Friday, April 8, 2005

From the Archives: The 25 Comics I Like Best

#21: Calvin and Hobbes

by Bill Watterson

In the greatest modern variation on Don Quixote, Sancho Panza is a cynical stuffed tiger and the Don is a hyperactive young American boy.

Like Cervantes' knight, Calvin knows the difference between fantasy and reality, and, like Cervantes' knight, he is wise enough see the folly in the dogged pursuit of the merely real. Like the knight's faithful squire, Hobbes questions the prudence of unrestrained flights of fancy, and, like the knight's faithful squire, he ends up going along for the ride anyway.

Calvin is an idealist and a visionary. Thankfully, for the sake of his audience if not his parents, Calvin is also a complete pain in the ass. Hobbes is a pragmatic, down-to-earth realist. Thankfully, for the sake of his audience if not Calvin, he has a gleefully sadistic streak. Hobbes is, after all, a tiger.

One of my favorite of Kafka's paragraph-long parables, "The Truth About Sancho Panza", imagines that Don Quixote is actually an aspect of Sancho Panza that has been projected into the real world. In Calvin & Hobbes, the conceit, of course, is the opposite: Calvin, the monomanical demon, imbues his toy tiger with life, as if he was projecting his practical conscience--his super-ego, for you Freudians--into Hobbes.

Yet actually reading the comic belies this conceit: following Kafka, Calvin does seem more like Hobbes' "demon" unleashed on the world. But returning to Cervantes from Kafka, I'd argue both that Hobbes and Calvin are equally "real." It is impossible to read Hobbes as merely a figment of Calvin's overactive imagination: Hobbes is his own agent, his own entity, brought to life not by Calvin himself but by Calvin's belief in a kind of magic that is bigger than himself.

Calvin & Hobbes is not in the line of comics that try to paint a "realistic" picture of childhood. Calvin is far less like actual children than Crockett Johnson's Barnaby or the characters in John Stanley's Little Lulu. Watterson uses Calvin to do what Charles Schulz uses Charlie Brown and the gang to do in Peanuts. Schulz and Watterson use their children to externalize and dramatize the internal struggles of the human (adult) condition. (Johnson and Stanley, on the other hand, get at their truths by recreating the internal and external concerns of childhood.) This is what makes Peanuts and Calvin & Hobbes the most popular comic strips in University philosophy departments.

But while Schulz turned his brand of everyday, Mid-Western, coffee mug philosophy into bittersweet poetry, Watterson takes the syllabus of Philosophy 101 and sets it to the rhythms of farce. Watterson's greatest achievement doesn't have to do with his ideas, per se, but rather with the way he presents them. What places Watterson in the category of world-class cartoonist is his handling of farce. He is, hands-down, the greatest farceur in the comics since Carl Barks was in his prime. Everything else in the strip--its philosophical play, deft characterization, formal experimentation, kinetic line--works to serve the pursuit of its farce. It's hard to think of any other writer or artist who's managed to make metaphysical farce as enjoyable and compelling as, for example, the episode where Calvin tries to use his time machine to avoid doing homework. Watterson isn't quite Borges, but he comes as close as any other popular artist of the last 50 years.

But what really makes Calvin & Hobbes one of my favorite comics of all time is its depcition of the relationship between the boy and his tiger. There are few relationships in comics as nuanced, as compelling, or as believable as the one between Calvin and Hobbes. Watterson has made a comic that is a celebration of imagination, courage, philosophy, and exploration. Most importantly and most centrally, however, it is a celebration of friendship.

(You can read the beautiful final strip, one of my favorites, here.)