Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Literary Qualities of Calvin & Hobbes

Nearly every intelligent person's favorite comic strip seems to be Calvin & Hobbes. Although I hesitate to include myself in the "especially intelligent" category, Calvin & Hobbes has been a presence in my life since I can remember. My first C&H book was "Revenge of the Baby-Sat," which is now in shreds, torn apart by overuse. I have since acquired nearly all of the published volumes, including the wonderful Tenth Anniversary Book, and the final word on C&H, the elephantine three-volume set The Complete Calvin & Hobbes
          I have been rather sick lately and instead of being a good Rice student and feverishly getting some readings done, I have glued much of my attention, once again, to the spiky-haired little boy and the sardonic stuffed tiger that so impressed upon me, at an early age, the importance of being a little wild. But the more I read of them, the more I realize that there is real substance there, a distinct anti-modernism and Epicurean outlook towards life that I did not have the faculty or the vocabulary to understand in my early years. Looking back, I wonder how subversive those funny panels really were, and if they made me what I am today in some subtle way (Epicurean and anti-modern). I think the duo would approve of their own actions, because, after all, "every good club needs a secret code!"

          Bill Watterson, in his Tenth Anniversary Book, explicitly denied an ideological or philosophical connection to John Calvin or Thomas Hobbes. In fact, the pair seem to be the very opposites of their namesakes; Calvin is anything but unwaveringly moral, and Hobbes is distinctly anti-authoritarian. He even lets Calvin be the "Dictator-for-Life" in G.R.O.S.S (Get Rid Of Slimy girlS). But generally, the attitude of the strips both daily and Sunday are philosophical; meditating on the biggest and best questions and conundrums of modern life and thought. The most striking philosophical waxing happens in the wagon or on the sled, tumbling down hills, or walks in the forest looking for "weird stuff," or, my personal favorites, around the snowmen that Calvin insists are high art (that is, until he learns that he can sell them).
          Watterson uses Calvin as the exemplar of our times. He is a child lost in his imagination and seems never to age, although many winters and school-years pass without a birthday. He dresses comfortably, hates his parents, but more sharply hates any authority figure, preferring to internalize them as monsters or aliens. Watterson uses Calvin's assertions to demonstrate how wrong he is about everything, or at least how ridiculous it is. But Calvin wouldn't mind this in the slightest—his willful obliviousness is the source of humor in the strip, and also the source of pathos; we know people who hold the same ridiculous positions as Calvin does (sometimes, scarily, he is ourselves). But Hobbes serves as the empathetic foil to Calvin's nihilistic philosophizing. He expresses himself as the quiet questioner, who really hammers in his point with a quip at the end of each dialogue. Perhaps this is Watterson himself talking. Who knows? 

          What philosophical issues does Watterson tackle? As I mentioned before, he runs the course, commenting on all the important questions of life and death: our relationship to the universe and each other, our relationship to animals and nature, literature, aesthetics, science, ethics, politics, economics, time, love, and on and on. He gives specific formats for the discussion of each one of these topics, and I'd like to go over them now with you, with some examples to boot. I think these are some of the most interesting and important (and distinctive) issues he deals with.

          Science, Human Progress & the Cardboard Box:
             Calvin's special Cardboard Box serves as everything science has ever dreamed of: the Transmogrifier, the Cerebral Enhance-atron, the Time Machine, the Duplicator, and anything that Calvin has a pressing need of. It seems that whenever he wants to get out of work, or bend the forces of nature, he uses his intense imagination to build some save-all contraption. But he always lands himself in far more trouble than he was in at first! It's also unimpressive (as Hobbes says, "scientific progress goes, 'Boink?!'"), and often destructive. Take for instance his creation of the "deranged mutant killer monster snow goon," which is a retelling of Frankenstein and the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Even though he defeats them eventually (by freezing the original snow goon and his mutant snowman creations with the garden hose) at considerable cost to his family (who have a yard covered in ice and weird snowmen), he refuses to learn the lesson, saying to Hobbes that the moral of the story is "Snow Goons are Bad News." When Hobbes points out the limited applicability of such an aphorism, Calvin replies, just like an impetuous scientist "I like maxims that don't encourage behavior modification.
          What Watterson is commenting on here is the overwhelming arrogance of the scientific community messing with things they don't understand or control, like time and genes and mutant snowmen. It's a classic theme, with the same dire warning: we humans cannot delve into the mysteries of the universe without botching it, blundering as much as possible, and then refusing to learn the lesson. A distinctly anti-modern viewpoint, that, and one that suggests that humans in their current form are as good as we're gonna get without hurting ourselves. Stay out of the Cardboard Box, says Watterson.

So that's part one. Look out next week for a new theme chosen from Calvin & Hobbes.

Next Week: Warm Tapioca: Calvin and Television

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