Comics are often associated with light-heartedness and fun, but a comic strip like Calvin and Hobbes demonstrates the medium is capable of depth and complication.
The greatest works of literature are often noted for their unrivaled depth and profound insights into human nature. With this in mind, we could see why many would think to overlook cartoons when considering meaningful literature. Yet while it is hidden behind a comic façade and witty humor, Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes engages readers with deep conversations and thought-provoking advice. Watterson does this by following Calvin and Hobbes through the normal adventures of a six-year-old boy.
Calvin and Hobbes is typically light and humorous, but at times Calvin can change the mood by trying to understand weighty subjects. One memorable instance of this is a scene of Calvin and Hobbes sledding down a hill while barely avoiding trees. Calvin asks if Hobbes believes in reincarnation and Hobbes responds by covering his eyes in fear, saying, “You just steer, okay.”
Calvin often displays an uncharacteristically deep understanding of many very complicated topics, which ironically contrasts with his frequent struggles in school. Watterson uses Calvin building snowmen to discuss and criticize art in its many forms. In one scene Calvin creates a snowman that he claims is avant-garde but is a traditional snowman. When Hobbes asks how the snowman is avant-garde Calvin says, “It’s secretly ironic” (The Days Are Just Packed). This is a jab by Watterson at the avant-garde movement and the works that are claimed under this category of art.
There are many parts of Calvin and Hobbes that can be seen as dark and grim in comparison to the style of most comics. Some scenes can be compared to elements of Maus by Art Spiegelman, which is a depiction of the Holocaust in a graphic novel format. Many of the characters that Calvin imagines himself being, such as Spaceman Spiff or Stupendous Man, take place in very dark scenes and usually pit his alter ego at odds with some horrifying creature. This, along with the grotesque nature of many of his snowmen creations, shows how brutal and abnormal his imagination can be at times. His parents show concern when they walk outside and see a scene that shows a snowman as if it had been hit by a car and other snowmen looking in horror at the dismembered pieces lying on the ground. Calvin’s dad says jokingly, “I think we’d better get that kid to a psychologist” (The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes).
Many might call this dark approach a step away from good storytelling, but I believe that the broadened perspective of Calvin’s character gives us better look into the human nature that Watterson tries to portray. I believe that Watterson tries to show us that, compared to the grand scale of the universe, we as humans hold very little significance. This is prevalent when Calvin and Hobbes use their wagon to travel to Mars and Calvin reflects upon seeing the tiny blue speck that is the now distant earth. Calvin points out, “Space travel makes you realize how small we really are,” and continues by suggesting, “Surely we’re all part of some great design, no more or less important than anything else in the universe” (Weirdos from Another Planet). The frequent scenes of Calvin pondering human existence leads us to discover the folly of human nature that Watterson attempts to illustrate.
Calvin and Hobbes is an excellent example of the comic medium being pushed beyond simple humor to express ideas in a creative but enjoyable manner. Calvin and Hobbes will continue to delight in its timeless art and witty humor that make us ponder our world and wish for our nostalgic past at the same time.
Watterson, Bill. Calvin and Hobbes. Scholastic Inc., 1987.
Watterson, Bill. The Authoritative Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury. Andrews and McMeel, 2015.
Watterson, Bill. The Days Are Just Packed: a Calvin and Hobbes Collection. Scholastic Inc., 1993.
Watterson, Bill. Weirdos from Another Planet. Scholastic Inc., 1990.