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WHY CALVIN AND HOBBES IS

GREAT LITERATURE
ON THE ONTOLOGY OF A STUFFED TIGER AND
FINDING THE WHOLE WORLD IN A COMIC
July 18, 2016

By Gabrielle Bellot

“To an editor,” Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and


Hobbes, wrote in 2001, “space may be money, but to a
cartoonist, space is time. Space provides the tempo and rhythm
of the strip.” Watterson was right, perhaps in more ways than he
knew. Newspaper comics, he wrote, provide a unique space for
many readers before they start their day; we get to pass, briefly,
through a door into a calmer, simpler world, where the
characters often remain largely the same, even down to their
clothing. Not all newspaper comics are like this, of course,
particularly the more complex narrative comics of the past
like Little Nemo in Slumberland or Terry and the Pirates, and the
worst comics—of which there are many—retain that sense of
sameness by being formulaic and uninspired. But this, too, is
related to space. Space, broadly speaking, is what defines Calvin
and Hobbes.
The strip follows Calvin, a blonde six-year-old American that
Watterson named after the founder of Calvinism. Calvin’s first
appearance was actually in a rejected strip from before Calvin
and Hobbes called Critturs, in which he is the younger brother of
the main character; the syndicate suggested he focus on this
sibling instead, and that led to the creation of his flagship comic.
Often, Calvin’s imagination represents a more exciting, more
marvelous vision of the world around him; instead of listening in
class to Miss Wormwood (herself named for C. S. Lewis’s
apprentice devil in The Screwtape Letters), he may be dreaming
of fleeing from aliens in other galaxies. An only child, Calvin’s
best friend is a tiger named Hobbes, himself named for the
author of Leviathan. To everyone but Calvin, Hobbes appears to
be a stuffed tiger, while Hobbes is a real, talking tiger to Calvin.
In Watterson’s words, Hobbes’s true nature is never fully defined
by the strip, which is one of its beauties; Hobbes is a kind of
ontological marvel, and yet utterly mundane all the same, for he
is whatever he needs to be for whomever is perceiving him.
Calvin and Hobbes feels so inventive because it is: the
strips take us to new planets, to parodies of film noir, to the
Cretaceous period, to encounters with aliens in American suburbs
and bicycles coming to life and reality itself being revised into
Cubist art. Calvin and Hobbes ponder whether or not life and art
have any meaning—often while careening off the edge of a cliff
on a wagon or sled. At times, the strip simply abandons panels
or dialogue altogether, using black and white space and wordless
narrative in fascinating ways. Like Alice, Calvin shrinks in one
sequence, becoming tiny enough to transport himself on a
passing house fly; in another, he grows larger than the planet
itself. In “Nauseous Nocturne,” a poem in The Essential Calvin
and Hobbes that reads faintly like a parody of Poe, Watterson
treats us to lovely art and to absurd yet brilliant lines like “Oh,
blood-red eyes and tentacles! / Throbbing, pulsing ventricles!
Mucus-oozing pores and frightful claws! / Worse, in terms of
outright scariness, / Are the suckers multifarious / That grab and
force you in its mighty jaws”; the “disgusting aberration”
“demonstrates defenestration” at the sight of Hobbes. In one
gloriously profane strip, Calvin even becomes an ancient,
vengeful god who attempts to sacrifice humanity. Nothing,
except perhaps the beauty of imagination, is sacred here.
Watterson dissolves the boundaries of highbrow and lowbrow art.
The comic’s freedom is confined—it’s not totally random—yet the
depths it can go to feel fathomless all the same. Few other strips
allow themselves such vastness.
I’ve always loved the way that the best books—including
comics—change as we do. The narrator of Borges’s “The Book of
Sand” receives an inscrutable book from a bible-seller that
literally changes every time he opens it, for it is impossible to
find the same page twice; conversely, another of Borges’s
protagonists, Funes the Memorious from the story of the same
name, cannot forget anything he reads or perceives at all. Reality
is somewhere in the middle of these extremes. Some books are
palaces or grand multilayered structures like the etchings of
Piranesi; we may only find secret doors and halls and rooms in
them on our second or fourth reads, and there are some doors
one reader may stumble upon that no one else ever will,
including the writer of said text. “The days are just packed,”
Calvin tells Hobbes in one of Watterson’s strips, in a line that
would serve as the title for a collection. And so is the comic itself,
which I’ve reread in its entirety many times, and yet I keep
finding new little hidden rooms in it.
I’ve gotten more into comics as I’ve grown older, but Calvin
and Hobbes is the one that has stayed with me from childhood
to adulthood. Though focused on suburban American characters,
it crossed cultural borders for me in Dominica because so much
of it seemed universal. I lived at the edge of a mountain village,
and on the days when the wind had stopped blowing and
everything felt still and stricken with the melancholy of a too-
short Sunday I enjoyed retreating into a room and disappearing
into the world of a book collection of Calvin and Hobbes. (I had
them all.) Then someone would call me through the halls of our
house, or I would simply look up, and it was like waking from a
trance. Suddenly, it would be evening, the wind up our mountain
like the breaking of soft sea waves, the brown moths already
crashing madly into the lamps or dying in the wax pool of a lit
candle, the breadfruit leaves already like the silhouettes of
monstrous bats in the dark, the night already having begun to
put on her starry pearls. I loved disappearing into beloved books
and reappearing into reality, with a shock, some hours later.
Later in my life, Calvin and Hobbes took on a new,
unexpected shade of meaning. I was born two years after
Watterson began the strip. At 27, I came out as a transgender
woman and left my home in the Caribbean because I did not feel
safe being openly trans there. Calvin and Hobbes is certainly not
a text about queerness, yet when I returned to it at this altered
point in my life, the strip suddenly seemed to describe things
that resonated with me now: what it was like to live in a world
where expressing your realest self is so often penalized, and the
value of finding a second family, a close friend or friends, if your
blood family fails to understand or accept the truest version of
you. Calvin, I realized, could never fully be himself; the worlds
he dreamt up were always lovelier and more marvelous than the
dull world he was supposed to live in. It reminded me of the
pressures I had felt to try to pretend to be what the largely anti-
queer society I’d grown up in wanted me to be: straight, cis. And
yet he, like me, had found a friend, Hobbes, outside of his blood
family who understood him, and who allowed him to live out his
dreams—an analogue for what those of us are queer and whose
comings-out do not go so well will probably well understand.
These are broad themes, but the strip contains them in
abundance. Suddenly, the world of the comic seemed a little
bigger, like its space in my heart.

