The release of the new documentary DEAR MR. WATTERSON, which I highly recommend for all lovers of newspaper comics, has gotten me nostalgic for CALVIN AND HOBBES, often cited as one of the greatest creations of the entire medium. The strip could range from lighthearted adventure to satire to philosophical moralizing. But best of all was the way Bill Watterson would tell a story, usually with the ending unplanned, allowing for ironic twists and serendipitious changes in tone–much like the imagination of a 6 year old really would be. This is the first of two entries I’ll be doing on this strip.
I’ve seen many people discuss their favorite Sunday strips in the series, which became Watterson’s focus in the latter part of the strip’s run. And yes, their creative use of the medium was one of Watterson’s hallmarks. But for me, it was always the story arcs that stuck with me.
So here is my top 10 list. It’s a bit odd deciding how to refer to each story arc as most of them did not have titles, though a few were given some after the fact when collected in book form (I listed those in bold). So I’ll use the old FRIENDS motif known as “The One Where….” Enjoy!
10. The One Where Calvin Finds the Baby Raccoon
SUMMARY: Calvin and Hobbes find a wounded baby raccoon out in the woods and try to help it. Calvin’s Mom takes the raccoon into their garage and provides food and water. Sadly, the next morning Calvin discovers the raccoon has died. Calvin takes this very hard and after burying the raccoon in the backyard questions why he ever made this new friend in the first place only to then lose him. The story ends with Calvin’s Mom talking to him about death being a natural part of life, and Calvin deriving comfort in Hobbes being his best friend.
SIGNIFICANCE: Most articles I’ve read about the strip always list this story as the first great story in the series, and I have to agree. The strip had already been running for just over a year by this point, but was much more juvenile in tone. This is the first story that showed the depth of the characters, veered away from gags, and showed a side of Calvin aside from the usual selfish brat. It’s also the only time death has ever been a theme in any story.
9. The One Where 6:30 Calvin and Hobbes Time Travel and Meet 8:30 Calvin and Hobbes
SUMMARY: Calvin has to write a creative story for school. Rather than actually do the assignment, Calvin comes up with a far more convoluted idea: he will use his time machine (made out of a cardboard box) to travel two hours into the future and pick up the completed homework from his future self. So the 6:30pm Calvin and Hobbes travel forward and meet the 8:30pm Calvin and Hobbes. However, the homework still hasn’t been done, so the two Calvins travel back to between their times to make the 7:30 Calvin do the homework, who of course won’t do it but only reminds the other two Calvins that they are all the same person. By now things have gotten so ridiculously convoluted that 6:30 Hobbes and 8:30 Hobbes decide to write their own story about this adventure and mock Calvin. With the homework finally done, each Calvin and Hobbes return to their respective times. The next day Calvin presents his story at school, only to realize the story makes fun of him and portrays Hobbes as a genius. Ironically the story gets an A+.
SIGNIFICANCE: Everything about this story arc is brilliant. Watterson writes a time travel adventure that actually feels like real science fiction and gets progressively more and more convoluted, right down to the technobabble dialog, much like a little boy’s imagination would be. Our two leads are also so well established here: Calvin is remarkably lazy and selfish and goes to absurd lengths to avoid doing his homework, even forcing his future self to do it instead of him, forgetting that they are the same person. Hobbes meanwhile is more intelligent and rational, yet smug and egotistical, and ends up both bailing Calvin out while simultaneously having a joke at his expense. The final end is one of the great ironic twists of the series, something else Watterson could repeatedly pull off.
8. The One Where Calvin Makes a Duplicate of His Good Side
SUMMARY: Calvin is being suspiciously well-behaved. He has started cleaning his room, doing his homework, eating prunes, and expressing joy in going to school. For the first few installments of this arc, both Calvin’s Mom and we the readers are left completely in the dark about what’s going on and remain suspicious. Finally, the truth is revealed: this is not the real Calvin but a duplicate. The real Calvin has used his Duplicator but added an Ethicator. The duplicate is only a clone of Calvin’s good side and is ethically-preset to always be a well-behaved kid, while the real Calvin can stay home all day and be his mischievous self. However, soon the duplicate starts causing trouble and even falls for Susie, much to the horror of the real Calvin. Eventually the two Calvins confront one another and get into a fight. However, the moment the duplicate starts having violent thoughts, he immediately evaporates, leading the real Calvin to say “My Ethicator machine must have had a Moral Compromise Spectral Release Phantasmatron! I’m a genius!”
