Review of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury by Bill Watterson
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury
by Bill Watterson
My dad gave me this book Christmas 2009, and I prior to reading it last week, I had not experienced Calvin and Hobbes. Well, that isn't completely true. I had read one or two strips, I suppose. Seen other people reading it. But I hadn't experienced it. I had not sat down with a thick, luscious book full of Calvin and Hobbes strips, full of wonderful, pinpoint and intelligent humour.
When I did finally sit down, I fell in love. So to all my friends out there: how dare you not kidnap me and force-feed me Calvin and Hobbes? For shame!
I fell in love with the way Bill Watterson portrays the truth and beauty of the universe through the cheeky eyes of a young boy. Children, lacking the filters that most adults come to acquire, often say the darnednest things, and Calvin says a lot that falls into that category. Calvin refuses to eat something on his plate, observing wryly that "you know you won't like it when they won't tell you what it is." Calvin, ever street-smart, sneaks out of bed late at night, then phones his house from a pay phone (remember those?) to say, "Hello, Dad! It is now three in the morning. Do you know where I am?" Precocious, clever, and self-aware, Calvin embodies that spark, dare I say that joie de vivre, that we all seek to retain from childhood.
I speak with the perspective of a 21-year-old who never wanted to grow up, but in spite of my best efforts, managed to do it anyway. Maturity sneaked up on me, stalked me, and played a game of cat-and-mouse through my adolescent years. Eventually, fortunately or unfortunately, it won. Which is not to say that I have entirely abandoned my childhood glee, my sense of wonder—I do, after all, read science fiction; in November I got involved in an awesome snowball fight with my coworkers. And I know now what I did not know as a child: it is tough to keep your child-like enthusiasm when the world expects you, requires you to be an adult.
So I think a child, an adolescent, or an older adult are all going to get something different from Calvin and Hobbes than I will. We all might find the strips funny, but our core enjoyment is going to come from an identification that is different for each of us. Calvin and Hobbes has a broad appeal, but it is not the same appeal to everyone. For me, it is a nostalgic retrospective on the days I have left behind. Not that I was ever a trouble-maker like Calvin, oh no. I did not launch wagons into lakes or trees. I was not a terror of babysitters, and as far as I know, I never flooded the bathroom while struggling against a shark in the bathtub. Nevertheless, there is something universal to the childhood experience about Calvin's exuberance. And now here I am, in my third decade, trying to reconnect with that aspect of my life.
The brilliance of these comic strips go deeper than just nostalgia. There is something profound about Calvin and Hobbes. At the same time that these two are cooking up a scheme straight out of—well, the comic books—and we are laughing right along with them, suddenly Hobbes will spring a Big Question on us:
Calvin: do you believe in Fate? Hobbes: You mean, that our lives are predestined? Calvin: Yeah ... that the things we do are inevitable. Hobbes: What a scary thought.
Hobbes says this last part as the wagon they are in goes careening off a dock into a lake, possibly as part of a crazy Calvin venture to jump across the lake in their wagon.
There is just such a broad range of humour and tone to these strips. Watterson takes us from the fantastical Spaceman Spiff sketches to the hilarious and intelligent insults Calvin hurls at his crush, Susie: "I hope you suffer a debilitating brain aneurysm, you freak!" (Which, if an adult uttered this, would be horrible; and in the real world, let's face it, a child might get soap mouthwash. But for me reading Calvin, it's just adorable.) And from these strips, Watterson takes us even further, to ponder those Big Questions of the universe—fun, yes, and funny, but those strips tend to end with a question mark hovering above them.
Reading Calvin and Hobbes also affirms my opinion that comics are a sublime form of literature, and those snobs who look down their noses at this form as somehow "childish" or "immature" are poopyheads. Maybe you don't like Calvin and Hobbes—or perhaps, like me, you've merely never experienced it. Still, Calvin and Hobbes demonstrates the power of the comic form, that essential marriage of witty wordplay with evocative pictures, to convey both humourous and serious subjects. This is a medium that can tell amazing stories, stories both vast and magnificent in scope yet intimate and human in significance. From superheroes to supervillains to ordinary, everday kids, comic strips are awesome. They connect us to our imagination in a way few literary forms can manage. Don't get me wrong; I love novels with a white-hot passion. But there is something just so basic—and I think it is this primal element that snobs confuse with immaturity—to the comic form that makes it so versatile and powerful.