****

Comics, if we define them at their broadest as sequential


art, have been with us from the beginning, on the walls of caves,
on the sides of pottery, and in how we translated the many
languages of starry night skies into our own, simplifying the
chaos of why-are-we-here into creations. And when we remove
their words altogether, comics suddenly create a new potential
for language: a universal form, a language without language that
all may be able to understand, a rejection—and resurrection—of
the Tower of Babel.
In their more modern form, the earliest comic, arguably, is
from 1825, in the Glasgow Looking-Glass. In 1837, Rodolphe
Topffer published The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck, which
some critics consider the earliest comic book, and comics that
offered social critiques and comedy became more common
throughout the 19th century, like the anarchic Punch series or
George Cruikshank’s political and satirical illustrations. A major
milestone comes in 1895 with the publication of Richard
Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley, which featured one of the first highly
recognizable, recurring Sunday comic characters. Newspaper
comics become much more popular in the early 20th century,
and this was when, Watterson argues in The Calvin and Hobbes
Tenth Anniversary Book, they were at their peak, as the space
allotted to certain comics was far greater than that allotted to
any modern newspaper comic. Without this great space,
narrative, pictorially complex comics like Winsor McCay’s
internationally influential Little Nemo in Slumberland would have
been impossible, and the absurd, Kafka-meets-Surrealist world
of comics like Herriman’s Krazy Kat would have been far more
difficult to sell.
An oft-overlooked but critical development in the early
20th century is the wordless novel, a powerful yet short-lived
genre that is essentially the proto-graphic novel. Wordless novels
were just that: book-length narratives told without a single word,
relayed entirely though images, which were woodblock cuts or
wood engravings. They originated primarily with Frans Masereel
in Germany and came to prominence in the United States with
the landmark publication in 1929 of Lynd Ward’s incredible Gods’
Man: A Novel in Woodcuts. It is no coincidence they emerged at
the same time that newspaper comics were at their peak and
that silent cinema was also growing in popularity; the wordless
novel, after all, was a kind of portable silent film. In Japan prior
to the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, comics like McCay’s, as
well as screenings of Western animated films, influenced the
earliest Japanese animators. While not comics per se, it is clear
that the comics had an influence upon these different forms of
animation. Later comics like Arzach by the French artist Moebius
continued the tradition of omitting words; Arzach, which was
published in 1975, begins with dialogue, but is primarily
composed of extraordinary wordless images, braided together by
implied narrative. The graphic novel, the most critically popular
form of comics today, stems out of all of these traditions.
Newspaper comics, at their best, are art and literature
combined, but they, like cartoons in the Western world, still
suffer the stigma of being “light” entertainment, with the one
difference being that comics are “light” entertainment often
aimed at adults as well as at kids. Of course, this view is wrong,
both about cartoons and comics. Perhaps one reason, though,
that the graphic novel (though not, to the same degree, manga)
has broken more clearly into the realm of literary criticism is
formal: the graphic novel is often packaged as a contained
series, a single book containing an entire narrative—or, at least,
a piece of a larger, continuing narrative. This, of course, makes
graphic novels seem more akin to text-based novels or serialized
narratives on the surface, and the fact that graphic novels have
become so popular that single issues of comics are often
assumed to be texts that will later be collected in larger
volumes—in “novels”—means that the graphic novel generally
possesses more space to tell its stories.
The newspaper comic, by contrast, as Watterson wrote in
1989 in the afterword to The Lazy Sunday Book, is in “retrograde
evolution”; it is getting smaller and smaller, by and large, with
less space to design complex narratives. The new space for
invention—outside of graphic novels—is largely with webcomics,
which can range from lazy to enormously inventive, the latter
like Paul Duffield’s Firelight Isle. Newspaper comics may be
collected in books, but, unlike graphic novels, they are rarely
assumed to have a larger unifying narrative holding them
together. This, perhaps, is one reason literary critics have been
slower to adopt newspaper comics as items of study rather than
graphic novels. Of course, there are also just many bad
newspaper comics out there—and their badness, unsurprisingly,
is often exacerbated by being forced into cramped spaces.