SIGNIFICANCE: First off, while it was common for some stories to make passing reference to previous ones, this is one of the few story arcs to be a direct sequel. The original Duplicator story (also known as Scientific Process Goes “Boink”) was iconic, so how could you ever follow it up? Watterson did with an ingenious premise. Second, the humor in this one is just brilliant, specifically in how it takes its time showing us the unusually good Calvin before revealing what’s really going on. Third, once again, is the ironic twist ending. Watterson built a world fueled entirely by imagination, and that same serendipity would often be what saved the day at the end. Of course, the story ends with Calvin failing to have learned anything and going back to being his usual lazy self. This scheme has failed, but only until he gets an idea for another one. Finally, I always wondered what would happen if Calvin were to use the Ethicator again and make a duplicate of his evil side. This story definitely left the door open and Watterson could probably have explored this idea, creating what would have been Part III in the Duplicator Trilogy, but perhaps he was satisfied with a Duology.
7. Attack of the Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons aka The One With the Snow Goons
SUMMARY: Calvin builds a snowman and orders it to come to life. It does and chases Calvin away! Terrified of this evil monster he’s created, Calvin and Hobbes try to attack it with snow, only for it to grow bigger. Now with two heads and three arms, the snowman has become a Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goon, and soon starts building more Snow Goons that populate the entire front yard. Scared for his life, Calvin comes up with a plan. That night he sprays them all with a hose, freezing them. When his Dad comes running outside, he slips in the snow, leading Calvin to say “Run, Hobbes! Dad’s a Snow Goon too!” Calvin gets in trouble, but at least the day is saved as the Snow Goons have been thwarted. He later tells Hobbes that he learned a lesson from all this: Snow Goons are bad news. When Hobbes points out that this is a useless lesson, Calvin states “I like morals that don’t require behavior modification.”
SIGNIFICANCE: This may just be the weirdest Calvin and Hobbes story. Calvin has been making bizarre snowmen for a while, and now his art comes after him. Here Watterson pays homage to the horror genre, and would make George A Romero proud! For me the highlights though are the faces Calvin makes when the Snow Goon is after him; he is genuinely afraid of his creation and no one could draw funny faces quite like Watterson. I also love how Calvin just accepts without question that he has created life out of snow and never once wonders about this. The bit with Calvin’s father falling in the show features some well-executed slapstick, and the moral Calvin “learns” at the end sums up his indifference to everything. He then resumes his regular boring life, unimpressed by the fact he can animate snow, and takes it all with a grain of salt.
6. The One Where Calvin Signs Up To Play Baseball
SUMMARY: Calvin discovers he’s the only boy in his class who hasn’t signed up to play baseball during recess, leaving him alone on a playground full of girls. After being teased by bullies, he signs up as well, despite not liking organized sports. That afternoon his Dad tries giving him a lesson by playing catch, only for the ball to hit Calvin in the nose (which Calvin interprets as his father trying to kill him). The next day at recess, Calvin, still not being very good at baseball or even understanding how to play, participates in a game. He screws up and ends up scoring an out against his own team member. Blamed for causing his team the game, his teammates yell at and verbally abuse him. Calvin quits the team, only for the coach to berate him as well. The whole experience leaves Calvin humiliated and upset, but he and Hobbes soon form their own sport: Calvinball, which has no rules or organization whatsoever.
SIGNIFICANCE: If you were a kid who was not into playing sports, and especially if you were a boy, this story can really hit home for you. Poor Calvin really is a social misfit and this story, which has a darkness to it, shows this quite explicitly. It also shows Calvin’s social interactions with fellow children moreso than any other story. Whereas a more conventional story would have had Calvin continue training at baseball, and then win the big game in the end and be a hero, this story’s conclusion is more truthful: Calvin is not athletic and will not be able to fit in. He can’t even play catch with his Dad without getting hurt. When Calvin screws up the game and makes his team lose, the look of humiliation Watterson draws on his face is heartbreaking, and is reminiscent of Charlie Brown from PEANUTS. Watterson also seems to be criticizing the athletic mindset, as this is one of the few times Calvin is in the right about something. He correctly points out to his teammates that playing a game should be about having fun and not competition; however, the other boys are very mean to him and only care about winning. The sport has brought out an aggressive behavior in them. Calvin sums this up perfectly to the coach: “I don’t think I want to play anymore. There’s too much team-spirit.” The story ends with Calvin inventing Calvinball, a sport that is entirely about fun rather than rules, and so Calvin has won a different sort of victory.
