This will be a difficult article for me to write, and one I’ve put off. It’s a difficult topic to bring up to fellow CALVIN AND HOBBES fans, as they usually are averse to hearing any negativity. But it’s also something I’ve long wanted to write about.
I loved CALVIN AND HOBBES as a kid and without question identified with Calvin. But one day, while rereading it as an adult, I began to notice a dark undertone. Time and time again, Bill Watterson shows us Calvin’s poor ability to socialize in school and him being shrugged off as “weird” by his peers who can’t share his view of the world. In one strip, Calvin makes faces in class; we the reader understand he is doing this because he is daydreaming about dinosaurs, but the children around him are weirded out and one even says Calvin belongs in a Special Needs class. And this got me thinking.
Here is a parody that ROBOT CHICKEN did on the strip. Just watch it:
Now obviously this skit is meant to be dark-humored, but as a lover of CALVIN AND HOBBES, I had to admit there was some truth to it. There is a darkness to this series, particularly when you consider how alienated from social interaction Calvin is, how depressing his real life apparently is, and how the line between reality and fantasy in blurred for both the reader and presumably for Calvin himself.
Take this strip for instance. The look on Calvin’s face in the final panel is hysterically funny, but it also drives the point home: if these things are all just in Calvin’s head, he genuinely believes them!
I’ve heard many interpretations over the years, from Calvin is schizophrenic to Calvin has split personality disorder. Here is a message board discussing this very topic. Here is an excerpt from a longer essay:
To state it baldly and without further ado, I have come to think Calvin and Hobbes is at heart a comic strip about an Autistic individual, or at least an individual greatly influenced by an Autistic point of view. The strip boldly captures the offbeat drama of what it means to strive towards becoming a functioning Autistic adult within a strangely askew world… Calvin and Hobbes is about—no, more accurately, Calvin and Hobbes is—the bittersweet comedy of being Autistic in the modern world.
As I mentioned last time, Calvin is repeatedly shown to be unable to fit in in virtually any aspect of his life.
But never was this more clear to me than when in one of the story arcs I mentioned last time. Calvin brings his Stupendous Man costume to school and dresses up in class. In Calvin’s mind, he has transformed into a superhero and no one can tell his identity. Of course the truth is obvious to everyone.
Even though it’s said as a joke, Miss Wormwood states she believes Calvin needs psychological help. And then the mayhem continues. Look at the next three strips in the story arc:
There’s A LOT happening right here. Let’s analyze it bit by bit.
1. Calvin is 100% in character. He isn’t playing some prank or joking around with his classmates. He genuinely believes he is a superhero and talks to his classmates with authority, convinced he is fooling everyone. He is so convinced of his superpowers that he believes his random answers on the test will naturally be correct, without even thinking. Calvin is completely absorbed in his imagination here.
2. Calvin’s classmates react uncomfortably and awkwardly. In fact this feels like a scene out of THE OFFICE, with Calvin being the resident Michael Scott. Watterson makes the discomfort of the students the punchline of the joke, almost as if cruelly laughing at Calvin. To see Susie Derkins, the closest to a human friend Calvin has, deny even knowing him, seems especially cruel.
3. It’s worth noting here that the heightened reality of the strip is contributing to why these scenes feel so sad to me. Although Calvin and his classmates are all six years old, they are not literally portrayed that way, but instead given the vocabulary and social nuances of adults. In real life, if a little six year old attended his first grade class dressed as a superhero, it would be cute, and the other classmates would probably laugh and cheer him on. Because of Watterson’s heightened presentation, these don’t feel like six year olds. The classmates instead react as teenagers or adults would: uncomfortable and weirded out by socially awkward behavior, and this makes the scene darker.
In the following bonus scene from DEAR MR. WATTERSON, cartoonist Stephan Pastis identifies Calvin as a disguised loser, correctly pointing out that the reader both aspires to be Calvin yet looks down and laughs at him. The first time I heard the statement “Calvin is a loser,” I was taken aback, yet I realized it cut to the heart of what I had been feeling.
So Calvin is a very socially awkward child, alienated by his peers, creating fantasy worlds and adventures that we the reader appreciate, but no one else can, and this generates a sense of tragedy and laughs at Calvin’s expense. Does Calvin in fact have a disorder of some kind? And what about Bill Watterson himself?
Watterson has written that he was in fact nothing like Calvin, insisting he was a quiet and well-behaved child. But based on his reclusive nature and dislike of celebrity, it isn’t too hard to imagine a shy, soft-spoken, and not especially social person. Which is not uncommon among creative types. I’ve often theorized that Walter Murch was exactly like that as a kid as well, which would explain why loneliness in such a prevalent theme in RETURN TO OZ.
I’m not a psychologist, and I can’t make any analysis here, particularly since I don’t know Watterson. Though I thought this quote, which I found on a message board, was worth sharing:
Calvin & Hobbes is well beloved by my 10 year old son who has Asperger’s. In his mind Calvin is one of the few people who gets the joy of living in your own imaginary world. I think the Aspies of the world should adopt him as a mascot!
Bill Watterson’s artistic triumph is that he, through his strip, managed to get readers to view multiple realities, and to ultimately decide they didn’t care which one was the “truth.” The conclusion is that they are both subjectively true. Calvin has endeared himself to many readers as a kid who is misunderstood, and whose world, while private, is wondrous.
Here is a parody someone made, initially to criticize the practice of giving children Ritalin, but it has spread among many CALVIN AND HOBBES fans:
Since many have found this strip quite dark, I leave you with a sequel strip someone made, which embodies the triumph of imagination over reality’s limitations. It’s a magical world, Hobbes old buddy. Let’s go exploring!