sledding down a hill, chatting about like life or something.
Still, Peanuts was plenty philosophical, and it still occupies a central role in American culture, if only because each holiday season brings a replay of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Which brings up the other central weirdness of Calvin and Hobbes: It’s a popular work whose popularity entirely derived from the work itself. Watterson famously refused to create lots of Calvin merchandise, an idea that already seemed bold in 1990 and seems positively unthinkable today. Although a great fan of animation, Watterson never let the strip get turned into an animated series. Calvin and Hobbes is just Calvin and Hobbes. And for what it’s worth, it’s not like Watterson refused the licensing because of some anti-corporate ideology or a fear of selling out: As he explained in 2005, he just felt like merchandising violated the spirit of the strip. It was a distraction he didn’t want.
We’re deep into the era of franchises that crisscross media and last for decades; many of those franchises turn out very well indeed. But there’s something weird and personal about Calvin and Hobbes that you rarely experience in popular culture today. It’s something that came entirely from one person’s head; and in a way, it’s a strip about being inside of your head, about imagination and anxiety and the sense that you are always learning an unhelpful lesson from a confusing universe. I wonder sometimes if the reason we don’t talk enough about Calvin and Hobbes is that we all feel weirdly too much like Calvin, living inside fantasy worlds, talking to imaginary friends.
But it’s wrong to describe Calvin and Hobbes as a series of concepts. To do so would render the strip into an intimidating and impenetrable fog. (Title of my dissertation: The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Calvin and Hobbes.) Probably better to say that Calvin and Hobbes both defined its time and yet floated above it. Read it today and it hasn’t aged a day; read it today, and tell me you wouldn’t drop everything to play Calvinball just once.