5. The One Where Calvin Brings His Stupendous Man Costume To School
SUMMARY: Calvin has to take a big test at school and, as usual, will go to convoluted extremes rather than just do basic schoolwork. During the test he asks to leave, then goes to his locker to change into his alter ego: a superhero named Stupendous Man, who is so brilliant that he’ll automatically ace the test. He’s also so brilliant that he accidentally locks himself in his locker. Eventually Miss Wormwood comes by and lets him out, leading Calvin to pounce on her and attempts to make a heroic speech, though he gets confused when he forgets how to spell Stupendous. This leads to a wild chase through his classroom, in front of all the other students, before he is eventually caught. Needless to say, he does not pass the test.
SIGNIFICANCE: On the surface, this is a very funny story, with Calvin running his usual antics and causing mayhem in the classroom, much to Miss Wormwood’s frustration. Underneath it all though, this is another story that I find has a layer of darkness to it. Calvin is again revealed to be a social outcast, with all of his fellow students being weirded out by his behavior and wanting nothing to do with him. Even Susie Derkins, in a rather cruel moment, denies that she even knows Calvin when asked. All in all, this is a story that both shows Calvin at his most outrageous behavior yet also gives us some insight about his reality. This is definitely a story I’ll be discussing A LOT more in my next article.
4. The One Where Rosalyn Plays Calvinball
SUMMARY: Rosalyn is again hired to babysit Calvin. Normally the two can’t stand one another, but this time Rosalyn proposes an idea: if Calvin behaves, she’ll play a game with him. Calvin naturally has them play Calvinball. At first Rosalyn is naturally dumbfounded by this bizarre sport with no organized rules, leading to one of my favorites dialog exchanges in the entire strip, which I’ve copied below:
SIGNIFICANCE: It should be mentioned that all of the Rosalyn stories on the strip were always great. From Calvin flushing her science notes down the toilet to locking her out of the house to attacking her as Stupendous Man, hilarity and mayhem always ensued whenever Rosalyn would babysit Calvin. This was the final Rosalyn story in the strip’s run and it ends up feeling like a perfect culmination of the character. Rosalyn is essentially just a teenage version of Calvin, which is why Calvin correctly views her as a threat sometimes. This story shows that the two really do speak the same language. That Rosalyn would end up being better at Calvinball than Calvin is another one of those great ironic twists that Watterson could surprise us with so well.
FINAL NOTE: By the way, was I the only one who ever thought Rosalyn deserved her own spinoff? I would have loved to have seen Rosalyn’s own regular adventures in high school and later college. I liked that she was a strong-minded female character with the spunk of a 6-year-old.
3. Weirdos From Another Planet aka The One Where Calvin and Hobbes Go To Mars
SUMMARY: Fed up with all the pollution and mess that adults have made of the world, Calvin tells Hobbes he refuses to inherit planet Earth. They pack up their important belongings (which consist of comic books, candy bars, and cans of tuna) and leave. Calvin says goodbye to his Mom forever, though she doesn’t seem particularly concerned, and he and Hobbes head to Mars, traveling through space on their wagon. Once they arrive, they quickly make themselves at home, delighting at the thought of having an entire planet to themselves, wild and unspoiled. However, they soon encounter an alien who is terrified of them. Calvin and Hobbes realize that they have inconsiderately invaded someone else’s planet that they will likely soon spoil just as they have spoiled Earth. The two decide to return home, concluding they should try to fix up their own planet before messing around with other planets, though Hobbes adds “We should also go home because we’re fresh out of tuna.”