****

Watterson is well-remembered now for his refusal to license


his characters for merchandise outside of the comics (with a few
rare exceptions—calendars, collections in book form, a shirt for
a special exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and a USPS stamp
in 2010). Indeed, Watterson may be the name that comes to
mind first nowadays when we bring up the idea of rejecting the
merchandising of comic characters, though comic characters had
been partnered with merchandising from the earliest days of
Sunday strips with Hogan’s Alley, long before Watterson’s time.
For Watterson, not licensing his characters to appear on
merchandise meant preserving their integrity, as well as the
comic’s.
After he ended the strip in 1995, Watterson largely
disappeared from the public eye, only appearing briefly to give
online interviews, write reviews of books of or about comics, and,
very rarely, to contribute new pieces of art. Unexpectedly, in
2011, he painted the protagonist of Cul de Sac, one of the few
modern strips he has publicly praised, and sent it to the comic’s
creator. Ironically, Calvin and Hobbes have appeared all over the
place since the strip ended, due to fans creating their own
alternate comics, animations, and more; the lack of
merchandising, perhaps, has driven fans to want more of the
characters.
Almost 20 years after his own strip stopped, Watterson did
three guest pieces for Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine. The
second of these, to me, is the most telling. In it, a new artist, a
second-grader girl named Libby, is drawing Pastis’s comic for
him. A stand-in for Watterson, she thinks Pastis’s art is
horrendous. She uses only two panels to jump from a standard
scene of Pig and Rat talking to a sudden, brilliantly rendered
Martian invasion, and Pastis tells her to “stop showing off”; slyly
but accurately, she replies, “I could do better if I had more
space.” This, perhaps, is the dilemma of newspaper comics in a
nutshell.

****

“The art of losing’s not hard to master,” Elizabeth Bishop


writes in “One Art,” a beautiful, devastating poem from 1979.
Ruth Ozeki, in a lovely essay partly built around Bishop’s poem,
notes astutely that what makes Bishop’s poem work is its use of
the word loss rather than letting go. The difference between the
two, Ozeki writes, is control: “When I let go, I’m in control; when
I lose, I’m not. Letting go is a willful act; losing, a violation of my
will.” Sometimes, of course, loss and letting go, violation and
volition, coexist; sometimes, we lose when we think we are
letting go, or we lose more than we had imagined when we
release our hold. Watterson, in his fight over space and licensing
and integrity, let go without believing he had really lost, and his
characters, like Ozeki’s in A Tale for the Time Being, live on in
the best and worst space of all: the nebulous space of memory,
where borders constantly shift. Calvin and Hobbes endures as
literature and art combined because it is both: it asks important
questions without simplistically resolving them, revels in its own
absurdities, and is filled with a deep understanding of people, of
our swirling contradictions and complexities and conundrums. I
love it as much in 2016 as I did two decades ago.
“Everything familiar has disappeared! The world looks
brand-new!” Hobbes says in Watterson’s final strip, and,
certainly, my own world after coming out seemed brand-new, as
well. But after the pain and loss, sometimes we find more beauty
in the world than we ever expected. It really can be a magical
world, after all.

Gabrielle Bellot
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has
appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York
Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The
Cut, Tin House, Guernica, The Normal School, Lambda Literary,
and many other places. She is working on her first novel.