The Dark Side of CALVIN AND HOBBES

This is my second and final article on CALVIN AND HOBBES.  Hope you all liked Part I.

Calvin4

Another example of Watterson’s creative use of the medium via Sunday strips.

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!

Calvin10I’ve heard many interpretations over the years, from Calvin is schizophrenic to Calvin has split personality disorderHere 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.

Calvin1

Sums Calvin up perfectly.

As I mentioned last time, Calvin is repeatedly shown to be unable to fit in in virtually any aspect of his life.

Calvin3But 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.

Calvin12Even 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:

Calvin13Calvin 11

Calvin13

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

Bill Watterson

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.

Calvin5

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:

Calvin8

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!

Calvin9

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “The Dark Side of CALVIN AND HOBBES

  1. Pingback: Top 10 CALVIN AND HOBBES Story Arcs | Let Us Nerd

  2. I think you raise some interesting premises, including that there is a lot of darkness in Calvin and Hobbes (it’s known to be philosophical, sardonic and sometimes dark or biting if you’ve actually read all the strips), but I disagree with your conclusion that Watterson/Calvin are autistic, schizophrenic or in some way acting out the frustration of someone with a mental disorder. While Calvin approaches the world is a schizoid way in the “heightened reality” of the comic (see: Deleuze, Buzzfeed), this is merely the surface layer of the social commentary and the mode of the cartoonish storytelling, and Watterson can only but be an extremely adept satirist and commentator to have created Calvin and Hobbes. (Another famous artist who shunned the public eye, J.D. Salinger; nobody says he has a mental disorder.) Far be it that Calvin is a “problem child” set up as the antagonist of the strip, he is shown as unnaturally smart and beloved by his parents and Susie – he’s from a long line of lovable scamps which includes Dennis the Menace and Leave it to Beaver. More to the point, schizoid storytelling is part of a trend in media which is not limited to stories literally about or created by schizophrenics. The shifting towards schizoid forms of storytelling is shared by Matt Groening, creator of the very dystopic Life in Hell and the Simpsons, which are similarly surrealistic and marry cartoon physics and logic with adult life and suburban settings. Watterson, by the way, is an accomplished classical artist who was never able to be successful in the art world, and so his frustration is at society and modernity. The first tip-offs that we are dealing with a brilliant philosopher are the characters’ names. Calvin believed that events were pre-determined or pre-destined, and Hobbes believed that men were basically evil and life was brutish and short. Anyway, saying that Watterson is schizophrenic because Calvin’s imagination takes over the strip and is rebuffed by other characters is like saying that Matt Groeining is a sociopath because Homer Simpson chokes his son.

  3. Excellent analysis. It’s quite compelling to me that Calvin is autistic. My son, who is a five year old with Aspergers, is so much like Calvin and people comment on it all the time. He drives me nuts but he’s so creative and brilliant!

    To the commenter… Autism is not a mental disorder, certainly not to many autistics I know. It is a neurological difference.

  4. Pingback: A Fanbase’s Progress Goes “Boink!” | Let Us Nerd

  5. Pingback: ഒരിടത്തൊരിടത്ത് ആറു വയസ്സു പ്രായമുള്ള ഒരു വികൃതിപ്പയ്യനുണ്ടായിരുന്നു |

  6. Pingback: The Calvin And Hobbes Quotes Tumblr |

  7. I am not going to lie. When I read those last two strips (I know they aren’t official), it brought a small tear to my eye and a bit of sadness. Calvin and Hobbes is probably one of, if not my most fond of childhood interests. At 34 years old I can read these comics and it always brings me to a wondrous and joyful place 🙂

  8. I thought this was an intresting article that made sense, but I do not agree with everything you said. When I was younger, I was obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes. I’ve always identified with Calvin, not because he does bad in school, or because he misbehaves a lot, but because he doesn’t like people and because he doesn’t have a lot of friends and he’s fine with that. I used to feel self conscious because I would always sit alone during lunch and recess and other social situations, but recently I realized that I like being by myself more than with other people, and am not self concious anymore. Think about this; teachers used to tell me to go play with the other kids, but would a teacher ever tell a group of kids talking to go be by themselves? No. The point is that I am a loner and I do not care at all if people think I’m weird because I hang out by myself and talk to myself. Yes, I talk to myself. So what? I don’t hear voices in my head. I’m not mentally sick. I like talking to myself because it’s a way to let out my thoughts and blow off steam without someone disagreeing with me or something like that. And I think that’s what Calvin is doing with Hobbes. Calvin is talking to himself through Hobbes. Hobbes usually relates to the things calvin says and agrees with him. Hobbes is always there for him when the other kids don’t want to hang out with him. As for the first cartoon, in the comics, Hobbes usually has a positive influence on calvin. He would never suggest to kill Calvin’s doctor or parents or do anything like that.
    Yes, I do think calvin has a large imagination, much larger than a regular kid, but remember that it’s a comic. If calvin did not have such a large imagination, what would Bill Waterson even write about? Also remember that calvin is six and maybe as he grows up he won’t have such a vivid imagination.
    Thanks for reading this, I just wanted to give you my input on the topic.

  9. Very interesting. I’m considering using Calvin as a subject for a dissertation as part of my psychotherapy degree. I’d love to know if anyone has any theories about Calvin. particularly in terms of attachment theory and his relationship with Hobbes and his parents. Does anyone know of any academic papers about Calvin and Hobbes? Best, funniest, most moving comic script ever

  10. I have always admired Calvin for having the perfect friend. Especially since Hobbes is always understanding and playful.Also I am 11 and if you don’t think I can understand all this shame on you.I am obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes I blow through the books at school in a matter of 4days give or take a day.

  11. Pingback: Let’s Go Exploring – Pat Ozrack

Nerd Out Here...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s