SIGNIFICANCE: I was surprised to learn that Bill Watterson dislikes this story, finding it preachy and rushed, and saying the story deserved a rewrite. I understand where he’s coming from, but I think this story deals with its message intelligently. And it’s a message I happen to agree with. As you’ve noticed by now, a reoccurring element in these stories is Calvin never learning anything, so I’m happy for a little change of pace and to get a story where Calvin does actually grow as a character. I also think Watterson’s drawings of the landscapes on Mars are quite lovely; perhaps a rewrite would have allowed him to spend more time in this new environment. In an odd way, this story pays homage to THE LITTLE PRINCE; Calvin traveling through space on a wagon is just as surreal as via seagulls, and his search for another planet leads him to learn some lessons.
2. The One Where Calvin’s House Gets Robbed
SUMMARY: Calvin and his parents go on an overnight trip to attend a wedding, but Hobbes is left behind at home. Calvin spends the whole trip complaining about forgetting Hobbes, even while the wedding is going on. The next day they finally return home, leading Calvin’s Dad to comment: “Next time we should take the tiger and leave the kid.” But suddenly the story takes a complete 180 degree turn and reveals that their house has been robbed! The family is immediately shaken and Calvin’s first thought is that he must find his best friend. Soon Calvin and Hobbes are reunited, and the family is whole. Over the next few days, the family must come to terms with what has happened, with both of the parents having lost a sense of security. Calvin also must come to terms with the fact the TV’s been stolen, creating a void in his life.
SIGNIFICANCE: I know many will say that the baby raccoon story is the most serious story the strip ever did, but for me it’s this one. First off, the fact the story starts out as an innocent comedy only to switch so suddenly shows tremendous bravery on Watterson’s part. Secondly, this is probably the most characterization Calvin’s parents ever get in the strip. Watterson shows us scenes with both of them, yet without Calvin, which was a rarity beforehand. And they discuss how scary adulthood is, how they have lost the security they had as children. It’s a very mature story that shows this family, as dysfunctional as they may seem, really are a loving unit. Particularly interesting is that the story doesn’t really have a climax or proper ending. The family just continue their lives, eventually getting over the shock of having been robbed, and soon all is back to normal. As with the baseball story, there are many hangups we face, but life goes on…
FINAL NOTE: It’s worth noting that the scene of Calvin and his parents in the church watching the wedding is the only explicit reference to religion in the entire strip. Yes, religion is implicitly referenced many times, such as some stories where Calvin yells at the sky, asking God for snow, or where he and Hobbes debate the existence of Santa Claus. However, we never really learn if Calvin or his family are particularly religious. I suspect this story is the only time you’ll ever see Calvin in a church.
1. Scientific Progress Goes “Boink” aka The One With the Duplicator
SUMMARY: Calvin is asked to clean his room and so invents a Duplicator out of a cardboard box and makes a clone of himself, believing he will make his duplicate do the work. The duplicate has no intention of following along and runs amok, getting Calvin in trouble. The duplicate then starts making duplicates of his own, until soon there are six Calvins. The real Calvin tries to bring some order to the situation, having the duplicates go to school and do chores in his place, but they prove to be difficult to control and soon Calvin is regularly in trouble for things he hasn’t done. When Calvin’s Mom comes up to the room, the duplicates all hide under the cardboard box, giving Hobbes an idea. When the box is upside down, it becomes a Transmogrifier, so Calvin seizes the opportunity and transmogrifies all of his duplicates into worms. Now finally rid of them forever, Calvin proudly tells his Mom all is well once more, only for her to yell at him for carrying worms through the house. With the worms gone and the whole mess finally resolved, Calvin reflects he has learned a lesson from this whole affair, though when Hobbes asks what, Calvin admits he doesn’t know.
SIGNIFICANCE: If CALVIN AND HOBBES was I LOVE LUCY, this would be the equivalent of the Lucy In the Chocolate Factory or Vegameatavitamin episode. It isn’t a matter of whether or not it’s the best, but it’s perhaps the most iconic and a perfect example of Watterson starting an imaginative story that soon continues on its own until its own bizarre logic sorts itself. Prior to this story, it was always clear to me that all these fantasies were merely in Calvin’s head. This was the first story I read that challenged this notion, completely immersing itself in Calvin’s world. All the hallmarks of a great CALVIN AND HOBBES story are here: Calvin going to a convoluted extreme rather than perform a simple chore? Check. An ironic twist saving the day? Check. Calvin clearly not learning anything and going back to his usual self at the end? Check. This story was Bill Watterson at his peak.
And that’s my list. Tune in next time where I discuss the dark side of CALVIN AND HOBBES.